What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work?

The leg press stands as an excellent exercise for building lower limb strength and size, but what muscles does the leg press actually work?

Here, we’ll explore the muscle groups worked during the leg press and how various variations can used to target specific muscle groups, enabling you to adapt your training for specific goals. 

What muscles does the leg press work? 

The leg press is a compound squatting exercise that works the lower limbs, more specifically, the main muscles the leg press works include: 

  • Your Quads (Front Thigh Muscles)
  • Your Glutes (Buttocks) 
  • Your Adductors (Inner Thigh Muscles) 

Leg press muscles worked diagram

Labelled diagram of the muscles worked during leg press

In-depth analysis: how each muscle works during the leg press

Quads

The quads, a group of four muscles located at the front of the thigh, are the primary muscles responsible for extending the knee joint during the leg press. As you push the weight away on the leg press machine, the quads contract concentrically to generate force to extend the knee and straighten the leg.

Glutes

The glutes, or gluteal muscles, are integral in the leg press movement. As you press the weight away on the leg press machine, the glutes undergo concentric contraction, particularly the gluteus maximus, to generate force for hip extension. This contraction propels the movement, driving the hips forward and aiding in the straightening of the legs during the leg press. 

Adductors

The adductors, which are one of your inner thigh muscles, are responsible for providing stability around the hips during the leg press, where they work to maintain proper alignment of the femur, preventing the knees from collapsing inward, particularly in the bottom position of the leg press.

How to perform leg press

The leg press seems pretty straightforward, but executing it with proper form is crucial to prevent injuries and maximize muscle engagement. For an in-depth step-by-step guide, check out our detailed leg press guide. However, if you’re ut if you’re seeking a quick overview, continue reading below:

Leg press foot placement

Place your feet at about shoulder to hip-width apart towards the bottom of the foot press platform, ensuring they are flat with your toes pointed 20-30 degrees out.

From here, you can adjust that position over multiple sets to find the position that feels the most comfortable and allows you to achieve the best change of motion alongside the best muscle contraction.

The decent

Lower the weight gradually by bending your knees, aiming for a controlled and full range of motion – go down as low as you can without your lower back rounding, you want to get your quads into a deep stretched position. 

The assent 

Initiate the upward phase of the leg press by pressing through your heels, engaging your quadriceps, glutes and adductors. 

Leg press variations and alternatives 

Variations and alternatives of the leg press target muscles in slightly different ways, each offering unique benefits. Understanding these subtleties can enhance the effectiveness of your workout programming when aiming to target specific muscles. 

Seated leg press

What is the seated leg press?

The seated leg press involves using a horizontal leg press machine, where the pressing motion is horizontal rather than at a 45-degree angle. 

What muscles does the seated leg press work?

The seated leg press primarily targets the quadriceps, glutes and adductors, although they tend not to allow for a full range of motion and most people find it hard to feel good work through their quads.

Why do the seated leg press?

The seated leg press offers an advantage with its horizontal pressing motion whilst maintaining an upright seated position, reducing stress on the lower back. However, the seated leg press machines might not always allow for a full range of motion and many find it challenging to engage their quads optimally in this position, potentially limiting this exercise’s effectiveness.

Single leg press

What is the single-leg press?

The single leg press is a unilateral variation of the leg press exercise explored in this article.  In this variation, the emphasis is placed on one leg at a time, while the other leg remains elevated or off the platform. 

What muscles does the single leg press work? 

The single leg press engages the quadriceps, glutes and adductors.

Why do the single leg press?

The single leg press provides a controlled approach to developing strength in each leg independently, allowing you to address any muscle imbalances and improving symmetry in lower body strength. We’re a big fan of using this exercise with athletes to develop single leg quad strength!

Barbell back squat

What is the barbell back squat?

The barbell back squat is a compound exercise, where you typically load the barbell across the upper back, descend into a squat position and then return to a standing position.

What muscles does the barbell back squat work?

The main muscles worked during the back squat are the quadriceps, glutes, adductors, erector spinae and core muscles. 

Why do the barbell back squat?

Back squat is renowned for its effectiveness in building lower body strength, whilst also demanding significant core stability, making it a cornerstone in strength training for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Unlike the leg press, this compound movement engages the entire body, promoting global strength and enhancing overall athletic performance. 

Frequently asked questions

Does leg press work glutes?

Yes, the leg press effectively works the glutes, especially during the bottom position of the press movement and as you press the weight away on the machine. 

As you press the weight away on the leg press machine.

Is leg press a full leg workout?

No, the leg press provides a workout for some of the major muscle groups in your legs, mainly working your quads, glutes and adductors, but it does not work other key lower body muscles such as your hamstrings and abductors. 

Is a leg press better than squats?

The answer to whether the leg press or squat is better depends on your training goal. The leg press offers more support, allowing you to lift more weight and specifically target your quads, making them a good choice for hypertrophy, whereas the squat offers a more well-rounded leg development that also develops balance and stability, making them a good choice for strength, hypertrophy and sports performance. 

How many reps should I do for leg press?

The optimal number of reps you should do for leg press depends on your training goal. To build strength, perform between 3 to 6 reps. For muscle growth (hypertrophy), you can perform between 5 to 20 reps. 

How many sets of leg press?

4 to 5 sets is an optimal number for building strength, whereas 3 to 6 sets is effective for improving muscle growth (hypertrophy).  

How many times a week should I do leg press?

Incorporating the leg press 1-3 times a week can be effective, as long as you are able to recover in between sessions.

How much should I be able to leg press?

There isn’t a universal standard for how much you should be able to leg press. The appropriate weight varies based on your specific training goals. For example, if your goal is to build strength, you should be lifting a weight that feels challenging for you, which you would consider an 8 out of 10 difficulty.

Should I do squats and leg press on the same day?

It depends on your training goals and history on if you should do squats and leg press on the same day. Generally, it’s recommended to allocate separate days for squats and leg press since both exercises involve squatting movements that target similar muscle groups. 

However, there are exceptions. For instance, we once advised an athlete to incorporate both leg press and squats in a single session. The purpose was to develop maximum strength through the leg press while focusing on learning the squatting technique with lighter weights. Eventually, once the athlete was ready, we transitioned the athlete to heavier squats, and at that point, we began scheduling leg press and squats on different days.

Is leg press a compound exercise?

Yes, the leg press is considered a compound exercise. It involves a movement across multiple joints (ankle, knee and hip) and works multiple muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes). 

How much leg press machine weigh?

The weight of a leg press machine can vary widely depending on the make and model. When calculating the weight of the leg press machine, I disregard the machine’s weight and focus solely on the weight I’ve added to the machine.

Is leg press a good exercise?

Yes, the leg press is a good exercise to develop strength and size in the quads, glutes and adductors. 

What to do if no leg press machine?

If a leg press machine is not available, you can opt for an alternative squatting exercise that aligns with your training goals. This could include exercises like goblet squats, barbell squats, or lunges, providing effective squatting alternatives to target similar muscle groups and achieve your desired training outcomes. Check out our article on squats to learn more. 

Is leg press necessary?

No, the leg press is not necessary, it is just one variation of many squatting movements. 

Summary

The leg press stands as an excellent exercise for building lower limb strength and size, targeting the quads, glutes and adductors. 

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.