April 12, 2021 10 min read

The leg press is a classic exercise for targeting your quads and activating your hamstrings and glutes as well. But it requires a specific workout machine and the comparatively restricted movement doesn’t mimic the way your body moves in the real world.

Are there any better alternatives that can boost your athletic performance while still giving you the leg workout you need? A great many exercises challenge your quads, glutes, and hamstrings similarly to leg presses.

We’ve selected the top 5 so you can fit your leg day in whether you’re at the gym or doing a home workout. Read on to learn the best leg press alternatives for your next leg day routine.

What is the Leg Press?

During a leg press, you sit in a tilted chair with your feet above you on a weighted platform. Basically, you set the weight and push that resistance up with both of your legs. You can follow these steps to execute the perfect leg press:

  1. Climb into the chair and sit with your back straight. Place the soles of both feet on the platform above you and release the platform. Make sure you set the weight beforehand.
  1. With your hands on the supports to either side, slowly bend your knees so the platform comes closer to you and then extend your legs all the way to lift the platform.
  1. Keep your back against the chair and your entire foot on the platform throughout the movement. Repeat 10 - 15 reps to make a set.

Disadvantages of the Leg Press

Since you’re working out on a leg press machine, you might think it’s pretty much impossible to mess up the leg press. But its form requirements and susceptibility to the following errors make the leg press a bit less advantageous than it may seem at first glance.

It’s Easy to Overload

Since the leg press is an isolation exercise, most of your body won’t be feeling the burn. People tend to put on way too much weight during the leg press because it seems they can. But like any other exercise, using too much weight can lead to injury and form problems. 

If you aren’t sure what the proper amount of weight should be for your leg press, start low and work your way up. You’ll soon find out what the right amount of weight is to challenge yourself without overdoing it.

It’s Easy to Get the Form Wrong

It’s fairly easy to make form mistakes on the leg press, especially if you aren’t used to the exercise. Keeping both heels on the platform is just one way people mess up the move.

Another common mistake is allowing your knees to move toward each other as you let the platform slide down. The upper legs should remain at the same angle.

When people start to get pumped with their leg presses, they could also let the platform come down too low. This causes the lower back to rise off the back of the chair. You should also avoid locking out your knees.

The position of your feet greatly impacts the effectiveness of the leg press. In the regular position, your quads, hamstrings, and glutes get a workout. Move your feet up on the platform and you’ll target your glutes and hamstrings more.

Lower them and your quads and calves do more work. You can narrow them to target the quads more exclusively or widen your stance to get your hip abductors into the mix.

If you know what you’re doing, the ease of targeting different muscles could be a plus. But for too many people, they wind up working out muscles other than the ones they intended or shortchanging their quadriceps with an improper foot position.

It Requires a Leg Press Machine

Maybe it’s not a problem for you to find 30 minutes to spend at the gym on leg day. But when unforeseen circumstances arise or someone is hogging the leg press machine, you need to know some leg press alternatives so that you don’t miss out on a lower-body workout.

Although the leg press is a great workout for the quadriceps, it’s far from the only one. Knowing some compound bodyweight exercises that can target the quads will add more variety to your leg workouts.

It Could Cause Uneven Workouts

You may not be aware of it while you’re on the leg press machine, but one leg could be doing more work than the other one. The platform will still rise the same way even if your dominant leg is taking on more of the strain, which will cause any strength imbalance to worsen.

Single-leg bodyweight exercises are much better for correcting such imbalances and they also give each leg a better workout than a leg press alone.

A man with his knee injured in a gym

It Could Injure Your Knees

Some people have weak knees naturally while others have chronic conditions or a previous knee injury that makes their knees extra susceptible to injury on exercises like the leg press. It could even cause injury in people with otherwise healthy knee joints if they put on too much weight, use improper technique, or try going through the exercise too quickly.

Benefits of the Leg Press

Despite the possible errors listed above, the leg press does have some advantages. For the most part, you can mimic these advantages with simpler bodyweight exercises, especially if you have resistance bands or free weights to make the moves more challenging for you.

Firstly, the leg press is a fantastic exercise for the quadriceps. Although they aren’t the main beneficiaries, muscle groups like the glutes and hamstrings also see some activation during a leg press.

A secondary benefit is that the leg press feels more like other popular upper-body strength training exercises like bench presses and dumbbell flyes. For avid lifters, that’s a significant plus. If bodyweight exercises feel awkward at the gym, the leg press exercise is a fair substitute.

Despite the various opportunities to commit form errors, overload the weights, or injure your knees, the leg press is a straightforward exercise once these things are taken care of. All you have to do is sit in the machine and lift with your legs.

However, the leg press is far from the only lower-body exercise that has these advantages. If you’re concerned about looking like you’re not doing much at the gym, try doing a back squat with a barbell over your shoulders. Everyone respects someone who can work through a heavy squat set.

The five exercises in the next section are a perfect combination of leg muscle activation, straightforward procedure, and huge results in producing muscle mass. If you can’t or don’t want to keep the leg press in your workout routine, try substituting these instead

5 Great Leg Press Alternative Exercises

For the most part, you can do these exercises just about anywhere you have enough room. There are machines at the gym for some of the exercises, but we’re going to describe the bodyweight versions for this guide.

We recommend you pick out a suitable resistance band and some kettlebells, dumbbells, or a barbell and get to work on these five leg press alternatives.

Young shirtless man doing split squats with weights

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a fantastic single-leg exercise that puts all the important lower-body muscle groups under more strain than a traditional squat. In addition to your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, your core muscles will also be engaged to keep you balanced. 

