What is a Leg Press?
The leg press is a compound movement for the legs, which mainly focuses on the quadriceps. Depending on how you angle your feet and how wide or narrow you place them, it’s also possible to place more emphasis on the hamstrings and ‘glutes’.
This article will include a step-by-step guide on how to perform the seated leg press, along with some different variations you could use to target specific areas of the lower body.
Seated Leg Press Technique
- Load your desired amount of weight onto the machine and sit down on the leg press seat.
- Place your legs on the pressing platform with a shoulder-width stance in front of your torso in the centre of your body.
- Disengage the safety levers on either side and take hold of the handles to your sides.
- Press the weight until your legs are extended but not locked out.
- Take a deep breath and lower the weight slowly until your upper and lower legs make a 90° angle (this is the eccentric portion of the movement).
- Exhale and drive back up through your heels (quadriceps focused) until the platform returns back to the starting position.
- Continue to perform your desired amount of repetitions.
Tip: To implement a stronger form, try creating a slight arch in your lower back, and pushing your chest out while keeping a tight core throughout the movement.
Recommended exercise volume: 3-4 sets of 8-15 repetitions
Targeting Different Parts Of The Legs
The three main groups of muscle in the lower body are the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.
The standard posture set-up for the seated leg press machine consists of your legs being shoulder-width apart, with your body at a 90-degree angle to your legs. In this position, the leg press places most of the load on your quadriceps.
Your quadriceps are a very large group of muscles that contain 4 portions or ‘heads:
- Rectus femoris: This is the muscle located in the centre of the thigh, which covers most of the other three heads of the quadriceps.
- Vastus medialis: This is located on the inner part of the thigh and lies underneath the rectus femoris.
- Vastus lateralis: The vastus lateralis is located on the outside of the thigh.
- Vastus intermedius: Between these is the vastus intermedius.
These are all large muscles and you can utilise certain exercises and leg variations to place more emphasis on them.
In order to target the outer portion of your quadriceps (vastus lateralis), you can adjust your foot stance to become narrower. The rest of your form stays the same. This variation is the ‘close’ leg press.
On the other hand, if you wish to target the inside of your quadriceps (vastus medialis and adductors), you can use a wide stance. This movement typically becomes harder the wider your stance becomes.
Isolating the Quadriceps
By placing your feet closer to the bottom of the leg press (low stance), you’ll be able to isolate the quadriceps and place more of the load onto the vastus lateralis. This means that the glutes and hamstrings are less involved, however, the standard variation of the leg press also does a very good job of this.
Hamstrings & Glutes
Conversely, if you place your feet at a high stance, you’ll shift more of the load onto your hamstrings and glutes. This is a very popular variation as there aren’t many other resistance machines that allow you to target your glutes and hamstrings with heavy weight.
How to do a leg press without a machine | Alternative exercises
- Stand upright, feet together, and take a big lunge forward with your right leg, lowering your hips toward the floor.
- Bend both knees to 90-degree angles. The back knee should point toward but not touch the floor, and your front knee should be directly over the ankle.
- Power through this position and continues through until the opposite leg is now forward lunging.
- Keep the core tight and upper body stable and upright.
- Put your hands on hips or above your head for some added difficulty.
Bulgarian Split Squat:
- For the starting position of this exercise, stand slightly in front of a bench with your feet shoulder-width apart from each other. At this stage, your body should be facing forwards away from the bench.
- With a barbell lying in front of you, lift the barbell onto your chest applying a pronated grip (palms facing the floor). Explosively lift the barbell overhead and then rest it on your shoulders. Alternatively, use dumbbells like shown in the image – overhand grip, arms close to the body.
- At this stage, one foot should be moved backwards so that it is resting on the flat bench, whilst the other foot is positioned directly infant of you.
- As this preparation phase is being executed, your back should remain straight and firm whilst your head is facing forwards at all times.
- Whilst inhaling your breath, gradually lower your leg until it is low enough to feel a contraction. However, do ensure that your knee should not hit the floor and that the knee should be over your toes. Still keep your chest out and back straight whilst facing forwards at all times.
- As you exhale your breath and muscularly contract the quads, lift your leg back to the starting position.
- Once the designated number of repetitions has been performed, return to the starting position and perform with the opposing leg.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width, with toes slightly turned outward.
- Tighten up your core to stabilize yourself, start to shift your weight back into your heels while pushing your hips behind you as you squat down.
- Continue to lower yourself until your thighs are almost parallel to the floor. Your feet should remain flat on the ground, and your knees should remain over your toes.
- Keep your spine neutral, chest out and push through the heel to return to the start position. Keep the core tight.
Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Sled too low:
One of the advantages of the leg press is the support offered to your back. When you allow the sled to come down too far, it lifts your bum and even the lower region of your back off the support pad. This can expose your lumbar disks and can risk injury if you lose control of the movement.
Keep your heels on the foot panel
Ensuring your heels are on the sled provides full support for your legs and back as well as keeping full control of the movement. You don’t want all the weight on just your toes now do you?
Locking Out Your Knees
This can be counterproductive for your progress and your knees. Locking out is putting the whole weight that is loaded on your knees and can have consequences so ensure you find the fine line between fully extended and locking out.
Turning the knees in
If this is occurring you may need to address weak abductors. If you have a tendency of this during the leg press, it can increase the chance of injuring your ACL.
Take Home Message
Try incorporating some of these variations into your leg routine in order to target multiple heads of the quadriceps in your workouts.
If performing leg presses on the same day as squats, carry out the squats beforehand and then move onto your leg press variations, as the free weight exercise of squatting with a barbell requires more assistance muscles and balance!