Matt Gemkow, the author of this content section at Select Fitness USA, boasts more than 15 years of fitness experience. He started out in sports and athletic training for many years and has since 2014 transitioned into heavy-weight training and bodybuilding. As a result, he has become one of the most experienced fitness equipment experts out there, and a valuable source of information.
What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work? The Key To Unlimited Leg Gains
The leg press is a popular exercise that targets multiple lower body muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
In this article, we'll explore the specific muscles worked while using the leg press machine, compare it to the squat exercise, and provide tips for incorporating it into your workout routine.
What Is the Leg Press Machine?
The leg press machine is a popular exercise machine designed to target the muscles in the lower body.
It typically consists of a large platform that moves up and down along a track and may also have a backrest and adjustable footplates.
The machine's resistance on the user is designed to imitate a squat in a machine format with added safety and user-friendliness.
Leg Press Benefits
The leg press exercise offers several benefits for individuals looking to improve their lower body strength and muscle tone. Some of the most notable benefits include:
- Reduced stress on the lower back and joints compared to squats or deadlifts
- Isolation of multiple leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. More details on this later.
- High level of safety
- Beginner friendly
Related: Benefits of the leg press
How To Do the Leg Press
To perform a basic leg press exercise on the machine, follow these steps:
- Adjust the machine to the appropriate weight for your fitness level.
- Sit on the machine with your back against the backrest and your feet placed shoulder-width apart on the footplates.
- Push the platform away from you by extending your legs, keeping your back and head against the backrest.
- Slowly lower the platform to the starting position by bending your knees.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Related: Full guide on How to Leg Press
Types of the Leg Press Machine
There are several variations of the leg press machine, each with its own unique benefits and drawbacks.
Some of the most common types include the vertical leg press, horizontal leg press, iso-lateral leg press, seated leg press, and 45-degree leg press.
Each machine targets similar muscle groups but in slightly different ways.
Related: 7 Different Types Of Leg Press
Leg Press Machine Muscles Worked and How to Target Them
The muscles primarily targeted by the leg press are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
The quadriceps, or quads for short, are located on the front of the thigh and are responsible for extending the knee joint.
The hamstrings, located on the back of the thigh, are responsible for flexing the knee joint and extending the hip joint.
The glutes, or gluteal muscles, are located in the buttocks and are responsible for hip extension and rotation.
By adjusting foot placement and the angle of the machine, you can emphasize different muscle groups and target them more effectively during your leg press workout.
The quadriceps femoris is a group of four muscles located at the front of the thigh.
They work together to extend the knee joint and flex the hip joint in all body movements, including the leg press!
4 Main Parts Of The Quads:
Rectus femoris - This muscle is located in the middle of the thigh and is the only quad muscle that crosses both the hip and knee joints. It flexes the hip and extends the knee.
Vastus lateralis - This muscle is located on the outer part of the thigh and is the largest of the quad muscles. It extends the knee and provides knee joint stability.
Vastus intermedius - This muscle is located deep to the rectus femoris and extends the knee.
Vastus medialis - This muscle is located on the inner part of the thigh and stabilizes the patella (kneecap) during knee extension.
How To Target the Quads On The Leg Press
Foot Height - Placing the feet higher on the platform will increase the activation of the quadriceps while placing the feet lower will increase the activation of the glutes and hamstrings.
Foot Width - A wider foot placement will target the outer portion of the quads (vastus lateralis), while a narrower foot placement will target the inner portion of the quads (vastus medialis).
Knee Angle - Keeping the knees bent at a 90-degree angle will focus on the quadriceps, while straightening the legs will also activate the glutes and hamstrings.
By adjusting these variables during a leg press, you can effectively target the quadriceps and achieve optimal muscle activation.
Related: Top Foot Placements on The Leg Press
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located at the back of the thigh that help extend the hip joint and flex the knee joint.
These muscles work together to help you move your leg backward, such as when you're walking or running, or doing the leg press!
3 Main Parts Of The Hamstring
Biceps femoris: This muscle is located at the back of the thigh and has two heads - long and short. The long head helps in hip extension, while the short head helps in knee flexion.
Semitendinosus: This muscle is located in the middle of the back of the thigh and helps in hip extension and knee flexion.
Semimembranosus: This muscle is located on the inner side of the back of the thigh and helps in hip extension and knee flexion.
How to Target The Hamstrings On The Leg Press
Foot Height - Placing the feet lower on the platform will increase the activation of the hamstrings while placing the feet higher will increase the activation of the glutes and quadriceps.
Foot Width - A wider foot placement will target the biceps femoris (outer hamstring), while a narrower foot placement will target the semitendinosus and semimembranosus (inner hamstrings).
Knee Angle - Keeping the knees bent at a 90-degree angle will primarily work the hamstrings, while straightening the legs will also involve the glutes and lower back muscles.
The gluteus maximus, gluteus Medius, and gluteus Minimus are the three muscles that make up the glutes.
They work together to extend the hip joint, abduct the thigh, and rotate it externally, which is necessary for proper lower body movements, including the leg press.
3 Main Parts Of The Glutes
Gluteus Maximus - This muscle is the largest and most powerful muscle in the body and is responsible for hip extension and external rotation.
Gluteus Medius - This muscle is located on the outer side of the hip and is responsible for hip abduction and internal rotation.
Gluteus Minimus - This muscle is located beneath the gluteus Medius and also contributes to hip abduction and internal rotation.
How to Target The Glutes On The Leg Press
Foot Placement - Placing the feet lower on the platform will increase the activation of the glutes and hamstrings while placing the feet higher will increase the activation of the quadriceps.
