You know the feeling all too well. You’ve been hitting the gym regularly, working hard on your lower body, and putting effort into the leg press machine. But lately, you’ve felt like something’s missing.
Your legs just don’t feel as strong or balanced as they could be, and you’re not seeing the progress you want. Maybe you’ve even started experiencing pain or discomfort in your lower back or knees from overreliance on the leg press machine.
It’s frustrating, and you’re ready for a change. That’s where leg press alternatives come in. By incorporating different exercises into your lower body routine, you can target muscles in new and effective ways, leading to a more balanced and strong lower body.
And the best part? We’ve covered you with seven leg press alternatives, including some you can do from home.
Why Leg Press?
One of the main reasons why most lifters like to do leg presses are its convenience. Unlike squats and other lower body exercises that require a lot of technique and mobility, the leg press is a relatively simple movement that can be done with just a few adjustments to the machine.
Another reason the leg press is so popular is because it allows you to work your legs more isolatedly than squats and other compound exercises. This can be especially helpful if you’re recovering from an injury or trying to target specific areas of your legs, such as quads or glutes.
So, Why ditch other exercises for leg press?
Of course, that’s not to say that other lower body exercises aren’t effective – they are! But if you’re looking for a convenient, efficient way to target your legs and get a great workout, the leg press is a solid choice. Incorporating leg press alternatives into your routine allows you to work different muscles and avoid boredom or burnout.
What Muscles Does the Leg Press Target?
The primary muscles worked during a leg press exercise are your quadriceps or the muscles on the front of your thigh, as shown in the picture. The quadriceps extend your knee and hip joints, which you do during a leg press.
The leg press also works your hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles, albeit to a lesser extent.
It’s worth noting that the leg press targets your muscles differently depending on how you position your feet on the platform. Placing your feet high on the platform targets your quadriceps while placing them low on the platform emphasizes your glutes and hamstrings.
Knowing which muscles the leg press targets can help you identify which leg press alternatives will be most effective for your goals. For example, if you want to target your glutes specifically, you’ll want to incorporate exercises like the Bulgarian split squat or hip thrusts into your routine.
Best Leg Press with Machine
#1. Front Squat
Front squats are an excellent alternative to the leg press for several reasons. First, front squats work many of the same muscles as the leg press, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. However, unlike the leg press, a machine-based exercise isolating the leg muscles, front squats are a free-weight exercise involving the entire body.
Performing a front squat involves resting a barbell across the front of your shoulders and holding it with an overhand grip. This places the load directly over the centre of your body, making it a more functional movement than the leg press.
How to do
- Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell resting on your upper chest and shoulders.
- Grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, keeping your elbows high and pointed forward.
- Brace your core, engage your glutes, and slowly lower yourself into a squatting position.
- Keep your knees aligned with your toes and your chest lifted as you descend.
- Once your thighs parallel the ground, push through your heels to stand back up, keeping the barbell steady on your shoulders.
- Weight plates
Common mistakes to avoid
- Letting your knees cave inwards
- Allowing your back to round
- Relying too much on your toes instead of pushing through your heels
- Resting the barbell on your fingertips instead of supporting it with your whole hand
- Focus on keeping your elbows up and your chest lifted throughout the movement
- Use a weight that challenges you without compromising your form
- Incorporate front squats into your lower body workout routine at least once weekly to see results.
#2. Hack Squats
Hack squats primarily target your quadriceps but also engage your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Not only do hack squats provide a similar movement pattern to the leg press, but they also help to improve your squatting technique and overall lower body strength.
Unlike the leg press, hack squats involve a more natural range of motion and require more stabilization from your core, which can help to improve your balance and coordination.
How To do
- Start by positioning yourself in the hack squat machine with your back against the back pad and your shoulders hooked under the shoulder pads.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform with your toes slightly pointed outwards.
- Place your arms on the side handles of the machine and disengage the safety bars by moving the side handles from a facing front position to a diagonal position.
- Begin to slowly lower the unit by bending your knees while keeping a straight posture and your head up.
- Continue to lower until the angle between your upper legs and calves becomes slightly less than 90 degrees, which is the point where your upper legs are below parallel to the floor.
- Inhale as you perform this portion of the movement.
- Begin to raise the unit by pushing the floor mainly with the heel of your foot as you straighten your legs and return to the starting position.
- Exhale as you perform this portion of the movement.
- Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.
Equipment needed for hack squats:
To perform hack squats, you will need a hack squat machine. This machine is typically found in commercial gyms, but some home gym setups may also have one.
