While squatting may be the cornerstone of your training program, these leg press variations will help take your strength gains to the next level.
I have no doubt that 1R readers smartly spend most of their gym time hauling barbells and heaving dumbbells, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for oft-maligned weight machines. The humble leg press is a strong candidate for inclusion in your training routine, and below I’ll discuss why it’s a great tool for every type of lifter.
The biggest criticism of the leg press is that you can extend the range of motion by flexing your spine, which puts your back at risk for injury. I look at it a different way. The leg press is a great learning device for maintaining a healthy, neutral spine precisely because you can “curl” your hips up while performing the lift. Why? Because there’s tactile feedback that alerts you to poor form. When you start the lift, your butt and upper back will touch the seat, while the natural curve of your spine will create a gap behind your lower back. If you lower the weight too far and compromise this natural curve, your butt will lift from the seat. It’s an instant coaching cue, minus the coach, to facilitate learning the same pattern in complex lifts like squats, deads, and cleans.
The squat is an amazing exercise, though the limited mass potential and slow recovery time of our spinal erectors can limit the effect it has on our legs. This can be especially true if you’re tall or have a narrow frame. Lifters in this situation may want to supplement with leg presses in order to fully stimulate their legs to gain as much muscle and strength as humanly possible.
Even better, simply changing your foot position while leg pressing can emphasize different muscles. A low foot position can hit the quads by increasing leg flexion, while the opposite position of with the toes peeking over the top of the foot plate works the hamstrings harder. An efficiency-minded lifter could start an extended set in a weak position, rep out, lock the sled and move to a stronger position, complete a few more reps, and repeat until the legs are fully exhausted. Yeah… not too shabby.
The High-Mileage Lifter
If you’re stiff and beat-up, the leg press can help get you back to where you once were. Maximizing your squat and deadlift generally comes at the expense of your general mobility and flexibility, and frequently comes with injury. The same problems often accompany intense athletic activity, especially contact sports. The leg press can deload your back while still working your legs in a controlled manner, and with new patterns to enhance movement.
Let’s say too many rounds of wide, power-style squats have left you with a back that’s sore from loading, hips that hurt from wide stances,* and glutes and quads that are under-developed from the relatively low depth and lack of shin movement required by power squats. In this case, single-leg leg presses will allow you to still train your legs while avoiding the loading and patterns that got you hurt.
Set-up so that your working foot is close to the center of the toe plate and positioned so that your knee will move forward in a comfortable range during the descent. Keep the inactive foot out in front of you on the floor. Treat the movement like a rehab exercise by slowly raising and lowering the weight in a normal range of motion and pausing at the bottom. If you need to use the handles to hold yourself in or finish your reps, you’re using too much weight.
After finishing a set in the 10-15 rep range, lock the safety handles and use the same leg to perform a set of controlled knee extensions before switching legs. The weight carriage should move between a locked-out position and a position that’s lower by about six inches or so. This short movement helps terminal knee extension strength, which is an important aspect of knee health that can be reduced by power squats.
The leg press can be a great tool for lifters of all stripes, provided it’s being used properly. Again, while it may not be the primary focus of your program, leg presses can be very useful in helping develop bigger, stronger, more explosive legs. While I certainly didn’t cover every potential use, I’d hope you now have a few more ideas of how you can incorporate the leg press into your next training session.
*The leg press can make actual hip injuries and structural problems worse; if you think you have a legitimate injury or issue (instead of just overuse and posture pain) I’d avoid the leg press.
To build leg strength and maximize your results, 1R would recommend the following supplements: