November 03, 2021
The leg press is a highly effective exercise to target the quadriceps muscle group and it can be a big help in your overall effort to develop stronger, bigger legs. And while it may seem like a straight forward exercise, there are variables that can change how your leg muscles are worked. Those training variables come in the form of your feet placement. Since you are here reading this, we assume you are wondering if there is a right or wrong way to place your feet on a leg press machine and how leg press foot placement affects the muscles worked (quads, hamstrings, and glutes). In this article, we answer all that and more...
A leg press machine puts you in a seated position with your back against a backrest so that you can use your feet to push a sled (platform) against resistance.
The sled of a leg press machine will either be plate loaded or set up to a cable pulley system with a weight stack.
The leg press is a great exercise to build lower body strength and muscle, and is generally considered safer than free weights.
For some people, this is the perfect start to working on leg strength if free weights feel intimidating or are inaccessible for a variety of reasons. However, for most lifters, it is simply a way to add volume to their lower body training and isolate their leg muscles.
There are two main types of leg presses. So, let’s discuss each...
1) Incline Loaded Leg Press Machine: This leg press machine sits you at an angle where you are pushing the sled upward at a 45˚ angle. The seat doesn’t move, just the sled does. The sled is to be loaded with weighted plates for resistance. Plate loaded leg press machines can be loaded with large amounts of weight (~1,000 to 1,500 pounds, depending on the machine). It should be noted that the sled itself has some weight to it too, so if you are a beginner, try it without any plates added first.
2) Cable Seated Leg Press Machine: A cable leg press machine generally sits you at an angle where you are pushing downward. The platform that you push your feet into does not move, it is the chair/seat that moves against the resistance. So, as you push your feet into the platform, your legs extend with the chair moving upward. The resistance is created through a cable pulley system that is attached to a weight stack. As you press, the weight stack moves up and down. The amount of resistance can be changed easily by pulling and plugging the pin into different points of the weight stack. The total weight that can be used for a cable leg press is considerably less than a plate loaded leg press machine (i.e. just a few hundred pounds).
Note: The reason you can press such heavy weight with a leg press machine is because you are pushing along an inclined track, which is much different than using free weights and moving the weights vertically. As such, your leg press weight load will be considerably higher than what you can do with squats.
There are also vertical plate loaded leg press machine, but these are not common for gyms to have. Most gyms will have cable leg press machines and 45˚ incline plate loaded leg press machines.
If you're interested in the different types of machines, we wrote a post about the Best Leg Press Machines that highlight the top pieces of equipment in each category.
For serious lifters, the plate loaded leg press is the obvious choice because you have much greater loading potential. With the cable leg press, you can only work with a few hundred pounds at most, whereas with the plate loaded leg press you can play around with small amounts of weight all the way up to huge amounts like 1,000+ pounds.
Another thing to note is the angle at which you press. The 45˚ upward angle allows you to activate your legs as a whole much better than the horizontal or upward angle of the cable leg press machine, which can really just focus on the bottoms of your quads near the knee effectively.
Now, while the plate loaded leg press machine is clearly the all-around better leg press machine, the cable leg press machine does have some advantages. For one, you can quickly change the weight, which can make for some intense drop sets. Another thing is you don’t really have to worry about failure as the seat is moving, not the sled. Nevertheless, a plate loaded leg press machine has safety bars so this isn’t a concern either, but it just feels a little safer with a cable leg press machine for beginners. Lastly, the cable leg press machine is much less intimidating for beginners. You can just hop on it and go, unlike the plate loaded leg press machine which you need to load up, sit down, unlatch and then press.
All in all, the plate loaded leg press machine is best, but the cable leg press machine has its place, even for advanced lifters (who maybe want to do quick dropsets or really hone in on the tear drop muscle of their quads - speaking of muscles, let’s dig into that next...)
The leg press machine is designed to target the lower body muscles:
While it works all of these muscle groups, the primary muscles targeted with leg presses are the quadriceps.
Be that as it may, the different angles (among the two main types of leg press machines) and the way you position your feet will alter which muscles are being emphasized. So, while the quadriceps are generally the main target when doing leg presses, you can change up your foot position to better emphasize the hamstrings, glutes or calves.
What’s more, you can even use foot positioning to emphasize the specific muscles of your quadriceps. So, before we get into the different foot placements, let’s quickly go over the anatomy and function of the quadriceps muscles group (as they are the stars of the leg press show). After, we will quickly make note of the individual muscles of the other 3 muscle groups for reference.
