How To Optimise Your Leg Press – A Guide For Athletes

The leg press can be one of the most effective hypertrophy and strength assistance exercises for athletes.  The problem is, when performed incorrectly, it can also be an absolute waste of time and energy.  This article is going to show you how to leg press correctly (it might be different than you think) plus provide you with some tips to optimise your leg press for maximal stimulus.

Leg Press vs other exercises

If you’re curious how the leg press stacks up vs other exercises, then I highly recommend you check out our articles on:

A little TLDR summary for you is that the leg press allows you to really target your quads whilst reducing axial loading and improving stability.  It might not have the best direct transfer to sports performance, but it’s a great exercise for hypertrophy.

How to do a leg press

First off, start with a few easy warm up or introduction sets to build up to your working weight.  For example, if you’re planning to leg press 140kg for sets of 8-10 reps, then you might warm up with:

  • 60kg for 10
  • 100kg for 5
  • 120kg for 3
  • Then hit your first working set

Seated leg press position

Real talk, leg press machines vary wildly from gym to gym and brand to brand, so your seated leg press position will also vary considerably.  With that said, you’re generally looking for you to be just beyond perpendicular to the weight that you’re pushing, with your back fully supported and enough room to place your legs and feet as described below.  I also recommend placing your feet towards the bottom of the plate, to really target your quads.

Back angle for leg press

Your back should rest flat against the seat, and be roughly just beyond perpendicular to leg press plate (the bit that moves) Personally, I prefer machines that allow me to sit at around 10 degrees past perpendicular, as this gives me extra range of motion whilst still feeling ‘locked in.’

Feet width for leg press

Whilst you can technically use a narrow, medium or wide foot width for the leg press, with each providing a slightly difference stimulus, a medium width is going to be best for most people.

Generally speaking, the wider you place your feet, the more glutes you’ll being into the movement, and the less you’ll hit your quads, which isn’t ideal.

And if you go to narrow, mobility often limits range of motion as well as the total load you can use, which also isn’t ideal.

My best advice is to start with feet at about shoulder to hip width and toes pointing 20-30 degrees out, and then adjust that position over multiple sets to find the position that feels the most comfortable, and allows you to achieve the best range of motion alongside the best mind muscle connection with your quads.

Range of motion / rack position 

A good leg press should be done with as full a range of motion as possible, which means setting up your chair at a position that allows for your knees to travel close to your chest in the descent.

And a word of advice from a coach, nobody cares if you can leg press 300-400kg for ¼ range of motion.  You’re not building strength, or muscle, or athleticism, you’re just stroking your ego.  

Feelings/cues for a great leg press

I have three cues that I use for a great leg press.

  1. Go down slowly.  Really control the descent for a count of 2-3 seconds.
  2. Deep stretch.  Go down as low as you can without lower back rounding, you want to get your quads into a deep stretched position.
  3. Keep it in the quads.  Focus on feeling your quads work and remember that your goal is to feel them in pain. 

Common mistakes

There are three common leg press mistakes that I see time and time again in the gyms around the world.

  1. Placing your feet too high or too wide.  This takes focus away fro the quads and turns the leg press from being a great quad exercise into sort of a mediocre glute exercise.
  2. Going too heavy. I mentioned this above and I’ll mention it again.  Stop going so heavy on the leg press.  I’ve coached plenty of people who squat 200+kg and had their legs ON FIRE doing proper leg presses with 80kg.  
  3. Partial reps. Linked to points 1 and 2, you’re just training your ego.  For a full range of motion leg press place your feet towards the bottom of the plate, in a medium stance, and go deep with each rep.

Leg press machine muscles worked

The leg press mainly works your quads and glutes, with some support and assistance from your adductors.

Your quads should be your prime movers (at least if you’re set up correctly) whilst your glutes should be active in the deep stretched position.

