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, all by using one machine.
A leg press workout 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?
Before you start learning about leg press positions and foot placement, let’s begin with a quick introduction to the leg press machine. If you are new to the gym, ask a staff member to direct you to the machine and show you how it works. Each machine should also include clear user instructions.
Different gyms offer different types of leg press machines (also called squat press machines). Some machines will have you sitting upright and pushing the platform out in front of you. These machines typically include a weight stack. The other common version of this machine will position you so that your back is close to the ground and the weight is above you. As you push the platform, you’ll push your legs up and out. This type of machine typically requires you to add weight plates to each side of the machine to increase resistance.
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.
- Unless performing calf raises (more on that later), make sure both feet are fully on the platform.
- Inhale as you bring the platform down and exhale as you push out.
- Perform slow, steady 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.
- Start with low weight or no weight to warm up your muscles and get a feel for the machine.
- When adding weight plates to the machine, always add the same amount of weight to both sides.
The Benefits of Using a Leg Press Machine
(And Why It Might Be Better Than Squatting for Some)
Leg press workouts have a lot going for them and can be a great choice for anyone looking for an alternative to squatting. Here are four of the biggest benefits of performing leg press exercises:
Get a Full Lower Body Workout
A leg press machine allows you to perform a compound movement that works your quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors. 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 a certain amount of mobility, balance, and coordination, which makes 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 forgiving. The machine takes balance and coordination out of the equation, making it a great way to introduce new gymgoers to the squat movement. (Here’s how to conquer your first day at the gym.)
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. For all these limitations, a leg press machine is an ideal substitute. The machine also takes a lot of pressure off the spine, making it a good option for some dealing with back pain as well.
Get 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. Those who wish 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 definition in their legs. The leg press machine is also ideal for anyone who wants to build serious muscle. By performing leg press variations, exercisers can emphasize different muscles and see noticeable growth and definition. To sum it up, the leg press machine is a great friend to all exercisers.
Leg Press Variations
How can you get the most out of your leg press workout? The answer is to experiment 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’s several options to get you started:
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.
Wide Stance Leg Press
Scoot your feet to shoulder-width apart or even a little wider and turn your toes out slightly. This wider stance will add more emphasis to your adductors, which are the muscles of your inner thighs. Adductors help stabilize the hip joint and allow you to pull your legs together.
Narrow Stance Leg Press
To help balance the strength of your inner and outer thighs, you’ll also want to work your abductors, which are the muscles on the outside of your quads. As you might imagine, your abductor muscles allow you to move your legs outward, such as when you sidestep. They are essential to hip and core stability. Strong abductors may even help relieve certain types of back, hip, and knee pain. (Got back pain? Try these eight stretches for back pain relief.)
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 these leg press exercises.
High Stance Leg Press
Looking to sculpt your booty? Then 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. Whenever you can’t make it to the gym, you can still tighten your backside with this at-home glute workout.
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 substitution for squats. However, low stance foot placement increases the range of motion of the knees, so if you are experiencing knee pain, you might want to skip this variation.
Calf Work Variation
While the leg press machine is great at working the major muscles of your legs, what about your calf 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 give your calves a workout:
- 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 most of the way but keep a slight bend in your knees so that they don’t lock.
- Use your calf muscles to press the platform up.
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.
If you want to work your inner calves, turn your toes outward. To emphasize your outer calves, turn your toes inward.
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 using the leg press machine. Start with a light weight and a 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 your non-dominant leg until you build up equal strength.
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. Consider switching up your leg press positions every so often. 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? By continually shifting your position on the leg press machine and gradually increasing the resistance over time, your body will keep adapting, and you’ll enjoy a strong and well-toned lower body.
Ready to give these leg press variations a try? Sign up for an EōS Fitness Complimentary 7-Day Pass at your nearest EōS Fitness location.