I love the leg press. It’s my favourite machine at the gym. Not least because it’s the only one where I can actually lift more than three bars of weight. In fact, I can lift more than I weigh. I’m not sure if that will ever come in handy, but it’s something I’m proud of.
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However, I’ve often wondered if I’m actually doing it right as I don’t go that far down before I return to the start.
Turns out, that’s not a bad thing, Going too low on the leg press is actually one of the most common gym mistakes people make. It seems that bending your knees too deeply on the leg press puts pressure on them when you lift back up, and probably also reduces the pressure on your glutes as well-meaning they aren’t working as hard as you’d want them to on this machine. So, at this point, I wondered…
Just how low should you go on the leg press?
To answer that question, I got on the phone to one of my go-to trainers here in Australia, Max Spessot, club manager at the Anytime Fitness club in Paddington, Sydney, and asked his advice. ‘Ninety degrees (give or take a few degrees) is a great number to have in your mind when you are on the machine,’ he told me.
‘However, you may not have the awareness to really judge how far 90 degrees is once on the machine, so a handy tip to keep in mind re leg press depth is if you feel your butt or lower back start to lift or shift off the seat or the backrest then you are going to deep and could be potentially be putting your spine at risk (you always want to protect your spine no matter what movement you are doing).’
If you can’t get low enough to lower the leg press 90 degrees it’s possible that you’re using trying to lift too much weight – and, while that might look impressive, if it means you’re not using proper leg press form, it won’t give you results and frankly, you’re just wasting your time. If you’re not sure how to choose the right amount of weight you should lift (on any machine), check out this handy guide.
Max also said that while too low is not good, shirking on the move isn’t the correct way to do the leg press either. ‘If you go too shallow with the press (just letting the sled come down a few centimetres) you will not be getting the benefits from your workout,’ says Max.
Now, there might be some of you reading this thinking, yeah, great advice – but I’m not exactly sure how to set up and work the leg press in the first place – so, to deal with that and a few other questions you might have, here’s a few more leg press tips…
What Muscles Are Used on the Leg Press?
The clue is in the name here – you’re working the leg. Specifically, you’re targeting the quadriceps – which are the large muscles on the front of your thigh and the hamstrings that run along the back.
However, as you move through the full range of leg press motion, you’ll also give your glutes (the big muscles in your butt) and your calves a bit of a tweak too.
Because these are all large muscles, the leg press is one of the more effective calorie-burning machines in the weight room – the bigger the muscles you work, the more energy you burn.
Which Leg Press Machine Should You Use?
There are two types of leg press machine. One where you sit upright and push your legs out in front of you and one that you kind of lie under and then push up. So I had to ask Max, what’s the difference?
‘Quick answer is that the vertical leg press – where you lie down with your back on a bench and push the platform up is a bit harder,’ he told me. ‘On this machine, the platform is loaded with weight plates to add resistance, what people may not know is the platform itself is 60+ kg so if you are a beginner or not comfortable with that weight it might not be the most appropriate machine to start on.
The 45-degree leg press is the one where you sit in a chair that slides along the tracks and the platform for your feet remains static, this is usually a pin-loaded machine so you can easily select the weight you would like to start with. This is a great machine when getting started with the leg press if you are unsure or don’t feel comfortable with the platform being lowered towards you.’
From now on, therefore, we’ll be talking about the 45-degree or seated leg press.
If you want to ensure you get the best results from the seated leg press, you need to make sure the machine is set up correctly to start with – so, for this bit, I got Max on board again and he gave me his checklist…
The best basic position is:
• Sit comfortably with your back and head resting on the padded support
• Your butt should be flat on the seat and not raised
• Feet shoulder-width apart in the middle of the platform
• Toes slightly point out, with both feet flat on the platform (even pressure from heels to the balls of your feet)
• When performing the exercise knees should track over toes, not too wide and definitely not collapsing in
• Take your time with the movement, lower the plate gently and smoothly over 3 seconds, and then press back up over 1-2 seconds
• NEVER lock your knees out at the top of the movement.
This will work the quads and hamstrings in a safe way while also working the glutes and calves.
At this point, I had another, somewhat specific question for Max…
I’ve read that you shouldn’t put your hands on your legs when you use the leg press – why is that?
‘Placing your hands on your knees can compromise the position of your spine while performing the leg press and safety is number one,’ he told me. ‘Another common thing that happens when the hands are placed on your knees is that you take some of the weight into your arms helping push the legs and platform up,’ he told me.
‘By performing the exercise like this it tends to give you a skewed view of what weight is suitable for you, and performing the exercise with too heavy a weight for you may result in injury.’
Oops, best I stop doing that then!
How to Make the Leg Press Work Harder
Obviously the more weight you put on the harder you work, but it’s not the only way to change up what you’re doing and how hard you work.
‘Changing the position of your feet can slightly alter the muscles you work,’ says Max. ‘Putting your feet higher on the platform will put more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings, putting them lower on the platform will put more emphasis on the quads.
You can also put a ball between your knees as you push. This will help stop your knees collapsing inward when performing the exercise – that’s another common mistake and it stops the correct muscles working effectively.’
If you’ve not got a ball, you can buy a small exercise ball here – they’re really useful for making all sorts of moves harder.
Squats vs Leg Press: Which is better?
While both machines work your legs, squats work a few more muscles than the leg press does because there’s a level of balance involved – and a greater range of motion.
And of course, you don’t need to do squats at the gym – unlike leg presses – which might mean you do them more often.
However, when you compare the results of squats or leg press – there’s actually not much difference. One study comparing the leg press vs squats found no real difference in the gains from the two exercises.
However, to get the best results from your squats again, form matters- but here the answer to how low should you go is as low as you can without putting any additional pressure on your knees. So long as it’s comfortable you should dip the squat as far as you can go rather than stopping when your thighs are parallel to the floor.
It was believed this put excess pressure on the knees, but it’s now known that this isn’t true. If you can do a parallel squat – where the thighs and knees are at a 90-degree angle to each other – without any problems try moving your bottom closer toward the floor to boost results.
Also, watch where you’re looking. Looking down as you squat causes you to lean back which works your glute muscles in your bottom more than the leg as a whole – it also puts you at risk of back problems say researchers at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To stay in the right position, fix your eyes at the point where the wall and ceiling meet and keep your gaze there as you move.
So there you have it – the definitive answer to how low to go on the leg press – and other leg press-related advice! Did we miss anything? Then please ask the question in the comments and I’ll get back on the phone to Max.