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5 Ways to Leg Press

Written by Michael Jessimy, RPh

Without a doubt, the leg press is a favorite of athletes all over the world.

What’s not to like?

A movement that is said to rival the squat, but comparatively easier to do at the same time?

Sign me up!

If you’re new to working out and still finding your “footing”, then you’re in the right place.

Here, we’ll take an in-depth look at the leg press and how you can get the most of this exercise by simply modifying your foot placement and relative stance.

Let’s get to the”pressing” matter, shall we?

What Is The Leg Press Anyway?

The leg press is the name given to a machine that allows you to load weight plates on those giant footplates at the bottom and then push them away from your center as if doing a squat.

The main difference between this machine and what the barbell squat achieves is largely peace of mind.

This is why it is often adorned by novice trainees, those recuperating from injury, or anyone genuinely unable to do squats for one reason or another.

It’s also often used by athletes intimidated by squats as a crutch- this is not what you should be doing.

Advantages Of The Leg Press Machine

1) Complete Lower Body Workout

The leg press is not an isolation movement.

The leg press works all the muscles of your lower half without prejudice. Short on time or access to equipment?

The leg press alone is likely to be enough for you.

Of course, it’s not designed to be the end-all for complete leg training, but it certainly helps.

2) Improved Strength And Performance

I strongly believe that when you are new to a gym, you won’t be eager to perform barbell squats.

This could be for many reasons, such as you needing to build up some strength, learning the form, or just appreciating what post-workout pain is the days following your session.

But that’s not all, as building strength translates to better performance on other leg exercises and activities, in and out of the gym.

If you are into other sports, this could mean improved stamina, resistance to fatigue, or better speed.

The leg press is an excellent lower body exercise to improve muscle mass and strength in one fell swoop.

3) For Safety And Recuperation

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that improper form on squats, or just the inability to support a heavy load can have debilitating effects on your spine or joints.

This fear or even a brush with a serious injury can leave you apprehensive about squats.

Leg presses offer a (mostly) safe haven that is not harsh on your joints or spine, making it perfect for rehab or taking it easy while nursing an injury.

What Muscle Groups Do Leg Presses Target?

This leg exercise is considered a multi-joint exercise, meaning it involves more than one joint and thus, more than one large muscle group.

In this case, the prime movers are your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. Some muscles of the back and core are also called into play for stabilization.

They are great at stimulating the quadriceps in particular, which are actually composed of four smaller muscles (hench, the word quad).

The leg press does a fair job at stimulating all four of these muscles, but to get the most out of it you really need to take advantage of it by modifying for best foot placement.

Different Leg Press Machines?

Yes, there are different types of leg press machines.

By far, most commercial gyms do carry the version you are accustomed to, in which the platform descends and the weight travels towards gravity.

These machines are usually built with the sled at a 45 degrees angle.

This actually makes it easier than if the weight needs to travel vertically up and down at a 90-degree angle.

The other, less common versions of the leg press are the vertical 90-degree sled (common in older gyms), and the incline 45-degree machine which is usually loaded with pin attachments as opposed to the plate-loaded leg press.

This cable incline leg press might be more convenient in terms of loading speed, you are limited in the total amount of weight that can be added, usually to a maximum of a few hundred pounds.

This incline leg press also doesn’t contribute to all-over leg development.

The primary muscles targeted are the quadriceps and a little stress is applied to the calves as well, but if you want to work your legs from all angles, you need to do the decline version, now considered the gold standard.

With that said, now it’s time to explore the 5 stances of leg press placements

The Ultimate Leg Press Foot Placement – Big 5 Stances

Watch Practical Video > https://youtu.be/zedDIN-I9EY

1) The Standard Stance

This is by far the primary stance, sometimes the ONLY one used at all while on the leg press machine.

This position places the feet roughly in the middle of the platform, at about shoulder-width distance apart.

This position is considered the Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to leg training, as it is pretty much the only stance used on the leg press machine which works the hamstrings, glutes, quads, and even calves to an extent.

While this may be true, you would be limiting progress if you were to omit other stances from your routine.

On the standard stance, it is advised to go as deep as possible on the rep- don’t sacrifice the range of motion for weight or you do yourself a major disservice.