Your quadriceps femoris (or your quads for short) are comprised of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
Rectus Femoris: The rectus femoris is perfectly located along the middle of the thigh. It crosses over both the hip and knee joint (it’s the only quadricep muscle that acts on both joints). Its main responsibility is to flex the thigh at the hip joint and extend the leg at the knee.
Vastus Lateralis: The vastus lateralis is the largest and strongest quadricep muscle. It attaches on the upper leg bone (femur) and swoops down the outer side of the anterior thigh inserting into a tendon on the knee (patella). Its main job is knee extension and stabilization.
Related: Top 12 Vastus Lateralis Exercises
Vastus Medialis: The vastus medialis runs the entire length of the thigh on the inner side. It is often referred to as the tear drop muscle because, well, it the part just above the knee looks just like a tear drop (if well developed). Its main job is to help extend the knee and aid in tracking the patella.
Related: Top 15 Vastus Medialis Exercises
Vastus Intermedius: The vastus intermedius rests underneath the rectus femoris on the upper 2/3rds of the thigh. It is the deepest muscle of the quadriceps (which also makes it the hardest to stretch). Like the other two vastus muscles, it attaches at the femur and inserts into the patella. And, its main job is knee extension.
Together, the quads allow you to extend at the knee, flex the thigh at the hips (thanks rectus femoris), rotate your thigh, and keep your knees stabilized.
It should also be noted that the Quadriceps Femoris is the most voluminous muscle that you can work through weight lifting. It is a muscle group with great potential for growth and strength. With powerful quads, you can run faster, jump higher, and lift more. Moreover, it will make you more resilient at the knee joint and it will improve your core strength and balance...among other benefits.
On top of all that, it is also a super impressive mirror muscle. Well developed quads is extremely impressive.
Be that as it may, the quads are a common muscle to overdevelop because it is so visible that it tends to get a lot of attention from those looking to develop size and mass rapidly. It is important to remember that you also need to work the other muscles in your legs as well. Weak calves or poorly developed hamstrings can actually be injured by the imbalance of an excessively toned set of quads. Balance is crucial in your workout routines that involve working the muscles of your legs, which are...
Related: 10 Best Dumbbell Hamstring Exercises
...among other hip abductor and adductor muscles.
While you should be doing other exercises to target these muscles, such as deadlifts, leg curls, squats, hip thrusts, lunges, and calf raises, you can actually use the leg press machine to target these muscles to a higher degree, allowing for more well rounded leg development. We are now ready to explain how...
Foot placement absolutely does matter on a leg press machine. The way you position your feet is an important training variable for leg presses. By changing your feet position, you are altering the way your muscles are being stressed. In other words, you can emphasize (target) specific muscles more or less depending on your foot placement.
Additionally, you have the ability to do single leg presses, which also makes a different to how the muscles are stressed. More than just doing one leg at a time, but the actual emphasis on your leg muscles will be different with a single leg press vs double (bi lateral).
You have several options for foot placement when doing the leg press. None of them are wrong, they are just different.
On that note, let’s first list the various foot placements for leg press, and then discuss how that affects the muscles worked.
Here are the 5 main foot placement for leg press:
Then, you also have single leg press as well as the angle of the leg press machine itself.
Furthermore, there are ways to use the leg press machine for calf raises.
This makes for a total of 7.
However, there are more variables if you combine the different feet width (standard, wide, narrow) with the different foot height on the sled (high, middle, low).
Let’s go over all of the above with as much brevity as possible for the sake of keeping this a short yet very informative read.
NOTE: WE ARE USING THE PLATE-LOADED LEG PRESS MACHINE AS REFERENCE FOR THE FOLLOWING 5 FOOT PLACEMENTS.
The regular foot placement (or standard) is with your feet on the sled about shoulder width apart and at midway (at its horizontal centerline).
Toes can be straight up or slightly flared out in this stance, depending on what feels comfortable for you.
Muscles Worked: The regular foot placement is the most well rounded option for your legs. The primary focus is the quads of course, but it also does a good job of activating the hamstrings and glutes (especially if you use a full range of motion). Put simply, it is quad-centric with the glutes and hamstring playing a part in the movement.
