You may have heard that squats are the best lower body exercise of all time, but what if you don’t feel comfortable squatting or have physical limitations that make squatting a challenge? Should you give up on getting a total lower body workout? Of course not! Instead, head on over to the leg press machine at your local gym. If squatting is the best lower body exercise, leg presses are a close second.
By performing leg press variations, you can tighten, tone, and build all the major muscles of your lower body with just one machine. Altogether, leg press exercises will give you a strong and powerful lower body. Here’s everything you need to know about how to get a total lower body workout with leg press variations.
WHAT IS A LEG PRESS MACHINE?
The leg press machine is one of the most common forms of equipment in the gym and is a great addition to leg day. The leg press features a seat to position your body and a flat platform for your feet, which you push away from your body by extending your legs, activating your leg muscles.
Different gyms offer different types of leg press machines (also called squat press machines). Some machines will have you sit upright and push the platform out in front of you. These machines typically include a weight stack.
The other common version of the leg press machine will position you so that your back is close to the ground and the weight is angled above you. As you push the platform, you’ll push your legs up and out against gravity. This type of machine typically requires you to add weight plates to each side of the machine to increase resistance.
If you are new to the gym, ask a Team Member to direct you to the machine and show you how it works. Each machine should also include clear user instructions.
HOW TO USE THE LEG PRESS MACHINE
Regardless of which type of machine you use, the mechanics are similar. By placing your feet on the platform and pushing it away from your body, you’ll mimic the movement of a squat and activate your lower body muscles.
Here are some helpful tips on using the best leg press form and technique:
- Keep your back flat against the pad of the machine throughout the exercise.
- Make sure both feet are fully on the platform.
- Start with low weight or no weight to warm up your muscles and get a feel for the machine.
- Inhale as you bring the platform down and exhale as you push out through your heels.
- Perform slow, steady, and controlled reps. Don’t “bang out” reps by trying to press out as fast as possible.
- Control the descent of the platform. Don’t let it drop.
- Keep your knees slightly bent at the extension of each rep. Don’t lock your knees.
- When adding weight plates to the machine, always add the same amount of weight to both sides.
TARGETED LEG PRESS MUSCLES
There is no secret that leg press exercises target the muscles in your lower half and help you build a strong foundation. Of course, different leg press variations target some muscles more than others, but the standard leg press works nearly all the muscle groups in your legs. The key leg press muscles worked are the:
- Hip adductors
- Hip abductors
- Calf muscles
In addition to strengthening each of the above muscle groups, leg press workouts also help to strengthen your knee and hip joints. By minimizing the stress on your lower back, leg press workouts offer many benefits with few drawbacks.
THE BENEFITS OF USING A LEG PRESS MACHINE
(And Why It Might Be Better Than Squatting for Some)
Leg press workouts have many benefits to offer and can be a great choice for anyone looking for an alternative to squatting or a strong supplement to squats. Here are four of the biggest benefits of incorporating leg press exercises into your routine.
PROVIDES A FULL LOWER BODY WORKOUT
A leg press machine allows you to perform a compound movement that works all the major muscle groups in your legs. These are some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body. You can even work your calves by changing your leg press foot position as we explain below. (Here are some other ways to strengthen the largest muscles in the body.)
Squats require mobility, balance, and coordination, which can make them tricky for beginners to perform properly. (Want to learn how to squat? Here’s a detailed guide on how to master the squat.) The leg press position, on the other hand, is easy to learn and much more forgiving while targeting the same muscles.
GREAT FOR THOSE WITH MOBILITY CHALLENGES
Individuals with poor hip, knee, and/or ankle flexibility may struggle to perform squats. Others with balance or mobility challenges may not be able to squat safely, so a leg press exercise is an ideal substitute. The machine also takes a lot of pressure off the spine, making it a good option for those struggling with back pain.
OFFERS THE RESULTS YOU WANT
One of the most beautiful things about the leg press machine is that you can get out of it what you want, depending on your fitness goals. Those working to lose weight will appreciate the fact that the machine works the largest muscles of the body, which can result in a higher overall calorie burn. Those looking for lower body tone can stick with high reps at a lower weight to see more definition in their legs.
