Build big and strong legs with the leg press machine
Many weight-lifting purists look down on the leg press machine as the inferior option to barbell squats, lunges and deadlifts for building bigger, stronger and more defined legs. But ignoring the leg press machine means you’ll miss out on maximising the size and shape of your legs, says New Body Plan’s fitness editor Joe Warner
You can’t fake big, strong and athletic legs. And nothing screams that you know how to train that being the proud owner of a pair of wide and defined legs.
Not only does having strong legs make you look and feel stronger and more athletic, as well as improve sports performance, there’s also evidence you’ll live longer.
Yes, you read that right. Having more muscular legs is linked to living a longer life. Those subjects with greater leg muscle mass had a lower risk of death from any cause over the course of a 20-year study, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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Use the leg press to build athletic legs
Why? Because “leg day” is really tough, if you do it properly! And you can’t instantly see the positive impact of your workouts, as you can with a big arms pump after a set of dumbbell biceps curls.
But tough training means you’ll make faster progress. So if you want to stand out from the rest of the gym crowd and build the tree-trunk legs that prove you know what you’re doing in the weights-room then you need to spend more time training your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves.
The big bar lifts – variations of the barbell back squat, including the Zercher squat, the trap bar deadlift, and weighted lunges – should all feature regularly in your lower-limb workouts. And you should also include the leg press machine. Here’s how to use this crucial bit of gym equipment the smart way to build the bigger, stronger and more defined legs you want!
What is the leg press machine?
The leg press machine is a type of exercise equipment found is any decent commercial gym that is designed to build strength and size in the muscles of the legs, specifically the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
There are several types of leg press machine (see bottom of article for details on each), each with a slightly different design and set-up, but they all train the muscles of the legs in a very similar way.
What muscles does the leg press machine work?
The leg press machine targets the quadriceps (quads), glutes, and hamstrings. By using the leg press machine you can effectively work all of these key lower-body muscles at the same time to build muscular size, strength and endurance.
The quadriceps are the group of muscles located at the front of the thigh that are responsible for extending the knee and flexing the hip.
The glutes, or buttocks muscles, are responsible for hip extension and external rotation.
The hamstrings are the group of muscles located at the back of the thigh that are responsible for flexing the knee and extending the hip.
What are the main advantages of the leg press machine?
There are several advantages to using the leg press machine. It’s specifically designed to target the muscles of the legs, including the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, without requiring the stabilising muscles of the core and lower back. This makes it a good option for people who want to work their legs but can’t do squats because of lower back mobility, flexibility or injury issues.
The leg press machine is also relatively straightforward to use and doesn’t require a lot of set-up or coordination. That makes it a good choice for beginners or those new to strength training.
It’s also a low impact exercise and puts less strain on the joints of the hips, knees and ankles compared to exercises, including running. That makes it a good choice for those with joint problems or previous injuries.
What are the disadvantages of using the press machine?
There are a few potential disadvantages to using the leg press machine. One of the main drawbacks is that it’s not as functional as many other lower-body exercises, such as squats, lunges and jumps.
It’s often the case that many resistance machine moves, such as the leg press, do not have as much crossover benefit to everyday activities or sports as freeweight moves that use natural or functional movement patterns.
Other potential downsides are that the leg press machine won’t improve the strength or endurance of the stabilising muscles of your abs and lower back. These are important for keeping you not only strong but injury free. And most gyms only have one leg press machine, so you’re never guaranteed you’ll get on it.
Is the leg press machine better than the barbell back squat?
It’s never the case that one exercise is inherently better than another. Every move has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, which is why it’s smart to be confident performing a wide variety of different moves in order to reach your potential.
It is also important to appreciate that the leg press and barbell squat work your lower body muscles differently. For instance, the leg press allows you to lift more weight (significantly more for most people). But the barbell squat is a more functional and compound exercise that works a wider range of muscles and may have additional benefits for balance, coordination, and core strength.
So it’s not entirely accurate to compare the two exercises. Both have a role to play in any good strength or muscle-building training plan.
What advantages does the leg press offer over the barbell back squat?
