While the squat is the reigning king of leg exercises, leg presses aren’t far behind. The great thing about leg presses is that the weight is guided and balanced, leaving you free to train your legs to failure.
This means that, for some lifters, the leg press may be a better muscle builder than squats. That’s especially true if squats bother your knees or lower back.
Of course, the leg press is much less functional than squats, lunges, deadlifts, and all those other freeweight lower body exercises. But, sometimes, when building muscle is your goal, that’s really not a bad thing. After all, leg presses are popular with bodybuilders for a reason, right?
Unfortunately, a lot of lifters fail to get the most from leg presses. It’s not that they do them incorrectly, although that is sometimes the case. Rather, it’s that they pay no attention to the position of their feet.
In the same way that narrow, regular, and wide stance squats affect your legs differently, the same is true for leg presses.
In fact, because there are more foot placement options with the leg press, it pays to know where best to put your feet to get the most from this exercise.
In this article, we explain the different foot placements you can use during your leg press workouts so you can choose the best one for your training goals.
What Muscles do Leg Presses Work?
The leg press is a compound exercise, which means it involves multiple muscles and joints working together. The main muscles trained by leg presses are:
Quadriceps – located on the front of your thighs, the quads extend your knees. There are four quadriceps muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
Hamstrings – there are three hamstring muscles: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. These muscles work together to flex your knees and extend your hips. The hamstrings are located on the back of your thighs.
Gluteus maximus – this is the largest muscle in the human body. Located on the back of your hip, the glutes extend your hips.
Hip abductors – located on the outside of your hips and thighs, the abductors lift your legs out and away from the midline of your body. The abductors are gluteus minimus and medius, and the tensor fascia latae, or TFL for short.
Hip adductors – there are three hip adductors: longus, brevis, and magnus, which means longest, shortest, and biggest. Located on the inside of your thighs, the adductors draw your legs in toward the midline of your body.
Regardless of your foot placement, all of these muscles are worked during leg presses. However, different foot placements emphasize different muscles, so it makes sense to adjust your stance if you want to target specific parts of your legs.
How To Perform Leg Presses
Like any exercise, you’ll get more from leg presses if you do them correctly. Also, improper form could lead to serious injury. After all, with your lower back supported, it’s all too easy to lift huge weights when leg pressing. Doing them wrong, especially with heavy loads, can really mess you up!
How to do it:
- Sit on the leg press and slide your butt down and pressed into the bottom of the seat. Place your feet on the footplate according to your training goal (see below).
- Extend your legs and press the weight up. Flip the safety catches out to the side so the weight sled is free to move. Grip the support handles and brace your abs.
- Bend your knees and lower the weight sled as far as your flexibility and knee health allows. Do not let your lower back round. Instead, keep it pressed into the backrest.
- Without bouncing, drive the weight back up, stopping just short of full knee extension.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Important Note: there are lots of different leg press machine manufacturers and designs. These instructions are for a standard-type leg press where the weight moves on rails. Other machines may operate differently. So, make sure you use the leg press at your gym according to any instructions provided with the machine or as directed by the gym staff.
5 Different Leg Press Foot Placements Explained
Broadly speaking, there are FIVE different foot placements you can use during leg presses. Each one allows you to emphasize a particular leg muscle or muscle group.
The five available foot placements are:
With basic stance leg presses, your feet should be parallel and roughly shoulder-width apart in the middle of the platform. This is the most common foot position and most lifters tend to adopt it naturally.
Basic stance leg presses work your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps pretty equally. If you want a good general leg workout, regular stance will give you what you want.
2. Feet High
This foot placement involves putting your feet higher up on the footplate. Doing this variation emphasizes your glutes and hamstrings and puts more weight through your heels.
With the bias on your posterior chain, putting your feet high on the platform takes stress off your quadriceps and knees, which may be beneficial if leg presses aggravate your joints.
However, you may not be able to lift as much weight, so this variation is not so good for building lower body strength.
3. Feet Low
Placing your feet lower on the platform puts more weight on the balls of your feet and increases quadriceps engagement. The low foot placement means this is an excellent alternative to another quad-dominant machine exercise – hack squats.
On the downside, a low foot placement increases both stress and range of motion at the knees, which could cause or aggravate knee pain. However, this is a superior quad builder.
4. Narrow Feet
With this variation, your feet are parallel and about hip-width apart in the middle of the platform. It’s a very strong position which makes this is good exercise for lifting heavier weights and building strength.
The narrow stance emphasizes your quads but is slightly more knee-friendly than the low stance described above. However, you may find that you cannot lower the weight as far as your thighs could come into contact with your stomach.
5. Wide Feet
While the actual width of your stance will depend on the size of the platform on your leg press machine, moving your feet out tends to increase glute, hamstrings, and hip abductor engagement. Ideally, your feet should be about 1.5 shoulder-widths apart, turning your toes slightly outward.
On the downside, this variation requires good hip mobility and flexibility. For example, if you’ve got tight inner thighs, it could be uncomfortable or even cause injury, especially if you descend too far.
How to Use This Information
A lot of lifters use the leg press without thinking much about the position of their feet. They just adopt the foot placement that feels comfortable and natural, which is usually the basic/regular stance.
But, as you can emphasize specific parts of your legs by moving your feet, it makes sense to adopt that stance that works the parts of your legs you want to develop.
So, if you want to build your quads, use a narrower stance or place your feet lower on the platform.
Alternatively, if you want to emphasize your glutes and hamstrings, move your feet up on the platform and push through your heels.
Want to hit your hips and inner thighs a little more? Adopt a wider stance.
Of course, it’s important to remember that whatever your stance is, you’ll still be working all your major leg muscles. However, you should feel certain muscles working differently according to where you place your feet.
If you can’t decide which part of your legs you want to work, you could always move your feet set by set to train them all, for example:
- 1stset – wide stance
- 2ndset – narrow stance
- 3rdset – feet high
- 4thset – feet low
- 5thset – regular stance
This will provide an effective and more interesting leg workout than doing set after set with the same foot placement.
Looking for even more leg press variety? Check out: 11 New Ways to Use the Leg Press Machine
Leg Press Foot Placements – Wrapping Up
A lot of training experts are quick to dismiss the leg press because it’s not as functional as squats, deadlifts, and lunges.
While this statement is undeniably true, it’s also worth remembering that functional means different things to different people. After all, if you are a bodybuilder, you want exercises that maximize hypertrophy – and that’s the main function of the leg press.
Squats really do deserve the title of king of exercises, but that doesn’t mean the leg press can’t be valuable, too. In fact, you may find that leg presses have a few advantages that squats do not share, especially if you like to train alone or work to failure.
So, squat hard and heavy, but make your leg workouts even more productive with leg presses, remembering to use the foot placement that best matches your goals.
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