The leg press is one of the best lower-body exercises out there. You’ll use a machine to help you drive quadriceps hypertrophy and improve squat strength. While the leg press is not a substitution for squatting, it can help beginners establish greater leg strength and growth.
When you don’t want to add stress to your lower back but you need to give your legs an enormous challenge, the leg press comes in clutch. This powerhouse movement proves that the squat rack isn’t the only piece of equipment that can give you strong, well-developed legs.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the leg press. Read on if you’re looking to maximize your leg day.
Table of Contents
- How to Do the Leg Press
- Leg Press Variations
- Leg Press Alternatives
- Leg Press Tips
- Benefits of the Leg Press
- Muscle Worked by the Leg Press
- Who Should Do the Leg Press
- Common Leg Press Mistakes
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the leg press in a seated sled setup. Note: more recumbent leg press machines have a very similar setup.
Step 1 — Sit Down and Set Up
The seated leg press should be set up to allow the lifter to comfortably sit without having their lower back and hips come out of the seat in the bottom of the press. To do this, perform a few practice repetitions with an empty sled to full depth, focusing on keeping your lower back and hips down on the seat.
For most lifters, placing the feet in the squat stance will suffice.
Coach’s Tip: If you are looking to maximize quadriceps engagement, set the feet towards the bottom of the footplate and take a narrower stance. The narrow stance will force deeper knee flexion angles, increasing the loading on the quadriceps.
Step 2 — Lower the Sled
Unrack the weight sled using the handles by the sides of your hips. Once you have un-racked, bend your knees to allow the sled to be lowered. Bring your legs down into your chest and stomach so that your thighs break parallel and come as close to your body as possible.
Focus on keeping the lower back and hips stable during this deep leg press. Failure to do so could result in the hips curling upwards off the seat, leading to additional strain on the lower back.
Coach’s Tip: Slow and controlled lowering of the sled is ideal, so be sure to master lighter loads for volume prior to increasing overall loads.
Step 3 — Press Up and Repeat
Once you have reached a full depth in the leg press, press your feet through the footplate and lift the sled upwards. Be sure to not lose tension in your hips and core, keeping your hips and lower back on the seat
Coach’s Tip: Try not to fully extend the knees at the tip of the leg press, but rather keep them slightly bent at the top of the repetition. This will help increase loading and time under tension on the quadriceps.
The leg press machine isn’t a one-trick pony. You can use it for various types of leg presses, any of which can provide big value-adds to your program.
Banded Leg Press
Maybe you’ve used bands and chains in weight training before. Or maybe you’ve been intimidated to try this out with a barbell. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, the banded leg press will provide accommodating resistance to leg press training to enhance concentric strength and improve time under tension. You’ll increase the challenge without having to slap on any extra weight plates.
To perform the banded leg press, simply add a light resistance band to the leg press sled around the weight pegs and the seat frame. Perform your reps as usual.
1 ½ Leg Press
To perform, lower the sled to the bottom position as usual. Press the sled halfway back up. Stop at the halfway mark, then lower it back to the bottom. Finally, push the sled back to the starting position. That is one rep.
Partial Leg Press
Partial reps can be beneficial for overloading a muscle, either with prolonged time under tension or additional volume. In doing this, you can increase hypertrophy potential and isolate ranges of motion that may be sticking points in the leg press.
Choose your fighter for your partial reps. To do a partial leg press, perform leg presses as usual, but only within a limited range of motion. This might mean staying within the top half of the rep (treating 90 degrees as the “bottom” of each rep instead of going all the way down). Alternatively, stay between the bottom of your range of motion and treat the 90-degree position as the “top” of each rep instead of going to full extension. Perform upwards of 15 reps per set to really overload your muscles here.
Maybe the leg press machine is being used by someone who seems to be doing as many sets as humanly possible. Or maybe your gym doesn’t have a leg press machine at all. Don’t worry. You can still reap similar benefits to the leg press without a machine. You’ll just have to get a little creative.
Narrow-Stance Goblet Squats
Narrow stance goblet squats are a goblet squat variation that specifically target the quadriceps. Due to the narrow stance, the degree of knee flexion is much higher, making it more demanding for the quadricep muscles to stabilize and extend the knee joint.
To perform the narrow-stance goblet squat, bring a dumbbell or kettlebell to chest height. Keep it tucked into your chest and your elbows close to your rib cage. Bring your feet to hip-width or closer. Sink back and down into a squat, keeping your torso as upright as possible. With each rep, work to increase your range of motion.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a viable alternative to the leg press as it isolates the quadriceps and reduces some loading on the spine. Holding dumbbells at your sides can help further decrease potential strain on your back. This can be used by individuals who may not have access to a leg press yet are looking to increase quadriceps hypertrophy.
