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.
Leg Press Vs. Squat | The Ultimate Leg Day Controversy
Possibly the biggest controversy in the entire topic of leg day exercises.
Squat Vs Leg Press.
These two weightlifting exercises are popular for targeting the lower body, but which is better?
In this article, we'll dive deep into the leg press machine vs. barbell squat debate to help you determine which exercise is right for you when to use them, and answer commonly asked questions.
Whether you're a seasoned athlete or just starting out, we'll provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision about your training.
So, let's get started!
The Leg Press Machine Vs. Barbell Squat Overview
Leg Press Mechanics
The leg press is a resistance training exercise that involves pushing weight away from the body using the legs.
It is typically performed on a machine with a sled or platform moving along a track.
The user sits or lies on the seat and pushes the weight away from their body using the hip and knee joints.
Like the squat, the leg press is a compound exercise targeting multiple muscle groups through the posterior and anterior lower body chain.
Muscles Targeted By The Leg Press
The leg press primarily targets the muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It will place the most strain on the quads if it is a leg extension heavy movement, with support provided by the glutes to keep the knees stable and following with help from the hamstrings to extend the knee.
Leg Press Types and Variations
The leg press exercise has several different types and variations, including the horizontal leg press, vertical leg press, and incline leg press.
Some machines allow users to perform the exercise with a narrow or wide stance, which can affect the muscles targeted.
Additionally, users can adjust the weight and number of repetitions to suit their fitness level and goals.
The squat is a compound exercise that involves bending at the hips, knees, and ankles to lower the body into a squatting position and then standing back up again.
The movement is typically performed with a barbell placed on the shoulders, but it can also be performed with dumbbells, kettlebells, or just body weight.
The squat is one of if not the oldest exercises in the book for leg day training and is used worldwide for its effective leg benefits.
Muscles Targeted By The Barbell Squat
The squat is a full-body exercise that primarily targets the muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
It engages the core, back, and upper body to stabilize the weight and maintain proper form throughout the movement.
The squat is exhausting, requiring effort from the legs and many other muscles to help keep balance, stability, and upright posture.
The form and technique of the squat are a keystones of proper results using the movement, which is why it is a competitive powerlifting exercise.
Barbell Squat Variations
There are several different variations of the squat exercise, each with its own unique benefits and drawbacks. Here are a few common variations:
- Front Squat: Similar to the traditional squat, but with the barbell held in front of the body instead of on the shoulders. This variation places more emphasis on the quadriceps and core muscles.
- Box Squat: Performed by squatting down onto a box or bench, which helps to improve depth and form. This variation can also reduce stress on the knees and lower back.
- Safety Bar Squat: Performed with a specialized barbell that rests on the shoulders and features handles for increased stability. This variation can be helpful for those with shoulder or wrist injuries.
- Smith Machine Squat: Performed using a Smith machine, which provides a fixed bar path and can help to improve stability and control. However, this variation can also limit the range of motion and may not be suitable for all users.
- Free Weight Lunges: Performed by stepping forward with one foot and lowering the body down into a lunge position, then returning to the starting position and repeating with the other leg. This variation can help to improve balance, stability, and single-leg strength.
Each of these variations can be adjusted to suit the user's fitness level and goals and can be combined in different ways to create a well-rounded lower-body workout.
Benefits Of The Leg Press
Increased leg strength: The leg press is a great exercise for isolating the muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Users can consistently perform the leg press exercise to increase their lower body strength and power, improving their overall athletic performance.
Low risk of injury: The leg press can be safer than the squat for those new to weightlifting or with limited mobility. Because the leg press machine provides a fixed range of motion and supports the weight, there is less risk of injury from improper form or overload.
Hypertrophy and muscle mass: By challenging the muscles of the lower body with heavy weights and high reps, the leg press can also help to increase muscle mass and size by easily achieving hypertrophy. This can lead to a more toned and defined lower body.
Low reliance on form: The leg press unlike the squat, does not rely on form and technique to move the weight nearly as much. Proper form is mandatory for a safe an effective workout, but the squat demands far more attention to technique.
