Like all exercises that use resistance machines, the leg press is sometimes looked down on by those who spend a lot of time in the gym because it is not deemed as effective as free-weights moves like the back squat. But while there’s no doubt that that barbell move is one of the finest lower-body exercises around, this ignores what the leg press – and all resistance machine moves – can do.
While it may not train all the stabilising muscles in your joints or recruit the core muscles in the same manner that free weights exercises do, working in a fixed movement pattern with a resistance machine can be very useful for isolating the exact muscle you’re looking to train. Machines are also good for beginners looking to master a movement before they try it with a loaded barbell.
Most gyms will have two kinds of leg press machine to choose from. One of them involves sitting up straight with bent legs resting against a horizontal plate. You then push your body away from the plate by straightening your legs. With this kind of machine, you select the weight by sticking a pin in a weight stack.
The other kind of leg press machine involves you sitting at an angle that puts your feet against a platform above your head You push away from you by straightening your legs, and you set the resistance by loading the machine with weight plates.
Both types of machine have benefits to all kinds of gym-goers, and equally there are reasons that you might choose to eschew both in favour of free weights. Let’s dive into the case for and against the leg press.
Leg Press Form Guide
The leg press is a unique movement. For an exercise with quite a short range of motion, it stimulates the quads, glutes and hamstrings to their maximum potential.
Place your feet on the pad shoulder-width apart. Ensure there is a slight outward angle to your toe position so they aren’t pointing straight forwards. If you want to place more stress on the glutes, position your feet high on the pad. If greater quad growth is more of a goal, position your feet towards the bottom.
Straighten your legs and release the leg press handles. Keep your entire back, particularly the lower portion, firmly set against the seat. This reduces any strain placed on the lower back and keeps it on the glutes.
Keeping your feet set, lower your legs towards your chest – being careful not to bounce your knees off your chest – then press up again. Don’t fully lock your legs out at the knee – this maintains muscular tension on the quads and doesn’t risk a knee injury.
Leg Press Pros
Because resistance machines such as the leg press only allow movement in a fixed pattern, they’re great for beginners or people coming back from an injury, who need to master a correct and safe movement pattern before advancing to the more challenging barbell and dumbbell leg lifts.
They are also useful for people who want to isolate a specific muscle, in this case the quads, hamstrings and glutes. That’s because the fixed movement of the machine doesn’t require the stabilising muscles – nearly always the weak link that limits the amount of weight that can be moved – so you can lift heavy in the safest possible way to maximise muscle growth. You can also adjust the weight you are lifting very quickly.
Leg Press Cons
Resistance machines don’t require the activation or engagement of any of the important stabilising muscles, which means using them at the expense of free weights can lead to muscular imbalances and an injury-prone body. With the leg press, while your major lower-body muscles will get thoroughly taxed, those crucial smaller supporting muscles of the hips, knees and ankles aren’t fully engaged, so they won’t be worked as hard as is necessary to develop all-round lower-body strength and joint and muscle stability.
Leg Press vs Squats: What’s the Best Lower-Body Move for You?
Use The Leg Press If…
You need assistance work
If you want your legs to grow, the leg press can be a good way to add volume to your workouts without risking failure under the bar. Try Jim Wendler’s Triumvirate workout: three sets of five squats, five sets of 15 on the leg press, and 4 sets of 10 on the leg curl. Good luck with those changing room stairs.
Your main goal is fat loss
Yes, it can be an effective fat-loss tool. Load it up with a weight that’s just under your usual 10-rep max, and do leg press Tabatas – 20 seconds of as many reps as possible, 10 seconds off, repeated 8 times. Because the machine’s on a set path, you can push yourself without worrying about form.
You’re too weak to squat
This is unlikely: even back squats with an unloaded bar would strengthen your legs and let you push the weight up eventually. But if you’re completely de-conditioned, the leg press can be an option to build up some basic strength.
You need the extra support
The leg press machine acts as a guide to proper leg and back positioning for you as you work your quadriceps. For example, most leg-press machines feature a padded backrest, which promotes proper posture while also supporting your back. Many leg presses also offer hand rests for you to place your hands on while your legs do the work. This means your chance of injury is reduced as you’re less likely to take up the wrong position.
Use Squats If…
You’re training to be functional
Lying on your back and shoving a platform away might give you strong legs, but it’s unlikely to give you a more powerful rugby tackle or improve your 5K time. In studies, squats show huge levels of posterior chain and core activation, which will strengthen your body as a unit, making you better at… well, pretty much everything.
You want to work every muscle in your legs
According to a 2001 study, squats activated more rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, lateral hamstring and gastrocnemius than leg presses. Translation: as well as your quads, squats work your calves, hamstrings and glutes too.
You want to get huge
Though you’ll often see bodybuilders on the leg press, the all-time greats – Arnold, Dave Draper, Lou ‘The Hulk’ Ferrigno and Ronnie Coleman all swear by the squat. And you don’t know more about training than them.
You want to improve your core strength
Since squats are typically loaded from top to bottom, either in the form of a barbell or a dumbbell, your core has to work double-time to prevent injury and maintain an upright posture. In terms of building your six-pack, heavy compound exercises like squats should be a staple.