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 Squats & Leg Press
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.
That still holds true today, I’m not going to argue that those two exercises, in particular, cannot be the core of one’s 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.
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.
Benefits of Squats
Squats have long been considered one of the best leg exercises you can do. Here are some of the main benefits:
- Full body compound movement – Squats engage multiple large muscle groups including quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, and upper back. This makes them an excellent strength and muscle builder.
- Functional movement – Squats mimic a real world bending and lifting pattern. This makes them very applicable for athletic performance and everyday life.
- Muscle development – When done properly, squats effectively target the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. They are a staple exercise for leg hypertrophy.
- Hormonal response – Squats elicit a big anabolic hormonal response including testosterone and growth hormone release, which enhances muscle growth.
- Progression potential – You can gradually increase squat weight by adding plates. This allows for continuous overload over time.
However, squats do have some potential drawbacks:
- Learning curve – Mastering proper squat form and technique takes time and practice for most people. Poor form can lead to injury.
- Spinal loading – Holding a heavy barbell on your back places a lot of force on the spine and lower back. This also limits how much weight you can safely use.
- Not quad focused – While squats hit the quads, they recruit more glutes, hams, and adductors as well. This reduces tension directly on the quadriceps.
- Poor for some body types – Tall lifters with long femurs often struggle to squat properly and fully due to poor biomechanics.
Benefits of the Leg Press
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 spine’s natural shape) the leg press provides an excellent alternative as your primary quad mass builder.
The leg press allows you to utilize heavier weights compared to the squat. This increased overload directly targets the quadriceps muscles in isolation:
- Quad focus – Leg presses better isolate the quads. This leads to more direct tension on them compared to squats.
- Heavy overloading – You can generally use very heavy weights, far beyond what you could squat. This greater overload promotes size and strength gains.
- Joint-friendly – The seated position and machine stabilization places less compressive force on the spine vs. squats.
- Accommodating – The leg press can be adjusted for different body types and abilities. You simply change the seat position as needed.
- Muscle growth – When programmed properly, leg presses will directly build bigger quadriceps.
Potential leg press drawbacks include:
- Non-functional – It’s a seated machine exercise that does not mimic real-world movement patterns like squats do.
- Only isolates quads – You do not get the benefit of full body multi-joint loading like with squats. Less glute, hamstring, and core involvement.
- Less metabolic cost – Leg presses burn fewer calories because they use less muscle mass compared to heavy barbell squats.
- Loading challenges – Adding weight typically requires pin adjustments rather than just adding plates like the squat.
Squat vs Leg Press – Which is Best?
So which exercise reigns supreme when looking at squats vs leg presses? Here is the verdict:
For general strength and muscle building, squats are the better overall choice. The full body stimulation, progression, and hormonal response of heavy squats is hard to beat. When done properly, squats are one of the most effective exercises you can do for leg development.
However, the leg press is an excellent secondary exercise. Leg presses allow heavier loading directly on the quads. When combined with squats in a program, they provide very complete quad development.
The best approach is to incorporate both squats and leg presses in your training routine. Focus on progressive overload and good form on both movements. This combination hits the legs from multiple angles leading to optimal strength and hypertrophy.
Just remember that squats should come first in your leg day routine for general fitness goals. The leg press perfectly complements the squat as a supplemental lift. Together they form a powerful duo for building bigger, stronger quadriceps.
Squats vs Leg Press – The Verdict
The verdict? In my opinion, the squat is still the king of leg exercises for total body strength and athletic development. However, the leg press offers distinct benefits as well, especially for direct quad hypertrophy.
Here are my final thoughts on the great squat vs leg press debate:
- Squats should be the priority in leg programming for full body strength and performance.
- Leg presses allow heavier loading directly on the quads due to isolation and machine stability.
- For complete leg training, utilize both squats and leg presses to maximize strength and size gains.
- The leg press is a good squat alternative for those unable to squat properly due to biomechanics or injuries.
- When used together, squats and leg presses form an effective combo for quad growth and development.
The moral of the story is that BOTH the squat and leg press have merits. The best approach is to incorporate squats as your primary lift then use leg presses as a supplemental lift for additional quad overload. Keep the focus on progressive overload and technique in both exercises.
This two-pronged approach of heavy squatting combined with leg press overload hits the quads from multiple angles. It provides complete development while allowing you to take full advantage of each movement’s unique strengths.
In summary, the squat may be king, but the leg press is a prince when it comes to building bigger, stronger quadriceps. Use both exercises strategically to take your legs to the next level!
- Squats are best for full body strength, muscle, and athletic performance.
- Leg presses better isolate the quads and allow heavier loading.
- For complete quad development, use both squats and leg presses.
- Focus on progression, form, and effort on both lifts.
- Together squats and leg presses optimize quad goals!