A proper leg press machine

Why and how to do the leg press

The leg press may not be as effective an exercise as the squat but it still has its place in the gym. So without further ado, here’s how you do it.

A proper leg press machine

Technique

Sit on the leg press machine with your feet placed high up on the platform and your back flat against the back rest. Set your feet flat, about shoulder-width apart and pointing forwards. Push up the platform all the way up and release the safety mechanism. This is your starting position.

Take a deep breath as you lower the weight slowly as far as you can while keeping your lower back flat. You’ll find that there comes a point where if you lower your legs any further, you cannot help but round your lower back. You should stop just before that and it will be your full range of motion. Admittedly, it’s a very narrow range of motion. Your knees will form an angle of about 90 degrees.

At the bottom of the exercise, transition smoothly into the concentric phase and push hard through your heels while expelling forcefully your breath. Don’t lock out at the top, meaning keep your knees slightly bent so the weight rests on your muscles and not on your bones.

Variations

You’ll find you can do the usual variations of leg exercises with the leg press: vary your feet stance from wide to narrow. Change the orientation of your feet from slightly outwards to slightly inwards.
You can also work one leg at a time.

Best of all, you can use your hands to push your knees and help you push the weight up. Don’t be lazy and use your hands all the time. Rather, use this little cheat to squeeze out 2 or 3 more reps at the end when you’re too exhausted to push the full weight but could manage to push a bit less. You can’t do that with the squats.

You want your feet high up on the platform for maximum range of motion and to recruit more of your hamstrings and glutes. So if you want to target the quads more, go lower on the platform at the expense of the range of motion.

Finding a real leg press machine

Does your gym have a proper leg press machine? Many gyms have a seated version with a platform opposite so you can push against it and move your body horizontally backwards. I don’t like these as they don’t feel like a real leg press exercise to me.

A proper leg press machine to me has a stationary seat and a platform which you move up and down. You stack up the weight with plates. More importantly, the seat is inclined at an angle so that you are pushing the weight inclined at roughly 45 degrees to the floor.

Ideally I would have preferred a leg press machine where you get underneath the platform and push the latter vertically up and down but these are now outdated. When you use a vertical leg press machine, all the blood flows to your head and with the intense effort of exerting the huge leg muscles, your blood pressure goes up rapidly and you could burst a blood vessel in your brain. Not what we want.

So modern leg press machines are now at an angle. That means the weight you are pushing is not the true weight you are stacking on the machine but more like 70% of it, depending on the angle. The steeper or closer to the vertical you are, the greater proportion of the weight you’ve stacked will be pushed.

Why the leg press and not the squat

I’m not telling you to avoid squats and do leg press instead. There just comes a time when you want to move away from the squat for various reasons. The main difference with the squat is that you are not balancing the load on your shoulders. This has 3 major implications:

  1. there is no danger of the weight falling down or being stuck under it;
  2. no core muscles working to keep your balance throughout the movement and to keep a rigid torso;
  3. the back is only minimally involved in the leg press.

As a result, with the leg press you can concentrate more on working your legs and just your legs to failure and beyond. You can go very heavy and feel safe. With the squats, you expend energy not just to push the weight up but to keep the bar balanced throughout and to keep your core muscles rigid.
As you are sitting down and the weight is at the end of your legs, your back does not get involved in the exercise as long as you keep it flat and don’t lower the platform excessively. For those who can’t do the squat because of a back problem, the leg press is an excellent substitute. It’s still a compound movement, unlike the leg extension.

Finally, if you think you are not lifting a lot of weight at the squat, you’ll find that you can pile on loads of weight at the leg press machine due to the angle of inclination. This can be a psychological boost.

Summary

  • Keep your back flat and go for a good range of motion.
  • Use your hands to help you cheat towards the end when you can’t push up the full weight.
  • Pick the leg press instead of the squat as a compound leg movement if you don’t want your back involved, don’t want to balance a heavy load for safety reasons or want to target your quads even more and no other unrelated muscle groups. You can even work past muscle failure with the leg press.
Powerful hack squats

Beyond the squat

We’ve heard it often enough that the squat is the king of all exercises. By squat I mean the barbell squat with the bar behind the neck. This article isn’t about this exercise but about alternatives.
You may want to look beyond the squat if any of these apply to you:

  1. You stop progressing from the squat, i.e. you’re unable to add more weight;
  2. Your quads never feel sore the next day, no matter how heavy you lifted;
  3. Your back, hamstrings or other muscle groups get tired first;
  4. You don’t enjoy it anymore or it doesn’t feel as great as before.

