The leg press is a weight training exercise where you take a seated position, place your feet against a footplate and push against a resistance. There are several different types of leg press which allow different levels of resistance and different ranges of motion but all essentially do the same job of working the muscles in your entire lower body.
In the early days of weightlifting the squat was the main mass building exercise you could perform for legs. Leg presses with sleds or cables like are commonplace today simply didn’t exist in the same form back then. Since then the leg press machines and the exercise itself has developed to become possibly the most popular form of mass building exercise available for legs. It is considered by many to be a lot safer and better suit the body structure of lifters, allowing for progressive tension overload by using a heavier weight, which is the main stimulus for muscular growth.
Is the squat or the leg press more effective?
[one_half]While free weight back squats are often considered the best exercise for developing overall lower body strength and size, leg presses certainly have their place in your training routine as well as in home and commercial gyms. They are particularly useful for muscular hypertrophy, focussing on the bottom range of motion and raw strength as you can perform repetitions to complete failure very safely thanks to the locking bars and safety buffers that are built in to many leg press machines today.[/one_half]
Difficulty level is also a difference between the two exercises. A strong squat requires a strong core, quadriceps, hamstrings and even calves. The foot position has to be perfect to allow you to lower your hips down to where your thighs are parallel to the ground or lower and to stop your back from arching over and getting pinned by the weight which can cause pulled muscles or other injuries.
[one_half]In contrast, leg presses are a very simple movement. Although your foot position can be slightly wrong, you will often feel this on the first repetition and you can simply rack the weight and move your feet to a more comfortable stance.
Other than the position of your feet, the chair is always fixed in the same position and the sled will always move through the same plane of motion.[/one_half]
One final difference is in how quickly you can rack and unrack weights. If you are using a leg press from home then the chances are the minimum weight you use will always be left on the machine. Even with 20kg weight plates and depending on your leg strength this could be 5 x 20kg plates per side or more.
If you are using the leg press at a gym then you will most likely need to load the weight sled from empty. So loading all the extra weight can be more of a hassle with the leg press compared to the squat. Even cable leg press stations just need you to put the pin at a different level in the weight stack to change the resistance.
But if you are looking to perform drop sets the leg press is certainly a lot quicker for you or a spotter to take a couple of weight plates off each side after a set.
Although there are differences between leg presses and squats in both the range of motion and the muscles focussed on, the two actually complement each other very well and should be either combined in your leg day workout or performed on alternating weeks where possible.
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How to use a leg press machine
Caution: Always check to make sure that when you re-rack the weight the platform is securely locked.
Variations: All foot stance variations described in the foot stance section.
Different types of leg press machine
45 degree angle sled leg press / Lever leg press
Angled leg presses are most often found in commercial gyms but can also be an excellent choice for home workouts. Due to the angle and the tension built up in your leg muscles when the weight slides down to the lower portion of the exercise you will find that you can use a lot more weight than any other leg exercise.
Because of this it means you do need a lot more weight plates to get to a resistance level that is stressful for your leg muscles, and will likely need to purchase an Olympic weight plate rack as most leg press machines are not designed with weight plate pegs.[/one_half]
Angled leg presses have also been designed to be safer than free weight squat exercises that are performed outside of a smith machine or power cage, so that even though you are loading the weight sled with far more weight than you would use while squatting, there is no chance of being pinned under the weight.
Vertical leg press
[one_half]Vertical leg press machines are different to the other designs due to the fact that the weight is loaded from the top, and you are lying with your back almost parallel to the ground.
While there are benefits to this type of leg press such as many weightlifters reporting less strain on their lower back, there aren’t as many manufacturers that produce them and they often don’t have as many safety features as the 45 degree angle leg presses. If you do prefer this style of the exercise then just make sure there is a support that will stop the weight from lowering too far, or that you can lock the weight stack at different levels.[/one_half]
Horizontal leg press
[one_half]Horizontal leg presses are often found either attached to a multi gym or as their own separate piece of cable equipment. These are the types of leg press that are much more limited in the amount of resistance due to the cable being attached to a weight stack with a fixed maximum resistance.
The vertical and angled leg presses are limited to some degree by how much weight you can physically fit on the bars, or by a weight limit for that piece of equipment set by the manufacturer which is usually around 450kg. In contrast the horizontal leg press usually has resistance up to around 120kg.[/one_half]
Because the weight is attached to a cable and not a sled that acts on gravity, there aren’t any safety features on these machines like there are on vertical or angled leg presses. If the weight gets too heavy during a repetition you can simply let the seat slide back towards its locked position where the tension on the cable is dropped.
Main muscles worked and exercises possible with a leg press machine
Main Muscle Worked: Quadriceps
Other Muscles: Calves, Glutes, Hamstrings
What to look for when buying a leg press machine
[one_half]When buying a leg press for home use there are two main factors to consider. Once is how much space it will take up and the other is making sure where you will be putting it can support the weight of what could be over 450kg.
If you don’t already have a weight plate rack and large set of weight plates around the 10kg to 25kg range then it will be worth investing in these too to make sure you are getting the most from the leg press while still keeping the plates out of the way when not in use.
If you have experience with a particular style of leg press at your local gym and the range of motion suits your lifting style then it’s worth focussing on these types of leg press.[/one_half]
[one_half]If you are buying a vertical or angled leg press machine then make sure that there are safety measures in place that you can easily reach to stop the weight sled from moving if the weight does get too much to complete that last repetition.
Although there are models that come with an adjustable back rest, most come with the back rest set at a 90 degree angle to the track the sled moves along which is the perfect position to make sure you don’t slide out of the seat or put your ankles in an uncomfortable position when pressing a heavy weight.[/one_half]
The leg press is one of the best exercises for overall strength and size gains in your quadriceps and hamstrings, and there are some great products available that you can use from home without stepping foot in a gym.
With the weight limit of many leg press models being around the same as the commercial leg press machines (in excess of 450kg), and many designs making the best use of space by adding extra features such as being able to perform hack squats, our comparison chart aims to sum up the most important information for anyone looking to add a leg press machine to their home gym.[/two_third]