Most of the time I see anyone on the leg press, I can’t help but cringe.
Whether it’s a range of motion that’s shorter than a calf raise, or it’s atrocious technique that’s only going to result in a slipped disc or worse (you only need to see the horror videos online!) It’s very rare you’ll see a well executed set of leg presses.
To add to this, most strength and conditioning coaches label the leg press as ‘non-functional’ and a waste of time for athletes looking to improve their performance.
But what about bodybuilders, or anyone who’s looking to purely build muscle?
If that’s the case, then the leg press may be one of the best pieces of equipment to build pure muscle and strength in your legs.
The funny thing is, I remember being that guy who hated the leg press. For the first 5 years of my training, if it wasn’t a free weight compound movement, I didn’t do it. I believed the hype that machine training was useless, so always steered clear.
The joke was on me. I thought the only exercise I’d need to build my lower body were squats. So I squatted 2, 3, 4, 5, even 6 times a week for years – I tried all the strength training programs with multiple levels of frequencies.
But after banging my head against a brick wall repeatedly with free squats and not getting any reward for the effort I was putting in, I decided to take a different approach.
ENTER: THE NEGLECTED LEG PRESS
I remember the first consistent training cycle I ran on leg presses, and I couldn’t believe I’d been intentionally avoiding them for so long. The muscle stimulation I got in my quads was like nothing before, and I could finally dial in my legs without my hips and lower back taking over.
Fast forward a couple of years, it’s now a staple in my leg training and one of the ‘indicator’ lifts in my rotation of quad exercises.
Before we dive into this article a little more, I want to make it clear that this isn’t me saying squats aren’t a good exercise. If you’re built for them, they should be a staple in your leg training. And even if you’re not, spending time learning the squat pattern is useful in your beginner years.
But, if you’re someone with long femurs, or you find yourself so bent over when squatting that your back gives out before your legs, machine alternatives like the leg press may be a better option.
You can read about this more in my article on long legged lifters here.
WHY I LOVE THE LEG PRESS
1. You Can Target The Muscle You Want
Whether you want to build your quads, glutes, hamstrings or adductors, the leg press has you covered on all bases.
In most cases, I’ll use the strongest position available to me, which is typically just outside shoulder width. This allows maximum overload on the thighs and a safe position for me to press from.
However, if you want to dial into specific areas of your thighs, you can make some easy adjustments to your stance. Here are some examples:
High and wide – this is my favourite for women, as it allows them to minimise the stress on the vastus medialis (the teardrop above the knee), and instead shift more of the work to the glutes, hamstrings and adductors.
Wide, feet turned out – I’ve rotated this stance in and out a few times to really focus in on the adductors. By taking a wider stance and adopting a 10 and 2 o’clock foot position, you’ll smoke your inner thighs.
Feet close and low – if you’ve got the flexibility for it, this can blow up your teardrop. Just err on the side of caution, opt for higher reps here and place them later in the workout as it can be quite stressful on the knees.
2. No Stabilisation, Maximal Overload
One of the main arguments against the leg press in the strength and conditioning world is that because there’s no stabilisation required, it’s not functional.
But for someone looking to build size, minimising stability requirements allows for maximal muscle activation and loading. This makes the leg press an optimal choice for building muscle.
By reducing stability, the amount of weight you can lift changes drastically. Which is why you’ll see bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman leg pressing 2000lbs, but the world record squat being nowhere near that.
3. Safe Intensity Techniques
If you’re using intensity techniques like rest-pause and drop sets on traditional free weight exercises, it takes an advanced trainee to be able to maintain quality tension and technique throughout.
What otherwise typically happens is as the set deepens and fatigue increases, technique goes out the window and you open yourself up to a host of potential injuries.
The beauty of the leg press, or any machine for that matter, is it allows you to train at a high intensity without worrying about your stabilisers giving way. It becomes a lot safer overall.
If you think about the fibre make up of the quads, they’re extremely mixed with a high density of slow twitch fibres. This means high reps, and set-extending techniques work very well.
My favourites on the leg press include 50 rep sets, drop sets and the rest-paused method.
Here’s one to try:
Load up the leg press with your 15RM weight (the most weight you can lift for 15 reps) and aim to get a minimum of 25 reps in one rest-paused set.
What you’ll do is aim to get 12-15 on the first set, rest 30 seconds, then get as many as possible, rest 30 seconds, and finally hit failure.
