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How to Do a Leg Press

STORY AT-A-GLANCE:

  • The leg press is a resistance exercise, which is a workout designed to improve strength, muscle tone, mass and endurance by making the muscles contract against external resistance
  • To perform a leg press, you push a weighted platform upward until your legs are fully extended, then bend your knees to return to the starting position
  • The leg press is ideal for beginners, as it provides an easier form and safer range of movement

The leg press is a type of leg workout that not only may help keep your upper and lower body sections proportionate to each other, but also will help you build muscles, burn calories and reduce the risk for injury.1

Studies also show that exercising your lower body regularly may help improve your brain and nervous system health.2,3 Continue reading to learn more about the potential benefits and drawbacks of leg presses, their different variations and the proper way to perform them using the right equipment.

What Is a Leg Press?

A leg press is a resistance exercise, which is a workout designed to help improve strength, muscle tone, mass and endurance by making the muscles contract against external resistance.4 In the case of the leg press, the resistance is present in the form of weights added to the machine.

To perform a leg press, you push the weighted platform upward until your legs are fully extended while you’re sitting on the leg press machine. Since the leg press involves a limited fixed range of movement, it’s ideal for beginners and individuals recovering from a knee injury.5,6

What Muscles Does the Leg Press Work?

The leg press targets the following muscle groups in the lower body:7

Quadriceps — The quadriceps are the muscles located on your front thighs. They’re responsible for straightening and bending your knee, as well as flexing your hip. They’re composed of the vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis and rectus femoris.8

Gluteal muscles — Also called the “glutes,” this group of muscles located on your buttocks consist of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. They’re responsible for moving your hip and helping with knee movement.9

Hamstring muscles — This group of muscles is found at the back of your thighs, starting from the pelvis and running down to your lower leg. The three hamstring muscles are semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris. They straighten your hips and allow your knees to bend.10,11

Calves — Calves consist of two muscles: gastrocnemius and soleus. These two muscles merge with the Achilles tendon and are inserted into the heel bone. When you’re running, walking or jumping, your calf muscles are responsible for pulling your heel up to allow forward movement.12

How to Do a Leg Press

If you’re wondering how to perform a leg press properly, follow this procedure for a standard seated leg press using a leg press machine:13,14,15

1. Load the machine with the right amount of weights. If you’re not sure how much weight should be placed, ask a fitness professional.

2.  Sit down on the leg press machine and place your feet on the platform in front of you, making sure they’re shoulder-width apart.

3.  Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle, and put your back and hips flat against the seat. This is your starting position.

4.  Slowly push the platform until your legs are fully extended, making sure not to lock your knees.

5.  Return to the starting position and repeat the steps to do multiple reps.

4 Leg Press Alternatives You Can Try

If you’re looking for other exercises that target the same muscles as the leg press, here are alternatives you can try:

Squats — The movements involved in squats are similar to the movements in a leg press. However, squats activate more muscles, strengthen your core and improve your balance.16 Here’s how they’re done:17

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and point your toes straight ahead.

2. Slowly squat down until your legs are parallel to the ground. Keep your back straight and your knees over your ankles. Hold this stance for a second or two.

3. Press through your heels as you stand up. Keep your legs straight but relaxed.

Lunges — This type of compound exercise targets your glutes, legs and hips. It may also help improve your balance and flexibility. Follow these steps to do lunges properly:18

1. Step forward with one leg, and then lower your hips until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.

2. Keep your front knee on a straight line, so it’s above your ankle instead of pushed out in front of it. Try to keep your back knee from touching the ground as well.

3. Push back up to the starting position through your heels. Always keep your core engaged, your back straight, your shoulders relaxed and your chin up throughout the movements.

Broad jumps — As with a leg press, broad jumps also work your quads, hamstring muscles and calves, along with your hip flexors. Here’s the proper way to do this workout:19

1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms up in the air.

2. Swing your arms behind your body as you bend your knees and push your hips backward to propel your body off the ground.

3. Land on your feet and reassume your starting position.

Glute bridge — This exercise targets your glutes and hamstrings. Here’s how it’s done:20

1. Lie on your back, bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the ground. Put your arms at your sides, palms down.

