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.
Here are the 12 best leg press alternatives covered in this article:
- Barbell Hack Squat
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Deficit Trap Bar Deadlift
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Front Squat
- Landmine Squat
- Walking Lunges
- Resistance Band Goblet Squat
- Dumbbell Step Up
- Pendulum Squat
- Hip Belt Squat
What is the Leg Press?
The leg press is a machine-based compound movement that hits mainly the quads and glutes.
There are many different types of leg press machine, with the two most common variations 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.
In an upright seated position, put your feet flat 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. A leg 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, proper technique is faster and easier to learn.
You just push the platform away from you, then lower it under control back to the starting position. Because of the stability the machine provides, the leg press can seem less intimidating than many free weight exercises, especially if you’re just starting out.
Some folks just feel safer and more controlled with a leg press.
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.
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 leg workout in with less stress on the back.
Leg Press: Muscles Worked
Because it’s a compound exercise involving 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, an isolation exercise like the leg extension is one of the best ways to go about doing so.
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Although the hamstrings do function as a hip extensor, studies show that hamstring muscle activation during the leg press is relatively small . Maximizing growth in the hamstrings requires an exercise like the Romanian deadlift or leg curl.
The leg press isn’t an effective way to train the calf muscles either. They are involved in the exercise, but not to a degree that’s sufficient to stimulate much in the way of muscle growth .
If you want bigger calves, your lower body workout will need to include exercises like the standing or seated calf raise.
The leg press hits most of your lower body muscles, but positioning your feet higher on the footplate does tend to increase glute activation.
Home Leg Press Alternative Exercises
The squat requires minimal equipment, which makes it a great leg press alternative if you’re training at home in a garage or spare room.
The squat targets the same muscle groups as the leg press, but with more involvement from the upper body, most notably the posterior core muscles.
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 with proper form.
However, the squat does have more carryover to the leg press than the leg press does to the squat.
That is, while both exercises will improve lower body strength, squats tend to improve your performance in the leg press to a greater extent than the leg press improves 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 a 90-degree angle, 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 shoulder width apart.
- Your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Take a deep breath in and 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 roughly parallel with the floor.
- Maintain the natural arch in your lower back throughout the exercise.
- Return to the starting position.
2. Barbell Hack Squat
If you’re training at home, and all you have is a barbell and some weight plates, but no squat rack, try the barbell hack squat.
This leg 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.
3. 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 routine if squats or barbell hack squats aren’t an option.
Compared to the regular deadlift with a straight bar, studies show that using a hex bar tends to involve less of the hamstrings and more of the quads [5, 6].
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 leg muscles, 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.
4. 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 leg muscles 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.
5. 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.
The rear foot elevated split squat targets the same muscle groups as the leg press, namely the quads and glutes [7, 8].
It also allows you to train your lower body with minimal spinal loading, which makes it ideal if a bad back means that you can’t do squats.
The split squat is also a good choice if your left leg is stronger than your right leg, or vice versa, and you want to correct any strength imbalance that might exist.
- In a standing position, holding a pair of dumbbells, place the left foot on something stable like a bench.
- Practice doing the exercise without dumbbells using your body weight for resistance until you get the hang of the technique.
- Start off with the feet hip-width apart. 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.
- Think about pushing up through the heels.
- Make sure the front knee tracks in the same direction as the foot.
- The rear knee should stop short of touching the floor.
- You will feel a stretch in the quads and hip flexors in the rear leg.
6. Front Squat
This is a variation of a traditional back squat. But unlike the back 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.
Barbell front squats work 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 the leg muscles just as well as the back squat. That’s despite the fact that subjects used a heavier load when they did back 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 into the squat position, 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.
7. Landmine Squat
The landmine squat is another effective squat variation. It’s 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.
8. Resistance Band Goblet Squat
9. Walking Lunges
You can do walking lunges with a barbell across your shoulders, while holding a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells, or even with a weighted vest or heavy chain draped across your shoulders.
10. Dumbbell/Barbell Step Up
Although you can do step-ups with a barbell across your shoulders, it’s often easier to balance if you’re using dumbbells.
Hitting one leg at a time, rather than alternating from one side to the other, will keep that leg under continuous load, which does a better job of stimulating gains in muscle mass.
When you’re doing step-ups, avoid any explosive movements, and try to keep the tension on the leg muscles in the leading leg rather than using the other leg to simply push yourself up.
11. Pendulum Squat
The pendulum squat is a little like the leg press in the sense that you can hit your quads through a large range of motion with minimal involvement from the lower back.
It’s usually done in a gym using a pendulum squat machine. However, with a little creativity, it is possible to do the exercise without splashing out thousands on a machine.
In the video above, Gareth Sapstead attaches a dipping belt wrapped around his torso to a strap anchored securely to the wall, which helps to keep his body upright. His feet are also positioned on a slant board.
As well as the dumbbells, he’s also wearing a weighted vest to add load.
12. Hip Belt Squat
The belt squat was invented by powerlifter Louie Simmons after he injured his back and couldn’t do squats anymore.
Research shows that removing the load from the shoulders is an effective way to train the lower body but with less load on the spine compared to the regular squat.
The traditional way to perform hip belt squats is to use a belt squat machine. But if you don’t have access to a belt-squat machine, which most people don’t the video above shows you a number of alternatives that do a similar job.
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