November 23, 2021 10 min read

Most of us know how to get bigger and stronger glutes: lots of squatting and deadlifts. But a big booty doesn’t have to be reached only by using heavy and complex lifts.

The leg press is one of the most simple and effective exercises for strengthening and developing the muscles in the lower body. It specifically targets the quads, hamstrings, calves, and of course, the glutes. But by adding some twists to the conventional leg press, you can make this humble exercise into a glute-development powerhouse.

leg press machine with weight

Leg Press Benefits

This goes without saying, but the leg press will offer you stronger and larger legs. For one, you’ll get the benefits of the barbell squat when it comes to developing your quads. The hamstrings, glutes, and calves will also be emphasized with the leg press.

The leg press can also be used to address muscle imbalances in the legs. For example, runners often have very developed hamstrings, but poorly developed quads in comparison. The leg press is a fantastic exercise to address this issue.

Easy to Perform

Even though the leg press targets similar muscles to some big and complex lifts (such as the squat), it’s still relatively simple to perform. Using a machine, all you have to do is choose your weight and ensure that you’re using proper form. Although form is always going to be important, it’s significantly easier to perform a leg press with perfect form than it is to perform a squat, deadlift, or other free-weight leg workouts.

This makes the leg press a popular and useful movement with a low barrier to entry, perfect for beginners and more experienced lifters alike. The simplicity of the motion also allows you to focus more on the eccentric movement, as you lower the weight back down. This will lead to greater strength and muscle gains.

Easily Tailored for Your Needs

The relative simplicity of the leg press also allows you to change the movement to cater to your needs. This is kind of special when it comes to machines since most machines have you go through a single and constant path where you move the weight. The leg press—while also a machine—gives you some wiggle room with which to work. This makes the leg press a great exercise for a wide range of specific needs. All of this specialization with the leg press comes due to the specific stance that you use.

The Many Stances of the Leg Press

With the leg press, your feet can press the load up anywhere on the footplate. While most people go for where it’s most comfortable, this gives you several options around the muscles you want to emphasize with the leg press. Generally, your stances can differ either in their width or their height. Glute activation largely comes down to how high your feet are on the footplate, but we’ll briefly cover both planes of footplate contact.

The Width

The standard leg press will have you place your feet at hip-width apart, but you can also go narrower and wider. A narrow stance will target the outer thigh muscles and the quads. On the other hand, a wider stance will move the emphasis slightly more onto the inner quad muscles. While the width of foot placement is important, the height is something you should pay more attention to. Especially if you’re aiming to activate the glutes more than your quads.

The Height

Placing your feet lower down on the footplate will mean that your hips are extending less, but your knees will go through a larger range of motion. This results in a variation that’s great for targeting the quads while deemphasizing the glutes and hamstrings. If you want to double up on the quad activation, the best thing to do is use a narrow stance with your feet lower down on the footplate. But we’re here to talk about glutes, so let’s take a closer look at a higher foot placement.

Placing your feet higher up on the plate will allow for a greater degree of hip flexion and hip extension, while also reducing the range of motion which your knees go through. This means that your glutes (and hamstrings, to some extent) are going to be placed at the forefront of the lift, rather than your quads.

However, that doesn’t mean your quads won’t also be putting in a lot of work. With the leg press (or any other exercise), you can’t really completely isolate a single muscle over all the other movers.

Female Hip and Leg Muscles Labeled Posterior View

The Glute Muscles (And More)

Along with your glutes, the leg press utilizes the:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

These muscles work together to:

  • Bring the platform down, bending your knees and hips and pushing out your knees.
  • Press the weight back up, using the quads to straighten your knees while your glutes (and hamstrings) straighten your hips.
  • Lastly, your glutes will work to keep your feet in line with your knees, and the calves and quads will also assist in straightening the knees.

Taking this into account, the glutes are responsible for hip abduction, hip extension, and the external rotation of the hip. Hip extension deals with straightening the hip joint, abduction is when your thigh bone is moved away from your body, and external hip rotation happens when thigh bone is rotated outward (making your foot point out as well). By emphasizing these movements in the leg press, the glutes will be further targeted.

How to Perform the Seated Leg Press

 

Before you start hitting your glutes, you have to set yourself up comfortably in the leg press machine. Both your head and back should lay comfortably on the padded backrest supports behind you as you place your feet on the footplate. Where you place your feet is going to be up to you and your goals, but for this example, we’ll be targeting the glutes.

The most important part is to have your feet up high enough on the plate—this will avoid unnecessary pressure on the knees, and will better target your glutes. Your butt should also be firmly and comfortably in the seat while your knees form 90-degree angles (or thereabouts). Make sure to keep your alignment throughout the lift to maximize the benefits—the only parts of you that move should be your knees and hips.

  1. With the weight plates on the machine, place your feet about shoulder-width apart on the platform. Your toes should be pointing 45 to 60 degrees outward, and your feet should higher up on the platform (like we talked about above).
  2. Breathe in. Engaging your core and leg muscles, begin pushing the platform away. Instead of your toes and the front of your foot pressing the plate up, you need to rely on your forefoot and your heels. Your entire foot should rest flat on the footplate.
  3. As you drive the platform up, breathe out in a controlled manner. You want to do this motion slowly to maximize your time under tension, rather than explosively driving the plate up. The back of your upper body should remain completely flat against the machine’s support pads.
  4. Once you are near the top of the lift, pause just before locking out your knees. Your knees should be completely straight in this position, avoiding any inward or outward bowing. Remain here for one or two seconds.
  5. Slowly reverse the movement while breathing in. Your knees should hinge as you return back to the starting position. As always, maintain the proper form throughout the entire exercise—go slowly and methodically to ensure that your muscles are properly engaged and your back is flat against the support pads.

