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July 30, 2022
Aside from a few gym bros that regularly skip leg day, building bigger lower body muscles is a primary focus of many people’s training. Squats and leg presses are two popular exercises used to build muscular legs, but there is often confusion surrounding both lower body moves. Is one better than the other? Is there room for both in a leg-day workout? And how do you decide which one to use and when?
This debate has raged for decades in gyms all over the world. Since the advent of the internet, this squabbling has spread into countless internet forums. Rather than relying on the musings of some keyboard warriors to make a decision, you would be better served to take a look at what real-world results and scientific research has to say on the matter.
Tom “the Quad Father” Platz is famed for his incredible squatting prowess and, as his name suggests, boasts some of the most well-developed quads the world has ever seen. He was an incredible squatter who credited them with building his legs.
Platz once squatted 635 pounds (288kg) for 8 reps. However, most impressive was his high rep squatting antics. He squatted 350 pounds (159kg) for 52 reps and 225 pounds (102kg) for 10 minutes! With quads like his and squat numbers like that, it’s tempting to assume that squats are the be-all-end-all of leg development.
The lack of squats in one of the greatest bodybuilders of all-times training offers a strong counterargument though. That bodybuilder is Dorian Yates, who said “I won 6 Mr. Olympia titles and didn’t do a single free weight squat.” Yates focused his quad training on hack squats, leg presses, and leg extensions. Where does this leave us? Are squats a must? Can leg presses be used to replace them without limiting your progress?
All will be revealed in this post, which covers:
Before getting into how they’re different, it’s important to cover how squats and leg presses are similar and why they might be used interchangeably.
First, the general joint movements of both exercises are very similar for the lower body. Whether you're doing a squat variation, like a dumbbell squat, or using the leg press machine, during the eccentric portion (lowering phase) of both exercises, the hips and knees flex to lower the weight.
During the concentric (lifting phase), the quads contract extending the knees, and the glutes extend the hips, with some support from the hamstrings. This broadly means they do similar things as far as stressing the quads and glutes go.
While there are plenty of nuances, as will be discussed, they are both exercises that involve the same basic movement pattern and joint functions.
While both exercises effectively train similar muscle groups, mainly the quads and glutes, neither exercise is a particularly effective hamstring builder. During both the leg press machine and squats, the hamstrings work primarily as co-contractors to stabilize the knee, with most of their activity coming from the eccentric portion of the lift.
There are much more efficient exercises to train your hamstring, which take the muscle group through a larger range without you having to manufacture a mind-muscle connection to try and recruit your hamstrings.
Better hamstring exercises include deadlift variations (like the sumo deadlift vs conventional), glute ham raises, hamstring dominant back extensions, and leg curl variations. All provide a much better stimulus than leg presses and squats for the hamstrings leg muscles.
There’s a reason both of these exercises are so beloved by the fitness world: They get results. And while both moves may be different, they have one thing in common: They’re great for building muscle, and we would argue both potentially deserve a spot in your leg-day routine.
Here’s a look at more benefits for each exercise.
From giving your lower body muscles an excruciatingly tough workout to being a move that you can pretty much do anywhere, there are so many reasons why you should be regularly performing this compound movement.
Muscle activation, usually measured using electrodes via electromyography, is often used as a proxy for the stimulus to the muscle. A study used EMG to directly compare leg presses and squat exercises, using a variety of foot positions and stances1. Well-trained individuals performed 12 reps at 70-75% of their one rep max in each position, getting to a 90 to 100-degree knee angle, making it pretty relevant for most gym goers!
They found that both wide and narrow stance squats, with toes straight or pointed out at 30 degrees, had higher muscle activation for the quads and hamstrings than any stance leg press (wide and low, narrow and low, wide and high, and narrow and high).
Note: This doesn’t mean squats are a good hamstring builder, as these dumbbell hamstring exercises will work your hamstrings much harder. It just means they require higher hamstring activity to keep the knee stable more than leg presses.
When it comes to glute activation there isn’t a direct comparison comparing squats and leg presses, but both theoretically provide a great stimulus to the glutes when you look at the movement mechanics.
Squats can potentially take you through a larger range, getting to a full stretch at the bottom and extending the hips at the top. Leg presses can let you flex the hips without the requirement for squatting deep, which is a barrier for many. However, you don’t get the full hip extension. Because of this, squats seem to edge out leg presses when it comes to the glutes as well.
Overall, when it comes to lower body muscle activation, squats take the gold.
Both exercises are multi-joint, multi-muscle group lower body exercises demanding contributions from the glutes down to the calves. However, because of the spinal loading aspect, free weight squats work more of the entire body, hitting the core and lower back (especially the erectors) far more than any leg press can.
