The leg press is a popular gym machine that can help build leg muscles. There are several types of press machines, although using any of them is a great success.
These machines are used to develop the quads and hamstrings, as well as the glutes. And, although it seems like a simple exercise, it is important to learn how to use it correctly. By paying attention to your form, we can maximize strength development benefits and prevent injury.
If we want to increase leg strength and build muscle, we must move enough weight to challenge the body. This causes the muscle to break down and rebuild itself stronger, as it adapts to stress.
Commercial gyms are often equipped with heavy-duty power machines, which have safety rails to hold the bar if needed. But why not use leg presses too? Having access to such a good quality machine is usually the best option. Padding around the head, neck and shoulders provides comfort, with a large non-slip platform to place your feet on.
In gyms it is common to find different types of press machines. Although most believe that they all serve the same purpose, the truth is that they have slight differences between them.
Lever Leg Press
Plate-loaded lever leg presses are usually only found in commercial gyms and fitness centers. One of the reasons lever leg presses are so popular is because they are incredibly safe. Protective pads attached to the frame make it impossible for weight to squeeze you into the seat, eliminating the need for a peer to watch you.
They also offer a fluid and functional pressure movement, which rotates around a central point. This results in less maintenance than a leg press sled that runs on rails.
There is only one drawback, which is if we already have very strong legs. Olympic disc weight bars are usually long enough to hold about 10 of the 20kg plates on each side. Because the frame is horizontal, we need more weight than vertical or 45 degree leg press machines to feel the same resistance.
cable leg press machine
In this type, a cable pulley runs under the seat to connect one of the weight stacks to the footplate. Cable leg presses are always horizontal in design and allow us to adjust the distance between the seat and footrest to accommodate different leg lengths.
Because they rely on a cable system, the amount of resistance is limited to how much weight is in the stack. Usually this is not much more than a few hundred kilos.
45 degree leg press
This is the most popular type of leg press in commercial gyms around the world. Weight plates are loaded onto standard or Olympic sized weight pegs, which are usually placed on either side. To save space, some companies have installed the pegs at the base of the leg press sled.
Apart from one or two exceptions, smooth and silent movement is possible. This occurs at the point of contact between the solid steel guide rods and the weight plate sled, and are renowned for their strength and low friction motion. The resistance comes entirely from weight plates, with no cables or pulley systems. The 45-degree angle targets all four heads of the quadriceps muscle (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis) to varying degrees, depending on the location of the foot.
With a deep enough range of motion, we can also engage the gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, hamstrings, and soleus (calf muscles), for an extreme leg workout.
The leg press machine allows us to get the benefits of a barbell squat to develop the quads. In addition, it develops the gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calves.
By varying the position of the feet, we can emphasize different muscles. Also, it builds strength in these muscles and we can use it to overcome imbalances, such as when runners have more developed hamstrings than quads.
Multiple standing positions
Many of the top leg press machines are designed with a large, multi-angle foot plate. This provides support for both narrow and wide stances, allowing us to shift focus between specific leg muscles.
Some positions are:
- High feet – puts more pressure on the hamstrings and glutes
- Low feet: shift the emphasis to the quads
- Narrow stance: increased recruitment of the vastus lateralis (outer thigh, part of the quadriceps)
- Wide Stance – More emphasis on adductor muscles, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis (inner thigh, part of quadriceps)
With an isolated leg press, the only natural range of motion is with a narrow stance. But with subtle changes in foot placement, we can effectively train the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles.
Compound exercises are the fastest way to increase leg size and strength. This includes squats, stiff-legged deadlifts, hack squats, and leg presses.
But even if we find the perfect leg press machine, we still have to perform isolation exercises. Free weights are the best option, and allow us to fully develop this large and complex group of muscles. The best leg workouts often combine leg presses with exercises like dumbbell lunges, hamstring curls, and leg extensions. In this way, we will be able to fully develop each muscle through all natural planes of movement.