The leg press machine does over several key advantages over more complex or challenging lifts, such as the barbell back squat. These include:
More targeted muscle growth
The leg press machine primarily targets the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, while the barbell back squat works these muscles but also the stabilising muscles of your core, lower back, and upper back.
Ease of use
The leg press machine is generally easier to use than the barbell back squat. The main reason is that your body is fully supported in a seat, so you don’t have to have the same levels of strength, coordination and stability as you need when doing barbell squats, or any freeweight barbell or dumbbell move.
Greater range of motion
The leg press machine allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell back squat, which can be beneficial for increasing flexibility and targeting more muscle fibres of the leg muscles for faster progress.
The leg press machine is a low-impact exercise, while the barbell back squat can be more stressful on the joints, particularly the knees, hips and lower back.
Lift more weight
You can also lift more weight when using the leg press machine compared with the barbell back squat. Keep reading to find out why!
Why can I lift more weight with the leg press machine that barbell squats?
Most people can lift more weight on the leg press machine than they can on the barbell back squat.
This is because the movement pattern of a leg press machine is a fixed range of motion – it’s straight up and down, or straight forwards and backward.
This means the weight or load is easier to move and manage than the much more dynamic and unstable movement pattern of the barbell back squat (which require your stabilising muscles of the abs and lower back to work hard to keep your torso upright).
In addition, the leg press machine supports the weight of the plates, which can take some of the load off of your lower back and legs.
How do I use the leg press machine?
Here is a general guide to using the leg press machine safely and effectively. Always check the machine for specific usage instructions as models will vary. If you’re still unsure of how to use it, ask a personal trainer or another gym user.
Adjust the seat and/or the foot platform. Make sure the seat is adjusted to a comfortable height and the foot platform is positioned at a distance that allows you to fully extend your legs without overextending your knees.
Load the weight. Adjust the weight on the machine to the desired level. If you are new to the leg press machine, start with a lower weight and gradually increase as you get stronger.
Sit on the machine and position your feet shoulder-width apart. You might be more comfortable pointing your toes outwards (around 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on a clock face).
Take off the safety catch, if there is one, by turning the handles. These are typically found either side of your legs.
Slowly press the weight away from your body by straightening your legs. Make sure to keep your feet flat on the platform and your knees aligned with your toes.
Be aware not to over-extend your knees at the top of the rep. Either just fully straighten your legs by carefully locking out your knees, or stop before your get to knee lock-out. This will prevent any chance of over-extending your knees, and will place more muscular tension on your leg muscles.
Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position. Make sure to keep control of the weight and avoid letting it crash down.
Continue the exercise for the desired number of repetitions. Remember to breathe evenly and keep proper form throughout the exercise.
How many sets and reps of the leg press machine do I do?
To build muscular strength do three to five sets of 1-5 reps per set, resting at least three minutes between each set.
To build muscular size and strength do three to five sets of 6-12 reps per set, resting at least two minutes between each set.
To build muscular size and endurance do three to five sets of 12+ reps per set, resting at least one minute between each set.
What are the different types of leg press machine?
All leg press machines will consist of a seat on which you sit, and a platform against which you place your feet, with your knees bent. You then push against the weight to straighten your legs, with either your sit moving away from the stationary platform, or the platform moving away from the stationary seat. Here are the main types of leg press machine.
Horizontal leg press
This is the most traditional and common type of leg press machine. It consists of a long platform that you lie on, with a weight stack at one end and a footplate at the other. To use the machine, you push against the footplate with your legs, which moves the weight stack.
Vertical leg press
This type of leg press machine is similar to the horizontal leg press, but the platform is angled at a more vertical angle. This allows you to press the weight straight up, rather than at an angle.
Seated leg press
This machine is similar to the horizontal leg press, but you are seated rather than lying down. The footplate moves in a vertical direction, allowing you to press the weight straight up.
Hack squat machine
This machine is similar to a leg press, but the footplate is angled at a more vertical angle and you are standing rather than lying down. You push against the footplate with your legs to move the weight stack up.
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