All you need for this exercise is an exercise ball or a small raised platform. It’s better than a hack squat or a front squat because it doesn’t need a machine. For home workouts, you can use a couch or a chair.

How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat

First, stand a foot or two in front of your raised platform of choice. Decide which leg you want to start on and then put the other foot behind you on the platform. Your feet should still be about shoulder-width apart.

Your rear knee should be at a 90-degree angle. Place your hands on your hips for additional stability. Roll your shoulders back and lean your torso ever so slightly forward. Bend your front knee so that you lower to the ground.

Stop before your forward knee goes past the toes of your forward foot. Push through your ankle to rise back to the starting position.

If you want to target your glutes more, you can continue lowering until the thigh of your forward leg is parallel with the ground before rising back to the starting position.

Continue for anywhere from 8 - 15 reps depending on how new the exercise is for you and don’t forget to do the same number of reps on each leg to build strength evenly.

2. Barbell Step-Ups

The step-up is a simple move that you can use as a warm-up or fill intervals in a HIIT routine. In well-trained athletes, step-ups build muscle as well as bodyweight squats do. If you don’t have access to a barbell, you can hold free weights, kettlebells, or a medicine ball to make the move harder.

You can even wrap a resistance band around the sole of one foot and pass the other side over your head to execute a banded step-up. Since it’s the most technically complicated, we’re going to run through the barbell step-up here. If you’re using different weights, all you have to do is hold them in whatever way is most comfortable and go through the steps below.

How to Do Barbell Step-Ups

Put the weight plates on a barbell before you progress to shouldering the load. Squat beneath the barbell and take it onto your shoulders before rising to a standing position.

For the easiest setup, make sure your raised platform is fairly close to the rack. It should be 2 - 3 feet high depending on how high you’re comfortably able to step. Place your right foot onto the raised platform and push through your right heel to lift your body and left foot onto the platform.

Step down with your right foot first and then bring the left foot down. Repeat for about 10 reps on the right foot before leading with the left foot. Make sure you keep your back straight throughout this exercise so that the barbell stays balanced.

3. Broad Jumps

Unlike some other exercises in this guide, broad jumps are a total-body move. It’s a great counteractive to exercises like the leg press that don’t build real athletic strength or jumping power.

Broad jumps will also add some plyometric cardio to your workout routine. You don’t have to rely on the treadmill for your leg-day cardio if you include broad jumps in your workout routine.

How to Do Broad Jumps

Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms outstretched overhead. Lift your heels slightly as you swing your arms down behind you. Your fingers should be pointed at the ground.

Bend your knees while your arms are moving down. Hinge at the hips slightly so that you’re leaning forward. Once you’re leaned forward with bent knees and arms behind you, you’ll be in a prime position to explode into the jump.

Using your arms and hips to propel you as far as possible, jump up and forward. Land softly with your arms still behind you and fingers pointing at the ground. Your knees will still be bent, so you can easily propel yourself into the next jump.

A bodybuilder doing walking lunges.

4. Walking Lunge

This variation on the classic lunge enables you to move around the room, more closely mimicking real-life movement than the leg press does. It adds some cardio to your leg-day workout routine, but not as much as a broad jump.

If you want to add cardio without risking muscle mass, the walking lunge could be the exercise for you. The walking lunge will work out your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abs, and hip flexors.

These muscles will move similarly to the way they do when walking, twisting, bending, walking, and pivoting. This exercise will increase your range of motion over time.

How to Do a Walking Lunge

If you already know how to do a traditional lunge, the walking lunge will be easy to learn. It’s essentially just lunges back to back.

First, stand with your feet hip-width apart and your upper back straight. If you want, you can hold dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands to make the walking lunge more challenging. Take a big step forward with your right leg.

Bend your right front leg until the knee forms a 90-degree angle. Your right thigh should be parallel to the floor. This should cause the left knee to come down toward the ground.

Make sure your back foot is on its toes and that the rear knee doesn’t touch the floor. Rather than returning to the starting position as you would with a traditional lunge, rise as you bring your left leg up and take another big step forward. Repeat the lunge movement as described.

If you don’t have room to walk forward, you can move the right leg back behind you and perform a backward lunge. Continue moving forward and backward alternatively and then switch the leading leg after you’ve completed all your reps on the right leg.

5. Hip Thrusts

It might not look like a difficult exercise, but the hip thrust is a great way to target your hip adductors, which are located in your inner thighs. It also gives all of your glute muscles and hamstrings a workout.

Hip thrusts are optimal for warming up or cooling down. Use a resistance band to make this move more challenging. You can also place a barbell across your lap.

How to Do Hip Thrusts

Find a bench or a box and lie your upper back on it. Support your lower body by placing the soles of your feet flat on the ground. Your knees should be bent and your butt almost touching the floor. You can place your hands behind your head for additional support.

Push through your heels and lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from your neck to your knees. Squeeze your glutes and hold this high position for a few seconds and then lower back into the starting position.

Once you’re a pro at this version of hip thrusts, try lifting one leg and performing single-leg hip thrusts. It will help you build more strength in your adductors, glutes, and hamstrings. You can also correct strength imbalances with the single-leg hip thrust.

Conclusion:

While the leg press can give your quads a great workout, it’s not a functional exercise that mimics the way your muscles function in daily life. Plus, it requires a leg press machine which might not always be available.

Use the 5 leg press alternatives in this guide to round out that beach bod and build functional strength on your next leg day. You can work out from home, work, or the gym and your lower body will be powerful like never before.


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