The squat is a great fundamental exercise but because of this, it doesn’t place stress on just the quadriceps but on many other secondary muscle groups to a significant extent. This may be why your quads don’t get enough stimulation from this exercise after a while. So here are other leg exercises you may consider to vary your workout.

Leg press

Legging it at the leg press pachine

Another compound exercise for the legs but without having to worry about keeping your balance. I love this exercise because you are able to go extremely heavy without worrying about balance or even being able to complete your rep. Since your hands are free, you can do forced reps, partial reps and negative reps as well. Just make sure you don’t round your spine at the bottom of the exercise. The leg press movement is very similar to the squat, in fact, it is a simpler movement since it involves only the legs and not the whole body, as a result, this exercise is not too dissimilar to the squat and you may want to try something else.

Front squats

Before moving away to something different, let’s mention this one which is like the traditional barbell squat but with the bar in front of you resting on top of your collar bone or wrapped in your arms. It’s a very uncomfortable exercise to do, which is why you rarely see people doing it. it is also impossible to go as heavy in this position. However, the benefit is more emphasis on the front of the legs – the quads. Try it when your legs are already tired so you don’t have to go heavy.

Hack squats

Powerful hack squats

source: hack squat on bdybuilding.com

This is my favourite leg exercise for emphasis on the front of the leg while still stimulating the rest – glutes and hamstrings. The weight rests on your shoulders with pads to make it more comfortable. When you lower yourself, ensure your feet are sufficiently forward on the platform so your knees are not beyond your toes when your legs are bent. As you go up, push down and back against the back rest to stabilise your spine. The machine is slightly inclined backwards. Unfortunately, many gyms don’t have this machine.

Smith Machine Back squats

If your gym doesn’t have the hack squat machine, you can do the Smith Machine back squats instead. This is a more free weight style where you don’t have a back rest to push against to stabilise your back and make the movement easier. Again, ensure your feet are sufficiently forward to prevent your knees from jutting out beyond the vertical. I like to place a low bench under me to know how deep to squat, ideally no deeper than the thighs parallel to the floor. It’s too easy to get lazy and stop before, so I don’t stop until I feel the bench under me. It’s not advisable to squat deeper than that in the back squat because your spine will be under excessive pressure as the Smith Machine means your body has to follow the path of the bar, rather than the other way round. In the hack squat, you are able to squat deeply because the back rest provides support for the back.

Lunges

Lunges are very different to any squatting movement and at first appear very easy. But due to the stretching involved, they’re actually much harder and also very beneficial. Lunges work both your hamstrings and your quads to a high degree. As you lunge forward, don’t let your knee go past the vertical once again.
There are many ways to perform the lunge. You can do walking lunges, going forward as if walking giant steps instead of stepping back every time, or you can step forward on a BOSU ball, making it very unstable. You can do lunges with or without weights, with dumbells in your hands or a bar on your shoulders, under the Squat machine going up and down or with the rear leg raised on a bench. I prefer the simplest way – walking lunges where you just need enough space to keep walking. I use no weight but rest very little. Do it after your heavy weights and you will feel the pain.

See this related article: http://www.ironsimba.co.uk/why-you-should-not-underestimate-lunges/

Leg extensions

Most if not all of us have done them. If your quads are not feeling stimulated enough by the squat, try pre-exhausting them with heavy sets of leg extensions. Don’t do the leg extensions as a warm-up but to failure so as to tire your quadriceps. When you next move to the squat or any squatting exercise, you will find that you don’t need to go heavy at all to get your quads heavily involved. In fact, you won’t even be able to go heavy. If you are limited in your squats because you don’t like to go heavy for fear of losing your balance or not being able to get up again, this technique works really well as you’ll be squatting with a light weight that will feel very heavy. That’s the best use of leg extensions I can find. Other than that, I don’t like the movement being dictated by the machine.

Stiff-leg deadlift

This exercise definitely won’t work your quads but it’s great for the hamstring and I prefer it to the leg curl machines out there. The stiff leg deadlift is a very difficult exercise to get right though in terms of technique and all too easily the lower back ends up doing all the heavy lifting literally. In order for you to place the emphasis on your hamstrings and not your back, bend at your hips and not the waist. Don’t bend the knees so you really stretch deeply your hamstrings. Also use your mind-muscle connection to concentrate on pulling back up with your hamstrings instead of your lower back. Don’t be afraid to really bend all the way down as much as you can – that’ll stretch your hamstrings even more. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t go all the way down. If the bar touches the floor too early, stand on a raised platform. Finally, it’s inevitable to recruit the lower back in this movement. Just try to minimise it.