The wide foot placement leg press keeps your feet midway along the sled but with your feet wider. How wide you go will depend on how comfortable you feel. Generally speaking, your feet will be about 1.5x shoulder width (they will be near the edge of the platform (be sure to have some space from the edge just in case).
It will likely feel best with your toes flared outward in this wider foot placement. Most people point there toes up to 45˚ outward.
Muscled Worked: The wide foot placement puts your hips slightly in hip abduction, which means you will have more glute and hip abductor muscle activation. It also activates your hamstrings a little more than the regular foot placement. With all that, a little activation will be taken away from your quads. Nevertheless, the quads are still the primary focus. In terms of the quads, it actually activates the vastus lateralis (outer quads) and rectus femoris even better.
In terms of range of motion, unlike the regular foot placement where you can go really as deep as the machine will allow, you will have to gauge your inner thigh flexibility with the wide foot placement. If you are feeling too much strain on your inner thigh, then you are likely going too deep. Over time, your range of motion will increase, allowing you to get your thighs about perpendicular with the floor at the bottom range of motion when doing wide stance leg press.
The narrow stance requires that you set your feet at hip width. Again, midway on the sled. You can even try a little more narrow or slightly wider than hip width.
For this foot placement, you will generally want to keep your toes pointed straight up (not flared out).
Muscles Worked: The narrow stance makes the leg press as quadricep focused as it gets. This is basically quad isolation. It is particularly good for the vastus medialis, which is the tear drop muscle of the quad.
You will want to go as deep as you can with this one. But, make sure that your feet remain flat to the sled. You don’t want to lift your heels up. In fact, you want to be driving force from the heels of your feet, as with all the other foot placements.
The high foot placement has your toes coming near the top of the sled. So, your feet will be on the upper half of the sled. While you can use a standard, narrow, or wide foot placement, generally you will use a standard shoulder width foot placement when doing a high stance.
Muscles Worked: This foot placement requires additional hip extension, which means you will be increasing activation of the hamstrings and glutes. Of course, it is also effective for the quads, especially the rectus femoris.
You should be able to go the full range that the leg press allows for this foot placement. That is, if you have the mobility.
The low foot placement has your heels near the bottom of the sled. So, your feet will be on the lower half of the sled. Like the high foot placement, you can play around with foot width. We will use the general shoulder width stance for reference of muscles worked.
Muscles Worked: This is a quad-centric foot placement for the leg press. Because your knees can travel further beyond your toes, you will be increasing the range of motion at the knee, thus increasing the stretching tension of the quads. This is a great all around quadriceps isolation movement.
Go as deep as you can. As the knees will be going further past your toes, it involves more ankle movement, so you will need good/normal ankle mobility for this one. If you are lacking ankle mobility, your range of motion will be limited. Weightlifting shoes can help here as they create a slight raise in the heel (like doing heel raised squats) and demanding less ankle flexibility.
With the single leg press, you are increasing activation of the glutes (especially the side glutes) and your outer thigh, as well as your hamstrings to a degree. If your turn your toes inward and/or move your body to the side a bit, you will bring the glutes into play even more.
Not only does doing single leg press alter how the muscles are worked, but it also allows you to hone in on muscle imbalances. By pressing with one leg at a time, you are removing the possibility of letting your dominant side take on more resistance.
As for where to place your foot on the sled, you will want to keep it on the working side, but close to the middle. You can play around with how it feels for you, but don’t bring it too much to the side, closer to the center is safest for the hips.
If you place the balls of your feet on the bottom ledge of the sled so your heels are off the sled and then perform calf raises with your knees slightly bent and legs extended, you can target your calves pretty effectively. You’ll just have to use as large of a range of motion with each calf raise as you can.
Be careful with this one, you don’t want your toes to slip off the bottom of the sled! Make sure you are wearing shoes and your whole top half of the foot is on the sled securely. Also, set the safety bar high up on the leg press machine if you can.
Note: The cable leg press machine is best for calf raises due to both the angle and the fact that you don’t have to worry about your feet slipping off the sled coming down at you. So, if you have a cable leg press machine at your gym, definitely do the calf raises on it and not the plate loaded one. You will find it much more effective for calf raises.
Basically, when pressing upward on the plate loaded leg press machine, you are involving more of your leg muscles, whereas the horizontal/downward press of the cable leg press machine is more isolated for the quads, especially the area of the quads just above the knee.