2. Tighten your glutes and keep your abs drawn in, then lift your hips off the ground until your shoulders, hips and knees form a straight line.

3. Pause for a couple of seconds before lowering back down to your starting position.

2 Types of Leg Press Machines

There are two common types of leg press machines that you’ll likely encounter in gyms:

Inclined leg press machine — With this type of leg press machine, you’re seated at an angle that puts your feet and the platform higher than your head. This allows for a more stable back position and a safer range of motion. If you’re unsure of how to use this type of machine, follow this procedure:21

1. Load the machine with weight plates.

2. Sit on the machine and put your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform. Adjust the seat until your knees form a 90-degree angle.

3. Push the platform until your legs are fully extended, then return to your starting position.

Horizontal leg press machine — This machine places you in an upright position. It’s used the same way as the inverted leg press machine. The only difference is that with this machine, you load the weight by sticking a pin in a weight stack. Here’s how to use it:22

1. Sit down on the machine, place your feet on the platform and adjust your seat until your knees form a 90-degree angle.

2. Push on the platform until your legs almost form a straight line, but do not fully lock your knees. Bend your knees to go back to your starting position.

Leg Presses vs. Squats: Which Workout Is Ideal for You?

Leg presses and squats are both classic leg exercises. Seeing as they’re very similar to each other, some people may choose one and completely skip the other. However, these workouts offer different results, and choosing which one to perform depends on your health goals and fitness level.

As I’ve mentioned above, the leg press is ideal for beginners, as it provides an easier form and safer range of movement. You also do not need to balance or stabilize yourself while doing this workout. Since it involves a limited range of movement, it allows you to focus on your quads, hamstrings and glutes.

However, the leg press doesn’t activate the stabilizing muscles, which could make you more prone to injury and muscular imbalances. If you want to engage every muscle group in your legs, then squats are an ideal choice, as they involve a greater range of movement.

Squats also engage your core, which may help improve your core strength. Plus, they work your stabilizer and assistant muscles, helping improve your overall strength and increasing your mass. The drawback of free weight exercises like squats is that they can put you at an increased risk of injury while working out if you do not maintain the proper form.23,24,25

5 Types of Leg Presses

There are different types of leg presses that you can add to your workout routine, including:

Seated leg press — This type of leg press is the most basic form and also the most common. Here’s how it’s done:26

1. Position yourself on the machine, and then put your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform. If needed, adjust your seat so that your legs form a 90-degree angle.

2. Grasp the handles and push against the platform until your legs are fully extended, but do not lock your knees.

3. Bend your knees to return to the starting position.

Vertical leg press — This type of leg press targets the hamstrings and glutes. Here’s the proper way to do it:27

1. Position yourself on the machine. Lie on your back and place your feet on the platform.

2. Slowly push on the platform until your legs are fully extended, but do not lock your knees.

3. Slowly lower your legs until they touch your torso before pushing the platform back up.

Leg press calf raise — This type of leg press is ideal for targeting the soleus muscle in your calves.28 It involves putting only your toes at the bottom of the platform:29

1. Sit down on the leg press machine and place just your toes at the bottom part of the platform.

2. Push against the platform as far as you can.

3. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Single-leg leg press — Also known as one-leg leg press, this type of workout is done when you wish to equalize the size and strength of your legs. Follow these steps to perform a single-leg leg press properly:30,31

1. Load the machine with a weight that’s about half what you’d usually use for a two-leg leg press.

2. Position yourself on the leg press machine with your feet hip-width apart on the platform.

3. Push against the platform until your legs are fully extended, and then unhook the latches and put one foot on the floor.

4. Slowly bend your knee until your upper and lower leg form a 90-degree angle.

5. Push the platform back up until your legs are fully extended, but do not lock your knee. This completes one rep.

Wide stance leg press — This type of leg press places emphasis on the inner thigh and hamstring muscles, but it also engages the quads. It involves putting your feet more than shoulder-width apart on the platform:32,33

1. Sit on the machine and place your feet on the platform. The distance between your feet should be wider than your shoulder width.

