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July 12, 2023
Many people say the squat is the king of all exercises. Something about loading 405 on the bar and driving out of the hole makes you feel invincible. But the leg press? That makes even the heaviest squats look like child's play.
From Ronnie Coleman's legendary 2000+ lb lift to NFL players clanging stacks of eight plates, training on the leg press packs on some insane strength and size.
Not only is it fantastic for serious lifters, but it's also a versatile option for trainees recovering from injury, with back pain, or even those new to strength training. The problem is that there isn't just one type of leg press machine, and each type has its individual applications.
If you're unsure of the different types and the features of each, SET FOR SET has got you covered! We're going to review a total of 7 types of leg press machines. All are awesome and bring their own benefits, so we'll help break them down to see what they bring to the table.
Table of Contents:
A leg press machine is designed for lifters to sit in a padded seat and use their lower body to press a loaded sled against gravity. When seated, that large sled sits at a slight upward angle in front of the legs, traveling forward and back along a track. Now, the lifter can push the sled with his legs as it will want to slide down due to gravity.
As such, the leg press obviously trains the lower body muscles and is often used to replicate the squat. When comparing the leg press vs squat, performing the squat and leg press uses similar biomechanics, except the leg press machine offers back support and is on a track.
This extra stabilization makes it possible to train the legs while giving the core a break. Therefore, it can be used as an accessory to the squat, during times of back injury, or even as a primary movement if appropriately loaded.
Thanks to the ability to pile on heavy loads, the leg press allows for serious gains in strength training and adds slabs of lean muscle mass.
Regardless of its variety, the leg press machine will train all of the muscle groups in the lower body, similar to how the traditional squat trains the entire lower body¹.
Let's quickly review the primary muscles activated with the leg press machine and explain how they will function.
When we look at the movement pattern of a typical leg press, we see a large amount of hip and knee flexion as the load comes down. At the bottom, the hips and knee must then extend to propel the load back up, meaning the glutes and quadriceps will be used extensively. At the same time, the hamstrings and calves will stabilize the load and help build force.
Different leg press machines offer unique movement patterns that activate different muscle groups. You can also alter your foot position to change the biomechanics and muscle activation.
For example, studies show that placing your feet higher will elicit greater activation in the hamstrings, while lower placement elicits greater quadriceps².
To learn more about the different foot positions, check out our article on the 7 Leg Press Foot Placements & Muscles Worked.
As you have probably realized by now, a "leg press" could actually refer to several different machines, so let's go over the different types.
The 45-degree leg press machine is the most common type of leg press. As its name suggests, it's an incline leg press where the lifter sits with his (or her) back at a 45-degree angle.
It often comes with adjustable seats to allow varying degrees of hip flexion, and the seats are usually very large and cushioned, allowing ultimate comfort and support.
These machines are generally plate-loaded, which means the sled will move while the lifter stays stationary. The foot platform is large, so you can use various foot positions to hit the leg muscles differently. Some people even turn around and perform quadruped donkey kicks to isolate the glutes.
All that considered, under most circumstances (and assuming money isn't an issue), the 45-degree leg press machine should be your primary leg press machine.
I really like the Force USA 45-Degree Leg Press/Hack Squat Combo, which not only enables you to do the leg press, but also hack squats, calf raises, and forward thrusts.
The hack squat is a type of squat that is performed in a way to put more focus on the quadriceps with an upright back. It was originally done as a type of deadlift with the barbell behind your legs, forcing you to squat down and drive slightly backward.
Just by the sound of that, we're sure you can imagine that's not comfortable or easy to do. Therefore, the hack squat machine was built to make hack squats easier to perform.
This machine features a base to stand on and a backrest that slides up and down on a track. It's this sled that you load with weight plates.
A lifter then stands and lays so their back is firmly planted in the back pad. Next, the lifter will place their feet out in front and squat, letting the back pad slide down. The back is straight and planted firmly, so the quadriceps receive most of the resistance.
In addition, you can also perform a reverse hack squat to target the glutes and hamstrings. Body Craft Linear Bearing Leg Press Machine is a 6 in 1 leg press machine that's versatility enables you to do the leg press, in addition to the hack squat, donkey squat, and calf raises.
Not sure if you should get the hack squat machine or the 45-degree angled machine? Then the hack squat combo is right for you.
The name does a pretty good job describing this dual function leg press. Different brands will have different designs, but the key differentiator is that it allows you to perform both the hack squat and a traditional leg press. Usually, this is accomplished by either having a foot platform that swings out or shoulder pads that double as feet placements.
While these are more expensive than a single machine, you can save money and space compared to buying two separate machines. Remember the Force USA 45-Degree Leg Press/Hack Squat Combo I recommended above? It is an awesome combo option!
The seated leg press machine is very common in commercial gyms. These machines will have a lifter sit in a chair with their feet on a sled in front of them. Due to this setup, these are also often called horizontal leg presses.
Unlike angled leg press machines, the horizontal seated leg press will have the seat slide rather than the foot base, and they are almost always pin loaded. These two designs can make the machine feel safer for people not used to big machines.
For all of the reasons above, when compared to the other leg press machines, the seated leg press is generally considered the safest (in reality, they're all safe) and is used more by the general public and the elderly. However, assuming the weight stack is heavy enough, anyone can use these to build muscle.