 

So here are some of my favourite alternatives to the traditional squat exercise. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do, perhaps not the front squat which I included just to give you more choice.

Woman doing lunges

Why you should not underestimate lunges

Woman doing lunges

It’s a favourite among women who like to do stretches and floor exercises. Muscle-bound men shun it in favour of squatting and benching. But do not underestimate the power of lunges. Even those with well-developed legs will find it hard if done in a challenging way.

The basics

The lunge is a very simple exercise. Simply take one giant step forward, keeping the other leg behind, then lower yourself by bending at the leading knee. That’s it, you’ve done a lunge.

Watch out for your knee. To prevent long-term joint injury, ensure your leading knee is never in front of your foot. The lower leg should be vertically straight, not bent slightly forward.

Benefits of lunges

There are two advantages to the lunge. It works your glutes, quads and hamstrings but also gives you a good stretch, unlike many other exercises. If you have never done it before or not for a long time, take it easy at first as the stretch can make your legs very sore for the next few days.

Making it harder

There are several ways you could do this exercise. You could simply take one step after another forward, alternating each leg. If too easy, you could hold a dumbbell or weight plate in each hand. You could also place a barbell over your shoulders. This make you even less stable, which may or may not be a good thing.

You could also simply step forward and then back again, especially if you have little space. This version is slightly easier. Another variation involves the Smith machine. You take the lunge position underneath and then lower and raise yourself with the bar over your shoulder. Not the best version as you have very limited range of motion.

A very effective way to make the lunge much harder without handling heavier weight is to use a Swiss ball or a Bosu ball. With the Swiss ball, you place your rear leg over it, thus giving you less stability. In this case, you can only lower and raise yourself – limited range of motion again but you could also add a barbell over your shoulder. With the Bosu ball, you place it on the floor with the flat side facing up. Lunge forward, step on it and bend the knee, then step back again. You can hold dumbbells in your hands to make it harder.

Extreme lunges

The unstable Bosu ball makes this version very hard but you can make it even harder. In fact this is my favourite way of doing the lunge.

Do all your leg exercises first: squats, leg press, leg extensions and all then move on to the lunge using the Bosu ball. The lunge is already an unstable exercise and the Bosu ball makes it even harder to maintain equilibrium. By doing all your leg exercises first, your legs will be so tired that by the time you do the lunges you will find it extremely difficult to hold your balance. Hold some weight in your hands or a barbell over your shoulders to make it even harder.

To put the finishing touch, you could try running afterwards. Not for the faint-hearted!

Your legs should be shaking when you get out of the gym. Who said lunges were for wimps?

 

Image credit: Simi Valley Boot Camp

Deep squats in a squat cage

Top tips for squats

The squat is an essential exercise for anyone who is serious about weight-lifting. Although the squat is a fundamental Deep squats in a squat cagemovement, it is easy for beginners to get it wrong. Here are 11 top tips to get you in the right direction and make the most of this compound movement.

#1. Feet flat

A few people squat on the balls of their feet, lifting their heels off the ground. Often, they are unable to do otherwise or they would lose their balance. When you squat, your feet should be flat on the ground for maximum stability. To prevent your heels lifting off, adopt a wider stance, even a sumo squat if necessary. Alternatively, you can place weight discs under your heels. However, this is not as stable as the feet flat on the floor. Also, this new position will minutely place emphasis on your front quads. But if this what you want, you are better off doing front squats.

#2. Back arched

The back plays a crucial role in the squat as it transmits power from the thighs to raise the bar. A rounded back is a no-no at all times. Remember to keep a slight arch in your back as you bend your knees. Lean forward and push your chest out. This has the benefit of opening up your ribcage and allows you to take a deep breath. Don’t lean forward too much otherwise it will become a good morning exercise and with the weight, place way too much stress on your lower back.

#3. Weakest link

The squat is a compound exercise that involves many more muscles than just the quads. If any of these muscles become weaker than the rest, you will not be able to make any more progress. Just like in a chain, your squat is as good as its weakest link. If you have a weak lower back, it will hamper your progress. So you are advised to strengthen your weakest muscles.

#4. Pre-exhaustion

Conversely, your quadriceps may become so powerful that they are hardly tired in the squat because other muscles like the back give up first. In that case, pre-exhaust your quads in an isolation exercise like the leg extension. Then move on to the squat.

#5. Breathing

Breathing is crucial in the squat to get the most out of it. As with all other weight-lifting exercise, you breath out while exerting the effort. So when squatting, breath in as you lower yourself into position. Hold your breath as you push up and exhale forcefully as you go past the sticking point. Your breath plays an important role in keeping pressure in your abdomen and your core rigid. Sometimes you may have to catch your breath between two reps as the squat is such a demanding exercise.