Benefits of the leg press

The leg press has three major benefits:

  1. More stability means more focus.  Compared to free weight exercises such as the squat, you’re far more stable in the leg press, allowing you to really focus on feeling your muscles work.
  2. Hypertrophy.  Linked to point 1, you can focus your work, especially on your quads, to really overload that specific muscle.  Combine that with a deep stretch for the quads, and you’ve got a recipe for muscle growth.
  3. Lower Axial fatigue.  Since you don’t have to have a bar on your back like you would with squats, the leg press provides less axial (spinal) loading.  This means that it tends to create less systemic (whole body) fatigue.

Leg press variations

What’s the difference between a horizontal leg press vs a leg press where your laying at 45 degrees

There is a significant difference between the two machine types. The set up on most horizontal leg presses is pretty naff.  They tend not to allow for a full range of motion, and most people find it hard to feel a good mind muscle connection to their quads. What’s worse, they also tend to be cable or pulley based instead of plate loaded, so the overall force curve feels ‘off’.

45 degree plate loaded leg presses are significantly better, and most people will feel them significantly more. 

Bilateral leg press vs a uni lateral Leg Press (Two independent foot plates)

In most cases the difference is close to negligible.  With that said, there is a marginally greater coordination demand in the unilateral version, so total load used tends to be ever so slightly less.

How does an athletes antrhropemetrics affect leg press? 

An athlete’s leg length, femur length and how their femur specifically articulates with their hip affect their set up slightly.  Some athletes may need take a slightly wider or narrower stance.  Some athletes may have to turn their toes out whilst others will prefer toes facing straight forwards.

My best advice is to start with feet at about shoulder to hip width and toes pointing 20-30 degrees out, and then adjust that position over multiple sets to find the position that feels the most comfortable, and allows you to achieve the best range of motion alongside the best mind muscle connection with your quads.

What exercises can I do on a leg press & why might I choose them?

You can do one exercise on a leg press, and that exercise is the leg press.  If you’re dealing with an injury or rehabbing an severe imbalance you might consider a single leg leg press.  Beyond that, the only purpose for using a leg press is to preferentially target the quadriceps whilst the torso is stable.

Any weird side lying leg press variations, wide stance variations, or high foot position variations are just poor attempts at isolating muscles that could be FAR better isolated through alternative movements.  For example, glutes could be FAR better worked through banded, weighted hip thrusts.  

When should I choose a leg press over other lower body exercises?

The leg press offers more stability and lower axial fatigue than most other lower body compound exercises, allowing you to focus on working your quads, and making it a great option for hypertrophy training.

Can leg press help build strength?

The leg press can be used to build strength, but I would use it mainly as an assistance movement and performed in the 5-10 rep range.

Can leg press help build muscle?

The leg press is a fantastic choice for building muscle, and I would recommend using it with anything from 5-20 reps.  You could technically perform sets of up to around 30 reps and still get great hypertrophy, but you’ll probably find that your lungs become the limiting factor before your target muscles.

Can leg press help develop power?

The leg press is a poor choice of power exercise as it can’t really be performed explosively.  It also has a poor carryover to most athletic movements, which are typically why most people want to become more powerful.  I would use various jumps and plyometrics instead.

Leg Press Bonus Tips:

Use a Yoga Mat/Pad

If you need extra range of motion but want your lower back to stay supported, try placing a rolled up yoga mat or small block under your lower back.  It can be an absolute game changer for the exercise.  I’ve had some people struggle to get much out of leg presses suddenly be able to torch their quads using this one simple change.

Wear Weightlifting Shoes

You might also want to try wearing weightlifting shoes with a raised heel to allow for even more range of motion.

Summary

The leg press is a fantastic exercise for lower body, specifically quad, hypertrophy, as well as a decent strength assistance exercise.  However, people often perform the leg press incorrectly by having their seat too upright, placing their feet too high, placing their feet too wide, and only performing with a limited range of motion.

To get the most out of your leg press:

  • Set your seat up so that it’s slightly leaning back behind perpendicular
  • Use a shoulder to hip width stance with toes pointing slightly out
  • Consider wearing weightlifting shoes and using a yoga pad/block to support your lower back
  • Control the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement and go as deep as possible without lower back rounding
  • Focus on feeling your quads perform the work
  • Work mainly in the 5-20 rep range

If you follow that advice, you’ll get a great leg press workout.

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Alex Parry header image
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.