The primary muscles worked in the leg press are the quadriceps muscles. Here is a deep dive into ALL of the muscles that the leg press exercise help develop.
Working on the leg press machine is a great way to step up your weightlifting game.
With leg presses, you can max out on weight—easily working up to 200 or 250% of your bodyweight—without putting your legs at risk.
The safety and efficiency of the leg press is what makes it such a popular Leg Day workout!
In order to make sure you’re incorporating it correctly into your training, we’re going to take a closer look at leg presses and find out exactly what muscles are worked by this exercise.
Get ready for a (beginner-friendly) crash course on the lower body musculoskeletal system so you can understand which muscles are targeted and how you can more effectively train your lower body using leg presses!
The Leg Press – Overview
To begin this post, let’s take a quick look at how exactly to perform the leg press.
We don’t need to get into leg press foot placement (I did a whole article on that), but we’ll look at the basic form.
Trainer’s Note: Make sure to master the proper standard leg press form before moving on to any variations or adjusted foot positions. Correct form will maximize focus on the leg muscles you’re targeting.
To perform the leg press properly:
Step 1: Set up the seat properly. Make sure the backrest is angled far enough back that your hips and lower back remain firmly in the seat at the lowest part of the press. The only thing that should move through the entire range of motion is your legs. Adjust the seat back as desired and according to your hip hinge flexibility.
Step 2: Set up the press. Sit in the press position, plant your feet firmly on the platform, and grip the security handles on either side of the sled. When you’re ready, press the platform up and off the blocks. Time to get working!
Step 3: Lower the weight. This is the eccentric (lengthening) phase of the exercise, and while it’s not the main focus of the leg press, it’s still critical that you lower the weight under control. Not only will this increase the exertion and push your muscles to fatigue faster, but will also reduce injury risk.
Step 4: Stop at the bottom. Stop lowering the weight when your knees crack the 90-degree angle, just before your lower back and butt lift off the seat, and before your heels lift off the platform.
Step 5: Press up. Now comes the concentric (contracting) phase the leg press, the part that engages your leg muscles to the max and demands the largest amount of power consumption to push the weight back up. Keep your knees firmly in line with your toes and exhale as you press up on the loaded platform.
Step 6: Stop before the top. NEVER extend your knees fully or lock them out. Stop just before you reach full extension, when your knees are still slightly bent. Your leg muscles will stay engaged throughout the entire exercise, so you’ll develop greater strength and hit failure faster.
Step 7: Repeat. Repeat for however many repetitions suits your training goal—3-6 for power, 8-12 for strength, and 15-25 for endurance.
Just like that, you’ve mastered the leg press!
Leg Press – Muscles Worked
To give you a better understanding of exactly which muscles the leg press works, we’ll need to take a closer look at the large leg muscle groups engaged.
Starting off, let’s talk about the quadriceps, or quads, the primary muscle group worked by leg presses.
The quads are actually four muscles located in your upper thigh:
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus medialis
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus intermedius
These are the prime movers, the leg muscles that do the most amount of work for leg presses. They are the largest of the lower body muscles, which means they have the greatest capacity for growth—both in terms of size and strength.
Also engaged are the VMO, or the vastus medialis obliques. The VMO are actually the lower part of the vastus medialis muscle, the part just above your knees.
The reason I’m mentioning them specifically (rather than just lumping them in with the other quadriceps muscles) is because of how important they are for strong knees.
The VMO actually controls the position of the patella (kneecap) and provides stability for this critical joint. Training your VMO is absolutely critical for “bulletproofing” your knees, both to prevent and rehabilitate injuries.
Trainer’s Note: I highly recommend including VMO-specific exercises—such as wall squats, ball squats, static lunges, and split squats—into your lower body training routine to strengthen the lower portion of your legs and reinforce your knee joints.
The main focus of leg presses, as you know, is on the front of the legs—i.e., the quads and VMO, as I mentioned above.
But anytime your legs move, the rear leg muscles engage in tandem with the front leg muscles.
It’s just the way your body works, and it enables efficient lower body movement.