#6. Head & knees

Look in front of you at all times. It not only helps you maintain your balance but also keeps your spinal cord aligned with your body.

Don’t lock out your knees at the top of the movement but keep them slightly bent to keep tension in your quads throughout.

#7. Knee alignment

I also see some people, especially those with pencil-thin legs, closing their knees together as they reach the bottom of the movement. Never do that because it creates shear forces on your knees and you could get a long-term injury. Always keep your knees pointing forwards or slightly outwards during the exercise. In fact, your knees should be aligned with your feet. If your feet are slightly pointed outwards, you don’t want to have your knees face inwards. This would mean your legs would be twisted.

#8. Feet width

Adopt a narrow stance to place emphasis on the vastus lateralis, the external part of the quads and a wider stance for more emphasis on the vastus medialis, the teardrop muscle on the other side of the quads. Or just place your feet in a position that is most comfortable to you. Note that the narrower your feet width, the less you will be able to lift.

#9. Your abs

Did you know that the squats work out your core muscles, including your abs? If you do heavy sets of squats, you might not need to do any ab exercises. In fact, with the extra calories burnt during the squat and the your metabolism still highly active afterwards, the squat is perhaps the best way to get a six pack!

#10. Go deep

Finally, don’t pile on the weight only to squat down by a few centimetres. If you don’t work your muscles their full range of motion, they will shorten and you will feel stiff and inflexible. You might have heard that going too deep can place too much stress on the knees. There is no clear consensus on this so to be safe, I go all the way down till my hamstrings touch my calves when warming up and with heavy weight, I go until my thighs are parallel to the floor.

#11. Onto the next level

To push yourself to the next level through plateau, load the bar with more weight than you can squat, unrack the bar and squat a few centimetres as I advised not to. This is does not count as a set or even a squat but merely to get your body used to handling very heavy weights and to know how it feels.

Image attribution: ironworkout.com

Squat for growth

Legs are perhaps one of the most neglected bodyparts among novice weight-lifters. Beginners tend to trains ‘showy muscles’ such as the biceps and the chest. It is also true that leg workouts are very taxing on the body, mainly because they constitute such a large group of muscles. For this very reason, neglecting to work the legs thoroughly means neglecting to work up to half the body. Fortunately, with a single exercise, the beginner is able to target his lower body. Welcome the squat.

Squatting for success

The squat is a compound exercise that targets principally the quadriceps and secondarily, not just the rest of the lower body but also the upper body, thus being incredibly a single whole-body exercise. How does it work the upper body when it is supposed to target the legs? It does because the upper body has to keep the bar balanced on top of the shoulders. Thus core muscles are recruited for stability. Additionally, the back muscles have to keep the torso rigid and hard in order to transfer the force from the legs to the loaded barbell. The core muscles and the chest assist in the function of keeping the torso rigid and stabilised.

How is the lower body being targeted? The principle function of the squat is to push the lower leg, the calves, away from the upper leg, the quadriceps. The bum muscles are also recruited to extend the hips into a vertical position. Thus most of the power in the squat comes from the quadriceps followed by the bum muscles. The hamstrings also assist as stabilisers.

Squat technique

To perform the squat, place a barbell on a support slightly lower than shoulder height. A power rack is ideal for this. Place yourself under the loaded bar such that it will rest comfortably on your shoulders whilst squatting. Wrap your arms around the bar from behind in order to keep it stable. Then lift up the bar by straightening your legs while keeping the tension in your back. Take a few steps forward in order to clear the support brackets and place your feet about shoulder width apart as your stance. Bend your knees and squat down while keeping your back flat. You will find that in order to keep your balance, you will have to bend your torso forward at the hips such that the bar lies vertically above your heels. This is absolutely normal and obeys the laws of physics.

In general, you lower yourself as far as your quads are parallel to the floor; any lower is supposed to place excess stress on the knee joints. However, if you are not lifting heavy, then you can squat as deep as you can without fear of injury. A full-motion exercise is also good to work the muscles thoroughly and will prevent them from shortening. Many people also squat deeply while using a heavy weight. It depends on you. You can always go deep while warming up and go until parallel during your last set or two.

Once at the bottom, take a deep breath and push hard with your heels. At the top of the exercise, do not lock out your knees before doing the next repetition. You don’t want to allow the weight to rest on your bones instead of on your muscles.

Squats are one of the best ways to build muscles. Keep squatting your way to success and do not be afraid of hard work.