2. Push against the platform until your legs are fully extended, but do not lock your knees.

3. Bend your legs to move back to the starting position.

How Many Repetitions Should I Be Able to Do?

According to Mayo Clinic, most people should be able to do a set of 12 to 15 repetitions of a seated leg press. However, this number may also vary depending on your current state of health and fitness level.34

Leg Presses for Beginners

The leg press is categorized as a beginner-level exercise. As with other weight exercises, it’s ideal for beginners to start with the lightest weight possible before gradually increasing the load on the leg press machine, preferably after learning the proper form and breathing techniques.35 If it’s your first time doing this workout, here’s a guide to help you out:36,37,38

1. Once you’re seated on the leg press machine, put your feet on the push plate. Make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart and have a slight outward angle.

2. Your knees should form a 90-degree angle; your back and hips should be firmly pressed on the seat. This will be your starting position.

3. Start the exercise by pushing on the push plate until your legs are extended all the way, but stop the movement just before your knees lock. Remember to do this in a slow, controlled movement. Otherwise, the momentum will do most of the work instead of your muscles.

4. Slowly bend your knees to return to that starting position. Repeat the steps above to do more reps. Be careful not to bounce your knees on your chest.

Safety Tips When Doing a Leg Press

A quick search on the internet about leg press accidents will show you several videos of people snapping their knees backward while using the leg press machine. But why does this happen?

The leg press is not an inherently bad workout but, just like other exercises, doing it with a bad form or loading up the machine with more weight than you can handle could lead to accidents. To lower your risk of injury, here are some safety tips to keep in mind when doing a leg press:39,40

Keep your back and hip on the seat — Maintain the natural curvature of your back while doing this exercise, but be careful not to lift your back and hip from the seat to avoid straining your lower back.

Do not bend your legs more than 90 degrees — Starting this workout with the knees bent close to the chest is a common mistake among leg press beginners. This position is referred to as “going too deep.”

Do not lock your knees — This helps maintain muscle tension and keeps you from snapping your knees backward.

Foot Placement on the Platform Matters a Lot

The position of your feet on the platform of the leg press machine may have a big impact on your workout, as it lets you target specific muscle groups in your lower body. If you want to engage your glutes, position your feet on the higher part of the platform. If your quads are your target, then place your feet toward the bottom of the platform.41,42

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What is the average leg press weight?

A: There is no universal average leg press weight, as this may vary according to a person’s body weight, gender and fitness level.43

Q: What is the leg press good for?

A: The leg press is an ideal workout for beginners and individuals recovering from a knee injury, since it offers a limited range of movement and an easy form. It may also be useful for targeting specific muscle groups in the lower body, particularly the glutes, quads, calves and hamstrings.44

Q: Are leg presses as good as squats?

A: Leg presses and squats offer different benefits and results, but most individuals believe that leg presses are not as effective as squats because they don’t activate some of the important muscles in your legs. While squats may give you strong legs, they’re not likely to strengthen your body as a unit because of their limited range of movement.45

Q: Does the leg press make your bum bigger?

A: Since the leg press builds your glutes, which is the group of muscles found in your buttocks, this workout may help tone your buttocks, giving them shape rather than making them bigger.46,47

Q: Is the leg press bad for the knees?

A: The leg press is generally not bad for your knees, as long as you follow the proper posture when doing this workout. Most knee injuries from a leg press machine occur when the knees are locked after pushing the platform, so to avoid injury be careful not to do this.48

Q: Does the leg press help reduce belly fat?

A: The leg press may not help reduce belly fat, as it does not work your core. However, it may aid in weight management by helping you burn calories.49

Q: When are leg presses bad for you?

A: The leg press is not advisable for individuals with weak pelvic floor muscles.50 It may also cause injury if proper posture is not observed while doing this exercise.51

Q: How many leg presses should a woman do?

A: There is no definite number of leg presses for women, but according to The Nest, most people should aim to do four sets with six to 10 repetitions of this exercise per set.52

Q: Does the leg press make you stronger?

A: Doing leg presses may help build strength, particularly in your legs, especially if you’ve been deconditioned.53

 

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