Suitable for Beginners or those with limitations: The leg press can be a great option for those with injuries or limitations that prevent them from performing the squat exercise. Users can customize the leg press to suit their needs and abilities by adjusting the weight and range of motion.
The leg press is a great exercise for targeting the lower body muscles, increasing strength and muscle mass, and reducing the risk of injury. While it may not be a perfect substitute for the squat, it can be valuable to any lower-body workout routine.
A study by the National Library of Medicine compared squatting movements and leg presses, which support the benefit of leg press machines in that they activate several lower body muscle groups, similar to the squatting movements, but with the added benefit of safety and muscle isolation featured in the leg press.
Related: 11 Benefits Of The Leg Press Machine
Drawbacks of The Leg Press Machine
Limited functional carryover: While the leg press can be an effective exercise for targeting the muscles of the lower body, it may not have the same functional carryover to other movements as the squat. This is because the leg press is a machine-based exercise that provides a fixed range of motion and may not engage the core and stabilizer muscles as much as free-weight exercises.
Limited variety: While there are several different types and variations of the leg press exercise, it can still be limited in terms of its variety compared to other lower body exercises. This can be an issue for those who get bored with the same exercises and need more variety in their workouts.
Some risk of injury: While the leg press can be a safer exercise than the squat for those new to weightlifting or with limited mobility, it can still pose a risk of injury if not performed correctly. Users who overload the weight, use improper form, or push themselves too hard can be at risk of muscle strains, joint pain, or other injuries.
Limited engagement of core muscles: As mentioned earlier, the leg press machine may not engage the core and stabilizer muscles as much as free-weight exercises. This can be an issue for those who want to improve overall core strength and stability. This can seen as a pro and a con.
Requires a machine: As the name implies, the leg press machine requires one. There are makeshift versions of this to attempt to imitate a leg press, but it imitates a squat. You must have access to a leg press to do the leg press.
Benefits Of The Barbell Squat
Improved overall strength: The barbell squat is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups, including the lower body, core, and upper body. By consistently performing the barbell squat exercise, users can increase their overall strength and power, improving their performance in other exercises and daily activities.
Improved mobility and flexibility: The barbell squat requires a full range of motion at the hips, knees, and ankles, which can improve joint mobility and flexibility over time. This can be especially beneficial for those with limited mobility or who spend much time sitting or standing in one position.
Increased muscle mass: By challenging the muscles of the lower body with heavy weights and high reps, the barbell squat can also help to increase muscle mass and size. This can lead to a more toned and defined lower body. It's one of the original methods of growing the legs.
Improved functional carryover: The barbell squat is a free-weight exercise that engages the core and stabilizer muscles, which can have a greater functional carryover to real-world movements than machine-based exercises like the leg press. This can be especially beneficial for athletes or those who want to improve their performance in specific sports or activities.
Variety of variations: There are several different variations of the barbell squat exercise, including the front squat, back squat, and box squat, which can provide a variety of benefits and target different muscle groups. This helps keep workouts interesting and challenging.
- Hormonal Increase In Testosterone and HGH: The squat has been proven through multiple research studies to promote the release of good muscle-building hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone.
The barbell squat is a highly effective for improving overall strength, mobility, flexibility, and muscle mass. It has a greater functional carryover to real-world movements than machine-based exercises like the leg press.
Drawbacks Of The Barbell Squat
Increased risk of injury: The barbell squat can be a challenging exercise that places significant stress on the joints, especially the knees and lower back. If not performed with proper form or overloaded with too much weight, the barbell squat can pose a risk of injury, including muscle strains, joint pain, or more serious injuries.
Requires attention to technique and form: Because the barbell squat requires a high level of technical proficiency and proper equipment, it may not be suitable for all users. Beginners may need to spend extra time learning proper form and technique before adding weight, and those with mobility or injury issues may need to modify the exercise or use alternative exercises.