This means every time you squat, you’re training more than just your lower body, getting more bang for your buck with every rep. And typically, that leads to more calories burned and more muscles worked. In fact, the barbell back squat makes the list of top compound exercises, so you know it's going to be effective.
Many attribute thick, dense musculature (compared to soft muscle) to strong barbell movements like squats and deadlifts; however, this is up for debate. If you’re someone who wants to make the most out of every set, you’re short on time, or you just want to increase your core strength, give squatting the nod over leg pressing.
This might seem obvious, but squats require more easily affordable equipment. Depending on your squat of choice, you'll need a rack, bar, and some plates to perform a front squat or back squat, dumbbells will replicate almost any barbell variation, a kettlebell for variations such as the kettlebell sumo squat, or resistance bands for resistance band squat variations.
With the increase in home gyms, squats can provide a cheap and easy way to train your lower body without machines taking over the house. This extends to gyms too, especially for those who aren’t fortunate enough to train in a high-spec gym with top-of-the-line equipment.
Many commercial gyms have very poorly made, badly designed leg presses. Ones that make the movement uncomfortable, shallow, and awkward. If you have a proficient squat, you can walk into just about any gym, grab a bar and have a great session using free weight exercises.
The bar is always the bar, and the weights are always the weights. This consistency can also let you be more flexible with your leg strength training. You can train with friends at new gyms or get a session in on the road, knowing you have a go-to you can progress without relying on the owners having bought decent quality leg presses.
If you're just starting out, you can use only body weight, or you can use dumbbells or kettlebells in place of a barbell for moves like the goblet squat. You can ditch the weights, instead performing jump squats, which are great for strengthening multiple muscles, improving lower body strength, and positively impacting body mass.
You can opt for moves like the traditional back squat, or use dumbbells for a standard squat in your strength training programs. This compound exercise comes with options. Having a consistent and confident squat is a great way to ensure you can train your lower body anytime, anyplace, and mold your training to your lifestyle - not the other way around.
If you’re someone who is looking to translate their gym work over to your sport, in the leg press vs. squat debate, the squat has the edge, improving jumping and sprinting performance more. It'll take your plyometric exercise game to a whole new level.
Finally, getting in the groove with squats is really, really, fun. This is very subjective, but once your squat feels smooth and you are lifting bigger numbers without stressing about form and technique, squatting gets more and more enjoyable. Barbell exercises can provide a level of performance satisfaction we're not sure machine movements can replicate.
This might help you enjoy your training when progress feels slow (i.e., during long muscle-gaining phases), helping you focus on gym performance, and not how you look in the mirror.
Focusing on performance during these phases is a great way to stop yourself from ditching your clean bulking plan to instead cut just because you can’t see your abs anymore. Focus on your increased squat performance and stick with your bulk cycle.
With all those squatting benefits, you might be wondering why anyone would ever bother leg pressing. But there are many leg press pros to consider, and we love incorporating it into a full-body gym machine workout.
Leg presses are a low-skill, high-return exercise, leading to muscle growth that targets the glute and quad muscle. You can provide your lower body with great stimulus, without having to undergo hours, weeks, months, or even years of trying to perfect them. This makes them a top-notch glute and quad exercise to add to your repertoire.
Once you have some very basic queues in your head, you can hop on a seated leg press and have great leg workouts. On the other hand, we've seen personal trainers and gym goers alike agonize over squat technique, spending hours over mobility and movement patterns, only to fumble their way through a session.
This usually results in a mediocre workout and more alterations the following week. This falls further into the category of chasing perfection when good is often good enough. The pursuit of flawless technique is the enemy of progress and is more present in exercises with greater complexity than simple movements like the leg press group.
If your goal is to grow your quads quickly, and you find squatting technique hard to nail down, the juice might not be worth the squeeze, and leg presses, which have virtually no technical barrier, can be your best friend.
If you’ve ever seen a leg press disaster video, you might be shaking your head at this one, and if you haven’t, we don’t recommend looking for them. Aside from that, leg press cons are few and far between. In fact, most leg press machines are far safer than squatting. With fewer moving parts, a fixed path, and safeties, far less can go wrong.
This means you can take them close to failure, without the stress of technique breakdowns or worrying about losing balance. And when you're able to push yourself like this, muscle hypertrophy is sure to follow. Even the most proficient squatters struggle to maintain their form as they fatigue, and while you can safely bail from squats, this is another skill that needs to be learned.
Combined, this suggests leg presses are a better choice to take closer to failure, making them an excellent choice when set intensity is high and you need to squeeze out one or two more reps. Just keep an eye on your foot position so your heavy lifting doesn't lead to knee injuries.
There are a lot of squat variations, but many aren’t ideal for muscle gain (we’re looking at you pistol squats). And often squats take a while to learn, further delaying your muscle gains. Because of their safety and low skill level, leg press variations can provide legitimate ways to target your lower body.
