To Leg Press or Not To Leg Press?

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The Leg Press – evil gym equipment or mis-understood good guy of the gym?

The leg press machine gets a lot of hate.

The leg press machine in use at the gym by a bodybuilder
The leg press – object of hate. The mere mention of the name conjures up images of a muscle bound oaf screaming as he moves 1,200 lbs through a 1.5″ range of motion.

And some of it is warranted, because people do a lot of dumb things with the leg press machine.

First of all, it’s easy to do a lot of weight in the leg press.

Surely you’ve seen the local gym buffoon using every 45lb plate in the area to load up the machine.

Why is it so easy?

Well, first of all – we’re talking the 45 degree leg machine.

45 degree monster leg press and hack squat combo machine from force USA
The 45 degree leg press machine. You are pushing weight at a 45 degree angle – so it’s not as much work. That’s why you can load it up so much.

That takes a good deal of the load off – it’s not like you are lifting that amount of weight up and down.

Secondly, the leg press machine makes it really easy to use a micro range of motion.

1,200lb leg press? Sure – but what’s the range of motion? 2 inches?

This is also a problem when it comes time to unload the machine.

Or rather, to not unload – as the case may be.

The local gym buffoon is the guy (or gal – well guy – it’s usually a guy) that loads up all those plates , then leaves them all there.

People also don’t like it because you are sitting down. To work out – it doesn’t seem appropriate.

Leg press machine in use at the gym
Leg Press – you get to sit down. Which seems lazy – but this ensures your weak upper body and lower back isn’t a limiting factor.

But the leg press is a tool – just like any other equipment in the gym.

You can do dumb things with any piece of equipment – including the squat rack.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Let’s understand where the leg press is useful , and use it to our advantage.

We’ll start with the most common use for the leg press machine – hypertrophy.

What’s hypertrophy? That’s big muscle growth.

You know – bodybuilding.

Bodybuilders know what builds big muscle – it’s very high reps with medium amounts of weight.

Woman performing dumbbell rows in the gym
Bodybuilders know what makes big muscles (hypertrophy) – Medium weights for high reps and lots of “tension.”

Think 70% or 80% of your 1RM for 12-15 reps – or even as high as 20 reps for a leg workout.

That’s the kind of workout that builds and maintains pure muscular size.

Andy why is it that these higher sets with lesser weight seem to be so good at building big muscles?

Honestly, nobody knows for sure.

But, the leading theory is that it’s the Time Under Tension (TUT) that leads to this growth.

And this explains why heavy weights aren’t as good for hypertrophy – you can’t perform enough reps to get the “time” needed.

It also explains why light weights don’t work – there’s not enough “tension”.

Here’s another fact – bodybuilders often train with continuous tension.

They don’t lock out at the top or the bottom of a movement.

Why? Again – they are seeking that time under tension.

Think about the leg press at the top – when you lock your knees out – all the tension in your muscle is gone.

At that point, it’s just bone, tendon, and ligament supporting 90% of the weight.

So – the leg press machine is a fantastic tool for hypertrophy training of the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

It’s safe – there are catches so you don’t get stuck under the weight.

And you’re grip, back, or anything else besides your legs is not going to be a weak link.

And in my mind – that’s the number one reason to use the leg press machine – for the pure hypertrophy that it enables.

By the way – it’s also great for calf raises – for all the same reasons.

Load up the weight and use a 2″ or 3″ range of motion by flexing your calves only.

This is much better than the standing calf raise machine (or the seated version).

Why? Because in either case you can load up way more weight. The seated machine simply doesn’t allow enough to be loaded and the standing calf raise machine – it’s simply too painful on your traps and shoulders.

So reason #2 – the leg press is a calf blasting machine without equal.

The leg press is also a great way to keep your major muscle mass working through injury or other limitation.

Bulging disc in your back?

Squats and deadlifts are probably verboten.

Woman performing barbell back squat in the gym
The barbell back squat is a great exercise – if you can do it. If you can’t – finding another exercise that uses as much muscle mass intensively is a challenge.

You know who else can’t squat with a barbell on their back?

People with chronic or acute shoulder issues.

People who have had torn rotator cuffs and other injuries sometimes don’t regain the range of motion they’ve had previously.

After all, not everyone can afford surgery.

How can you workout your legs if you can’t hoist weight on your shoulders or elsewhere?

Use the Leg Press – it’s so obvious!

And so that’s reason #3 – the leg press is a great option for those rehabilitating an injury – or trying to avoid excessive de-training meanwhile.

Here’s another thing we like about the leg press machine – it’s great for unilateral exercise.

That means exercising one limb at a time.

Woman performing the single leg (unilateral) leg press
The leg press can be used for unilateral exercise – in this case only the left leg is being trained – probably to correct a muscular imbalance.

You may not realize it – but just like your arms, you probably have a weak leg and a strong leg.

You can try and “catch up” the weak leg with lots of single leg exercise.

Some of these things are hard and some are easy – but most require some semblance of balance.

The leg press machine can be used to work out your legs in a unilateral fashion – with a minimum of balance and flexibility needed.

For example, the pistol squat is a great single leg workout.

But, good luck doing one of those.

Pistol squat (one-legged squat) performed with a kettlebell
The pistol squat is a great theoretical one-legged (unilateral) exercise. Few people will be able to do this.

We’re not saying being able to do a full ROM (Range of Motion) pistol squat isn’t an admirable goal – it is.

But at some point you have to pick your battles – What is it you want? Stronger and bigger legs? Or dozens of hours mastering an obscure move?

Ok, so reason #4 is unilateral exercise.

Isolation exercises catch a lot of flak – and for good reason – they aren’t that useful.

What’s an isolation exercise? Things like the leg curl machine – which uses strictly your hamstrings.

The leg extension is another example – it isolates the use of quadriceps muscle – and doesn’t really use any glute, hamstring, or calf.

Leg extension machine in use at the gym
The leg extension machine is not recommended. It’s a single joint isolation exercise that places too much shearing stress on the knee.

And that’s bad – because the so-called compound movements of the body are really how things are meant to work.

Leg curl machine in use at the gym
The leg curl machine is no better. Sure, it looks GREAT, but it’s not effective at building strength or muscle – because it’s single joint movement.

This is the big argument in favor of the squat, the deadlift, and more.

And we are fully on board with that.

But given the other situations we’ve outlined above – don’t discount the leg press.

It uses most of that muscle mass too!

Think about it – a heavy leg press will utilize your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Don’t think so?

Try this – put your feet way high up on the foot plate of the leg press.

Viola – you have a good hamstring workout.

Leg press machine in use
You can vary your foot position on the leg press foot plate to recruit more hamstrings (higher) or more quads (lower.)

Put your feet at the bottom of the foot plate for more quad emphasis.

Reason #5 – the leg press uses a lot of muscle.

Here’s one more practical and logistical reason to use the leg press.

Damn near every gym ever in existence has one or more of these machines.

They are easy to find – and a very safe machine as well.

The Leg Press – In Summary

The leg press machine is a tool in your toolbox.

Just like you wouldn’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver – don’t use the tool for the wrong purposes.

Understand what it’s strengths are and utilize those things to your advantage.

While the leg press isn’t as good as the squat or deadlift for strength building – it is far superior to the leg extension, leg curl, and other isolation exercises.

Leg press machine - useful implement of the gym
Who says the leg press isn’t sexy?

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