Leg Press vs squats, a battle for the ages! Both exercises are common lower body options, but what are the main pros and cons, and which one is the best choice for you?
Leg press vs squats
Both leg presses and squats are lower body exercises that primarily work your quadriceps, with support and assistance from your glutes, hamstrings and adductors.
However, the two movements also have differences which include the specific joint ranges of motion worked, the level of stabilisation offered and the difficulty of learning.
Joints worked and ranges of motion
|Joint||Squat ROM||Leg Press ROM|
|Hip||Large||Small (Your hips are essentially always in flexion)|
|Ankle||Large||Moderate to Large|
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 squats
The primary muscles worked in the squat are the quadriceps, supported to a moderate extent by the hamstrings, glutes, adductors and calves.
- Quadriceps: Prime Movers during both eccentric (lowering) and concentric (driving up) portion of the squat
- Hamstrings: Assist with the movement to a small extent
- Glutes: Assist with the movement to a moderate extent
- Adductors: Stabilise the movement, especially at the bottom
- Calves: Stabilise throughout the movement
*As with the leg press, you can adjust foot position in the squat to activate slightly more glutes and hamstrings (a ‘sumo squat’ stance’) which is a great choice for glute and hamstring focused leg development.
Are leg presses as effective as squats?
Squats are better than leg presses for most goals, as they recruit more leg muscles, have better transfer to sport performance, and tend to place less compressive force on the lower back. Squats also improve balance, and create a greater hormonal response.
How much easier is leg press than squats?
Most people find the leg press significantly easier than the squat. It is easier to learn as it is less complex, plus you can usually lift more weight as you are fully supported with no need for balance or extra stabilisation.
Can leg press replace squats?
In most cases, no the leg press is not a substitute for squats. It cannot replicate the balance or core demands, nor does it create the same hormonal or metabolic response. With that said, it really depends on your goals. If you’re main goal is purely to build huge quads as a bodybuilder, then the leg press may be a great exercise for you to really target them.
The pros and cons of leg press
Leg Press Pros:
- Easy to learn and use
- Allows really targeted loading of quads
- Not limited by balance or stability demands
- Taller and long-limbed people may find it a useful option
Leg Press Cons
- Doesn’t create as big a response per set as squats
- Doesn’t work supporting muscles such as adductors or glutes to the same extent as squats
- Lower transfer to sporting movement
- Potentially higher compressive forces on lower back
The pros and cons of squats
- Large stimulus and hormonal response per set
- Hits more lower body muscles for more well-rounded development
- Better transfer to sporting movements
- Stability and balance may limit execution more than the muscles themselves
- Takes more time to learn and perform properly
- Taller and long limbed people may struggle with the exercise
Should I do squats or leg press first?
Most people would put squats first in their workout. This is because you’ll be stronger, fresher and more coordinated at the start of your workout.
However, there’s no rule saying that you need to use both exercises in the same workout, or even in the same training block. In my coaching opinion, a better option for most goals would be to do two lower body workouts per week, separated by 2-3 days.
- Workout 1: Squats: Sets of 5-10 reps
- Workout 2: Leg Press: Sets of 10-20 reps
That way you can get two different types of leg stimulus throughout the week. Essentially the best of both worlds.
How much should I leg press compared to squats?
Many people find that they can leg press 2-3 times what they can squat. In the leg press, you’re in a seated position, and far more stable, so you can lift far more weight.
There are two key things that you should know though:
- Most people leg press with way too small a range of motion, essentially just performing half or quarter reps. You’ll find that if you use deep, full range of motion leg presses the amount you can lift is reduced dramatically.
- Try to get the idea of how much you SHOULD lift out of your head. Everyone is built differently, as is every leg press machine! Just aim to do the best you can with good form and improve over time.
Should I do leg press or squats?
If I had to choose squats or leg press, here’s my coaching opinion based on your goal:
- For sports performance: Choose squats
- For strength: Use mainly squats with leg press as an occasional assistance exercise
- For hypertrophy: Use both with different rep schemes
Leg presses and squats work similar muscles, but have different joint ranges of motion, especially at the hip.
Leg presses offer more support, allowing you to lift more weight and specifically target your quads, making them a good choice for hypertrophy.
Squats offer a more well-rounded leg development that also develops balance and stability, making them a good choice for strength, hypertrophy and sports performance.
You may want to check out our article on leg press vs deadlifts.
Related Squat articles
- Sumo Squat Vs Regular Squat
- Goblet Squat Vs Back Squat – Your Questions Answered
- Goblet Squat Vs Sumo Squat
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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.