Leg Press vs Squat – Introduction
When it comes to the leg press vs squat – which is better for you to do?
If you want to reach your strength, fitness, or physique potential, leg training is a must.
After all, your lower body makes up about 40% of your total muscle mass.
So, whether you want to run faster, jump higher, burn fat more quickly, or look good in shorts, you can’t skip leg day.
For most exercisers, this means a steady diet of squat exercises and leg presses.
But, do you need to do both or is one exercise better than the other?
This guide compares and contrasts the leg press vs squats to determine which exercise is the best lower body lift!
Leg Press Machine 101
Leg presses are one of the most basic leg exercises around.
Because they’re a compound exercise, they work virtually every lower body muscle, including
- Quadriceps – front of the thigh
- Hamstrings – back of the thigh
- Gluteus maximus – back of the hip
- Adductors – inner thighs
- Abductors – outer thighs
Done seated or in a semi-reclined position, the leg press machine guides your movements and supports your lower back, leaving you free to focus on pumping out the reps.
Like any exercise, there are pros and cons to the leg press:
Easy to learn
The leg press is a straightforward exercise that’s ideal for beginners.
It’s easy to learn, and most users should pick it up in a few minutes.
The leg press machine makes it easier to maintain a neutral spine and reduces the stress on your lower back.
There is no need for a spotter
Most leg press machines have safety bars you can flip across to catch the weight so that you can train to failure without spotters.
You can leg press with one or two legs
You can use one leg at a time to ensure both legs develop evenly or use both legs to lift heavier weights.
Use to train for all goals
Go heavy for low reps to build strength, light weights for higher repetitions to develop endurance or moderate weights for medium reps for hypertrophy.
A good assistance exercise for squats and deadlifts
Indeed, if you look at the leg press and the deadlift, the initial pull of the deadlift closely resembles pushing the weight up in leg presses, including the angle of your torso.
An excellent cue to power the first phase of your deadlift is to imagine doing a vertical leg press.
This tip will help you focus on pushing the floor away from you with your feet instead of attempting to lift the weight with your back or arms.
While leg presses can’t replace squats and deadlifts, they can undoubtedly be an excellent supplementary exercise.
While most gyms have a leg press machine, they’re big and expensive, so they may not be practical for home gyms.
You’ll also need a good supply of weight plates as the leg press allows you to lift heavy loads.
Not as safe as you might think
While the weight is guided on rods and your back is supported, the leg press is not 100% safe.
For example, if you lower the weight too far, your lower back will round, which could cause injury.
Not very functional
When was the last time you pushed a heavy weight up while lying on your back?
Leg presses are not as functional as some other leg exercises.
Limited uses for a leg press machine
There aren’t many ways to use a leg press, and the only other exercise you can do with one is calf raises.
If space is short or your budget is limited, there is more versatile exercise equipment available.
The barbell squat is often called the king of free-weight exercises, and that’s a well-deserved title.
Entire workout plans have been written around squats, including the 20-rep squat routine and the Bulgarian method, which involves squatting almost every day.
Squats are also the first lift contested in powerlifting competitions, regularly feature in strongman competitions, and are a cornerstone exercise for athletes from all sports.
Like leg presses, squats train all your major lower-body muscle groups and work several upper body muscles, depending on the variation performed.
The main muscles developed by squats are:
- Quadriceps – front of the thigh – vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris
- Hamstrings – back of the thigh – biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus.
- Gluteus maximus – back of the hip
- Adductors – inner thighs
- Abductors – outer thighs
- Core muscles of your midsection
- Erector spinae muscles of the lower back
- Thoracic extensor muscles of the mid/upper back
As with the leg press machine, there are pros and cons to doing squats:
It’s very functional
It’s hard to get through a single day without doing at least a few squats.
So, if you are in a seated position reading this, it’s a sure-fire bet that you’ve done at least one squat today!
Squats (the exercise) have a significant carry-over to squats (the movement pattern).
Great exercise for all fitness goals
Whatever fitness goals you are training for, squats will help you get there.
Squats are very versatile and can be used to build muscle mass, strength, or endurance.
They’re also an excellent fat burner.
There are lots of different squat variations from which to choose.
With little more than a barbell and dumbbells, you can do a variety of squats exercises, such as:
- Back squat
- Front squat
- Hack squat
- Overhead squat
- Dumbbell squat
- Zercher squat
- Paused squat
- Box squat
- Goblet squat
- Kickstand squats,
- Bulgarian squats, and
- Jump squats
A full-body exercise
Freeweight squats invariably involve your upper body and your lower body, which makes them very time-efficient and also an effective calorie burner.
It can be tricky to learn
While there ARE more accessible squat variations (bodyweight, goblet, etc.), squats can be more challenging to learn and master than leg presses.
