Leg press vs deadlift – your questions answered

Lower body day is here, but should you use the leg press or the deadlift to maximise your strength and size? This article answers all your essential questions.

Leg press vs deadlift

The leg press and deadlift are two different exercises that target completely different muscle groups, so comparing the two is sort of like comparing apples and oranges.

The only real similarity is that both the deadlift and the leg press are lower body exercises, so you might choose to perform them on the same day.

Joints worked and ranges of motion

JointLeg Press ROMDeadlift ROM
HipSmall (Your hips are essentially always in flexion)Large
KneeLargeSmall to Moderate
AnkleModerate to HighLow to Moderate

Muscles worked during leg press  …

The main muscles worked in the leg press are the quadriceps, supported to a small extent by the hamstrings and glutes.

  • Quadriceps: Prime Movers during both eccentric (lowering) and concentric (driving up) portion of the leg press
  • Hamstrings: Assist with the movement to a small extent
  • Glutes: Assist with the movement to a small extent

*With that said, you can adjust foot position in the leg press to activate slightly more glutes and hamstrings.  However, if growing those muscles is your goal, there are likely far better exercise choices.

Muscles worked during deadlift

The deadlift is primarily a hip extension exercise, using muscles like the:

  • Hamstrings: A major hip extensor muscle and prime mover
  • Glutes: A major hip extensor muscle and prime mover, especially at lockout
  • Spinal Erectors: Major hip extensor muscles and prime mover

The deadlift is assisted by the:

  • Quadriceps: Used in the first pull of the bar from the floor.  Play more or less of a role depending on deadlift set-up and start position.  Higher hip positions mean the quads work less, lower hip positions mean the quads work more.
  • Lats: Assist the lift by locking in and stabilising your back position
  • Core: Assists with bracing the midsection to prevent back rounding

Is leg press better than deadlift?

The leg press mainly targets your quads, whereas the deadlift mainly targets your hamstrings and glutes.  So the leg press is better for building quad strength and size, and the deadlift is better for building hamstring and glute strength and size.

Is leg press good for deadlift?

A leg press might help strengthen a deadlift that is weak off the floor.  Since the first movement off the floor in a deadlift uses more quads than the rest of the lift, exercises like the leg press that strengthen your quads might also help to strengthen that first part of the deadlift.

Why can I leg press more than deadlift?

The leg press places far less stabilisation demands on your body in comparison to the deadlift.  The leg press also uses different muscles, so it may be that your quads are stronger in comparison with your hamstrings and glutes.

Can you do leg press instead of deadlifts?

Since leg press targets your quads whilst deadlifts target your hamstrings and glutes, the two exercises are not interchangeable.  So you should not do leg press instead of deadlifts.

Can you replace deadlift with leg press?

It’s never a good idea to substitute deadlifts for leg presses.  Deadlifts work your hamstrings and glutes whereas leg presses target your quads, so the two exercises are not interchangeable.  

Why is leg press easier than deadlift?

The deadlift places higher demands on hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors, as well as your lats and core for stabilisation.  The leg press is essentially the opposite.  It requires more quad activation instead of hamstrings or glutes, and since you’re sitting it requires very little stabilisation.

Will leg press improve deadlift?

Leg press strengthens the deadlift off the floor.  Since the first pull from the floor uses more quads the any other part of the lift, exercises like the leg press that strengthen the quads might also strengthen the first portion of the deadlift.

Coach’s summary – Which exercise should I use?

If you want to increase the size and strength of your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors, then focus more on deadlifts.

If you want to increase the size and strength of your quads, focus more on leg presses.

For sports performance outcomes like sprints and jumps, I would probably place more emphasis on deadlifts (or variations of them) as hip extension is a key part of these movements.

Ultimately a well-rounded leg development programme that works all lower body muscle groups is most likely the best choice.

You may also want to check out our article on leg press vs squat

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Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.