Foot Width - A wider foot placement will target the gluteus maximus, while a narrower foot placement will target the gluteus medius and minimus.
Knee Angle - Straightening the legs and locking the knees will increase glute activation, while keeping the knees bent at a 90-degree angle will focus more on the quadriceps.
By adjusting these variables during a leg press, you can effectively target the glutes and achieve optimal muscle activation.
Bonus! The Calves.
The calf muscles, or triceps surae, are located at the back of the lower leg and are responsible for the foot's plantar flexion.
Parts of the Calves
Gastrocnemius - This is the larger of the two calf muscles and gives the calf its characteristic bulge. It has two heads and is responsible for powerful plantar flexion of the foot.
Soleus - This muscle lies underneath the gastrocnemius and is responsible for plantar flexion of the foot during activities that require endurance.
How To Target the Calves on the Leg Press
Foot Placement - Place your feet all the down the footplate so that your heel is hanging off. The ball of the foot should be making contact with the plate, and the rest should be hanging off.
Straight Legs - To target the calves with a calf raise on the leg press, keep your legs and hips extended full-time, leaving only your ankle joint responsible for flexing and extending.
By placing the entire leg is a static position except for the ankle joint and calf muscle, you can effectively perform a calf raise on the leg press machine!
Leg Press Vs. Squat
Comparison of The Leg Press Vs. The Squat
The leg press is a machine-based exercise that stabilizes the body and reduces the risk of injury, making it ideal for beginners and those with joint pain.
The squat is a free-weight exercise that requires more core and upper body stability, making it a better overall compound movement for strength and athletic performance.
While both exercises are effective for building lower body strength, the squat is considered a more functional movement that translates better to real-life activities and sports.
Muscles Worked By The Leg Press Vs. The Squat
The leg press primarily targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes because it is a closed-chain exercise where the feet are in a fixed position and the body moves against resistance.
This allows for greater isolation of the lower body muscles compared to the squat, which is a multi-joint, compound exercise that engages the entire body, including the upper body muscles for stabilization.
In addition to the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, the squat also targets the erector spinae muscles of the lower back, the core muscles for stability, and upper body muscles including the chest, shoulders, and arms to some extent.
Overall, the leg press is a great exercise for targeting specific lower body muscles, while the squat is a more complete exercise that targets multiple muscle groups throughout the body.
Both exercises have their own unique benefits and can be effective for building strength and muscle mass, depending on individual goals and preferences.
Pros and Cons Quick List
Leg Press Pros:
- Low risk of injury
- Isolates lower body muscles effectively
- Can be easier on joints
Leg Press Cons:
- Limited range of motion
- Less overall muscle activation compared to the squat
- Can lead to muscle imbalances if overused
- Engages multiple muscle groups, including core and upper body
- Greater range of motion than the leg press
- Builds functional strength and athleticism
- Higher risk of injury without proper form and technique
- May be too challenging for beginners or those with joint pain
- Requires more equipment and space than the leg press.
Leg Press Muscles Worked FAQ
Does the Leg Press Work The Glutes?
Yes, the leg press can work the glutes, especially when the feet are placed lower on the platform and the knees are straightened at the movement's top.
While it primarily targets the quads, the glutes are tested during the leg press.
Horizontal Seated Leg Press Muscles Worked...
Like any other leg press, the horizontal seated leg press isolates the lower body and targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes in a very safe an effective manor.
Incline Linear Leg Press Muscles Worked
The incline linear leg press primarily targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Additionally, it can also engage the calves and lower back muscles to a lesser extent.
The linear leg press is great for loading up a lot of weight and challenging yourself in a straight range of motion similar to the squat while not placing so much strain on the lower back and balance.
Vertical Leg Press Muscles Worked.
The vertical leg press, similar to other leg presses, will generally target the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
The vertical leg press is especially good at targeting the glutes and hamstrings, though , compared to other leg press machine types.
Is Leg Press a Compound Exercise?
Yes, the leg press is considered a compound exercise as it targets multiple muscle groups at once, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It involves the movement of multiple joints, such as the knee and hip, which allows for greater muscle activation and overall strength development.
Additionally, the use of heavier weights on the leg press machine can also provide benefits for other compound exercises, such as the squat and deadlift.
Single Leg Leg Press Muscles Worked
The single-leg leg press primarily targets the same muscles as the traditional leg press, including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but with a greater emphasis on unilateral leg strength and stability.
It may also require more core engagement of the core to engage one side of the lower body while the other side is not activated.
Does The Leg Press Build Big Legs?
Yes, the leg press can help build big legs when combined with a proper workout routine and nutrition plan.
It's a compound exercise that targets multiple lower body muscles, allowing for heavier loads to be lifted compared to isolated exercises.
Consistently challenging the muscles with progressive overload and consuming adequate protein and calories can promote muscle growth and hypertrophy.
In conclusion, the leg press is a compound exercise that can effectively target and build the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
Its variations, including the horizontal seated leg press, incline linear leg press, vertical leg press, and single-leg leg press, can add variety and challenge to the exercise.
While the leg press can be a valuable addition to a leg workout routine and help build bigger legs, it should not be the sole exercise for leg training.
Incorporating other exercises, such as squats and lunges, can help improve overall lower body strength and muscle development.
It's important to use proper form, gradually increase weight and vary foot placement to target specific muscles and achieve optimal results.
If you are looking into a leg press of your own or for your gym facility, check out our full collection of leg press machines from top brands across the united states!