Looking to mix up your leg training? Here are the six best leg press machine alternatives for conquering leg day.
Leg presses are the “BIG BAD BEAST” of leg day workouts.
Think about it: with a leg press you can load up insane amounts of weight on the leg press machine, far more than you could handle in a standard squat or lunge.
You feel like a total badass because you’re lifting close to (or even more than) your bodyweight, and the focus is entirely on your legs. Shift up your foot placement—which I cover in-depth in this guide to leg press foot placements—and you can target different leg muscles.
But here’s something you might not know: because your back is supported and your legs are isolated, you experience less overall muscle recruitment with the leg press.
Plus, there’s a higher risk of knee injury if you’re the sort who locks out their knees at the peak of the press.
So as great as leg presses are, there are definitely leg press alternatives that can be:
A) Better or
B) Equally effective but different (which is critical for more well-rounded training).
In this guide, I want to share with you my six favorite leg press alternatives that you can mix into leg day to maximize muscle-building—not just in your thighs, but in your glutes, hamstrings, and core.
After a few weeks of incorporating these alternatives into your workout—either in place of or alongside leg presses—you’ll notice much greater overall strength and power in your entire lower body.
Let’s dive right in.
Things to Look for in Alternative Leg Press Exercises
A good leg press alternative will:
- Target your leg muscles—specifically your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves—at least as effectively as Leg Presses.
- Reduce your risk of injury or strain (to your lower back, hips, and knees).
With leg press, the focus is chiefly on your quadriceps (thigh muscles), which engage to do all of the work of pushing upward (in the concentric phase) and lowering the weight under control (in the eccentric phase).
However, your glutes and hips are also engaged as secondary muscles throughout the movement. Both have to work together to push the weight back up into its starting position. Your hamstrings and calves add that little “helping hand” that makes the leg press such an effective lower body movement.
So when looking for leg press alternatives, you need to make sure you find exercises that engage all the same muscles effectively.
And, because your knees, hips, and lower back are at the greatest risk with any lower body workout, you need to make sure the exercises are as safe and unlikely to injure your musculoskeletal system as possible.
Leg Press Alternatives
Exercise 1: Resistance Band Leg Press
I LOVE working with resistance bands because they generate gradually increasing pressure as you work through the concentric phase, and gradually decrease pressure throughout the eccentric phase.
Unlike weighted exercises, resistance band workouts are much gentler on your joints, thus far less likely to cause injuries.
Plus, you’re not restricted to a single plane of motion (like the 45-degree angle push of the leg press), so they can compensate for joint limitations or lack of mobility.
But, because you can keep adding bands to increase the difficulty, the workout is no less effective than exercises using weight.
Leg presses with a Resistance Band are an open-chain exercise: your back is flat on the ground, and your legs have to do the work of pushing to stretch the bands while also maintaining the proper position.
This leads to better engagement of the secondary stabilizer muscles (abs, glutes, hips, and lower back) while still actively working the quads.
Resistance band leg presses are as easy as they sound: lay on your back on the floor, grip the handles by your sides, and push upward with your feet. However, you can also perform them sitting on a chair for greater engagement of your core muscles.
The thicker/shorter the resistance bands, or the more bands you add, the tougher the workout!
Exercise 2: Hack Squat
If you like working with machines, flip it around (quite literally!) and use the hack squat machine.
With the leg press, you lie on your back and push the sled upward to lift the weight. Hack Squats, however, invert you to a (nearly) normal standing position, plant your feet solidly on an inclined platform, and force you to push upward from the ground (closed-chain kinetic exercise) like you would with a regular Squat.
The biggest difference, though, is that you’re at an angle (again with the 45-degrees) and your weight is supported, which:
- Reduces the strain on your lower back
- Isolates your leg muscles
However, there is one big downside to Hack Squats: they are far more punishing on your knees than leg presses, so anyone with knee injuries or insufficiencies should approach this exercise with extreme caution.
For more on the benefits of hack squats, read this detailed guide.
Exercise 3: Front and Back Squats
Squats are considered one of the “Leg Day Superstars” because they utilize your bodyweight and encourage more natural movement while strengthening your legs.
Leg presses minimize lower back engagement—great for anyone who’s injured or recovering, but not as good for overall mobility and fitness.
Squats force your core muscles to support your upper body and maintain your balance throughout, which leads to greater strength development overall. Plus, because you’re training your body to stay stable even when moving, it encourages better proprioception (also called “body awareness”).
- Front Squats are gentler on your back, but harder to add on a lot of weight.
- Back Squats are easier to load up with more weight, but there is a much higher risk of lower back injuries.
Do both types of Squats along with your leg press to develop more well-rounded strength and power in your lower body.
Exercise 4: Belt Squat
Belt Squats are another of my absolute favorites.
Belt squats are performed like regular squats but done while wearing on your waist a Dip Belt or Weight Belt from which you hang a barbell plate (or three, depending on your strength).
Typically, they’re done on boxes or an elevated platform, which actually lets you sink into deeper squats than standard—so better hip and glute activation. (Most neighborhood gyms now have stand-alone machines for belt squats, too.)
Anyone who is cautious of lower back injuries will love the fact that all the weight rests right on your hips, which means ZERO spinal muscle engagement. It’s as focused on your lower body as leg presses, but with the kinetic movement of a standard Squat.
The result: safer, more effective lower body training!
Exercise 5: Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian Split Squat is, really, more of a Lunge than a Squat, but the name has already stuck, so who am I to complain?
With Bulgarian Split Squats, you stand with one foot planted in front of you and the top of your other foot resting on a bench or platform behind you. When you drop into the Squat (Lunge!), your rear leg is all but removed from the equation, so your foreleg has to do most of the work of pushing you upright. Once you’ve done a set, switch out and repeat with the other leg.
Leg presses are a double-leg exercise (both legs working at once), while Bulgarian Split Squats are a single-leg exercise. This can actually be great to incorporate into your routine because this unilateral focus can compensate for strength inequalities that often develop when only training both legs at a time (and particularly with leg presses).
Because you’re working with only one leg at a time, you can typically do Bulgarian Split Squats with less weight (or even just your bodyweight!)—the perfect at-home and at-gym exercise.
Exercise 6: Sissy Squat
Sissy Squats are WAY harder than they look!
In a Sissy Squat, your knees extend way out over your toes, which engages the quads TO THE MAX and works the thigh muscles specifically around your knee joints. This makes them one of the best exercises to “bulletproof” your knees.
However, there is very little glute or hip muscle engagement compared to leg presses, so use them as a complement rather than a replacement.
Leg Press Alternatives – FAQs
How can I do leg press without a machine?
You can do leg press without a machine by using resistance bands! That’s the #1 exercise on my list because it’s identical to leg presses, but can be done without the need for a bulky machine. Plus, it’s gentler on your joints and back.
Can you substitute leg press for squats?
There are only a few small differences between squats and leg presses (closed-chain vs. open-chain, machine-controlled vs. freestanding), but they’re similar enough in all the ways that matter that you can use them interchangeably in your workout.
Squats are slightly better for overall mobility and functional strength, but they’re harder on your lower back. Leg presses are more spine-friendly and allow you to isolate your legs to build serious lower body power.
The Bottom Line
Leg presses are an excellent lower body exercise that will help you to max out the weight and shred some serious muscle.
However, because of their limitations (always the same plane of motion, a machine is needed, etc.) having these Leg press alternatives will make it easy for you to take your workout to the next level EVERY leg day, even if the leg press machine is occupied.