Single legs, high or low foot placements, deep and paused are all simple changes you can make without skipping a beat and putting your progress on hold. For the same reasons, leg presses are very malleable.
You can tweak your leg press foot positions, whether you opt for low foot placement or higher foot placement, seat angles, and stances until you find what works best for you, without the constraints a bar on your back brings. This gives you the best opportunity to find a technique you really connect with, and develop a strong mind-muscle connection.
Arguably the most compelling argument for leg presses is their favorable stimulus-to-fatigue ratio (SFR). Although the stimulus appears to be lower, so is their chronic and acute fatigue.
As leg presses require less stabilization and don’t involve axial loading, the core and lower back muscles essential for squatting are given a rest. Resting these muscles means you can make sure they aren’t the limiting factor when it comes to your lower body training and improving quad strength, and you aren’t skimping on your lower body training because your erectors can’t take any more volume or more weight.
This is especially true if you do a lot of hip hinges and bent-over movements. The key thing to remember here is that swapping barbell squats for leg presses doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and although squats might have the upper hand head-to-head, picking leg presses might allow you to make sure your lower body is getting the stimulus it needs without whole body fatigue limiting your progress.
Leg presses are hard, but squats are harder. The greater musculature used, and distance traveled, make squats incredibly taxing on your energy reserves and cardiovascular system. If you’re someone who’s done multiple sets of squats close to failure, you’ll know how hard it can be to get through the rest of the session with any real intensity or drive. Thanks to the seated position and safety features of the machine, leg presses provide a great stimulus, without writing off the rest of the workout.
Three sets of squats might be a better stimulus than three sets of leg presses. But if your three sets of squats mean you go through the motions during your leg extension alternatives, instead of attacking them with accuracy and quality, leg presses might be the better option.
Some people can walk into a gym, and their short femurs and crazy ankle mobility mean they take to squats like a duck to water. Taller lifters, with long femurs and dodgy ankles, can work on their technique all they like and will never get the same feeling from squats as their short-femured friends.
For people who aren’t built for squats, they struggle to hit consistent depth, their knees hardly seem to bend, and their chest looks almost parallel to the ground at the bottom of the movement.
A lack of knee flexion can really limit quad growth. People in this situation are never likely to squat for maximal quad growth. This is where leg presses can be their best friend, allowing them to hammer their quads, sidestepping their anatomical limitations, and building muscle mass in the process.
This training theory is all very well and good, but what does it mean for your training? What are the practical outcomes of leg pressing or squatting? Which one delivers the best results for your lower body workouts? What builds more muscle?
A study pitted leg presses against squats and a combination of the two, finding both lead to similar muscle mass gains and body composition gains2. That's great news for your body recomposition plans as it means you have choices! And separate research found no real difference between free weights and machines for muscle gains during resistance training interventions3. Does this mean all this nuance is pointless overthinking?
Thankfully not. It means on a population level both can be used for muscular growth for your legs and to improve your physique, and individual characteristics and personal preferences should guide whether you pick one or the other. These studies indicate you don’t have to agonize over leaving gains at the table if you decide squatting isn’t for you or leg pressing doesn’t feel quite right.
You can design a training program using the talking points in this article, using personal preference to guide your exercise selection. This will help you enjoy your training more, stick to it for longer, and ultimately make more long-term progress.
This doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. You can easily incorporate both into your training. Some of the limitations of a squat marry well with the benefits of a leg press. For example, you can increase leg training volume, but reduce overall lower back loading by using leg presses as an accessory to your squats rather than relying solely on squats.
You could easily use both, even within the same session, providing a slightly varied stimulus to the muscle. For example, 3 sets of 6-10 squats could easily be followed by 2 or 3 sets of 10-15 closer to failure on the leg press. This variation is an essential part of programming.
Remember to have a progressive overload plan in place for this variety though. Be strategic. Don’t just chuck random exercises and rep schemes in to try and “shock” your body or “confuse” your muscles.
A study examining the role of changing up exercises for hypertrophy vs. strength gains found that strategic variation, as opposed to random variation, supports muscle hypertrophy4. Squats and leg presses can live together in perfect harmony, each covering the other's limitations, providing a different stimulus, and fast-tracking your progress.
To summarize, squats appear to provide better direct quad and glute stimulus than leg presses. Squats hit the whole body harder than leg presses but take longer for muscle recovery, impacting training acutely and chronically.
Leg presses, on the other hand, are lower body-focused, with less activation, but also less fatigue. The ease with which you can pick them up makes them a great choice for anyone looking for quick gains or searching for a way to increase their lower body volume without other limiting factors creeping in.
Both squats and leg presses can be used to grow your lower body, and it really comes to personal preference. You can sleep soundly at night knowing your legs are growing even if you don’t relish squatting or decide leg pressing isn’t for you.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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