Is the leg press useless?
Ah, the leg press machine. The ultimate ego booster. Struggling with your squat? Putting a lot of effort in to only be able to put 10 kgs more on the bar? Like to move a lot of weight?
Head over to the leg press and start loading plates!
As you might have guessed, I’m not going to say that the leg press is TOTALLY useless. It used to be my lower body version of the bench press: I looked forward to it, because it made me feel good.
I happen to have quite good leg genetics (thanks mum and dad) which means stuff like squats has always come quite naturally, and I never ‘suffered’ from ‘chicken legs’ even as a skinny child, so when it came to using a machine that lets you push a ton of weight with your legs without having to balance it, it was right up my street.
In a typical gym there’s usually a lot more leg pressers than squatters.
Is it worth doing though? Or should you stick with squats? Or should you do both?
Let’s go through the pros first.
1. It can help improve your static strength
Squats can be quite technical, and they require coordination and practice to do well and with a lot of weight. The leg press is conversely probably the most brute force exercise around, with technique practically non-existent: just set yourself and push!
You can use a LOT of weight with the leg press which can in turn help your squat, from a pure power perspective.
2. It is safer than the squat
Because there’s not really any ‘form’ involved, the leg press is safer for your back. The weight is also not on top of you so there won’t be any awkward or dangerous situations where you get stuck under a heavy weight (not that this should happen with squats if you use safety bars or learn how to dump the bar off your back).
You won’t get crushed if you fail because of the stoppers on the track (as I found out to my relief once or twice).
3. It’s good for rehab
Because you don’t have to balance the weight you can use it single legged and help to rehabilitate a leg that has been unused for a while, or focus on your calf/targeting the quad from a certain angle etc.
4. You can go ‘full ham’ on your legs
If you want to specifically target all your leg muscles and work them as hard as possible then the leg press is for you. When you squat the first thing that is going to give out when trying to do heavy, high rep sets is your lower back, not your legs, which means your ability to ‘blast’ your legs is going to be limited by your back.
Not that I recommend going full insane much of the time but if you want to really have a ‘struggle to walk up stairs’ workout then the leg press can get you there.
There’s four pretty good reasons to leg press, not forgetting the most important one: you can put 10 plates on each side and feel like a badass.
So what’s not to like?
While they used to be one of my favourites, I haven’t done them in maybe 3-4 years now. This is why.
The arguments against
1. Getting good at the squat has better value
Unless you’ve got oceans of time on your hands you’re better off focusing your energy on improving your squat.
How come there are guys who can’t squat 100 kgs to depth who can load up 2-300 kgs on the leg press and rep it with ease?
Because the squat is much harder to do. If something is more challenging, generally the results will be better. The squat is an essential movement that develops balance, flexibility, mobility, core strength, power and coordination. The leg press pretty much just does strength.
Plus, if your squat goes up, your leg press will as well, even if you don’t directly train it. It doesn’t work the other way around.
This is mainly because if you have a good, deep squat you necessarily have a well-developed body in general (posterior chain, quads, core, upper back), while the leg press is just hugely quad dominant.
2. It puts a lot of stress on your knees
It’s fun putting a load of weight on anything, but there’s usually a limit based on the fact that you’ll crush yourself if you go too far, or other ‘weak links’ will act as a safety for your ego.
With the squat it’s your lower back and the fear of being crushed, with the deadlift it’s your back and your grip.
Not so with the leg press. The fact that it’s easy to push a lot of weight with no real technique means that you can load it up easily with 2-300 kgs even if you’re not that strong. That’s a lot of stress to put through your knees, which can be ok if you have gradually got used to it, but the way you can rapidly increase the weight means that the ligaments don’t have a lot of time to adapt.
Even if you don’t do yourself a sudden injury leg pressing really heavy week-in week-out might not be the best for your knees longterm.
3. Not doing them won’t make much difference to your leg development or strength, if you are squatting
From doing them religiously every week back in the day to the past 3 or 4 years of not doing them at all my squat has actually gone up. Now, there’s nothing to say that my squat might be even better now if I carried on with them, but I’m pretty happy with my progress.
What I mean to say is that for me, taking them out of the equation hasn’t impacted my results.
One thing IS for sure, if I had done nothing but leg press my squat would have definitely got worse or at best stayed the same.
Speaking from experience of leg pressing very heavy every week to not doing them at all I would say that there are some benefits, but in my opinion mostly in the ego-polishing department.
If you’re not a pro athlete or someone with endless amounts of time to train then often you have to weigh up the results against time value of certain exercises.
The leg press is not a useless exercise, but I really don’t think that you get much value for the time they take to do: if and when you get strong at them (which you can quickly do, even if you’re not that strong all-round) then it’s pretty much a workout in itself loading and unloading 20+ 20 kg plates, not to mention the time it takes to do that.
They are certainly better than nothing, but if you’ve got access to a squat rack and some free weights that’s really all you need to concern yourself with, for solid all-round development.
If nothing else you’ll be more popular in the gym when you’re not hoarding all the weights. No-one likes that person!
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