The leg press and squat are both highly effective at strengthening the lower body. But which is best for you? Here’s a detailed look at both exercises, including benefits and cons.
Ask any bodybuilder, fitness buff, or gymgoer about whether leg presses vs. squats are better, and you’ll instantly spark an ages-old debate.
Resistance trainees tend to be fairly split down the middle on this subject.
Some will argue that squats are better until they’re blue in the face, while others will bend your ears for an hour talking about why leg presses and the leg press machine are kings for lower body training.
Well, I’m going to settle this debate once and for all. But I’m not going to do it based on opinion; instead, I’ll look at the cold, hard science behind the two exercises.
Below, I’ll dive into some real data from medical studies, and look closer at the pros and cons of each exercise.
- The Leg Press – Overview
- The Squat – Overview
- The Main Differences Between the Leg Press and Squats
- Leg Press vs Squats – FAQs
By the end of this post, you’ll know which workout you should be focused on, and how to use both exercises safely in your weekly lower body training sessions.
Let the battle for Leg Day domination commence!
The Leg Press – Overview
The leg press is a machine-based closed-chain kinetic exercise that focuses primarily on your quadriceps muscles, though your glutes, calves, and hamstrings are also engaged.
With the leg press, you sit or lie on your back, place your feet against a platform, and push against the platform to press the weight. You do not move; the weight does.
The Squat – Overview
The squat is a free weight closed-chain kinetic exercise that also primarily focuses on your quads, with good engagement of the other leg muscles.
When squatting, you either use your bodyweight or load up weight on your upper body, and squat until you reach a 90-degree angle. The effort of both lowering yourself under control into the squat and pushing back upward generates excellent leg power.
The Main Differences Between the Leg Press and Squats
Difference 1: The Load Placement
With leg presses, the load is indirectly placed on your body. Your legs have to do the work of pushing, but the weighted sled is supported by the slide rails that keep it traveling in a single plane of motion.
This eliminates the need for secondary stabilizer muscles to engage to maintain balance, so the focus is entirely on the primary muscles worked: quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
With squats, however, you have to maintain your balance beneath a direct load. The weighted barbell is resting on your shoulders or the dumbbells are hanging by your side.
Even a minute shift in your posture could throw you off-balance, so your body has to engage all the stabilizer muscles in your legs, core, and upper body to maintain equilibrium.
Because of the need for these smaller stabilizer muscles to engage, squats are more effective for developing better overall strength in your entire body, not just your legs.
Difference 2: The Injury Risk
With leg presses, the indirect load placement means that the focus is entirely on your legs, so your lower back is mostly isolated (and supported by the seat) throughout the entire exercise (with proper posture).
There is an incredibly low risk of spinal muscle injury doing leg presses. This is one of the key benefits to the leg press.
However, there is a higher risk of knee injuries, especially if you lock out your knees at the top. Lifters who are struggling with very heavy weights will often lock out their knees to give their leg muscles a break. This isn’t just less effective for your muscle-building; it also increases joint injury risk.
Squats, on the other hand, run a much higher risk of injuring your lower back.
Because the weight is resting on your upper body (front or back of your shoulders), your lower back and ab muscles have to engage to maintain your balance. If your posture is incorrect or your load is too heavy, you run the risk of straining your lower back muscles.
There is also potential risk to your knees, as is the case with any lower body exercise. Even though the squat is a natural movement that is unrestricted (and thus your body can adapt your posture), it’s still possible that you’ll injure your knees squatting.
And, of course, there’s also the chance you’ll strain your shoulders or pull a neck muscle. Because you’re carrying the heavy weight, there is a risk of shoulder/neck strain.
Note: One study found that up to 32% of all training-related injuries were the result of or related to squats, even among elite-level bodybuilders. It’s not just n00bs at risk!
Difference 3: The Effectiveness
For many people, this is the #1 factor that they want to hear about! After all, if you’re going to invest your time into training, you want to make sure you hit 100% effectiveness every single time.
The subject of leg presses vs. squats has been debated among the scientific community, particularly sports researchers.
I’m going to share some studies with you below—don’t worry, I won’t dive into the boring medical details, just the relevant information.
✔️ One study set ten experienced lifters to perform both squats and leg presses, and the researchers analyzed knee forces and muscle activity.
