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Leg press: How to use variations to build lower body strength
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Leg press: How to use variations to build lower body strength

The leg press is not just about adding variety to workouts but also about safety, especially for those with issues in the lower back
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K / Happiest Health

When it comes to building muscle in the lower limbs, the leg press is an unsung hero. It is a versatile exercise with the provision to use different positions to vary the muscles worked and match your fitness goals.  

“Leg press is a good alternate for squats. It is a close-ended way of working the legs for people with hip-related issues,” says Sunil Kumar, a fitness trainer from Bengaluru.  

It is an excellent exercise for strength building in the lower body muscles, which include the hamstrings, quadriceps, the glutes and the calf muscles. The calf muscles play a critical role in supporting the body,” says Arati Sunil Halarnekar, physiotherapist at Manipal Hospital, Goa.  

Benefits of the leg press 

Strength building: “By increasing the strength of the lower body muscles, one can improve performance in sports activities. As far as day-to-day life is concerned, it eases movement in daily activities and enhances balance,” says Kumar.  

Muscle hypertrophy: Using the leg press with appropriate resistance can effectively stimulate muscle growth and increase muscle size and definition in the legs. “It provides stability to the upper body and lets you focus on muscle hypertrophy. It is easier to move more weight on the leg press,” says Kumar. 

Joint safety: The stability and reduced stress provided by leg press make it a safer option than squats, especially for beginners or those with certain injuries or weaknesses. “Some individuals have difficulty in squatting due to back or knee pain. The leg press is a good option for these individuals as it puts less stress on the back,” says Kumar. “Most leg press machines have safety mechanisms, and they can be used without a spotter. The leg bones get stronger due to the load-bearing effect. This also extends to the hip and the knee joint,” he adds.

Controlled range of motion: It creates a controlled and guided movement pattern, helping beginners or those with certain physical limitations maintain proper form throughout the exercise, which is crucial for preventing injuries.

Versatility: The leg press offers versatility in targeting specific leg muscles by accommodating different foot positions and stances, paving the way for a more comprehensive leg workout. 

A systematic review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on electromyographic activity during the leg press exercise and its variants looked at existing scientific literature and found that the vastus medialis (extensor muscle in the thighs) and vastus lateralis (most powerful and the largest quadriceps muscles of the thighs) elicited the greatest muscle activation, followed closely by the rectus femoris (another muscle in the quadriceps group). The biceps femoris (hamstrings) and gastrocnemius medialis (back side of the lower leg) show greater muscular activity as the knee gets extended fully, whereas the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris, and tibialis anterior (anterior part of the lower leg) showed a decreased muscular activity pattern as the knee reached its full extension. 

Various foot positions of the leg press

Standard position (shoulder-width apart): This engages the quadriceps, focusing on overall lower body strength and development.  

Wide stance: Placing your feet wider helps target the adductors more along with the glutes and hamstrings. 

Narrow stance: Bringing your feet closer together may emphasize the abductors while engaging the quadriceps. 

High foot position: A higher foot position on the platform emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes eliciting a deeper stretch in the posterior chain. 

Low foot position: A lower foot position on the platform shifts the focus to the quadriceps more than the glutes and hamstrings. 

Takeaways

  • The leg press is an excellent exercise for building strength in the lower body, which includes the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and calf muscles. 
  • Using the leg press with appropriate resistance can stimulate muscle growth, resulting in increased leg size and definition.
  • The leg press provides stability and reduces stress on the lower back and knees, rendering it a safer choice. 
  • With different foot positions, the leg press is a versatile exercise to target specific leg muscles. 

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