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April 22, 2023
When you first step into a gym, it's easy to be overwhelmed by all the machinery. You're probably familiar with barbells and dumbbells, but all those gleaming steel contraptions may be a bit of a head-scratcher. While about two-thirds of those machines will be targeted toward the upper body, plenty are still designed to work the legs. In this article, we identify the best leg machines at the gym to help you construct the most effective lower-body workout to train your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip adductors, and calves.
If you used every leg machine at your gym, your workout would be far too long, and you'd end up overtraining your lower body. That's why it's important to be able to identify the machines that will provide the best bang for your buck in terms of strength and muscle gain. Here are the 10 best exercise machines to work your lower body.
The quadriceps is a four-headed muscle group that runs between your hips and knees. Their main function is to extend the knee.
The leg press machine features a moveable platform that you push away from your body with your legs. Most commercial gym leg press machines are angled at 45 degrees, though your gym may also have machines that require you to push horizontally or vertically.
The leg press is a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups and requires movement through multiple joints. The exercise mainly works the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The joints involved are the knees and hips.
Leg press machines may be either plate loaded or have a built-in weight stack. The foot platform is usually quite large, allowing for a variety of foot positions. These different foot placements will put emphasis on different muscle groups as follows:
High and wide: Hamstrings
Low and narrow: Quadriceps
Neutral: Even distribution among quads, glutes, and hamstrings
Heels elevated: Quadriceps
Toes elevated: Hamstrings
Some machines will allow you to adjust the seat and backrest positions, providing greater customization.
To use the leg press machine:
Load the appropriate weight onto the machine.
Sit on the seat and adjust the settings if the machine allows that.
Place your feet on the foot platform.
Grab the side handles and push your legs out to full extension. You should now twist your wrists to unlock the safety mechanism that holds the foot platform in place.
Perform your set, slowly lowering your legs to bring your knees toward your chest.
Then push your feet into the platform to push back, stopping just short of lockout.
When your set is over, twist your wrists on the side handles to re-engage the locking mechanism.
Check out our full article if you want to know even more about the versatility of leg press machines.
The belt squat machine offers an alternative to standard barbell squats and has a number of benefits, including greater quadriceps activation and less spinal compression. The main muscles worked are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
To use the belt squat machine:
Load appropriate weight
Adjust the belt connected to a cable and weight stack.
Stand on a platform with your feet shoulder-width apart and the belt fastened around your waist.
Perform a squat movement.
For people with back discomfort or restricted mobility, the belt squat machine can be very helpful because the belt lessens the pressure on the spine and increases the range of motion. It can also help you target your quadriceps without overstressing your lower back, which is a risk with standard barbell squats.
To put more about what this exercise can do for you, read our article on belt squats.
There is no better exercise than the leg extension to isolate the quadriceps. The only movement involved is knee extension, which is the primary function of the quads.
The leg extension has a seat and backrest, as well as a leg pad that can be adjusted to sit just above the ankles. The ankles are positioned behind the ankle pad as the user sits on the seat with their back against the backrest.
A weight stack or weight plate that is attached to a cable and pulley system is another feature of the machine. The quadriceps muscles are engaged and strengthened when the user extends their legs straight out in front of them. Most leg extension machines contain a pin-loaded weight stack that allows you to easily adjust the resistance.
Here's how to do the leg extension:
Adjust the machine so that your knees are in line with the pivot point. Do this by adjusting the seat height and leg pad. Make sure your feet are facing forwards, and the pad is firmly on your lower legs.
Choose a weight that is suitable for your goals and degree of fitness.
Extend your legs upward until your knees are nearly locked out while seated with your back on the backrest and your hands on the grips. Stop just short of full extension to keep stress on the quadriceps muscles.
Pause for a moment and then slowly lower to the start position.
The hack squat offers an alternative to standard barbell squats and has a number of advantages, including an increased range of motion and reduced compression of the spine.
A hack machine has a platform on which the user stands with their back against a backrest. Then, by pressing against a foot plate, the user performs a squat movement. The machine can be plate-loaded or weight-stacked selectorized.
The hack squat lessens strain on the lower back more than the barbell squat. It also lets you achieve a greater range of squat motion and is more stable. You can also perform a reverse hack squat on the machine, allowing you to target the hamstrings. It's also safer and easier to adjust your foot positioning on the hack squat machine.
Here's how to do the hack squat:
Load the appropriate weight.
Stand on the platform and put your back against the backrest and put your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab the handles on the side of the machine and unrack the weight stack.
Push against the foot platform to come up to a standing position. Maintain a tight core and keep your back against the back pad. Stop just short of lockout and then descend down to a bottom squat position.
Activate your quads and glutes to push yourself back into a standing position.
If your gym doesn't have a hack squat machine, here are hack squat alternatives that work the same muscles.