The leg press machine is also great for anyone who wants to build serious muscle. By performing leg press variations, exercisers can emphasize different muscles and see noticeable growth and definition. Altogether, the leg press machine is a friend to all fitness lovers.
LEG PRESS VARIATIONS
Over time, your body adapts to performing the same workout repeatedly. Continuously varying your workouts helps to push your muscles the extra mile and drive more progress. That said, you can get the most out of your leg press workout by experimenting with different leg press variations. By switching up your leg press foot placement, you can emphasize different lower body muscles and different portions of those muscles. Here are a few leg press exercises to get you started:
1. STANDARD LEG PRESS STANCE
A great way to begin your experience with a leg press machine is to use the standard foot placement. Set your legs hip-width apart on the platform. This stance emphasizes overall leg development and will hit your glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
2. WIDE-STANCE LEG PRESS
For this alternative leg press exercise, scoot your feet to shoulder-width apart, or even a little wider, and turn your toes out slightly. This wider stance will emphasize your inner quad muscles and hip adductors, the muscles in your inner thighs. Adductors help stabilize the hip joint and allow you to pull your legs together.
3. NARROW-STANCE LEG PRESS
To help balance the strength of your inner and outer thighs, you’ll also want to work your abductors, the muscles on the outside of your quads. Your abductor muscles allow you to move your legs outward, like when you sidestep, and are essential to hip and core stability. Strong abductors may even help relieve back pain, as well as hip and knee pain.
To work your abductors and outer quads, move your feet into a narrow stance. Your feet should only be slightly apart, with your toes facing outward or straight forward. This stance does require some stabilization, so you may want to hold onto the handles of the machine while performing this leg press exercise.
4. HIGH-STANCE LEG PRESS
Looking to sculpt your booty? Scooch your feet toward the top of the platform (rather than in the center). You’ll notice that this higher placement allows you to better engage your hamstrings and your glutes during your reps. The high-stance leg press is a good substitution for deadlifts, especially if you are experiencing back or hip pain.
5. LOW-STANCE FOOT PLACEMENT
Just as placing your feet higher on the leg press platform emphasizes your backside, lowering your feet toward the bottom of the platform will place more emphasis on your quads. This position is a good substitute for squats. However, low-stance foot placement increases the range of motion of the knees, so if you experience knee pain, you might want to skip this variation.
6. CALF WORK VARIATION
While a standard leg press workout can help tone your calves, this variation can help you build muscle mass in these muscles. This ball of muscle at the bottom of your leg helps you push off the ground and is crucial for running, jumping, and sprinting.
To work your calves in a leg press exercise:
- Move your feet to the very bottom of the leg press platform. Keeping the balls of your feet on the platform, let your heels hang off the platform.
- Straighten your legs while keeping a slight bend in your knees so that they don’t lock.
- Use your calf muscles to press the platform up.
- Repeat for 10-15 reps
The movement will be slight, but after a few reps, you should begin to feel the burn in your calves. Make sure the weight on the machine is very light since your calves are not nearly as strong as your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
To work your inner calves, turn your toes outward. To target your outer calves, turn your toes inward.
7. SINGLE-LEG STANCE
Almost everyone has a dominant and non-dominant leg. In exercises that use both legs, the dominant leg may compensate for the less dominant one. Over time, this imbalance can increase your risk of injury or slow down your overall progress. To address muscle imbalances, consider trying single-leg presses, working one leg at a time in a simple leg press exercise.
Start with a light weight and standard foot placement. Use the same weight and rep structures on both legs. You’ll likely notice that one leg is stronger than the other. Practice a single leg press with each leg at the same weight until you build up equal strength in both legs.
INTEGRATING LEG PRESS VARIATIONS INTO YOUR WORKOUTS
The humble leg press machine is far more dynamic than many people realize. By shifting your leg press foot placement, you can work your lower body in many different ways. Constant variation is the key to seeing continual results in the gym. Did you use the standard stance last week? Go for the wide stance this week. Or, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, how about a wide-high stance?
At EōS Fitness, we have the leg press machines to help you get started. Need help making the most of your leg press workouts? Connect with a Personal Trainer at any EōS Fitness location for some guidance.