How to Do the Leg Press
WHICH EXERCISE ALLOWS you to work with the most possible weight?
The deadlift or back squat might be the first options that come to mind, and these big barbell movements are solid answers. Both exercises train your legs, using the biggest muscles in your body where you’ll be your strongest, and serve as the traditional barometers of overall strength. But expand your horizons to include machine-based movements, and there’s an easy answer to this question: the leg press.
The leg press offers exercisers an enticing proposition: Load as much weight onto the rig as you can handle, plop down into the seat, and push away. You’re not working with free weights, so in theory there’s much less to worry about when it comes to form. But in reality, you’ll need to understand a bit more about the exercise—and the way your body works—to perform it as safely and effectively as possible.
Here, Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., explains everything you need to know about what the leg press, which he calls “your most powerful exercise.”
Benefits of the Leg Press
- Work with big weights
- Less stress to CNS
- Develop leg muscle and strength
- Good for beginners
The leg press allows you to train your legs with heavy loads. You’ll be able to work with bigger numbers than your free weight movements (meaning: exercises that use implements like dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells) for one simple reason: You’re not stressing your spine.
“We’re removing something called axial loading,” explains Samuel. “When I’m doing a squat or a deadlift, I’ve got all that pressure from the weight and from gravity coming down on my spine.”
Since your position within the machine doesn’t force you to support the weight with your spine, you’ll be able to pile on more plates and use only your big leg muscles. What’s more, you’ll avoid straining your central nervous system (CNS), which causes fatigue and might limit your ability to keep pumping out reps sooner.
This position also makes the leg press a simple tool for beginners. You’ll be able to work with heavier weights more quickly than the form-intensive free weight exercises. That said, you shouldn’t totally skip those moves (squats, deadlifts, lunges) in favor of the leg press; use the machine as a tool to build strength to make your free weight exercises stronger.
Which Muscles the Leg Press Trains
The leg press is all about your legs (duh), so all the big muscles in your lower body are involved. That means the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. You’ll also work the smaller supporting muscles in your legs—but the big ones will be the focus.
Who Should Do the Leg Press
- Strength training athletes
Since the leg press really allows you to home in on the legs and work with heavy loads without focusing on the specific form or function of free weight movements, it’s a great option for bodybuilders or anyone else whose main gain is to grow their muscles. That said, Samuel says that more functionally-minded strength training athletes can use the leg press to overload their quads, glutes, and hamstrings, which will benefit their other lifts and overall strength performance in the long run. As noted above, beginners will also benefit from the lack of axial loading as they build strength for free weight movements.
How to Do the Leg Press
The biggest mistake you can make when you do the leg press, according to Samuel, is not approaching the machine seriously. You can’t just sit down in the rig and expect to perform well without dialing in your form. Think about the leg press as a squat from a different position to begin, then dial in on the form.
Upper Body Positioning
Even if your spine isn’t under load, you need to maintain upper body and core tension. Keep your torso engaged throughout the movement—this will help to avoid any lower back stress.
- Grab the handles on the machine and pull yourself down into the seat.
- Squeeze your glutes to drive your butt down into the seat while engaging your abs to drive your lower back into the pad.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades and drive your neck into the pad, too.
Where you place your feet on the rig will depend on your desired stimulus and anatomical needs.
- Place your feet on the sled. Aim for a position where your knees are at least hip-width apart to start (although Samuel says you can go wider as well).
- The closer you place your feet to the back of the plate (in near your body), the more knee-dominant the movement will be, making it more quad-focused. If you place you feet further away, the movement will be more hinge-dominant, meaning it will be more focused on your hamstrings and glutes.
- If you’re just starting out, place your feet generally in the middle.
- The leg press allows you to keep your toes pointed forward, which might not be an option when you’re squatting under a bar due to hip mobility constraints.
Performing Leg Press Reps
- Press through the sled with your feet, maintaining tension in your torso. Release the sled from the safety lock, then control the weight down.
- Watch your knees as you lower the weight, making sure you don’t allow them to cave in or track excessively outward.
- Lower down as far as you can, maintaining upper body tension with your back flush against the pad. Don’t allow your butt to raise off the seat; if you shift you’ve gone too deep.
- Press through the pad with both feet to raise the wait back up, extending your knees.
- As you fatigue, Samuel notes that you can perform reps within a shorter range of motion.
How to Fit the Leg Press in Your Workout
One of the best ways to use the leg press, according to Samuel, is to push high reps and volume. Consider a set-rep structure with three sets of 15 to 20 reps. You can also do fewer reps with more weight—just don’t try to max out the leg press, no matter what Ronnie Coleman did.
Slot in the leg press as the third or fourth movement in a leg day workout, especially after you’ve built up CNS fatigue with the big time free weight lower body exercises.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.
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