That said, most people should be able to pick this exercise up within a few workouts.
Risk of injury
Like any exercise, if you squat improperly, you may injure yourself.
However, the risk may be higher because the squat is a technically demanding exercise, so more can go wrong.
As such, if you plan on doing squats, make sure you learn How to Do Squats Properly With Or Without Weights.
Safety issues when training to failure or alone
It’s usually best to squat in a power rack to minimize the risk of an accident.
If you don’t have a power rack, you could find yourself pinned under a heavy weight if you cannot complete a rep.
Ideally, if you don’t have a power rack, you should train with a spotter.
Even then, training to failure is dangerous.
Leg Press vs Squats – Comparison
Now you know a little more about the leg press vs squat, it’s time to judge these two exercises by a few different criteria:
Developing strength generally involves lifting heavy weights for low reps, typically 1-5 per set.
Many consider squats the best exercise to build overall strength, since as well as developing your legs, they’ll strengthen your upper body and core, too.
After all, the leg press is NOT a lift contested in powerlifting or strongman events!
On the other hand, squats are an integral part of most strength training programs like:
- 3×5 workout plan
- powerlifting for beginners
- 5/3/1 – Jim Wendler’s classic strength program
- powerbuilding program
- phraks greyskull
However, for safety, you should always squat heavier weights in a power rack.
Hypertrophy (building muscle)
Bodybuilders use leg presses and squats to build larger, more muscular legs.
As such, it’s a safe bet that both of these exercises are good for hypertrophy.
The advantage of leg presses is that, with your back supported, you are free to train to failure in relative safety.
That said, done correctly, squats are every bit as safe and effective.
Winner: It’s a draw!
Squats will probably do more for your athletic performance unless you are training specifically to get better at leg presses.
After all, they mirror the way your legs work in nature, i.e., in conjunction with your core and upper body.
So, if you want to run faster, jump higher, or kick harder, squats deserve a place in your workouts.
See the Saquon Barkley Squat: Secrets of an Electrifying NFL Runner for more details on how squats helped develop his explosive power and career.
Ease of learning
Of these two great exercises, leg presses are easier to learn.
They’re pretty much an instant exercise, and most users will have no problem getting the hang of it.
Squats are more technical and will take more time to master.
That said, because squats are a natural movement, most exercisers should become proficient within a few workouts after a couple of weeks.
However, you may require hands-on instruction to iron out or avoid any technique faults.
Winner: Leg press
There are lots of different squat variations to from which to choose.
Enough that, if you wish, you could use a different one each time you work out.
There are far fewer leg press variations.
As such, you are more likely to get bored of leg presses before you are fed up doing squats.
Leg Press vs Squat – FAQs
Still not sure which one you should do?
Here are the most frequently asked questions about leg presses vs. squats!
Can’t I do both?
There is nothing wrong with doing leg presses and squats.
For example, you could squat on Monday and leg press on Thursday or do both in the same workout.
Many lifters like to squat first and then will switch to leg presses when they feel their lower backs start to tire out.
While there is a significant overlap between squats and deadlifts, if you want to expose your muscles to plenty of training volume, there is no harm in doing both.
If I can only do one, which should I choose?
In terms of bang for your buck, versatility, availability, and functionality, squats beat leg presses.
If you only have time for one leg exercise or have limited resources or space for equipment, squats are the way to go.
After all, they are the king of exercises!
I’ve got bad knees, so should I do squats or leg presses?
If your knees hurt, squats are probably the better choice.
You can move your feet to find the most comfortable position, including adopting a wide stance, and descending to no lower than parallel can be a real knee-saver.
Box squats are especially knee-friendly.
The footplate on leg presses means you may not be able to modify your stance as much, locking you into a position that leads to more knee pain.
If you don’t like squats
If you dislike squats so much that you look for ways to avoid them, the leg press is a viable alternative.
That’s especially true if you’re prepared to leg press regularly and don’t want to squat at all.
Any leg exercise is better than none!
That said, if you hate squats because they’re hard, that’s no reason to avoid them.
It’s their inherent difficulty that makes them so rewarding.
Leg Press vs Squats – Wrapping Up
If you work out at home and don’t have the space or budget for a leg press AND a barbell/squat rack, squats are your best choice.
They do everything that leg presses do, but you can also use the equipment to train the rest of your body.
Adding a leg press machine to your workouts is unnecessary.
But if you have access to a leg press machine and can also do squats, why not include both of these great exercises in your workouts?
Both have advantages and doing squats, and leg presses could help you reach your training goals faster.
However, if you can only choose one, squats are arguably the best option.
Compared to leg presses, they’re more practical, effective, accessible, and rewarding.
Long live the king of exercises!