- Allowing the knees to cave inwards during the descent
- Rounding the back or leaning too far forward during the movement
- Lifting the heels off the platform puts unnecessary strain on the knees
- Not fully extending the legs at the top of the movement
- Focus on keeping the knees in line with the toes throughout the movement
- Keep your back straight and your chest up to maintain proper form
- Press through your heels to engage the glutes and hamstrings
#3. Back Squat
Back squats are a popular strength training exercise that can be a great alternative to the leg press machine. This is because back squats work many of the same muscle groups as the leg press, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. Squats are also great for improving your core strength and stability.
How to do
- Approach the squat rack and position the bar at about armpit height.
- Place your hands on the bar and ensure it’s centred on the rack.
- Unrack the bar by pushing your hips forward and stepping back.
- Set your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed slightly outward.
- Take a deep breath and brace your core.
- Squat down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees.
- Keep your chest up and your back straight.
- If your mobility allows, descend until your thighs are parallel to the ground or lower.
- Push through your heels to stand back up, keeping your core braced and maintaining a straight back.
- Lock out your hips and knees at the top of the movement.
Equipment Needed for Back Squats
You will need a squat rack, a barbell, and weight plates to perform back squats. You can also use a lifting belt for added support and protection.
Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- Rounding the back
- Leaning too far forward
- Allowing knees to cave inwards
- Letting weight shift too far forward or backward
- Warm up properly before performing heavy back squats.
- Focus on form over weight. Using lighter weights and performing the exercise correctly is better than lifting heavy with poor form.
- Vary your foot position to target different muscles. A wider stance will target your glutes and hamstrings, while a narrower stance will target your quads.
- Use a spotter when performing heavy lifts.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with different bar positions and grips to find what works best for you.
- Always listen to your body and adjust your weight and form accordingly.
#4. Leg extensions
Leg extensions are a great alternative to the leg press because they isolate the quads and do not demand much recovery for other muscles or joints. Leg extensions are beneficial because they help to accumulate more training volume for the quads, optimize their development, and build quads at a higher priority than other muscles.
Equipment needed for Leg Extensions
- Leg extension machine
How to do
- Set the back seat so the hips reach an angle greater than 90 degrees. This ensures that the rectus femoris head of the quads can contract as much as possible down at the knee. Pull your butt down into the seat to lock you into the machine and prevent power from leaking out of the system.
- Sit with your back against the back pad and your legs under the machine’s pad.
- Position your toes: Point your toes straight ahead or slightly in, depending on your experience level.
- Slowly extend your legs until they are straight, contracting your quads. Hold this position for a moment to maximize the time under tension.
- Slowly lower the weight to the starting position without letting it rest at the bottom.
- Raising your butt off the seat reduces the range of motion and increases the risk of injury.
- Setting the seat too far forward causes the rectus femoris head to be shortened at the hip, reducing its contribution to knee extension.
- Using momentum to lift the weight instead of using the muscles defeats the purpose of the exercise.
- Focus on progressively overloading by improving mind-muscle connection, technique, and pump over time rather than steadily increasing the weight.
- If you cannot add more weight, add an extra rep instead.
#5. Inverted Smith machine leg press
As I continue discussing the Inverted Smith Machine Leg Press, it’s important to note that this exercise is a variation of the traditional vertical leg press machine and can be performed with a Smith machine or a barbell on the floor.
The Inverted Smith Machine Leg Press is a great exercise to add to your leg day routine because it places less stress on your lower back than traditional leg press machines that require you to sit or stand up.
It allows for a greater range of motion, targeting your muscles from a different angle. Moreover, it challenges your stability and balance, engaging your core muscles.
How to do
- Begin by lying on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the Smith machine bar or barbell.
- Rotate the bar away from you so it’s perpendicular to your body.
- Take your hands in a diamond shape and put them underneath your low back. This will remind you to push your low back down into the ground while you drive your feet forward.
- Push your low back into the ground as hard as possible while bringing your knees into your armpits, pushing the bar away from you at a 45-degree angle.
- Lower the bar towards your chest, but don’t hyperextend your knees. Keep a slight bend in your knees and contract your glutes as you lower the weight.
- Push the bar away from you, straightening your legs but not locking your knees. Keep your core engaged and your low back pressed into the ground.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
You will need a Smith machine or barbell and weights for this exercise.
- Not keeping your low back pressed into the ground throughout the exercise.
- Allowing your knees to hyperextend at the top of the movement.
- Not engaging your glutes as you push the weight away from your body.
- Vary your foot position on the bar to target different areas of your legs.
- Focus on squeezing your glutes as you push the weight away from your body.
- Try incorporating pauses at the top or bottom of the movement to increase the time under tension for your muscles.
- Keep the weight light and focus on higher reps to feel the burn in your legs.