So, for all around leg strength and quad strength, the plate loaded leg press is best. It also generally allows for more range of motion.
There are many ways that you can place your feet to access different groups of muscles in your legs. Some people find that certain foot positions are more comfortable than others. That said, the best foot placement will depend on the muscles you want to target.
Quads: Standard, Narrow, Low
Hamstrings: Standard, Wide, High
Glutes, Standard, Wide, High, Single Leg
With all options hitting the quads pretty damn effectively.
The glutes and hamstrings can be worked well with a leg press machine, but its not an end all be all for these muscles. You will definitely want to do more glute and hamstring specific exercises like deadlift variations and hip thrusts for good development of these muscles. The leg press won’t be enough.
To give you an idea why, this study by Worrell shows that the glutes are activated the most during the end-range of hip extension (when your hip joint is straight/neutral). With the leg press, your hip joints are never straight, they will always be at a flexed angle when you lockout each rep. Because of that, you can never fully activate your glutes on the leg press. You can get good stretching tension, but not maximum contraction tension. The same holds true for the hamstrings, especially the fact that you won’t get maximum stretching tension, which the hamstrings need for hypertrophy and strength development.
The leg press is a really effective machine that is quite easy to use, but there are some tips that will help you to prevent injury and get the most out of your workouts while you are using this machine. Ensuring you are following the best practices when using the leg press machine can seriously make or break your results:
Considering you are likely doing leg press for your quads (as that’s really what it’s designed for), let’s consider the quads when discussing the best reps and load.
Your quads are fast twitch muscle dominant, which means the are made for powerful bursts of energy. However, they do have a fair portion of slow twitch muscle fibers too.
Each quadricep muscle is different, so let’s just call it about 65%/35% fast/slow twitch.
With that, you’ll want to focus around 65% of your sets on heavy loads with moderate reps, and then around 35% of your sets with moderately light loads and high reps.
In both cases, you want a load that will challenge you in the given rep ranges.
All in all, for the best possible development of your quads, work through the full spectrum of reps.
As for sets and volume, it really depends on the other exercises you are doing for your quads/legs. Intermediate to advanced lifters generally need about 8-12 sets per week, which can be split into two different sessions. You may find you need more. Beginners will likely need around 5-8 sets per week as minimum effective “dose”.
Adding the leg press to your lifting schedule is like adding any other leg exercise into your routine. For example, you can do 3-4 sets of leg press on your leg day.
As for how to implement the different feet placement for leg press, this is going to depend on the other exercises you are doing that session or in that week. For example, if you need more hamstring work, then do a leg press foot placement variation that hits the hamstrings more. You could also do a specific foot placement one day and then change it the following session. Another option is to do one set of each foot placement on days that you do the leg press machine. Really, it's up to you and you can get creative with your workouts. If your goal is to crush your legs on leg day, then use your best judgement and listen to your body.
How Can I Support Quad Muscle Growth?
If you are worried about how you are supporting your muscle growth goals, you should know how to support muscle growth. Having the right training program in place, employing progressive overload, and having the right dietary support can make a huge difference if you have been struggling to meet your muscle growth goals.
Focus on keeping track of:
And using progressive overload to continually make your workouts harder.
From there, be sure to eat enough food/protein.
You need to make sure that you are using all the right supportive benefits to make sure that your muscle growth is not impeded by a lack of support from diet and correct workout strategies. Muscle growth does not happen without a balance of all of the right supportive factors.
The below questions were answered above, but for those who don’t want to read, here you go...
How do you target your quads on a leg press?
Your quads will be activated no matter what foot placement you use during leg presses. However, to really isolate the quads and take less stress away from the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, using a narrow stance (about hip width) or a low foot placement (towards the bottom of the sled) and try to really maximize your range of motion in these placements.
How do you target your hamstrings on a leg press?
To get more hamstring activation during leg press, place your feet in either a wide stance (1.5x shoulder width) or a high position (closer to the top of the sled).
Also, try to maximize your range of motion so you can get the most stretching tension in your hamstrings with each rep.
How do you target your glutes on a leg press?
To get more glute activation, place your feet in either a wide stance (1.5x shoulder width) or a high position (closer to the top of the sled). You can also do single leg presses for considerably more glute recruitment.
Also, try to maximize your range of motion so you can get the most stretching tension in your glutes with each rep.
Related: Best Leg Press Alternatives
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