Is the Leg Press Worthless?
We've all done them, exercises the experts have deemed either utterly worthless or the quickest way to ripping, tearing, or demolishing yourself.
The list is expansive and growing. Overhead presses, bench presses, lateral raises, good mornings, ab crunches, and biceps curls have all at one time graced experts' lists as being as useless as tits on a bull.
Recently, the lowly leg press has been heckled, abused, and battered like the New England Patriots receiving corps by a post-Super Bowl Mrs. Tom Brady.
Just look at it over there, in the corner of the gym, hulking away and taking up valuable real estate that could otherwise be used to perform some kind of lunge matrix or foam rolling. Look at how un-functional it is; you just sit and push! There's no way it can be good for anything.
Not so fast. While there are studies galore that demonstrate squats are better for athletic development compared to the leg press, there's evidence suggesting that for developing muscular hypertrophy, raw strength, and bottom range of motion power (to name a few), the leg press may be more valuable than we've been led to believe.
Uncommon Benefits of Leg Presses
The level of difficulty of performing a good, strong squat is almost tenfold to that of a leg press. The heavier the weight becomes, the more precise the lift mechanics become, meaning that everything from foot position to weight balance to scapular positioning plays a huge role.
This level of difficulty isn't the case with the leg press, meaning it's easier for beginners to learn and can work with a full spectrum of individuals, from rehab to advanced. It's also a lot easier to perform dropsets, pyramids, rest-pause sets, and eccentric-emphasis sets compared to squats.
When training rehab-based clients, the leg press is fantastic for grooving the triple extension pattern using a fraction of their own body weight. I can have a client fresh off a total knee replacement performing a single-leg press with 10% of his body weight in a controlled manner, which will help to retrain the hip and knee musculature to fire together and limit the stresses on the new joint. I can also take a more advanced client and load up a single-leg press to a point where they can only perform one or two reps with full range of motion.
Another benefit is developing bottom range strength in the hips, such as when the hip is flexed to terminal range of motion. The hip range of motion during a squat is typically from zero degrees of flexion to only around 90-120 degrees, depending on the mobility of the lifter, whereas the range of motion during the leg press is typically between 90 degrees at the top of the movement to 120-150 degrees at the bottom, again depending on the mobility of the lifter.
This means that a completely different range of motion is being trained for the hip joint, so that if you rotate between squats and the leg press, the hip is being trained through a more complete range of motion than one or the other.
Rather than simply throwing out ideas about why the leg press may be beneficial, let's break down some of the common arguments against the leg press and where a different approach could come in handy.
Argument #1: It's a fixed plane of motion with little stabilization required.
Granted, sitting in a machine and pressing a fixed sled that will only move through one path to the top of the movement is limited compared to the potential of a barbell squat or a single-leg squat to create dynamic equilibrium through all three planes of motion.
But if the goal is to maximize muscular development, then the stability requirements should be minimal to get maximal muscle activation with maximal loading possible. This means that for building muscle, the leg press is optimal.
Reducing stability, even slightly, can drastically affect the amount of weight that can be lifted, which alters the muscles mechanical adaptation, hormonal development, and force production capacity of the working segments.
Let's imagine the squat is neutral in the stability continuum with squatting on a wobble board at one extreme and the leg press at the other. As stability reduces, so too does force production capability, which means that as you progress from a basic squat to an unstable surface, you limit the amount of external load you can use.
Likewise, as stability increases, the greater the weight you can move, which affects hypertrophy, strength development, and all around swole-ification. This is another reason you can see clips of Ronnie Coleman leg pressing over two thousand pounds, but the world record in the squat isn't anywhere near that much.
Argument #2: It's not a functional movement.
I'd argue that placing a barbell on your shoulders and performing multiple deep knee bends isn't exactly "functional" either, unless the desired functional improvement is to get better at squatting.
If we look at the basis of what exercises could be considered functional, a key criteria for the legs is if it contains an element of triple extension, meaning the hips, knees, and ankles all go through concurrent flexion and extension during the movement. The leg press satisfies this.
Argument #3: There's no benefit other than pushing huge weights.
As cool as it is to move stupidly heavy things from one point to another, there has to be more than just the giddy thrill of pushing a Buick with your feet. That said, anyone who has ever done a set of heavy or high-rep leg pressing knows that you definitely wind up working your heart and blood vessels.
In a study performed at the University of Alberta (my alma mater), researchers threaded intra-arterial pressure tip catheters into the descending aorta to measure left ventricular blood pressure during submaximal and maximal leg press with a brief Valsalva maneuver to see how high the subjects blood pressure could get. In other words, they measured blood pressure at the level of blood exiting the heart, during maximal leg pressing.