You can do the Bulgarian split squat either with dumbbells or with your body weight only (it will still be plenty challenging). Place your back foot laces down behind you on a weight bench. Scoot your front foot out such that when you sink into a split squat, your front knee can reach 90 degrees and your back knee will point closely toward the ground. Perform your split squat while keeping your back foot raised behind you. Place the emphasis of the push on your front leg, driving your front foot into the ground.
The belt squat is a lower body movement that can be done to increase leg strength and hypertrophy while minimizing lower back and hip stress. You’ll need a special machine or a dip belt for this one, but the results will be worth it if you can access one. You’ll squat as usual, but because the load is through your hips rather than on your back, you’ll spare your low back some strain.
To perform this movement, the lifter sets themself within a belt squat machine or hangs a load from their hips as they squat. Be sure to stand on platforms that allow you to assume a deep squat position without the load touching the floor. Whether you’re on a belt squat machine or using a squat rack or power rack to stabilize you, use your hands out in front of you to stabilize your movement.
It’s easy to slap on some weight plates, sit down, unlock the safeties, and leg press without putting much thought into it. But if you’re really aiming to improve your leg strength and musculature with precision, you’ll want to have a more surgical approach to your set and rep scheme.
To Gain Muscle
The leg press is a great exercise to increase muscle hypertrophy of the quadriceps while limiting the additional strain on the core and lower back. As such, the leg press is one of the best squat accessory exercises out there. Add this move after your squat session during leg day to really finish off your quads and spur a great deal of growth.
Perform three to five sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load. Take each rep through a controlled, full range of motion.
[Read More: 12 Best Supplements for Muscle Growth of 2023]
To Increase Strength
Training the leg press for maximal strength is generally not recommended (less than five reps). But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot stronger using the leg press. You can use the leg press to build baseline strength to provide a solid supplement to your main lower body movements. If this is going to be the main strength movement of your program because you can’t barbell squat, you’ll still build strength a little differently than you might if you were aiming to find your one-rep max.
Do three to six sets of eight to 10 reps with a heavy load. Make sure you can control to weight and go to a full range of motion.
[Read More: How to Deadlift 500 Pounds (and More)]
To Build Endurance
The leg press can be used to develop muscle endurance of the quadriceps similar to other higher-rep movements. Unlike high-rep squatting, the leg press places more emphasis on the quadriceps’ muscular endurance. High-rep squats can often be limited by lower back and core endurance.
Perform three to four sets of 15 to 20 slow, controlled reps with light to moderate loads. Control the weight and try counting to five with each part each rep.
The squat might be the more glamorous of these two big lower-body lifts. But if you’re looking to develop big, strong quads, don’t sleep on the leg press. Here’s why.
Build Strength Post Injury
Check in with a doctor before diving back into training after an injury. But if you’ve been cleared for activity, the leg press can help ease you more safely return to strength training after time off.
It doesn’t take a lot of core stability, coordination, or exert a lot of pressure on your lower and upper back like a barbell squat does. You can start rebuilding your strength without other types of stress on your body.
Increase Quadriceps Development
Chasing teardrop quads? Need more powerful legs to fuel everything from box jumps to stronger squats? Whether your goal is aesthetics, strength, or both, the leg press is your new best accessory exercise.
Moves like the back squat and front squat rely on back and core strength in addition to leg strength to build up to maximum lifts. But the leg press allows lifters and athletes to attack the quadriceps without other muscle groups holding them back.
Minimize Direct Load in the Back
The leg press allows lifters to reduce loading on the spine yet still train the lower body. If you’re looking to dramatically increase your heavy leg volume while not putting stress on your back like a squat or a deadlift does, the leg press can get you there.
Since your entire torso will be supported by the backrest and seat, you don’t have to worry about stabilizing your core and low back throughout the lift. And since you won’t be holding a loaded barbell in your hands (deadlift) or on your back (squat), your upper back gets a break, too.
The leg press is a movement that targets the quadriceps. Your glutes and adductors will also get a fair amount of work, especially when you push this movement to its rull range of motion. The hamstrings, while slightly active in this movement, are much less involved than in a squat due to the limited amounts of hip flexion and extension while in the seated position.
There’s no way around it: the leg press simply isn’t a competition lift. But it would be all too easy for competitive strength athletes to dismiss the move as superfluous. While it’s not a strictly necessary move, this is a valuable accessory for many different types of athletes.