To perform:

  • Enter the leg press and place your feet in the center of the platform as the starting position
  • Your feet should remain about shoulder-width apart, and toes should be pointed slightly outwards.
  • Go as deep as possible as the weight descends. Avoid your butt/ lower back raising off of the backrest.
  • Also, ensure your ankles do not raise as you descend- if you find this happening it means that you have poor ankle mobility and need to work on this. A quick fix is to get footwear with a raised heel to help keep yours in contact with the footrest.

2) Wide Stance

Have you ever done a wide stance squat before?

The wide stance leg press can be considered a variation of that, emphasizing the glutes and hamstrings over the quads.

The standard stance variation hits all major leg muscles, but this wide stance takes much of the stress off of the knee and places it on the hip joints instead.

If you know your knees aren’t in the best shape, this might be a great variation to use.

This change moves heavy recruitment to the strong posterior muscles. You can consider this a deadlift-esque variation of the leg press.

To Perform:

  • Place your feet in the middle of the leg pressing platform, just as you do for the standard stance.
  • The width of your feet, however, should be approximately 1.5 times shoulder-width apart.
  • Allow toes to flare outwards as this will remove the emphasis from the quads and also help maintain the pressing technique necessary.
  • The depth to which you are capable of going will vary from person to person, but a good gauge of the optimal depth for you relies on the extent to which your inner thighs are comfortable with. When the stretch starts to feel uncomfortable, this is a good indicator that you have reached/surpassed optimal range of motion and hip extension
  • Since the backrest is usually adjusted to about a 45-degree angle with the floor, over time your goal should be to have your upper thighs be perpendicular to the ground (forming a 90-degree angle).

Be careful with this position if you have experienced injuries of the inner thighs before as it depends a lot on inner thigh flexibility and adduction.

3) Low Foot Placement Stance

This is an underutilized stance, primarily because it places the most stress on the quads and also provides a very little stretch for the glutes and hamstrings.

This isn’t exactly a good thing if you want to maximize muscle recruitment or prevent injury (during your workout or later in life).

It is advised that you don’t use this stance for more than 1-2 sets per exercise session at first then increase as strength and comfort develop.

Start with only the top range of motion (thighs about parallel) until you are able to do full reps without any trouble.

However, this will be one of the easiest stances to achieve maximal depth on.

At the bottom position of the press, your knees are able to travel beyond your toes, which is dangerous and difficult to accomplish on the squat, for example.

To Perform

  • The heels of your feet should almost hang off the bottom of the leg press when you are inside it
  • A shoulder width or slightly wider distance should be maintained between the feet, while the toes are slightly flared out
  • At the bottom of the movement, go as deep as you can while keeping your feet pressed into the platform. Your heels should not raise as you descend.
  • If you have difficulty maintaining contact with the platform as you descend, it might be necessary to reduce the working range of motion. Otherwise, the movement turns into a glorified calf raise and press.

4) Narrow Stance

The narrow stance is another quadriceps heavy stance, but it does have a fair share of benefits.

In terms of recruitment, this will be one of the best stances to target the quads with minimal stress on the hips and knees.

That means that if you want to work your quads hard with less risk than other stances, this is probably the way to go.

It is notable to mention that owing to the foot placement, your knees will make contact with your abdomen early on, meaning that the range of motion might be slightly reduced.

This is usually not a big issue, though you might feel the need to come up sooner than other stances.

This feeling can also act as feedback that you are using the quads primarily and not the other supporting muscles as with a standard leg press.

To Perform:

  • Step inside a leg press and position your feet on the middle of the platform instead of low like in the previous leg press variation.
  • The distance between your feet should not exceed hip width, and ideally should even be slightly less than hip width. To achieve this visualize your feet separated by only a few inches (6 inches or so)
  • In this stance, the toes may be pointed straight ahead or slightly flared out. It all depends on your comfort level and what feels more beneficial to your biomechanics
  • While performing reps, keep your feet flat on the platform while going as deep as possible.  
  • For each repetition, lower your thighs until your stomach is lightly in contact with them. If your heels raise off the platform, slightly reduce your range of motion until this is resolved.

Considerations

This foot placement of this leg press machine variation brings with it some challenges.

Most notably is the fact that your knees will touch your abdomen at the bottom of the press.