A long-time alternative to free weights, the Smith machine squat is comparable to a barbell version but has the advantage of having the bar fastened to a track. The Smith machine's fixed track enables a regulated range of motion, which can be beneficial for new users or those who are recovering from injuries.
The fixed track of the Smith machine provides greater stability when performing lower-body movements like squats or lunges. This is an advantage for people who struggle with balance or have weaker stabilizing muscles. The enhanced stability allows you to lift more weight on a Smith machine than with free weights.
The Smith machine can be used for a number of lower-body exercises, including squats, lunges, and calf lifts. This can help to spice up your exercise program and keep things interesting.
The hamstrings are a two-headed muscle group at the back of your upper leg. The main function of the hamstrings is to draw the heel back toward the glutes by knee flexion.
The leg curl is an isolation exercise that targets the hamstrings. There are three types of leg curl machines, differentiated by your body position:
The equipment normally has a seat, backrest, and leg pads that firmly secure the user's ankles. The user then curls their legs upward (or downward if they are seated) against resistance.
The leg curl machine is the best isolation exercise you can do to target the hamstrings, as the only movement is knee flexion. Compared to exercises like deadlifts and good mornings, the leg curl machine can be an excellent option for people with lower back pain or restrictions.
Here's how to do the leg curl on a seated leg curl machine:
Adjust the machine seat position and pad height so that your ankles are firmly against the leg pad and your knees are aligned with the machine's pivot point.
Choose the appropriate weight.
Sit on the seat and extend your legs so that they are under the thigh pads and over the ankles pads.
Push down on the ankle pads to flex your knees and bring your feet down all the way.
Slowly return to the start position.
If the leg curl machine in your gym is occupied, give these leg curl alternatives a shot.
The calves are a two-headed muscle group that runs down the back of the lower leg, between the knee and the ankle joint. The two heads of the calf are the gastrocnemius, which is the meaty part of the muscle, and the soleus, which forms the lower part of the calf. The main job of the calves is plantar flexion, or pointing the toes downward.
The standing calf raise targets the calf muscles. The machine consists of a weight stack that has attached shoulder pads and a foot block. You stand with your toes on the block and your shoulders under the pads. You then rise up and down on your toes without bending your knees.
This exercise will strengthen your calf muscles, and improve your lower body balance and stability, especially in the ankle joint.
By changing the position of your feet, you can vary the focus on different parts of the calves. Here's an overview:
Toes pointed straight ahead: The meaty middle part of the calf is targeted in this position.
Outward-facing feet: This position targets the inner calf muscles.
Inward-facing feet: This position targets the outer calf muscles.
Raised toes: Raising the toes on a step or platform can broaden the range of motion and concentrate more of the strain on the gastrocnemius than the soleus muscle.
For complete, balanced lower body development, it's important to work all of the muscles of the lower body. These include the hip adductors, which bring the thighs in toward the midline of the body, the abductors, which have the opposite function; and the glutes, which extend and externally rotate the hip joint.
The hip adductor machine is one of the few resistance machines that target the hip adductors. The machine consists of a seat, backrest, and leg pads that are placed on the inside of the user's legs. You sit on the machine and press your legs in against the resistance to stress the hip adductors.
The hip adductor exercise improves lower body strength and stability. Strong hip adductor muscles can enhance sports performance by enhancing balance, stability, and power in lateral motions like jumping, running, and cutting. It will also reduce the risk of damage, particularly to the knee, hip, and groin area.
If this popular machine is taken, don't worry, there are a lot of other hip adductor exercises out there.
The hip abductor muscles are located on the outer side of the hip and are responsible for moving the legs away from the midline of the body. As such, they are the antagonists of the adductors. A hip abductor machine looks much like the adductor machine. The difference is that this exercise involves pushing your thighs apart rather than squeezing them together.
Strengthening the hip abductors will improve your lower body strength, improve coordination and stability and reduce the risk of knee, hip, and lower back injury.
If your gym doesn't have one of these machines, read about other hip abductor exercises you can do.
The glute machine is a piece of weightlifting equipment made specifically to work the three glute muscles -the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The various kinds of glute machines include:
Glue kickback machine: This machine features a foot platform, a resistance pad, and a weight stack. The user kneels on the platform and presses one leg back against the resistance pad.
Glute bridge machine: This apparatus is made to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes. The user lifts their hips off the ground while lying on their back with their feet on a platform, pressing against a resistance pad or weight to exercise their glutes.
Not every gym will have one of these machines, but almost every gym will have a cable tower that you can use for lower body work. If you're at a barebones gym, or the cable machine is taken, here are some other options to get your glute exercises in.
Both free weights and leg machines are excellent training tools. So, rather than going in with a one-versus-the-other mindset, an effective workout program will feature both machines and free weights. Here, though, are some reasons that you might choose to use leg machines.
Leg machines often have built-in features that help guide the user through the exercise and preserve perfect form. That can make them easier to learn proper form than free weights.
