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April 26, 2019

What Muscles Does Leg Press Work?

The leg press is one of the best machines you can use at the gym for lower body development. In this article, we will show you why by explaining which muscles are worked when doing the leg press, and give you some tips as well. Stay tuned! Let’s see what muscles does leg press work.

Main Leg Press Muscles Worked

The leg press is a lower body exercise machine, primarily used for quad training. But, because leg press is a compound movement that also involves hip (and even ankle) flexion and extension, this machine is an excellent option for working out glutes, hamstrings, and even calves.

Why Is Leg Press Great For Working Out Leg Muscles?

One of the main benefits of leg press is that it allows you to overload your lower extremities with a considerable amount of weight, doing it comfortably. While the movement is similar to a barbell squat, the fact that you are inside of a machine and you don’t have an uncomfortable bar over your back makes it a much more convenient option.

Another one of the many leg press benefits is that anyone can fo the leg press as it is quite self-explanatory. Barbell squats, on the other hand, take a lot of time to master, and you need to be extra careful about your form all the time.

Because leg press takes technique out of the equation, it lets you load a tremendous amount of weight. And with strength and muscle building it is simple—the more you lift, the bigger and stronger you will get ( so long as you are moving through a full range of motion ).

Because leg press has such a huge overload potential, it is one of the staples of leg training, used by beginners and advanced bodybuilders alike. Even if you do barbell squats, leg press should have its place in your routine.

Leg Press Types

There are two types of leg press machines you see at the gym, horizontal and vertical ones.

The horizontal leg press is quite chair-like, and it usually uses fixed weights, pre-loaded. There, you select the desired weight by pinning the plate of choice, and then you set the seat at the proper height, that lets you go deep into a squat. After that, you push yourself of a vertical pad, moving backward, horizontally

Vertical leg press machines put you under the load, and you push it off, up. Here, you push the load off yourself, not the other way around. Vertical leg press machines are also loaded with plates and therefore can withstand much more weight than horizontal ones. They are more hardcore, and this is the type bodybuilders prefer.

There is also a third option, which you can use when you don’t have a leg press machine at the gym, but you do have a Smith machine. You lie on the floor, under a Smith bar, and you push the bar away from you straight up, with your legs. This is not ideal, but it can be used in the absence of leg press. But in reality, you will be much better off just doing Smith machine squats.

Is Leg Press Safe?

leg press muscles worked

Yes. Leg press machines usually have a safety mechanism to lock the weight if you can’t complete your rep, preventing it from falling on you. That minimizes the injury risk, making it a very safe exercise considering the amount of weight you push. The horizontal leg press is slightly safer and more comfortable than vertical, but it usually has less weight.

There is one risk, however, which you should be aware of. Try to avoid fully locking your knees on the leg press (especially if you have knee hyperextension). That will prevent your knees from bending the wrong way when under heavy load, which can lead to serious injury.

Another potential problem with the leg press involves loading way too much weight on the machine. You will often see guys piling a huge number of 45-pound plates on the machine (some then even get their training partner to sit on top of the machine). They then get on the leg press machine and perform partial range reps. That places a whole lot of stress on your bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. This sort of ‘exercise’ is mainly done by the tibias, which places a huge amount of stress on the skeleton.

The pay-off for all of that risk to the skeleton is very minimal. The short range of motion that these guys exercise through is doing nothing for the development of their quads, hamstrings or glutes. So, the key message here is not to overload the leg press machine with so much weight that you will not be able to move through a full range of motion.

Leg Press Variations For Different Worked Muscle Activation

While leg press locks your back and shoulders into position, you should position your feet to target different muscle groups.

For activating quads more, you should position your feet lower on the pad. If glutes are your priority, then putting them higher up will target them better.

Just be aware not to overdo it, especially when targeting quads. Putting your feet too far down will cause your knees to travel forward too much, adding stress to them.

Barbell Squats vs Leg Press?

While the leg press machine targets the same major muscle groups, substituting barbell squats with it is not ideal.

Barbell training teaches you other things machines don’t, such as coordination, balance, stabilization, and even flexibility.

Moving a bar through the full range of motion of a squat takes a lot of effort. And yes, it will hit your leg muscles the most, but it will also engage your core, hips, and other small stabilizer muscles that work overtime to keep you straight up and preventing the bar from falling. Thus, replacing a barbell squat with seated leg press is not a good option.