My favorite? The Body Solid Horizontal Leg Press, which is designed to handle some seriously heavy weight and is great for consistent resistance and range of motion.
The vertical leg press machine has gained popularity over the past few years. As the name implies, you perform this leg press by laying flat on your back and pressing a load straight up. Many lifters swear to feel significantly more in their quadriceps and glutes.
One advantage of vertical leg presses for homeowners is that it takes up less space than other options since you press straight up rather than horizontally or up at an angle.
The downside is that many people claim vertical leg press machines are much more uncomfortable and require more stability. While this is not necessarily bad, these are not for beginners.
For those interested in the vertical leg press, check out the Body Solid Powerline Vertical Leg Press. You'll find it takes up less space than horizontal versions and as a result of gravity and body positioning, typically feels more challenging.
The compact leg press machine is the smallest machine there is, making it ideal for those looking for one to put in a home gym. It consists of a base where you place your feet and then a seat that travels up and down on a pivot. You can then load this seat to add weight.
You will place your feet on the stand and then perform squats while pressing into the weight seat to perform the movement.
Due to its design, you can push a lot of weight while minimizing the space required. As such, it makes an excellent home gym leg press.
My favorite option for small spaces, the TDS Vertical Premier Leg Press, is also another great vertical leg press option. Lift heavy without taking up a lot of room - what's not to like?
While not your typical leg press machine, I want to mention the belt squat machine. Even though it's not using a sled to move weight, it provides a fantastic leg workout while mitigating stress on the lower back.
The belt squat machine uses a pulley system to attach a load to a belt placed on the hips. From there, you can do resisted squats and lunges. As the load attaches to the hips, there is zero stress on the back, and most platforms have handles that allow for support.
Compared to leg press machines, they require significantly less space, making them an optimal option for home gyms. I am a huge fan of the Bells Of Steel Belt Squat Machine 2.0, which includes a heavy duty belt, has a 700-pound maximum weight capacity, and enables you to move through a full range of motion.
Interested in reviewing more belt squat choices? Check out the 3 Best Belt Squat Machine Options!
As you can see, all of these leg press machines are awesome but have some differences. Here's a summary of each.
Type of Leg Press Machine
45-Degree Leg Press Machine
Incline leg press with a 45-degree angle
Hack Squat Leg Press Machine
Machine designed for hack squats
Hack Squat Combo
Dual-function machine that combines hack squat and traditional leg press
Seated Leg Press Machine
Common machine in commercial gyms
Vertical Leg Press Machine
Leg press performed by laying flat on the back and pressing the load straight up
Compact Leg Press Machine
Smallest leg press machine. Ideal for home gyms
Belt Squat Machine
Not a typical leg press machine but provides a leg workout with reduced stress on the lower back
It's impossible to fully answer which leg press machine type is best, as a lot of it depends on your training preferences, budget, and space. Whatever leg press machine you choose, you'll get an intense leg workout.
Even though it's one machine, various options are available to hit the legs differently, making it much more versatile than you might first think. Maybe you want to lift heavy but don't have a spot, or you want to leg press to failure.
Maybe you like the sound of plates banging, or you prefer a pin-loaded option. Take a look at our 10 Best Leg Press Machines for some awesome choices. I highlighted some of my favorites above, but I'd be remiss to not re-mention a few of the best one more time!
For those building a home gym, I recommend a compact leg press like the TDS Vertical Premier Leg Press. It's mounted on heavy-duty rollers, so it'll be a lot easier to maneuver and install in your home gym.
For those who prefer to stay upright, you'll want a vertical leg press. Sound interesting? Check out the Body Solid Horizontal Leg Press for an awesome choice with three start/stop positions and extra back padding.
In case there's anything else you're curious about, let's look at some of the more frequently asked questions about types of leg press machines.
It depends on how people use the words, but the leg press generally refers to the plate-loaded 45-degree machine. On the other hand, the seated leg press generally refers to the horizontal leg press machine that is pin loaded.
Many seated leg press machines will have the back pad and seat slide up and down. In these cases, your weight would make a difference.
While both these machines train the lower body muscles with similar biomechanics, they're pretty different. The leg press machine is a type of machine you sit down on to mimic a squatting motion. On the other hand, the squat is a free-weight exercise that uses a barbell.
These can vary greatly depending on the style and brand. You may be able to find a compact leg press for less than $100, while a heavy-duty professional machine may weigh > 1000 lbs.
A leg press machine is generally a plate-loaded machine, meaning you use external plates to alter the weight.
Any of the above leg press machines will greatly impact your workout regime, so if you're not using one, you had better start.
You'll be able to place a lot more volume on your muscles while saving your back, ultimately leading to more significant muscle gains and stronger legs. Or, for some people, the leg press machines can be the key to getting past plateaus with the squat or simply give you the confidence you need to press larger loads.
Everyone has had a leg press machine that's best for them, it just depends on your preferences and budget. But rest assured that whatever you choose, it has you covered for a solid leg day.
Ready to pick the best leg press for your training needs? Check out the 10 Best Leg Press Machines to find the perfect one for your home gym!
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