Can be Ineffective for newbies: The barbell squat is a challenging exercise that requires significant strength and endurance. It may not suit those new to weightlifting or who have limited fitness levels. Users may need to start with lighter weights or alternative exercises and gradually work up to more challenging variations.
Can be taxing on the central nervous system: Because the barbell squat is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups, it can be very taxing on the central nervous system. This can make performing other exercises or activities difficult after a heavy squat workout.
May not be appropriate for certain populations: The barbell squat may not be appropriate for certain populations, such as older adults, pregnant women, or those with certain medical conditions. These individuals may need to modify the exercise or use alternative exercises to avoid injury or complications.
Comparison of the Leg Press and Squat
Leg Press and Squat Similarities
Both primarily target the muscles of the lower body: The leg press and squat exercises are both highly effective for targeting the muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Both exercises can help to improve lower body strength, power, and muscle mass.
Both can be adjusted to suit user needs: Both the leg press and squat exercises can be adjusted to suit the user's fitness level and goals. Users can adjust the weight, a number of repetitions and range of motion to create a workout that meets their needs and abilities.
Both can be performed with some variation: Both the leg press and squat exercises can be performed with different variations to target different muscle groups or provide variety in workouts. This can help to keep workouts interesting and challenging.
Both require a degree of proper form and technique: Both the leg press and squat exercises require proper form and technique to be performed safely and effectively. Users must maintain proper alignment, engage the correct muscles, and avoid overloading the weight to reduce the risk of injury.
Both promote bone growth and density: Both the leg press and squat, as weight lifting exercises, are proven by science to increase bone density and growth and fight against bone diseases like osteoporosis.
Leg Press and Squat Differences
Different mechanics: The leg press and squat exercises have different mechanics. The leg press is a machine-based exercise that provides a fixed range of motion, while the squat is a free-weight exercise that requires the user to maintain proper balance and control throughout the movement.
Different muscle activation: While both exercises target the muscles of the lower body, they may activate different muscle groups to varying degrees. For example, the leg press may activate the quadriceps and hamstrings more than the glutes, while the squat may activate all three muscle groups more evenly. This was in-depth research in the study from the National Library of Medicine.
Different injury risks: While both exercises pose a risk of injury if not performed with the proper form and technique, they may pose different types of injury risks. For example, the leg press may place more stress on the knees and lower back, while the squat may place more stress on the hips and spine as well as pose the risk of being crushed by the barbell.
Different functional carryovers: While both exercises can improve lower body strength and muscle mass, they may have different functional carryovers to real-world movements. As a free-weight exercise that engages the core and stabilizer muscles, the squat may have a greater functional carryover than the leg press, a machine-based exercise that provides a fixed range of motion.
Different skill levels required: While both exercises can be adjusted to suit the user's fitness level and goals, they may require different skill levels to perform safely and effectively. The leg press may be easier to learn and perform correctly, while the squat may require more technical proficiency and practice to master.
Best Practices For The Squat
When to Squat:
The squat exercise can be incorporated into a leg day workout routine at the beginning of the workout.
Do your normal leg day warm-up, but since the leg press is highly taxing on the muscles and nervous system, its best to do all of your squat sets at the beginning of the workout.
Variations of the Squat:
You can perform several variations of the squat exercise in substitute for or following the regular squat, including the front squat, box squat, safety bar squat, Smith machine squat, and free weight lunges.
These variations can target different muscle groups or provide variety in workouts.
Programming the Squat:
Because of its complexity and emphasis on technique and strategy, the programming of the squat should not be taken lightly. Although there is some general information about programming the squat for your knowledge.
When incorporating the squat exercise into a workout routine, it's important to program it appropriately to avoid overtraining, undertraining, or injury.
This includes starting with lighter weights and gradually increasing the weight and intensity over time, allowing for adequate rest and recovery between workouts.
Since the exercise is recommended at the beginning of the workout, feel free to experiment with rep ranges of 2-6 sets of 2-12 reps for optimal form maintenance and adequate intensity.
Best Practices for The Leg Press
When to use the leg press:
One of the super powers of the leg press is its effectiveness at any stage of a workout.
