What first drew me to the squat vs the leg press (and this is very likely the first of a series of posts pitting exercises against each other) was reading about many pro bodybuilders, whose quad development borders on disturbing, that don’t squat at all. They use the leg press as their main mass building movement. Now before you point out the whole steroid issue, one that gets used far too often as an excuse for many casual bodybuilders to justify their own lack of effort, might I point out that I highly doubt steroids have anything to do with the choice of leg press over squats. After all, steroids primarily help with the recovery of muscle and increase protein synthesis and nitrogen retention amongst other things but they do not make certain exercises more or less effective. If a steroid using bodybuilder is interested in building muscle, then he/she will use the exercises that will best promote muscle development. Now that I have that out of the way, let’s look at everything as if it’s a level playing field, at least in that regard from here on in.
The main reason that squats have always been known as the go to quad building exercise is simple; they were pretty much the only quad exercise that one could safely perform for a very long time. The leg press is a relatively modern invention in terms of weight training, as are the hack squat and the leg extension machine. If you wanted to grow your legs you performed squats and deadlifts. That still holds true today, I’m not going to argue that those two exercises in particular cannot be the core of ones leg training regimen, but I am going to suggest that you don’t have to squat in order to have huge quads and secondly the squat may not work well for everyone (in another instalment of this brand new Vs series I’ll be putting the deadlift through the ringer as well, so everyone get their torches and pitchforks handy for my sure to be imminent lynching).
The argument’s from the MUST squat camp are that the squat is a full body, multi-joint, compound muscle movement that relies heavily on core strength and balance as well as great coordination and mechanics to correctly complete. Agreed. As far as which movement is more athletic on its own, the squat wins hands down. No argument here. It is worthy of mention at this point that many athletes, including sprinters, speed skaters and cyclists, almost always favor the leg press as the movement to develop explosive power. While the squat is the more athletic of the two movements, it isn’t necessarily the preferred movement of the athlete. Interesting. Quite simply because once you remove all of the mechanics, balance and coordination needed to effectively squat, the leg press can then be used to focus solely on leg strength, or in the case of the bodybuilder, to grow muscle.
If you are either a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter then you must squat. As a powerlifter you need to squat because it’s a competition lift. If you’re an Olympic lifter then the squat is a crucial assistance exercise for both the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the case of the Olympic lifters, the overhead squat is the exercise of choice to recover from the snatch and the front squat is the exercise that is used most often to recover from the clean. The back squat isn’t necessary at all. If you are neither a powerlifter nor an Olympic lifter (even in the case of crossfit the squat clean and one legged squats are the squats used in competition) and your only concern is the development of the muscles of your quadriceps then you don’t need to squat at all.
Then there are the physiological reasons that make the squat a not very ideal exercise for some. Those of us who are relatively tall with long femurs have a lot of difficulty squatting with enough weight to challenge our quads adequately. The reason being is that we have to lean so far forward due to our long thigh bones which means that our back will give out long before our quads will. This also makes it impossible for me personally to drop all the way to the bottom without my back rounding. For this reason alone I prefer the front squat. I can drop all of the way to the bottom and maintain the natural curve in my low back. To those who argue that squatting to parallel is all that is required I have one question to ask you; do you only bench press until your elbow is 90 degrees, or do you work your chest muscles in their full range of motion knowing full well that any muscle worked in its full range will develop much more completely than a muscle worked in a partial range of motion? Make that two questions; are your quads any different in that regard than any other muscle? Then squat all the way down and all the way up as you would with an other exercise. Unless of course you are a competitive powerlifter where one only needs to squat to parallel.
This means that if you’re someone who isn’t built for squatting, meaning someone who is tall or has long femurs or even back issues, then you will never be able to add enough weight to the bar to challenge your quads and stimulate muscle hypertrophy. Does it not make sense then that the leg press would be your better option if you meet any of the above criterea? Assuming you aren’t rounding your back by going too deeply on the leg press (I mean way too deeply. Go as deeply as you possibly can while maintaining your spines natural shape) the leg press provides an excellent alternative as your primary quad mass builder.
Personally I have dropped back squats entirely and I don’t miss them at all. I still front squat as I can go all the way to the bottom and maintain a relatively upright torso and a straight back meaning I can go as heavy as I want without fear of injury. I do feel, however, that I could if I wanted to eliminate front squats as well and rely on the leg press exclusively. I don’t intend to as I feel variety is also important but my point still stands. There is no reason to squat if you are unable to do so maximally, safely. The leg press is the squats equal as far as building muscle is concerned, and if you were to look further on this subject (not something I’m choosing to cover in this particular article) you may discover that the leg press is arguably a more effective exercise for muscle-building. Until next time my friends,