Best Leg Press Alternatives Without Any Equipment
#6. Pistol Squats
Pistol Squats are a highly effective exercise that works the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. It is a bodyweight exercise that mimics the leg press, making it an excellent alternative for those who do not have access to a leg press machine or prefer exercises that do not require equipment.
How to do
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and raise one leg off the ground, keeping it straight.
- Lower yourself to a squatting position on one leg, keeping the other leg straight and off the ground.
- As you squat down, keep your heel on the ground, your chest up, and your knee over your toes.
- When you reach the bottom of the squat, pause briefly and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, switch legs and repeat.
- Allowing your knee to cave inward
- Not keeping your heel on the ground
- Not keeping your chest up
- Lowering too quickly or not controlling the descent
- Start with a touchdown squat to build up the foundation of a single-leg squat.
- Focus on keeping your heel on the ground, your chest up, and your knee over your toes.
- Gradually increase the difficulty by lowering yourself to a deeper squat over time.
- Do not rush the movement; focus on proper form and control.
#7. Bulgarian split squat
The main muscles worked during a Bulgarian split squat are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, making it a full lower-body workout. However, the exercise emphasizes the quads and glutes more than leg presses do. This emphasis makes it an excellent exercise for those looking to strengthen these muscles.
Furthermore, Bulgarian split squats can be more effective than leg presses in activating muscle fibres. You’re working each leg independently by using a single leg, which can lead to more muscle fibre recruitment. This recruitment can help to build strength and improve balance.
How to do
- Start by standing in a lunge position with one foot forward and the other foot behind you. Place the back foot on a bench, box, or a small stack of plates.
- Keeping your torso upright and your core engaged, lower your body until your back knee or nearly touches the ground.
- Pause at the bottom, then push through your front heel to return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- Elevating the back foot too high can limit your depth and lead to a compensatory weight shift to the back leg.
- Shifting your weight to the back leg This defeats the purpose of the exercise and overemphasizes the back leg.
- Allowing the knee to cave in can place stress on the knee joint and increase the risk of injury.
- Keep 90% of your weight on your front leg to target your quads and glutes effectively.
- Experiment with your length until you find a position where your shin and torso angles are parallel.
- This can help improve mobility and core stability.
- Switching the weight to the same side as your stance leg can emphasize the glutes on the ascent and help with hip pain.
#8. Sissy squat
This exercise is a great alternative to the leg press machine and can help you achieve serious growth and separation in your quads.
The sissy squat primarily targets the quads but also works the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. By leaning back and lowering your body with your heels elevated, you emphasize your quads more than you would with a traditional squat or leg press machine. This makes it a great exercise to add to your leg day routine.
How to do
- Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and with the heels of your feet on a sturdy block about 2-4 inches high.
- Lean back until your body forms a straight line from your neck to your knees. Your knees will be bent slightly in the starting position.
- Slowly lower your body towards the ground, keeping your back straight and your heels elevated. You should feel a deep burning in your quads.
- Once you reach the bottom of the movement, push yourself back up to the starting position, squeezing your quads at the top.
- Repeat for as many reps as you can with good form.
- Leaning too far back: While it is important to lean back to target your quads, it can put too much stress on your lower back. Make sure to maintain a straight line from your neck to your knees.
- Not elevating your heels: Elevating your heels makes this exercise a sissy squat. If you do not elevate your heels, you will not effectively target your quads.
- Letting your knees cave in. Keep your knees aligned with your toes throughout the movement to avoid placing unnecessary stress on your knees.
- While other muscles are engaged in the movement, tightening your quads at the top of the movement can help you get the most out of it.
- If you’re new to the exercise, begin with a modest range of motion and then go to a deeper squat as your strength and balance improve.
What builds more muscle, squats or leg presses?
Both squats and leg presses are effective exercises for building muscle in the lower body. However, research suggests squats may be slightly more effective at building lower body strength and muscle size. The leg press can still be a great addition to your workout routine, especially if you specifically target the quads.
What is a respectable leg press weight?
The weight considered respectable on the leg press will vary depending on your fitness level and goals. As a general guideline, men should aim to lift at least 2-2.5 times their body weight on the leg press, while women should aim for 1.5-2 times their body weight. However, it’s important to focus on progress over time rather than comparing yourself to others and always lift with proper form and safety.
What is the dumbbell equivalent to a leg press?
The dumbbell equivalent to the leg press is the dumbbell goblet squat. This exercise involves holding a dumbbell vertically against your chest, squatting down as low as possible, and then standing back up. It primarily targets the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, similar to the leg press machine.
What builds more muscle, squats or leg presses?
Both squats and leg presses can build muscle, but squats are generally considered more effective because they engage a wider range of muscles and require more stabilization.