You can easily warm up with it, use it as the main exercise in your workout, supplement to squat with it or make it a finishing touch to the end of a leg day workout.
Leg Press Variations:
The leg press machine has several variations, including the vertical leg press, angled leg press, and single-leg leg press.
These variations can target different muscle groups or provide variety in workouts.
Also, feel free to include machines that are alternatives to the leg press for a similar effect but with added versatility.
Programming the Leg Press:
When incorporating the leg press machine into a workout routine, it's important to program it appropriately to avoid overtraining, training or injury, exactly like the squat.
You should always start with a lower weight to gauge tour strength and progressively overload over time. That is an added benefit of the leg press.
You can overload weight, directly on your leg muscles, with little added safety risks.
The leg press is great at many set and rep ranges because of its versatility.
Experiment with rep ranges from 5-25 for around 3-5 working sets.
Our favorites at Select Fitness USA are 3 sets of 8 with heavyweight, 4 sets of 15 with let weight, or 2-3 sets of 25 with very lightweight for burnout.
Squat Vs. Leg Press FAQs
Can You Squat And Leg Press on The Same Day?
Yes, performing both the squat and leg press on the same day is optimal.
Do your squats first, as they are harder and more taxing on the body. When at or near failure with squats, put a lower weight on the leg press machine and switch rep ranges to a higher volume amount.
This will help add hypertrophy and a varied rep range to your leg day, even while training for strength.
Why Is The Squat Harder Than The Leg Press?
The squat is considered harder than the leg press due to its free-weight nature, which requires the user to maintain proper balance and control throughout the movement.
Additionally, the squat requires the engagement of the core and stabilizer muscles, which may not be as activated during the leg press.
If you examine the squat, it is a straight up and down movement, meaning if you put 100 lbs. on your back, you are squatting 100 lbs. The leg press, though, oftentimes is at an angle, so 100 lbs. can require as little as 70 lbs. of force to move the leg press footplate.
The squat also places more emphasis on the glutes and lower back muscles, which can make it more challenging for some users.
Finally, the squat can be more technically demanding and requires practice to master, while the leg press can be easier to perform with the correct form and technique.
Is The Leg Press Or Squat Better For Muscle Mass?
The leg press and squat exercises can effectively build muscle mass in the lower body. So use both.
The leg press exercise may be more effective for targeting and isolating the quadriceps with support from the glutes and hamstrings. In contrast, the squat exercise may be more effective for engaging and exhausting the full lower body.
Is The Leg Press Or Squat Better For Strength?
The leg press and squat exercises can both effectively build lower body strength.
However, the squat exercise may be more effective for improving overall lower body strength and power.
It requires the user to engage the core and stabilizer muscles, which are important for functional movement and sports performance.
Additionally, the squat exercise has been shown to activate a greater number of muscle fibers and to promote greater hormonal responses, which can lead to greater strength gains over time.
Is The Leg Press Bad For You?
No, with proper form and appropriate weight, the leg press is not bad for you.
As mentioned before, it is very beneficial for all types of people.
Is Squatting Bad for You?
No, just like the leg press, when performed with good technique and proper form, the squat exercise is good for anybody that does it.
Squatting can add a risk of injury when performed incorrectly, just like an exercise, so ensure you get the help you need if you are not experienced.
Which is Better, the Leg Press or Squats?
To end this age-old controversy, we say neither.
The two exercises are different. With different benefits and drawbacks that users can capitalize on with the use of BOTH.
That's right, we said it; you actually should use both.
The combination of the squat and the leg press is one of the most beneficial exercise duos we over at Select Fitness USA are using to train our legs.
Ending The Controversy
In conclusion, the leg press and squat exercises can effectively build lower body strength and muscle mass. So you should use both if you have access to both.
While there are some differences between the two exercises, including the targeted muscle groups and the difficulty level, both exercises can be adjusted to meet individual needs and goals.
The most important factors for success with either exercise are proper form and technique, progressive overload, and listening to your body to avoid overtraining, undertraining, and injury.
You're ahead of the pack as long as you do something to train your legs!