So, when you leg press, two more muscles also get to work to help you with the press: your gluteal (butt) muscles and hamstrings (the muscles on the backs of your legs).
There is greater glute engagement throughout the leg press–especially when you adjust your foot placement and position to maximize glute focus. (You can learn more about it in this article I wrote on doing leg press for glutes.)
Your hamstrings are “secondary muscles” for leg presses. What this means is that they aren’t the prime movers (the muscles directly engaged for the exercise), but they keep your lower body stable and facilitate movement.
Trainer’s Note: If you want to specifically target your hamstrings, there are a lot of leg press alternatives that engage the rear leg muscles more effectively—including good mornings, donkey kicks, hamstring curls, and Romanian deadlifts.
Your calves are also engaged throughout the leg press. These muscles, located in your lower legs (between knees and ankles) work to press upward and lower under control, as they help to stabilize the weight and maintain proper leg position.
They’re also critical for foot extension and flexion and help to keep your feet flat on the platform.
Two final pieces of the puzzle remain:
First, we have the hip adductors, the thigh muscles that pull your legs inward to your body’s central axis. These muscles engage to prevent your knees from flaring outward as you lower into the press, keeping your knees tracking straight over your toes.
Second, there are the abdominal muscles (particularly the lower abdominals) that engage to provide a stable “platform” for your legs to push off from. Your core muscles aren’t the primary focus of exercises like leg presses, but these muscles always activate to some degree when either your upper or lower body work.
They’re what enable movement of your torso, arms, hips, and legs.
To summarize quickly, the leg press works:
- Quadriceps muscles
- Gluteal muscles
- Hip adductors
Lots of muscles worked in this one simple exercise, and thanks to the safety of the exercise (one of my favorite leg press benefits), you can maximize load without increasing the risk of joint injury.
Leg Press – Muscles Worked: FAQs
Are leg presses good for building glutes?
Leg presses aren’t the best exercise for building glutes—you can get much better results with glute bridges, side squats, fire hydrants, reverse lunges, and hip thrusts. However, by adjusting your foot placement, you can increase glute engagement throughout your sets of leg presses to maximize the focus on the butt muscles.
Trainer’s Tip: Your glutes are engaged through nearly every lower body exercise—squats, lunges, leg presses, etc.—but it’s still worth finishing off your Leg Day workout with some glute-specific exercises.
Is leg press better than squats?
I wrote a whole article on the leg press vs squat debate, and you can read it to find out why I believe both leg presses and squats deserve a place in your weekly workout routines.
That being said, I have to admit that no, leg presses aren’t better than squats. While leg presses are safer and allow you to lift more weight, squats are a more natural movement and lead to overall greater muscle engagement—not just in the quads, but throughout the hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core.
Both leg presses and squats are critical elements to include in your Leg Day routine, but if I had to choose one, squats get the slight edge over leg presses.
Can you build big quads with leg press?
Absolutely! Because of the way your lower body moves through the full range of leg press motion, your quads do most of the (literal) heavy lifting.
Shift your feet to a slightly lower-than-dead-center position on the platform, and it places all of the strain on your quads.
You’ll target those four critical thigh muscles (and your VMO) to build those massive, seriously powerful quads you want!
The Bottom Line
Leg presses are one of my favorite lower body exercises because of their lower injury risk, both to my lower back and knees (with proper form and posture).
As you saw by the information above, they are highly effective at targeting all the lower body muscles—not just the quads, but the hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hips, too.
You can build serious leg strength using leg presses, and thanks to all the many variations, you can adapt the workout to focus on specific leg muscles for a better, more well-rounded training session!
More Leg Press Guides
🏆 6 Best Leg Machines for Your Home Gym. Looking to get your press on in the comfort of your home gym? There are some excellent options on the market for all budgets.
Leg Press vs Hack Squat: Pros, Cons and Differences for Monster Leg Muscles. The leg press and hack squat are both excellent exercises for developing strong leg muscles. But which one is for you? Read on to see the pros and cons of each.
6 Leg Press Alternatives for Building Strong Legs. Looking to mix up your leg training? Here are six alternatives to using the leg press machine for strengthening your legs.