- Beginners: If you’re new to the gym, the leg press is ideal. It’s pretty self-explanatory, safe, and doesn’t require a lot of full-body strength and coordination. But it can get you plenty strong.
- Bodybuilders: Building the quadriceps and bringing them safely to absolute failure is a crucial component of lower body hypertrophy for physique athletes. The leg press is a powerful tool in that respect.
- Powerlifters and Strongman Athletes: Yes, powerlifters and strongwomen need to be highly skilled and strong with a barbell. And while the leg press isn’t a long-term substitution for these competitive lifts, it’s great for adding volume and intensity to leg day without eating too much into full-body recovery.
- Non-Competitive Gymgoers: There’s a middle ground between beginners and competitive strength athletes. The average, everyday gymgoer might be very interested in leg strength and hypertrophy, even if they’re not going to compete. Enter the leg press for providing exactly those types of gains.
Yes, the leg press can be one of the best leg exercises to add to your repertoire. But it’s only going to be as effective as you make it. Here’s what not to do when you’re taking this exercise for a proverbial spin.
Locking Out Your Knees
The idea behind a strong leg press is that you’ll be loading up pretty heavily. Without all that stress on your lower back that a barbell squat will inflict, this exercise gives you an amazing opportunity to move a lot of weight with minimal concern for your back.
[Read More: The 8 Best Weight Plates You Can Buy (2023 Update)]
With all those weight plates angled above you, you do not want to lock out your knees between each rep. Doing so will place an undue amount of stress on your muscles and tendons. Instead of completely locking out your legs, straighten them until you reach a gently extended position. Don’t continue pressing and force them to totally lock.
You’ll still get the benefits without accumulating more risk. In fact, you’ll maintain more positive tension on your muscles by keeping your knees softly bent at the top.
Unintentional Partial Reps
Unless you’re deliberately performing partial reps to focus on a specific part of the lift, don’t skimp on your range of motion during the leg press. Stopping when your legs hit a 90-degree angle just won’t help you build muscle or increase strength as much as going as deep as you can with this movement.
Bring the tops of your thighs all the way down to your chest or stomach with each rep.
If you need more room to increase your range of motion than your chest or stomach allows, try widening your foot position slightly and actively push your knees outward to help get you deeper with each rep.
Knees Collapsing Inward
The first muscle group you think of with the leg press is probably your quads — and with good reason. But your glutes also provide a tremendous amount of power and strength with this movement.
Based on different limb lengths and other individual body factors, your knees might cave slightly inward naturally. And that’s okay. But if your knees are collapsing dramatically inward with each rep, it might indicate that your glutes are insufficiently engaged or just plain weaker than you want them to be.
Put your glutes in a good position to help you out by keeping your knees out or at least neutral.
Build Bigger Legs
For athletes chasing bigger, stronger legs, the leg press is a very valuable add-on to your program. You can load up this accessory movement with very heavy weight, making it an excellent choice when you want to overload your quadriceps. It’ll toast your glutes and adductors, too. And it will do all of this without all that added stress on your lower back and hips. Slide into a leg press machine today and watch your quads grow.
What is the leg press good for?
The leg press is a reliable way to load up a high amount of weight while adding minimal stress to your lower back. You’ll develop a tremendous amount of leg strength, focusing on quad and glute hypertrophy.
This move is also great for beginners because it’s performed with a machine. It’s not nearly as technically demanding as a barbell squat, so you can build a lot of strength with only a little experience.
Is the leg press better than squats?
In the battle of leg press versus squat, one thing is clear: the leg press machine is more useful than squat purists will have you believe. You’ll place a lot less stress on your lower back and the rest of your body with the leg press, which can be very valuable to a lot of athletes.
That said, there’s really no matching the barbell back squat’s full-body coordination, stability, core strength, upper back strength, and overall lower-body engagement.
If you’re aiming for a full-body experience, opt for the back squat. But if you want a lower-pressure accessory or even main lift for a low-impact training cycle, the leg press is a fabulous option.
What muscles does the leg press work?
The leg press is almost all about your quadriceps. Unlike the back squat, which also involves a lot of investment from your hamstrings, the leg press really brings your quads to the front of the pack.
That said, you will also develop very strong glutes and adductors with the leg press. This is especially true when you go through a full range of motion, bringing your thighs as far down into your chest and belly as you can with each rep.
Feature Image: SOK Studio / Shutterstock
The post How to Do the Leg Press for Massive Quads and a Bigger Squat appeared first on BarBend.