Today, I want to show you some highly effective leg press alternatives you can use to build bigger, stronger quads.
If your gym doesn’t have a leg press machine, or you want some lower body exercises you can do at home using free weights, this page will show you what to do.
What is the Leg Press?
The leg press is a machine-based compound lift that hits mainly the quads and glutes. There are many different types of leg press machine, with the two most common being the seated leg press and 45-degree leg press.
With the seated leg press, there’s usually a selectorized weight stack next to you, allowing you to adjust the weight up or down with the use of a pin. You sit in an upright position, put your feet on the foot plate, then push yourself away from the plate by straightening your legs.
The 45-degree leg press, on the other hand, is a plate-loaded machine. Once you’re in the seat, which is positioned at a 45-degree angle, you push the platform away from you by straightening your legs, release the safety catches, then lower the platform back to the start position.
Leg Press Benefits
One of the main benefits of the leg press is the fact it’s very easy to do. An exercise like the squat, for example, can take a lot of practice before you’re able to do it properly.
But with the leg press, there’s a lot less to learn. You just push the platform away from you, then lower it under control back to the starting position. This can make it seem less intimidating than many free weight exercises, especially if you’re just starting out.
That’s not to say it’s an exercise where it’s impossible for any mistakes to be made.
If you lift too much weight and lower the weight too far, your arse lifts off the seat and your lower back can round, which is potentially dangerous for your spine.
So it’s still possible to get injured on the leg press machine. But there are certainly fewer things to go wrong compared to most free weight exercises for your lower body.
Some folks just feel safer and more controlled with a leg press. If you don’t have a power rack, or a couple of spotters you trust, squatting with heavy weights can be risky.
On a leg press machine, you can focus on pushing yourself hard without having to worry about getting stuck at the bottom of the movement.
With the leg press, there’s also a reduction in spinal load compared to the squat. If you don’t tolerate spinal load well, the leg press allows you to get an effective lower body workout in with less stress on the back.
Leg Press: Muscles Worked
Because it involves both knee and hip extension, the leg press targets primarily the knee extensors (quadriceps) and hip extensors (mainly gluteus maximus).
The quadriceps is made up of four different muscles:
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Rectus Femoris
Of the four, the leg press works mainly vastus medialis and vastus lateralis .
Rectus femoris is recruited, but not to the same extent as the other three muscles that make up the quads. If you want to work rectus femoris, the leg extension is one of the best ways to go about doing so.
Although the hamstrings do function as a hip extensor, studies show that hamstring involvement during the leg press is relatively small . Maximizing growth in the hamstrings requires an exercise like the Romanian deadlift or leg curl.
Home Leg Press Alternatives
- Barbell Hack Squat
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Deficit Trap Bar Deadlift
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Front Squat
- Landmine Squat
The squat requires minimal equipment, which makes it an ideal substitute for the leg press if you’re training at home in a garage or spare room.
Like the leg press, the squat is a highly effective way to train the quads, but with more involvement from the trunk muscles compared to the leg press. In fact, some studies show that the squat actually works the quads harder than the leg press, although the difference between the two is relatively small .
The leg press does have an advantage over the squat in the sense that it’s a lot easier to learn.
With the leg press, the weight is guided on rods, so all you need to do is focus on pushing the weight up and down. It’s a relatively simple exercise to do.
But with the squat, you’ll need to invest some time and effort learning how to do the exercise properly.
However, the squat does have more carryover to the leg press than the leg press does to the squat. By that, I mean doing squats will tend to improve your performance in the leg press to a greater extent than the leg press will improve your squat .
How deep do you need to squat to get an effective workout for your quads?
Squatting to the point where your knees hit roughly 90 degrees, which is slightly higher than a parallel squat, is still low enough to stimulate growth in your quads and glutes.
- Rest the bar across your traps and keep tight hold of the bar.
- Step back from the rack and place your feet roughly shoulder width apart.
- Your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Brace your abs before starting the descent.
- Your knees and toes should point in the same direction while you descend.
- Bend at the knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Maintain the natural arch in your lower back throughout the exercise.
- Return to the starting position.
Barbell Hack Squat
If you’re training at home, and all you have is a barbell and some plates, but no squat rack, try the barbell hack squat.
This exercise more closely resembles a deadlift than a squat because you’re pulling the weight off the floor, but the barbell is behind you rather than in front.