It may look something like this:
15 reps, 30 seconds
This is a technique I’ve been using consistently throughout my off-season so far with great results.
4. Pain Tolerance
Above all, the leg press is one of the best tests of pain tolerance. There are very few exercises that can push you as hard, far and deep into your limits as the leg press can.
So while some people may look down on it as an ‘easy way out’ of squatting, done properly – it’s anything but.
HOW TO MAXIMISE THE LEG PRESS
Most machines in the gym are pretty straightforward. And while the leg press can be a safe alternative for people to work around injuries, it can also be the source if you’re not too careful.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Keep your core tight at all times. Take a big belly breath like you would on a squat or deadlift, and lock it in throughout the rep.
- Keep your lower back against the pad at all times – only go as low as you can while maintaining this position. You never want to let your back roll off the bottom of the seat.
- Grip the handles hard to lock yourself in
- Control the descent, pause slightly at the bottom, and lift to just shy of lockout.
- Aim to hit at least parallel on each rep.
1. 3 Second Eccentrics
On the leg press, slowing the negative to a 3 second count will unleash hell on your quads. You’ll feel more pain in your quads than ever before.
If you look at most people leg pressing, it’s done rapidly with most of the force generated coming from the stretch reflex the exercise inherently provides (i.e. the bounce).
By slowing the descent, your muscles will now have complete control of the weight from start to finish.
This will be hard at first, and you’ll need to reduce the load initially, but the strength will return in full force.
2. Pausing at the Bottom
I like incorporating pauses in the weakest position in almost all exercises. It keeps you honest and if your goal is to build muscle, it maintains all the stress on what matters most: your muscles.
By pausing on a leg press, it allows you to establish range, maintain correct muscular tension and improve sturdiness in the joints.
This is especially applicable to long legged lifters, who are typically unstable in the bottom position of a lift. By pausing, it teaches you to stay tight and ensures you fire back up using the right muscles.
For example, I have particularly long tibias, which limits my leg press depth. By pausing, it provides adequate time under tension to sufficiently stimulate muscle growth.
It also helps further remove some of the stretch reflex we discussed before, making it an even more humbling experience.
3. Continuous Tension
If you thought 3-second descents with pauses at the bottom hurt, try throwing continuous tension into the mix.
As I talked about in my article on optimal set execution here, I’m a big believer in maximising muscular stress while minimising systemic fatigue, and keeping your sets ‘clean’.
While there is a time and place to grind out sets of 50 reps no matter what, for the most part, you want to keep continuous tension on the muscle.
This means driving yourself into a wall of muscular failure while resisting the urge to stop in order to extend the set. It’ll be tough, but if you can approach the set in the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to really push the boundaries of both muscular recruitment and metabolic stress, aka the pump.
The way I incorporate this is to perform all sets with continuous tension except the last. On the last set, I’ll set a pre-determined number of stops to include, which will typically be one or two pauses of three deep breaths.
FEW EXTRA TIPS…
Two extra tips I like to include that helps me get the most out of every set are as follows:
- Use Olympic lifting shoes – I’ve got poor ankle flexibility, so this allows me to get an extra 1-2 inches on my depth without compromising my technique.
Sit slightly higher on the seat. What I mean by this is instead of sitting right into the seat, lift your butt off the pad an inch or so, while maintaining firm contact of your lower back against the pad. What I’ve found by doing this is it allows you to get a little extra range, while also feeling safer on your hips and lower back overall. It’s a slight adjustment that works very well.
Because of the versatility of the leg press, it can be programmed in a number of ways.
As many of you reading this will know, I like to train body parts twice a week over a wide variety of rep ranges.
I don’t program leg presses for lower than 8 reps, and generally prefer keeping it in the 12+ rep bracket. The quads respond well to the higher reps, and because most people’s range is inadequate, it allows sufficient time under tension.
Here’s an example of how I’d set it out:
MY FAVOURITE LEG PRESS
Of all the leg presses I’ve used, the one machine I’ve found to be a cut above the rest is the Cybex plate-loaded squat press.
After 2000 words of writing, hopefully I’ve convinced you all on the merits of leg pressing for leg growth. Whether or not you squat, it should be a staple in your programming.
When you incorporate them, play around with foot positioning to find your strong point, throw in 3 second eccentrics and pauses, and be prepared to push yourself HARD. Effort trumps everything, and that’s where the results will be.