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October 09, 2020 10 min read
The lower body contains some of the largest muscles that you have, and so it’s essential that we give these muscle groups the attention that they deserve.
And even if you’re sticking to leg days religiously, are you really training your legs in a well-rounded way? Exercises such as squats, lunges, or sumo deadlifts will get you a long way towards tree-trunk legs, but in this article, we’re shining the spotlight on the oft-overlooked leg press.
The leg press is a common and relatively simple movement to pull off, which means that it sometimes goes ignored in favor of the conventional squat. And while we’d never argue for the sidelining of your bread and butter lifts, there’s a lot going under the hood with the leg press. With slight shifts in your footing during the movement, you can tailor the exercise to work for your specific goals and needs.
The leg press gets your legs jacked up. Easy—right? So, it follows that you’ll see the greatest benefits with everything that you use your legs for.
You’ll be able to run faster and increase your vertical, mostly due to the development of the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The quads are the star of the show, so let’s talk about them last.
The glutes are the largest muscles in your body and the most important if you’re into big butts. Outside of aesthetics, developing your glutes will help with your other lifts and also help you with functional tasks such as walking up stairs.
The hamstrings, while not as sexy as the glutes, are just as important. They’re engaged throughout most of the leg press movement; indispensable when it comes down to utilizing that “push-off” power when jumping, running, or using your legs explosively for anything else.
The meat of the matter is the quads. Not only are these the big reason for the leg press in the first place, but they’re also the reason why the leg press stands apart from other more conventional and standard leg-day lifts.
The squat will never be dethroned as the lower body exercise of choice, but sometimes it’s just not the ideal movement to use.
Especially for athletes looking for hypertrophy or strength gains, the leg press can be a great way to hone in on the quads without overloading weaker parts of the body, such as the lower back or spine. Heavy barbell squats are often limited not by quad strength, but by your core’s balance and strength. If you take the core out of the equation, you’re left with a terrific exercise to really gas out your legs.
Furthermore, if you find it difficult to do squats because of an injury or you’re just looking to mitigate additional stress, the leg press is the exercise for you. By taking the rest of the body mostly out of the equation, you’re still able to put a significant amount of volume on your legs without risking anything with the rest of your body.
But all this talk about the quads takes away from one of the greatest benefits of including the leg press into your training routine: the fact that it’s so customizable.
We’ll look into the specifics further below, but any shift of feet outwards, inwards, up, or down, will mean that different parts of your legs are emphasized. That makes the leg press a great way to develop your legs in a well-rounded fashion, without risking overtraining a certain muscle group.
And if you’re content with your squats and lunges on leg day, the leg press is still a terrific way to warm-up all the muscles in your leg before you start hitting them hard.
To begin, the machine should be set up in such a way that your back and hips won’t be coming off the machine at the bottom of the movement. You should be comfortable throughout without any lower back pain or pain in the hips and knees.
For a standard leg press, place your feet about shoulder-width apart in a squat-like stance. Ensure that your heels are flat against the machine. A standard press will have your knees forming an angle of about 90-degrees, with your knees in line with the feet. Don’t bow them outward or inward. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty variations further down.
1. Initiate the movement by engaging your core. Then, push the platform away, driving through your feet. Make sure that your heels are kept flat on the platform—the front of the foot should never be used alone to move the weight.
2. Breathing out, ensure that your back is flat against the seat as you push out and extend your legs.
3. Reach the top of the movement but don’t lock out your legs at the top. There should be a slight angle in your knees. Pause at the top for a moment.
4. Beginning to inhale, slowly reverse the motion and return the platform to the starting position. And as always, make sure to keep the back flat against the seat, and the feet flat against the platform.
5. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
One of the most common mistakes (and not just with the leg press) is improper breathing. Inhaling and exhaling correctly with the rise and fall of the motion will ensure that you’re not holding your breath, while also keeping you in sync with the movement. Your blood won’t have much to pump if your cells aren’t getting the oxygen they need.
You also want to be doing the movement with a full range of motion. While there are variations that only require a partial range of motion, it’s recommended to stick to the full range—at least until you know what you want to get out of the leg press.
Which is often caused by—you guessed it—loading the machine too heavy. Don’t chase pounds or reps; make sure that your exercises are above all, of high quality. The gains won’t come any other way.
When it comes to form, just make sure that your head is steady and flat against the seat, along with your butt. If either one is jerking forward or coming off the seat, it usually means you either need an adjustment to the positioning, or you need to take some weight off.
But speaking of positioning, let’s dive into the variations that make the leg press so much more than it seems.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations of conventional free weight exercises. Just look at the squat and all the different movements that have spawned from this one fundamental exercise. But when it comes to machines, things don’t get too “free”.
Most of the time there’s a standard sitting position and a standard path that the load takes—whether up and down or to the side. There’s only so much you can do with a system like that.
Yet the leg press finds a way to shine through its machine-borne baggage, and it all has to do with the footing.
While in other machines you don’t usually give a second thought to where you’re putting your limbs in the predetermined places to put them, the leg press offers an entire footplate to have you do with as you wish. So, here are the 5 (basic) variants of the foot press that turn tiny differences into major shifts of muscle focus.
This is the equivalent of the sumo stance with the sumo squat. Your feet will be placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart—but also don’t make them go out too wide.