The researchers found that systolic pressure doubled, and diastolic pressure was on average 2.5 times higher than at rest. This differs from cardio-based exercise, where diastolic pressure barely increases, if at all.
What this means is that there's minimal to no pressure difference between a systolic and diastolic pressure, meaning blood is being "squeezed" by the blood vessel in between the pressure exerted by the heart and the relative back pressure exerted by the working muscles.
To overcome that resistance, the smooth muscles of the veins have to bust their ass to push harder, effectively making your blood vessels dieseled out way more than the dude who just ran a marathon on the treadmill.
How to Work It In
So let's say you're looking to use the leg press for three common goals:
- Increasing your squat
- Increasing your deadlift
- Increasing lean muscle mass
Each goal will require slight variations in technique and execution to get the maximum benefit possible.
Let's start with the squat, since it has the highest carry-over. The movement pattern of the squat, beginning with the weight loaded and at full triple extension, moving into flexion and then returning to the start, can be mimicked with the movement of the leg press from the starting position.
Set your feet close to the same width that you'd use with a squat. Make sure your low back is tensed to prevent your lumbar spine from rolling into flexion as the weight is lowered.
Let's look at a typical 3-day per week squat program:
Day One: 6 x3 @ 80% 1RM
Day Two: 2 x10; 2 x3; 2 x1
Day Three: 4 x5 (for speed) @ 70% 1RM
There's a million other variations of course, but you get the idea.
For one cycle of training, substitute the same workload from one day each week of squat work for the leg press. For instance, in week one, substitute the leg press on day one, in week two sub it for day two, and in week three sub it for day three.
The deadlift movement pattern is different from the squat as the weight begins with the body in a fully flexed position and moves into extension. This can be replicated on most leg press machines by setting the sled at the bottom of the range, on the safety pins if your machine has them. See the image below:
By lowering the sled onto the supports, it lets you closely mimic the movement of the deadlift.
This starting position can give you the full benefit of a concentric movement pattern without the eccentric loading found in the typical execution of the deadlift.
Now following a similar program as outlined with the squat, we could set it up like this:
Day One: 8 x3 reps @ 85% 1 RM
Day Two: 2 x10; 2 x3; 2 x1
Day Three: 4 x5 reps @ 60% 1RM
Start by substituting the leg press for the deadlift one day a week.
For developing muscle hypertrophy, the leg press allows you to do some really cool things such as drop sets, cluster sets, eccentric overloads, and high rep sets, all of which make you question your sanity just a little bit during the sets.
Drop sets involve doing maximum reps at a given weight, having a partner strip off a plate or two, and doing as many reps as possible before stripping off another plate or two. This continues until the sled is empty or your Fruit of the Looms resemble a gastrointestinal Rorschach test; whichever occurs first.
Cluster sets are performing 1 or 2 reps with about 90-95% of your 1RM, racking the weight, resting 20 seconds, and then performing another "cluster" for about 10 or 12 reps of total volume. This allows you to extend a set beyond your normal capacities while keeping the relative intensity high.
Eccentric overload sets require a partner to provide additional resistance by leaning on the machine during an extended 3-5 second eccentric phase, then releasing before you drive the weight up through the concentric phase.
This requires a partner or spotter with at least a few functioning brain cells; if you're stuck with someone who's more interested in watching his swole biceps as he pushes the loaded sled up into your nostrils, then just stick with the other versions.
It must be noted that any of these workouts should only be performed when you have absolutely no need to use your legs for the next three days, or at the very least when you have a wheel chair available to get around.
My dad and two brothers spent a lot of time in our family garage taking apart cars and putting them back together. As a result, I learned how to rebuild carburetors and strip engines and so forth.
One thing that I learned was that each tool in the garage had one or possibly two specific uses, and that you used the right tools for the right jobs. Sure, you could use a chisel to open a can of paint, but it didn't make the best use of the tool.
Each piece of exercise equipment is a tool, just like all the tools in the garage. They have specific uses and situations where they work best. A leg press is better than a squat for some things and not for others. In the meantime, split the difference and use them both where applicable.
Haykowsky et al. (2001). Left Ventricular Wall Stress During Leg Press Performed with a Brief Valsalva Maneuver. Chest vol 119, no 1, pp150-154
Escamilla et al. (2001). Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Sep;33(9):1552-66.
Macaw & Melrose (1999) Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 428-436