Avoid putting pressure on your back
If we have frequent back pain when doing squats, the leg press could be an excellent alternative. The thick cushioning and limited movement of your lower back during exercise also means you’ll put less pressure on your lower spine.
Normally it is recommended to use the 45 degree leg press. The lever leg press also works, but the lower back may round due to hip rotation. This is because the twisting motion can bring your knees up to your chest.
Limits the risk of injury
Leg press machines protect muscles and joints from injury by combining a fixed plane of motion with excellent stability. During the eccentric and concentric movements, we control the weight in a very specific way. That’s compared to squats, where the plates or bar position on the back can change, leading to uneven weight distribution.
In most cases, the leg press also has safety stops to prevent the weight from moving below a certain point. Safety rails work in a similar way for multipower machines. But the leg presses allow us to lock the weight out without having to walk back.
When we sit on a leg press machine, the body must be in a particular position. We will sit on the machine with our back and head resting comfortably against the padded support. We’ll place our feet on the footrest hip-width apart while making sure our heels are flat.
The bottom should be flat against the seat rather than raised. The legs should form an angle of about 90 degrees at the knees. If the feet are too high, the glutes will be stressed; if they are too low and they will put unnecessary pressure on the knees. Your knees should be in line with your feet and not arched in or out.
As we push, we’ll make sure to keep this alignment. We will grab the auxiliary handles to get support and keep the spine and head in position.
- We will tighten the abdominal muscles and push the platform with the heels and the ball of the foot. The heels should remain flat on the footrest. The forefoot or toes should never be used exclusively to move the pad forward.
- As we exhale, we will extend our legs and keep our head and back flat against the seat pad. It is recommended to extend with slow control rather than with an explosive movement.
- We will pause at the top of the movement. We will not lock the knees and make sure they do not bend out or in.
- As we inhale, we will return the footrest to the starting position by gradually bending the knees. We will keep our feet and back flat at all times.
- If we’ve never done leg presses before, we’ll start modestly with three sets of 10 reps. You can progress from there as we build strength.
It’s important to ensure proper technique to get the most out of your leg press routine. To make sure we’re doing the leg press safely, we’ll avoid making these mistakes.
- Too much weight . One of the most important factors is to make sure that we are not trying to lift more weight than we should. If we can’t control the movements, we should reduce the weights. Proper technique is more important than the amount of weight we are lifting. Although the exercise should require effort, we must perform it with total control. We will never rush the exercise or let the legs collapse at the end of the movement.
- The buttocks are not flat against the seat. If the buttocks are lifted off the seat, the legs are at too sharp an angle. We will have to move the back of the seat until the knees and buttocks are in a comfortable position. We can recognize a bad position when we get cramps or the knees seem to be directly in front of the eyes.
- Place your hands on your knees . Putting your hands on your knees is a common mistake that will break your posture. It is advisable to hold the auxiliary handles.
- Short range of motion. We will always follow the full range of motion without lifting the hips. If necessary, we will adjust the seat and/or lower the weight.
- Head up . We will concentrate on the position of the head. It should be firm and snug against the back of the seat. If we are moving our head forward, we are using too much weight.
- Breathing. Remember to keep breathing during the effort phase and avoid holding your breath. If we focus on exhaling with the effort and inhaling with the release, the breath will become automatic.
Differences with squats
Both leg presses and squats primarily work the quads, or quadriceps. But they also work the hamstrings (muscles opposite the quadriceps on the back of the thighs) and the glutes.
Because most of the body is moved to perform squats, they tend to engage other muscle groups, such as the abs and hips, while leg presses only involve the movement of the legs. Also, leg presses are seated exercises that are performed on a machine. In contrast, squats are done with your feet on the ground, although there are several variations of this exercise.
If we are looking for a full body workout, then squats have the upper hand over leg presses. But if balance is an issue, or if we have shoulder or back pain, leg presses may be a better option.
Although leg presses and squats work the same muscle groups, they do so from slightly different angles and with more emphasis on one group than the other. That means balancing leg workouts with both exercises may be the best approach.