You likely already know this, but the leg press machine is incredibly popular that you practically require a reservation to secure a few sets on it when you go to the gym for leg day. It’s a go-to for gym beginners and experienced muscleheads alike, and for valid reason: The leg press machine presents some significant advantages.
The leg press “is a potent compound lower-body exercise that targets your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and more,” says Thanu Jey, D.C., C.S.C.S., clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic. “It helps develop strength in the movement of extending your knees and hips,” he adds.
With two types of leg press machines accessible at many gyms (and various ways to utilize them), though, you might not be utilizing these equipment to their maximum potential. Here’s what you need to know to alter that.
The Two Varieties of Leg Press Machines
Most larger gyms have two distinct leg press machines: an inclined leg press machine that you’ll find with the free weights (such as barbells and dumbbells) and a horizontal cable leg press machine that you’ll find with the cable weight machines.
The Incline Leg Press
With the inclined leg press machine, you sit in a low, reclined seat with your feet pressed up against a raised platform. You can add weight plates to the platform to adjust the resistance and make it more demanding to push the platform up and away from you. In an inclined leg press, you push against gravity, which mimics functional, machine-free movements you use in the real world, says Adeeb Khalfe, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Evolution in Dallas.
A major advantage of the inclined leg press is that it enables you to add a lot of weight, making it an excellent tool for more advanced exercisers, says Khalfe. However, because your body is positioned below the weight, the inclined leg press places more load on your spine, heightening your risk for injury if you don’t use the machine properly. (Not to mention, loading and unloading plates from the machine can be a hassle.)
The Horizontal Cable Leg Press
With the horizontal cable leg press, you sit with your feet pressed against a platform at the same height as your torso. This type of leg press typically features a cable-rigged weight stack that you can use to easily select your desired weight without getting up out of your seat.
Since you’re working against the resistance you’ve chosen on the machine’s pulley system (and not gravity), the horizontal leg press has less functional benefit than the inclined, according to Khalfe. However, this type of leg press machine is less intimidating for beginners, and also allows you to make adjustments to your weight — although your options are more limited — more quickly than the inclined machine, he says.
How to Utilize the Leg Press Machine
To make use of either variation of the leg press machine, choose a weight that you can lift safely for your desired number of repetitions. (You can always begin with a lighter weight and increase it if it proves to be too easy.) Situate yourself with your back and head flush against the seat, and position your feet at a distance equivalent to the width of your shoulders on the center of the platform, according to Jey. Keep your feet in a neutral position, meaning that your toes align directly above your heels.
While keeping your core muscles contracted, ensure that your glutes remain firmly seated, and maintain a straight posture against the backrest. Push through your feet (equally distributed through your toes and heels, as advised by Jey) to exert force against the leg press platform, moving it away from you and straightening your knees. When your legs are fully extended (but not completely locked), pause briefly. Then, gradually and cautiously bend your knees to return the platform back to its initial position. Avoid rushing through the movement, and keep your feet securely planted on the platform at all times.
The Advantages of the Leg Press Machine
“The leg press machine is highly effective in developing the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, and even the calf muscles,” states Khalfe. Due to the controlled motion associated with this machine, it is generally considered safe for beginners who are new to or apprehensive about using free weights, he explains. Additionally, since no spotter is necessary, it is also a suitable choice for individuals who prefer training their legs alone. Just ensure that you employ the safety bars on the inclined leg press to prevent the weight from sliding down in case you overestimate your capacity or your foot slips.
Moreover, given that the leg press primarily targets the lower body, it proves to be an excellent option for individuals with back or shoulder injuries seeking to fortify their legs. Khalfe suggests that you can even perform repetitions utilizing only one leg to enhance strength in individual legs without the need to worry about maintaining balance. (Furthermore, you can also obtain all these additional benefits of strength training by lifting weights.)
The Drawbacks of the Leg Press Machine
Despite aiding in the development of leg strength, the leg press machine does not fully simulate real-life movements in the same way that squats or lunges do, according to Jey. The inclined press bears a slightly greater resemblance to functional exercises than the horizontal press because it necessitates working against gravity, similar to standing exercises. However, in reality, you will most likely never find yourself needing to exert force against a substantial weight with your feet while in a seated position.
Furthermore, standing exercises like squats and lunges engage your core to a greater extent compared to the leg press, as they require balance, explains Khalfe. (And having a strong core is crucial for numerous reasons.) Therefore, the leg press machine undeniably holds a place in your workout routine, as long as it is not the sole lower-body exercise in your repertoire.
Common Leg Press Machine Errors
When you step onto the leg press machine, be cautious of a couple of technique errors that can affect your results and increase the risk of injury.
- Raising your buttocks off the seat: Although you may feel inclined to lift your buttocks off the seat when pushing a heavy weight, refrain from doing so. This amplifies the pressure applied to your knees during the movement, as mentioned by Khalfe.
- Assisting your leg push with your hands: Another frequent cheating method people resort to when the weight becomes heavy is using their hands on their thighs to aid in pushing their legs. While this may not necessarily be dangerous, it ultimately undermines your progress in leg strength by reducing the strain on your leg muscles, explains Khalfe.
- Locking your knees at the top of each repetition: “One of the biggest mistakes I observe is individuals loading up the leg press with weight and then locking their knees at the end of each repetition,” states Khalfe. This shifts the tension away from your quads and onto your actual knee joint, which sets the stage for discomfort and injury.
- Arching your back off the seat: Even though it may be challenging to keep your back completely flat against the seat throughout your repetitions, arching your back on the leg press machine increases the strain on your lower back, according to Khalfe.
close up of woman’s feet on leg press machine foot placement.
How to Maximize Your Results with the Leg Press Machine
One of the significant advantages of the leg press machine is that adjusting your foot placement (also known as stance width and foot elevation) can alter the muscles emphasized in the movement. While the neutral position, with your feet hip-width apart, targets your glutes and leg muscles evenly, assuming a wider sumo stance (with slightly outward-pointing feet) activates your inner upper thighs and quads, whereas a narrower stance focuses more on your outer quads, states Khalfe.
Additionally, the height at which you position your feet on the platform also shifts the focus: elevating your feet increases the emphasis on your hamstrings and glutes, whereas placing them lower targets your quads, adds Khalfe. (For more information on how to activate dormant glute muscles.)
Machine-Free Alternatives to the Leg Press
Certainly, if you wish to enjoy the strength-building benefits of the leg press without using the machine, it is perfectly viable.
Besides stimulating your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, engaging in other effective leg day exercises like squats, lunges, and calf raises also aid in developing core strength, balance, and stability, as stated by Khalfe.
These actions are additionally more practical and enhance your body for everyday duties, such as ascending steps.
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