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.
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.
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:
- there is no danger of the weight falling down or being stuck under it;
- no core muscles working to keep your balance throughout the movement and to keep a rigid torso;
- 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.
- 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.