While this feeling can be somewhat uncomfortable, it does allow for more hamstring recruitment than other leg press stances.

As you descend in relation to your hips (hip flexion), your knees will move forward and up towards your chest.

At this point, the hamstrings lengthen slightly while helping to take pressure off the lower back (while not completely relieving it).

This is because they are attached to both feet which prevents them from pulling on the pelvis when they contract.   

It is important to note that this also allows you to go much deeper than normal leg presses, though considering this feel free to shorten or avoid very deep movements in general if discomfort develops in the knees.

Ankle mobility is also paramount, which often shows when you have difficulty maintaining contact with the platform early in your descent.

In order to accomplish this successfully, you will need a modest degree of ankle flexibility and hamstring length in conjunction with a strong set of quad muscles that can take over the movement as much as possible.

5) High Foot Placement

This brings us to the final of the 5 leg press foot placement, which is often the most underutilized.

This position limits you in the amount of weight that can be added since it places additional stress on the hip joint and lower back.

Not surprisingly, the high foot positions change the emphasis of this movement to your glutes and hamstrings, and away from the quadriceps.

Whereas in the quad-heavy positions, it is highly advised that you bear most of the weight on the heels in this position, as this tends to correlate with an overload of the strong posterior chain muscles.

To Perform:

  • Step inside a leg press and position your feet high on the platform. Achieve this by placing them as close to where they would be if you were standing straight up. The distance between your feet should not exceed shoulder width.
  • In this stance, it is advisable that you place your toes either straight ahead or slightly flared out. It all depends on your personal comfort level and what feels safe.
  • While performing reps, keep your feet flat on the platform while going as deep as possible. Be sure to feel the resistance in your heels and not your toes.
  • For each repetition, lower the weight just shy of the position that your butt and lower back start to move off of the backrest.

Be mindful of the stress this position places on your lower back. If you are someone who deals with lumbar issues, you need to tread very carefully or avoid this stance altogether.

Bonus: Unilateral Leg Press

This isn’t a position per se, but still offers a number of benefits that the two-limbed approach cannot.

For example, performing one-sided leg presses will greatly improve your balance and coordination. It will also help correct strength discrepancies between legs, which many people tend to have.

You can also make use of any of the placements discussed above, although they will take on a greater degree of difficulty when done unilaterally.

Assuming you are training both legs equally, you will notice strong improvements to the weaker leg.

While this concept may seem negligible at first, just remember that most people tend to be significantly stronger on one side than the other, especially if they train with free weights or use dual-limbed movements almost exclusively in their routines.

This increased strength translates well into any activity that involves taking a step or lunging.

Another benefit of the single-leg press version is that you won’t have to press as much weight due to the influence of body weight on one side.

While this will not be seen by most people, it still means that each leg will receive less stress and can allow for greater growth in future sessions.

To Perform:

  • Select a foot position and perform a leg press while keeping one leg on the platform. If you choose to use a high position, shorten the range of motion by raising your hips slightly off of the backrest just before you hit parallel. Place your other foot firmly on the ground for stability.
  • Depending on how you feel, complete a certain amount of repetitions to failure and then switch.
  • This can also be done with a combination leg press/hack squat machine that has a platform at the bottom.

In Summary    

  • Feet High On Platform – Most hamstring/glute dominant, necessary to reduce weight
  • Feet Low On Platform – Most quad dominant, reduces the risk of injury to your lower back
  • Feet Parallel – Glutes/Hamstrings (moderate), Quads (minimal)
  • Feet Straight Ahead and Middle Of The Platform– More balanced overall
  • Feet Slightly Flared Out – Increases anterior and lateral leg involvement
  • Feet Wide Out – Increases glute involvement
  • Unilateral – Improves balance and strength of weaker leg, reduces total weight on the main leg

The leg press makes it possible to get a very thorough workout and is attractive to persons desirous of building some leg strength with a low risk of injury.

With these leg press variations, hopefully, you can make the most out of this machine and maximize your results.

Do not be afraid to experiment; this is key to achieving maximum growth in minimum time.

It often takes many years (if at all) for athletes to learn how to properly perform different movement patterns, but hopefully, we have shortened that learning curve for you!

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