Programming into Your Leg Day

If this is your first time using the leg press in your workout routine, it’s best to start out slowly and work your way up to higher rep ranges and heavier weights. For example, a good starting place is 3 sets of about 10 repetitions at a light to moderate weight. You want to challenge yourself, but you also want to make sure that your form is correct and that you’re not speeding through the exercise, relying on momentum.

The leg press can also be used for strength training using heavy weights and lower rep ranges. For example, 3 sets of around 5 reps with a heavier weight should allow you to emphasize strength development in your legs.On the other hand, if you’re looking for big glutes (that are also powerful), you’ll want to increase the number of reps while using light to moderate loads.

Anywhere from 3 to 5 sets of around 10 repetitions is a good range to aim for if your goal is bodybuilding. Whatever your starting fitness level and long-term goals, you can make the leg press work for you. The most important part is having a set of clear-cut and achievable goals to work towards and to tailor your workout program around. 

Tips for a Better Leg Press

Some general tips include ensuring that your abdominals are engaged. This will allow you to better stabilize your body, and you’ll be able to hit the target muscles more effectively.You should also be taking your time during this movement. It’s not a race, so don’t bounce the weight up and down.

When you get to the top of the lift, make sure that you pause for at least a second or two in order to feel the stretch in your glutes. When you reverse the movement, try to take 3 seconds to reach the starting position again. This will help to maximize your time under eccentric tension, allowing for better muscle engagement and growth.

However, these are just general leg press tips. There’s a lot to be said about specific glute-targeting leg press tips that tweak the movement to better emphasize your glutes. The height specifications which we already looked at are the most important, but these tips can further turbocharge your glute gains.

Foot Position

Pointing your toes out while adopting a wider stance on the footplate are two more ways to ensure that your glutes feel the burn.Because the glutes are responsible for the external rotation of the hip joint, you’re going to get more glute activation when you externally rotate your hips. The simplest way to do this is by pointing your feet slightly outward instead of straight up on the footplate.

Because of this sort of rotation, the muscle fibers at the top of the glute will feel more of a burn. A good range to aim for is a 45-to-60-degree angle pointing out with your toes, but make sure that your knees track directly over your feet. Secondly, you can also adopt a wider stance than normal. The conventional leg press has you placing your feet at hip-width apart, but here we want to aim for shoulder-width.

This is due to the other role of glutes: hip abduction. The wider your stance, the more hip abduction you must work through, resulting in more glute activation. Studies have found that the wider the stance in a squat, the more glute activation you’re looking at. Although we’re not looking at the squat, the movement itself is similar enough. A stance that’s shoulder-width will result in more glute activation than in a conventional leg press.

Deeper Reps

The other role of the glutes is hip extension. This means that the more hip extension you add into the leg press, the more you’re going to be activating your gluteal muscles.Increasing the range of motion in any lift is a good idea, since the greater the range of motion, the more muscle fibers you’re going to recruit in the movement.

This is especially true when talking about the leg press and glute activation, since it’s the glutes specifically that will be experiencing more activation. It all comes down to keeping proper form and not moving your body fast. You want to go slow and with intention, allowing the load to come down as low as possible before bringing it back up to the top of the movement (but stopping before your knees lockout).

But while you do want to sink the repetitions down as low as possible, you still want to keep your feet flat on the footplate. Don’t go so low that you’re forced to move your ankles and feet in an uncomfortable position.

Make it One-Sided

Along with going through the full range of motion, another great way to increase hip extension is by performing the exercise as a unilateral movement.This means only using one leg at a time to press the load upward. For our purposes, this will allow you to enter a deeper level of hip flexion, which requires a lot more work from your glute muscle fibers when it comes time to extend. And because it’s a unilateral exercise, it means that you’re not going to be able to rely on your stronger side to make up for your weaker leg.

Most people have some sort of muscle imbalances between their left and right sides, and unilateral movements will help to mediate these imbalances. Ignoring the imbalances will lead to wonky strength and muscle growth, and could potentially lead to injuries down the road. Some lifters will perform the single leg press by lying on their side on the machine, but this can be dangerous so utilize this method at your own risk.

Using Equipment

Lastly, you can also use glute bands while leg pressing for some added glute development.The glute band wraps around your legs and brings your glutes closer together, which is called hip adduction. This forces you to work to keep your glutes in the proper position, further apart from one another.

By working to consistently abduct your hips in the opposite direction, you’re going to target the glute muscles even more.You’ll want to position the glute band around your thighs and just above your knees. Depending on the stretchiness and the size, the glute band will allow for different amounts of tension to be added.

Leg Press Variations

 

The leg press can be modified in many different ways to target different muscle groups in the same general area.Leg press exercises are easily changed by a small shift in stance or making the movement unilateral. Leg press alternatives include lunges and squats.

Big Glutes Mean Healthy Glutes

The glutes are the largest (and potentially the strongest) muscles in the human body. And so it follows that properly taking care of the glutes is a lot of hard work—but the results speak for themselves.While the leg press (with its glute-centric tweaks) is a great method of putting you down the road to a bigger butt, it’s only one small piece of the big picture.

Since the glutes are so big, you’re going to need to work them hard and give them plenty of rest, while also making sure to eat enough protein for consistent gains. If you’re not experiencing the gains you expect, there’s a good chance that your protein intake is lacking. A solid whey protein powder can work wonders to get your gains where they need to be. With a well-rounded routine, you can soon expect some well-rounded glutes.


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