The barbell hack squat is an exercise that’s been around for decades, but is rarely done anymore. That’s partly because the regular squat is a far better way to train your lower body, but also because barbell hack squats can be awkward and uncomfortable to do.
- Stand in front of a barbell with your feet roughly hip width apart.
- Bend down and take hold of the bar with an overhand grip (your palms facing behind you).
- Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your feet throughout the movement.
- Your hips should stay low and your shoulders high.
If you really want to feel your legs burn, try cranking out some partial reps at the end of a set.
Trap Bar Deadlift
For some people, the barbell hack squat can feel awkward and uncomfortable, as the bar keeps slamming into your hamstrings or hitting your arse on the way up.
If so, give the trap bar (also known as a hex bar) deadlift a try. It’s not a perfect replacement for the leg press, but can form part of an effective lower body training program if squats or barbell hack squats aren’t an option.
Unlike a regular deadlift, the load is directly below the hips rather than out in front. This allows you to maintain more of an upright torso, which makes it more suitable for those with back issues.
Most hex bars will have both high and low handles. To maximize the amount of work done by your quads, you’ll want to use the low handles.
However, if you don’t have the mobility to use the low handles, and find that your lower back tends to round at the bottom of the movement, go with the high handles instead.
- Stand in the center of a hex bar with your feet roughly hip width apart.
- Bend down and take hold of the handles.
- Brace your abs as if you’re about to take a punch in the gut.
- Keep your shoulders high and hips low as you stand up.
- If the bar starts to tilt when you lift it, put it back down and adjust your hand position accordingly.
- Keep your knees tracking in the same direction as your toes.
Deficit Trap Bar Deadlift
You can also do trap bar deadlifts while standing on a raised (1-3 inches) platform. The deeper starting position means that your quadriceps and glutes end up having to work harder than normal.
However, you should only use a range of motion that allows you to maintain the natural arch in your back. If you end up rounding your back at the bottom of the exercise, you’re better off losing the platform and going back to doing the exercise from the floor.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat, also known as the rear foot elevated split squat, is one of the few genuinely effective dumbbell substitutes for the leg press.
Like the leg press, the rear foot elevated split squat targets the quads and glutes [7, 8]. It allows you to train your lower body with minimal spinal loading, which makes it ideal if a bad back means that squats are off the menu.
- Place the rear foot on something stable like a bench.
- Practice doing the exercise without dumbbells until you get the hang of the technique.
- Play around with the position of both feet until you find a foot placement that allows you to perform the exercise without losing your balance.
- The foot in front of your body should point straight ahead.
- Keep your torso upright or lean slightly forward throughout the exercise.
- Make sure the front knee tracks in the same direction as the foot.
Unlike the squat, where the barbell is behind your head, in the front squat it rests across the top of your shoulders.
This means your torso has to remain in a much more upright position, and you don’t lean as far forward as you would do during a back squat. If your torso didn’t remain upright, the bar would end up rolling off your shoulders.
The front squat works the same muscles as the back squat, but will typically involve the use of lighter weights [10 ].
In one study, researchers measured muscle activity in the quads, hamstrings and lower back during both front and back squats .
They found the front squat worked just as well as the back squat in terms of overall muscle activity. That’s despite the fact that subjects used a lighter weight when they did front squats.
You get a similar stimulus for growth but with the use of lighter weights.
The reduction in weight has the advantage of reducing compressive forces on the knee, which makes the front squat useful if dodgy knees mean that you’re not able to squat with heavy weights.
During the front squat, the muscles in the upper back also have to work a lot harder to maintain that upright posture . In fact, the muscles in your upper back will often give out before the muscles in your lower body.
- Position yourself so the bar rests across the top of your shoulders near the base of the throat.
- The front squat can feel awkward at first, as the bar can end up pressing on your neck.
- Step back from the rack and position your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart.
- Your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Take a big breath of air and brace your abs.
- As you descend, keep your elbows up to stop the bar sliding forward.
- Don’t allow your knees to cave inwards as you squat down.
- Squat as deep as you can, with the goal of working your quads through a full range of motion.
- Stand straight back up to return to the starting position.
The landmine squat is similar to the front squat in the sense that the weight is in front of you, but some people find it less uncomfortable than holding a barbell across the shoulders.
A landmine attachment is relatively inexpensive, and can be used for lot of other exercises (such as landmine rows), so it’s worth getting if you’re training at home rather than a commercial gym.