A feature of many leg machines is a set range of motion, and this can make it easier for beginners to carry out the exercise properly. The machine guides the user through the proper form and protects them from going too far and running the risk of injury by overextending their range of motion.
Isolation exercises focus on working a single muscle and involve movement through just one joint. This allows you to put 100% of your effort into working that muscle group. Examples of isolation exercises are the leg extension for the quadriceps and the leg curl for the hamstrings.
Leg machines come with a built-in platform or rack to retain the weight, lowering the possibility that you'll drop the weight and hurt yourself or someone else. Free weights, such as dumbbells or barbells, on the other hand, require the user to hold the weight themselves, which can make it harder to control and increases the chance that the weight will fall.
Leg machines often offer a fixed or regulated range of motion, lowering the possibility of overextending or hyperextending the joints and so limiting the risk of damage. Beginners, people with restricted mobility, and people who have experienced injuries can benefit significantly from this.
Leg machines can help people with little experience in the gym to gain confidence in strength training. They do this by offering a controlled atmosphere, guided range of motion, adjustable settings, targeted muscle groups, and convenience. In these ways, machines are often seen as less daunting than free weights. They can be used as a stepping-stone to free weights, with people adding in free weight exercises, such as squats and lunges, as their confidence level increases.
Leg machines enable isolation exercises that focus on particular leg muscular groups. This allows you to exert maximum stress on that muscle group, precipitating the muscle growth process.
Lower body machines frequently have adjustable resistance, allowing the user to add more weight as they gain strength. Progressive overload is a vital aspect of hypertrophy since it stresses the muscles and promotes growth.
Unless you choose the right leg machine, you're probably going to end up with less-than-ideal results. Here's an overview of how to get it right.
Leg machines use different types of resistance, including weight plates, magnetic, hydraulic, air, and pin-loaded weight stacks. If your goal is strength gains, plate-loaded machines, such as the leg press, will be the best option for you. In terms of muscle gain, machines that allow you to isolate the working muscle group, such as the leg extension are good options.
Each leg training machine is designed to target a specific lower body muscle. Make sure you know which part of the body each machine works and match your choices to the exercises you want to hit in your workout.
Some leg machines may require a spotter when you are going very heavy. These may include the leg press, Smith machine, and hack squat machines. If you do not have a spotter and are planning to go super heavy, you might want to avoid these machines.
It's vital to select leg machines that won't exacerbate any current injuries or limits you may have. For instance, if you have knee pain, you may want to avoid using machines like the leg extension machine that could place excessive strain on the knees.
If you are unsure how to use a machine, don't just jump on and try to wing it. Either avoid that machine until you have watched videos online about how to use it properly or ask an instructor to demonstrate its proper use.
The seat height, backrest angle, and foot location of some leg machines can all be adjusted. Choose a machine that can be adjusted to meet your body type and fitness level if you have any limitations or injuries.
Both machines and free weights have benefits and drawbacks, so neither is better than the other. They are tools that should both be used to achieve your training goals.
Free weights offer a wider range of motion but also demand more balance and stabilization from the user. Greater muscular growth and definition can result from this and an improvement in general strength and balance. Free weights are also more adaptable, enabling a wide range of exercises that can target different muscle groups.
On the other hand, machines can be helpful for newcomers or people who have limits or injuries. Machines are typically easier to use and demand less balance and coordination from the user, making them safer and more accessible.
There is no single-leg machine that is best for legs. That's because each machine targets different lower-body muscle groups. If you are looking for a machine that will work multiple lower body muscles at once, the leg press and hack squat machine are the best options.
There is no single best leg workout at the gym because the best workout for you depends on your training goals. However, here is an excellent leg workout for muscle growth that I use with my bodybuilding personal training clients:
Barbell Squats - 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Leg Press - 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Leg Extensions - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Leg Curls - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Glute Machine Extensions - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Calf Raises - 4 sets of 20-30 reps
There is no single machine that works all the leg muscles. The closest you will get are machines that involve compound movements that work several muscle groups and involve movement through more than one joint. These include the leg press, smith machine, and hack squat, which work the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
There is really no such thing as toning the legs. When people refer to toning, they are usually talking about losing body fat and getting greater muscle definition. To do that, you need to burn off the fat that lies between the skin and the muscle of your lower body. That is achieved through a combination of diet and calorie-burning exercises like working out on a treadmill, elliptical, or exercycle.
One of the benefits of going to a commercial gym is that you have access to a wide variety of equipment. But, unless you know how to choose the right machines for your training objectives, you're going to end up wasting your efforts.
Use this guide to help you identify the best leg machines to achieve your training goals. Then combine them to create a program that works all of your lower body muscles and includes both machine and free-weight movements.
If you're looking to get the same benefits at home as in the gym, you should consider adding a great leg press machine or Smith machine to your home workout space. These two machines offer enough versatility that you can work almost all your lower body muscles.
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