This stance will place a greater focus on the inner thighs and the adductors.
The wide stance can be done with a leg extension superset (where you go from one exercise to the next with minimal rest time) in order to really hammer the quads. By slightly turning your feet out and adopting a wide stance, try using a partial range of movement towards the top of the exercise. Then, switch over to leg extensions (which are a quad isolation exercise). You’ll really feel the burn then.
And as the wide stance targets the inner quads, the narrow stance targets the outer. Your feet will be coming almost close enough to touch (slightly narrower than hip-width), and along with the outer thighs, your hamstrings, glutes, and calves will also be engaged.
The narrow foot position (along with a lower foot positioning that we’ll talk about next) is uniquely capable of emphasizing the much-coveted teardrop muscle over your knee. Known as the vastus medialis oblique muscle, or VMO for short, it’s considered one of the quad muscles on the inside front of the thigh. When it comes to knee rehabilitation (and aesthetics), the teardrop is a particularly important muscle to pay attention to.
The narrow and low foot stance is another great option for supersetting leg extensions with—especially since they’ll both gas out the quads, and more importantly, the VMO.
Placing your feet at the lowest position on the footplate is the best way to engage the most of your quads—effectively being the best alternative for squats if you’re comparing the two. The trade-off is that you’re moving focus away from the hamstrings.
However, while a close squat alternative might sound tempting, this position comes with its own word of warning.
The 90-degree angle of your knee on the leg press is optimal since the knee then sits directly above your foot—effectively transferring the force into the press. However, when you move the feet down, it becomes more difficult for the whole foot to press against the footplate. When you transfer that weight onto your front foot, then your knee is put in a dangerous position since more stress is placed on it.
While the lower you go the more of your quads you’ll use, make sure that you can still press through with the heel. Going any lower than that will lead to injuries over the long term, and that’ll set your gains back no matter what.
The quads have been the star of the show so far, but what if that’s just not what you want to be emphasizing right now? Well, the leg press has the answer for you as well.
Placing your feet up slightly higher on the footplate will allow you to target the hamstrings and glutes to a greater degree. If you’re looking for a deadlift alternative, this is a solid contender. This stance becomes even more useful when you realize that you can press heavier loads than in any other of the stances.
Less of a stance and more of a variation, using a single leg introduces its own differences that you can benefit from.
Unilateral movements, where only one side of your body is moving a weight, are super useful when it comes to correcting strength imbalances in your body. Although you won’t be able to press as much weight as you could with both legs, each of them will be forced to put in equal work. And if you’re like almost everyone out there, you definitely have some sort of imbalance between your right and left sides—even if your stronger side is making up for the weaker without you realizing.
Using just one leg can also be beneficial if you suffer from lower back issues. Due to the placement of your foot, your pelvis is kept in a neutral position throughout the press. This effectively ensures that your sine and back aren’t pushed too far.
We’ve already brought up some more specific variations that use both narrow/wide and high/low stances, but feel free to experiment on your own. For example, if you point your feet inward, you’ll be emphasizing the outer calves (which can be compounded with a narrow stance).
On the other hand, feet pointing outward will target the inner calves. However, don't point them out too far so that you’re putting needless pressure on your knees—so be wary if pairing with a low or wide stance.
Using these basic building blocks, you can tailor the humble leg press machine to whatever your goals and needs may be. There’s a world of possibilities out there, and we’ve just scratched the surface.
The main reason you’ll be using the leg press is if you want to get massive legs—aka, you’ll be training for hypertrophy. The leg press is positioned well for this hypertrophic training because it allows you to gas out your legs while giving the more fragile/weaker parts of your body (the back, spine, core) a break from squatting.
Doing 3 to 5 sets with 8 to 12 reps will add a good amount of volume to your legs without over-stressing other muscle groups. Just always ensure that you’re doing full reps (unless you’re performing a variation that only calls for half reps).
When strength training, the leg press is usually sidelined by squats. If for whatever reason you’re not able to do squats, it’s recommended to work on rehabilitation, mobility, or whatever the problem is, before using the leg press for strength training.
While we’ve been mainly looking at the foot stance variations of the leg press, there’s also a host of other ways you can make the exercise more difficult or tailored to your needs.
The simplest way to spice up the leg press is to make it banded. By attaching bands to the bottom of the machine, you’ll be forced to work against the bands as well as the weight itself. This will add some constant tension throughout the lift, making the once-easy parts of the press not-so-easy anymore.
Furthermore, you can maximize the time you go through in the eccentric movement—the descent of the press. Try going for a 3-second descent without locking out at the top to really gas out your legs.
There’s also the escalating leg press, which has you combining 4 sets of 4 reps with only the smallest “micro-stops”. And the reason you’re only stopping for a tiny bit? So a workout partner can load another plate onto the machine. Either opt for the 25-pound or the 45-pound plates, depending on your athletic level. Ensure that you choose an appropriate weight to start so you’re not completely done before the whole 16 reps are finished.
Adding tons of variation to your lower body workouts is a great way to build lower body muscle mass and strength. However, foot placement variation is only a single part of muscle building.
With this much volume on your quads, you’re going to want to support their growth with enough high-quality protein and rest, so you never leave any gains on the table (or the footplate).