Posted on 04 July 2014.
Don’t do that, do this – Leg Press
Leg press machines have come a long way in the last 50 years or so. For starters, in the golden-era of weight training and bodybuilding, lifters wanting to do the leg press would actually lay on their backs and balance a barbell on the souls of their feet. This may have been effective but as for being practical or safe? I have my reservations.
Later versions of the leg press replicated this supine position but the bar was guided by rods to prevent mishaps. While this may have reduced the likelihood of the bar rolling off your feet and falling on your head, this exercise machine was still far from perfect as it all but insisted that you round your lower back; never a good idea.
Fast forward to the present day and most leg press machines use a seated position which is usually angled back to around 45 degrees. Being sat up instead of lying down has probably halved the average blood pressure of anyone using a leg press! Still, even the most well-designed leg press is not without its disadvantages although, of course, designs do vary and some are definitely better than others.
Part of the allure of the leg press is it allows exercisers to lift relatively heavy weights with a degree of safety. The back rest provides spinal support, the weight is guided so you don’t have to worry about balance or learning tricky techniques and if you get stuck mid-rep, you can simply drop the weight or lock it in place with the safety handles without worrying about getting crushed. While all of these aspects can be listed as legitimate advantages, they are also the main reasons that leg presses might not always be the best choice of lower body exercise.
Because your back is fixed in place, it’s all too tempting to lower your knees all the way down to your chest when performing leg presses. This usually results in a very significant rounding of the lower back. The back rest provides an false impression of safety and security and lifters often fail to realise that, despite the provided back support, rounding your spine can result in a one-way ticket to a serious back injury.
Then, consider that the weight is guided so any balance requirement is all but nullified. With very few notable exceptions, the strenuous activities of everyday life do not follow strictly linear paths so strength developed using a leg press will unlikely result in improved sporting performance or an increased ability to generate lower leg force in the standing position. Using a leg press increases your strength for leg pressing; it’s the fitness law of specificity in action.
Finally, consider the actual movement of the leg press. We tend to use our legs to drive downward against the floor in what is known as ground-reactive movement. Running, walking, climbing stairs or simply getting up and out of a chair are all good examples. Lying on your back and pushing a weight skywards? That’s hardly a natural movement! In these times of “functional exercise”, the leg press is clearly about as non-functional as it gets.
However, does that mean that you should never leg press again? Actually, I think no. The leg press can be a valuable training tool but only if you use it as an assistance exercise as opposed to being the mainstay of your lower body training.
For example, if you have squatted, dead-lifted and lunged yourself into the ground and still want to do yet more leg work, a few finisher sets of leg presses will allow you to squeeze that last drop of energy out of your legs in relative safety; providing you don’t lower the weight too low and round your lower back of course.
Also, if it’s pure leg hypertrophy (muscle growth) you seek, as good as squats are, leg presses will allow you to lift more weight and perform more reps as you are free to focus on pushing as long and hard as you can without worrying about balance or collapsing under the weight. Like any good trainer should tell you, leg presses are simply one of many exercise tools available and like all tools; there is a time and a place to use them.
All that being said, I do believe that if you want to make the most of the benefits of the leg press, it should be placed near the end of your lower body workout and be preceded by some far more effective and beneficial exercises. What exercises? I’m glad you asked! As the leg press is a compound leg exercise involving both knee and hip extension, it makes sense that any other exercises under consideration should match these same criteria.
Front squats, back squats, overhead squats, trap-bar squats, Jefferson squats, barbell hack squats, sumo squats, bodyweight squats, squat jumps…any squat is a good squat and is probably the most fundamental movement pattern that is also an exercise. Squats work so many muscles there is little point in trying to list them all; it’s actually better to think of squats are a total-body exercise. A workout without squats is not a workout and if you think that squats aren’t “functional” consider this; how did you sit down to read this article and how will you stand back up again? Ten points if you said squats!
Like squats, there are numerous variations of lunges to choose from. You can alternate your lead leg or swap lead legs half way through your set, you can perform walking or travelling lunges, lunge forward, backward or diagonally, use a barbell or dumbbells, elevate your back foot and perform rear-foot elevated split-squats or lunge onto a 4-6 inch step to increase the range of movement at your hip. You can put your rear foot in a suspension trainer such as a TRX or place your foot on a gliding pad to further increase the challenge or, if you are feeling spritely, do jumping lunges. Like squats, lunges have a huge functional carryover and offer the advantage of training one leg at a time which helps identify and treat left to right muscle strength imbalances. Lunges are also great for hip mobility.
In terms of muscle activation, deadlifts are hard to beat. Even more whole-body than squats, deadlifts could well be the best exercise you aren’t doing. With a huge emphasis on the hip-extensors and lower back, a properly performed deadlift uses virtually every muscle in your body from your fingers to your toes. The only muscle that doesn’t get much of a look in is your pecs but that is easily remedied with a few sets of bench press or press ups. The barbell deadlift is probably your best choice but there are enough variations of the deadlift to keep even the most easily-bored exerciser amused; Romanian deadlifts, snatch-grip deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, partial deadlifts, rack-pull deadlifts, suitcase deadlifts, single leg deadlifts…all variations of the deadlift that are at least as productive as leg presses.
So, by all means use a leg press but do yourself a favour and base 80 percent of your lower body training on the exercises listed above. Keep the leg presses until the end of your workout and use them as a finisher or assistance exercise. That way, the perceived weaknesses of the leg press magically become strengths.