According to the data, “The greater muscle activity and knee forces in the squat compared with the less press implies the squat may be more effective in muscle development”.
However, the study also warned that squats “should be used cautiously in those with PCL and PF disorders, especially at greater knee flexion angles.”
✔️ A 2016 study compared leg presses vs. squats, using 2 weekly workouts over the course of 10 weeks.
By the end, “Results showed that squats had greater transfer to maximal squat strength compared to the leg press.
Effect sizes favored squats and squat/leg press combo versus leg press with respect to countermovement jump while greater effect sizes for dynamic balance were noted for squat/leg press combo leg press compared to squats, although no statistical differences were noted between conditions.”
✔️ Another study from 2016 looked at whether leg presses or squats could help to improve both speed and strength in the lower body.
The data concluded that, “The squat exhibited a statistically significant increase in jump performance in squat jump and countermovement jump. Whereas, the changes in the leg press did not reach statistical significance and amounted to improvements in either jump.”
✔️ One 2017 study found that squats increased maximal force output, optimal velocity, and force-velocity profile more effectively than leg presses, leading to greater explosive leg power.
Based on all this data, it’s clear that squats do have the slight edge when it comes to effectiveness for muscle-building.
However, as the first study I mentioned warned, they run a higher risk of exacerbating existing knee ligament injuries.
Difference 4: Variety
Variety is the spice of life—and it’s a crucial key to avoid demotivation over years of regular training.
Adding in new exercises or variations can keep your training fresh and interesting, preventing boredom and adaptation to training (which decreases the effectiveness of the workouts).
With leg presses, it’s pretty much “what you see is what you get”. You can shift around foot placement to target different leg muscles or try side-lying leg presses to maximize glute engagement, but at the end of the day, it’s mostly a variation on the exact same thing.
Squats, however, give you lots of options to choose from, including (but not limited to):
- Back Squats
- Front Squats
- Bodyweight Squats
- Sumo Squats
- Jump Squats
- Overhead Squats
- Goblet Squats
- Belt Squats
- Box Squats
- Pistol Squats
- Sissy Squats
- Skater Squats
- and the list goes on!
There are easily 20-30 different variations on squats, all of which adapt the exercise to more effectively target a certain muscle group or range of motion.
Leg Press vs Squats – FAQs
Should you do leg press and squats on the same day?
Absolutely! Squats are an excellent exercise to start off your workout, allowing you to maximize range of motion and muscle engagement in the most natural way possible. Use leg presses as a “finisher” to work your max weight range and train your muscles (more safely) to failure.
Why can I leg press more than I can squat?
There are two reasons for this:
- You’re not lifting your bodyweight. When you squat, you’re dealing with the combined weight of your body and the barbell on your shoulders. With leg presses, however, your bodyweight is removed from the equation, so based on all the weight discs you add onto the machine, it definitely looks like you’re pressing more than you can squat.
- The leg press machine “helps”. Literally! Because the sled has to slide along the rails, you can only ever push along a single plane of motion. The rails guide the weight upward, even if you don’t push at the perfect angle. The result is a fractionally easier effort (and no need to maintain balance or control the direction of your force), which allows you to press more weight than you can squat.
How much should I leg press compared to squat?
Consider leg pressing 2.5-3x your squat weight. For example, if you squat 200 pounds, try leg pressing 500-600 pounds. Remember: you’re removing your body weight from the equation and making it easier to lift the weight, so you can handle a lot more.
Are squats better than leg press for athletic performance?
If your goal is to be a better more well-rounded athlete overall, squats are the better choice. Not only do they train your core and upper body muscles, but also improve proprioception, balance, and mobility.
Isolation exercises (that only focus on a single muscle/group) can generate more power in that individual muscle/group, but for overall functional fitness and athletic performance, do multi-joint exercises whenever possible.
The Bottom Line
I’m a huge fan of leg presses because they are very safe, allow me to lift significantly more weight (without the need for a spotter), and take the strain off my lower back.
However, at the end of the day, even I can admit that squats are the more effective choice overall.
Squats force your entire body to work to stabilize you throughout the full range of motion, and it’s a more natural exercise that trains your body to move more efficiently.
For an athlete who cares about performance more than raw power, I’ve got to give the edge to squats over leg presses every time.
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