How to Use the Leg Press Machine
Read this before you add it to your leg day routine.
The leg press machine is so popular that you practically need a reservation to snag a few sets on it when you hit the gym for leg day.
A go-to for gym newbies, seasoned meatheads, and even J.Lo, queen of the gym, the leg press "is a powerful compound lower-body exercise that targets your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and more," says Thanu Jey, D.C., C.S.C.S. clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic. "It helps build strength in the movement of extending your knees and hips."
With multiple types of leg press machines available at many gyms (and multiple ways to use them), though, you might not be using this move to its fullest potential. Here's how to change that.
The Two Types of Leg Press Machines
Most larger gyms have two different leg press machines: an incline leg press machine that you'll find with the free weights (barbells, dumbbells, etc) and a horizontal cable leg press that you'll find with the cable weight machines. (Related: Exercise Machines That Are Actually Worth Your Time)
The Incline Leg Press
In the incline leg press machine, you sit in a low, reclined seat with your feet pressed up against a raised platform. You can add weight plates to the platform to adjust the resistance and make it more difficult to push the platform up and away from you.
In an incline leg press, you push against gravity, which mimics functional, machine-free movements you use in the real world, says Adeeb Khalfe, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist, strength coach, and founder of Movement Evolution in Dallas.
The incline leg press allows you to add lots of weight, making it a great tool for more advanced exercisers, says Khalfe. However, because your body is positioned below the weight, the incline leg press puts more load on your spine, increasing your risk for injury if you don't use the machine properly. (Not to mention, loading and unloading plates from the machine can be a hassle.)
The Horizontal Cable Leg Press
In the horizontal cable leg press, you sit with your feet pressed against a platform at the same height as your torso. This type of leg press typically features a cable-rigged weight stack that you can use to easily select your desired weight without getting up out of your seat.
Since you're working against the resistance you've selected on the machine's pulley system (and not gravity), the horizontal leg press has less functional benefit than the incline, according to Khalfe.
However, this type of leg press machine is less intimidating for beginners—and allows you to make adjustments to your weight (although your options are more limited) more quickly than the incline machine, he says.
How to Use the Leg Press Machine
To use either type of leg press machine, select a weight you can safely lift for your desired number of reps. (You can always start light and increase the weight if it's too easy.) Sit with your back and head flat against the seat and your feet positioned shoulder-width apart in the middle of the platform, says Jey. Keep your feet neutral (meaning your toes are directly above your heels).
Keeping your core tight, glutes rooted in the seat, and your back straight against the seat, press through your feet (evenly through your toes and heels, says Jey), to push the leg press platform away from you and straighten through your knees. When your legs are fully extended—but not locked out—pause. Then, slowly and with control, bend at the knees to return the platform to its starting position. Don't rush through the motion, and keep your feet firmly planted on the platform throughout. (Related: Weird Ways to Make Strength Training Feel Easier)
The Benefits of the Leg Press Machine
"The leg press is a great machine for developing the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and even calf muscles," says Khalfe.
Because of the machine's controlled movement pattern, it's generally safe for beginners who are new to (or intimidated by) free-weight exercises, he says. (Since you don't need a spotter, it's also a great option for solo leg days; just make sure you use the safety bars on the incline leg press to keep the weight from sliding down on you if you overestimate how much you can lift or your foot slips. Watch the video above for tips on how to use them.)
Plus, since the leg press isolates the lower body, it's also a great option for people with back or shoulder injuries who want to strengthen their legs.
You can also do reps with just one leg to work on single-leg strength without having to worry about balance, adds Khalfe. (And you get all these other benefits of lifting weights.)
The Downsides of the Leg Press Machine
Although the leg press machine helps you build leg strength, the movement doesn't quite translate to real-world movements in the way that squats or lunges do, says Jey. (The incline press is slightly more functional than the horizontal press, because it requires you to work against gravity like standing exercises—but you probably won't ever need to actually push against a heavy weight with your feet, while sitting down, in real life.)
Not to mention, standing moves like squats and lunges also engage your core much more than the leg press, since they require you to balance, says Khalfe. (And core strength is important for sooo many reasons.)
The leg press machine definitely has a place in your workout routine—as long as it's not the only lower-body move in your arsenal.
Common Leg Press Machine Mistakes
When you do hop onto the leg press machine, watch out for a couple of technique mistakes that can mess with your results and put you at risk for injury.
- Lifting your butt up off the seat: Though you may be tempted to lift your butt up off the seat when pushing a heavy weight, don't do it. This increases the strain the movement puts on your knees, says Khalfe.
- Using your hands to help push through your legs: Another common cheat people turn to when the weight gets heavy: using their hands on their thighs to help push their legs. While this isn't necessarily dangerous, it ultimately undermines your leg strength progress by taking the stress off of your leg muscles, explains Khalfe.
- Locking your knees out at the top of the rep: "One of the biggest mistakes I see is people loading up the leg press with weight and then locking out their knees at the end of their reps," says Khalfe. This shifts the tension off of your quads and onto your actual knee joint (eek!), which sets you up for pain and injury.
- Arching your back up off the seat: Difficult as it may be to keep your back completely flat against the seat throughout your reps, arching your back on the leg press machine increases the strain on your lower back, says Khalfe.
How to Get More Out of the Leg Press
One of the major perks of the leg press machine: Adjusting your foot placement can switch up which muscles the move emphasizes.
Stance width: While that neutral, shoulder-width stance targets your glutes and leg muscles pretty evenly, a wider sumo stance (with feet pointed slightly out) fires up your inner upper thighs and quads, while a narrow stance lights up your outer quads more, says Khalfe.
Foot height: How high you position your feet on the platform also shifts the focus: A high foot position increases the emphasis on your hamstrings and glutes, while a lower foot position targets your quads, adds Khalfe. (Here's more on how to activate glute muscles you think are snoozing.)
Machine-Free Moves Like the Leg Press
Of course, if you want to reap the strength-building benefits of the leg press without the machine, you can.
In addition to firing up your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, other great leg day moves like squats, lunges, and calf raises also help you develop core strength, balance, and stability, says Khalfe. These movements also better prepare your body for daily tasks, like climbing stairs. (Use these other tricks to work your core during any workout.)