The squat exercise places a lot of pressure on your spine. Having a lot of weight across your shoulders decompresses your spine. This overloads the lower part of the spine, which is known as the erector spinae.

It’s a different story if you have injuries that are preventing you from squatting, or you haven’t mastered the technique yet. In those cases, the leg press is a safer, and more beginner-friendly option that will allow great lower body development. Even though the leg press can also place a lot of pressure on the spine when it is overloaded. When you are using the same amount of weight, there is far less pressure on the spine when you are using the leg press than when you are using the squat exercise. So, the leg press benefits people with back problems more than squats.

If you have an existing lower back injury or if you are recovering from an injury, you should seriously consider replacing the squat with the leg press.

As soon as you heal up, and you learn the technique, you should go back to heavy squatting with barbells and dumbells. Use leg press as a part of your routine, not as a replacement for other exercises, unless it is absolutely necessary.

How to do Barbell Front Squats

How to do Barbell Back Squats

When To Use Leg Press?

Because leg press isolates your quads more than the squat does, you should use it if your quads are lagging behind your hamstrings. The same goes if you want to target glutes. That’s why it is the best option to use different pad feet positions to target different muscle groups; something squats don’t allow.

The leg press is also a great supplement to barbell back squat training. You do your barbell sets first and go to leg press after. The benefits of the leg press / squat combination are that they will completely torch your quads.

How to do Standard Leg Press

Training Leg Press S.M.A.R.T.

As you can see, there are many reasons why you should incorporate leg press into your routine. And if it follows our SMART fitness principle, every routine will include this great exercise. It is very versatile, and it can find its place in every leg workout. So there is no reason why you shouldn’t use leg press if your gym has one; after all, you are paying that membership to use the equipment as much as possible.

What is the Best Leg Press Angle?

There are 3 types of leg press machine that you are likely to find in a commercial or home gym. These are the 45-degree leg press, the horizontal leg press and the vertical leg press. The horizontal leg press has you sitting on an upright seat and pushing against a foot pad that is connected to a weight stack. With the vertical leg press, you are performing the same pressing motion but this time you are lying on your back and pressing up toward the ceiling. The 45-degree leg press is the most commonly seen type found in gyms. It has you sitting so that your legs are at a 45-degree.

So, which one is the best?

All three exercises place a similar amount of stress on your quads, glutes and hamstrings. So, deciding which one is best comes down to safety. The vertical leg press has you placing your legs above your head. This can cause a blood rush to the head. If you are lifting a heavy weight, the last thing you want is to get a tension headache from excessive blood rush. So, the vertical leg press is the least safe of the 3 types.

Of the other two types, the 45-degree leg press is the best for getting bigger and stronger. Most horizontal leg press machines are connected to a weight stack. This limits the max amount of weight you can use. However, with a 45-degree leg press, you add weight plates so you can go much heavier.

Conclusion – The Seated Leg Press Exercise

We have been through why the leg press is an important for lower body strength particular your quadriceps and hamstrings. Whatever your fitness goals ( building muscles, increasing calories burned, building strength or building strong hamstrings) the leg press will help if your incorporate it as part of your total body workout. Therefore we have explained the seated leg press benefits in this article.

We have given you lots of variation to the exercises but always remember to maintain proper form. For example bending your knees at the correct angles and to extend your legs while avoiding straightening your legs. For those unsure please ask a fitness coach to avoid a muscle or knee injury. Done correctly you should build strong muscles in your legs which is a core strength to for other workouts.

Remember when doing these leg exercises your foot placement will determine which muscle groups you targeting ( for example a narrow stance vs a wide stance ). Some of you maybe how does this compare vs squat. A few of the main differences of leg press vs squats is that the leg press is not one of the compound exercises while the squat is. Furthermore, you are comparing using free weights ( goblet squats ) vs machines ( seated leg press machine ). Both will workout your leg muscles like your quads and hamstrings but the choice will depend on which to do regularly will depend of your fitness objectives.

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Joe (Qualified Personal Trainer & Nutritionist)


Joe Martin is a NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Certified Nutrition Coach (NASM-CNC) and Certified Personal Trainer (NASM-PST) with over 15 years’ experience in personal training and nutrition. Joe was also a former New York Giants Football Player and has his own fitness website Jerseyjoefitness.com

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