How to Do the Leg Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Leg Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Machine leg press, machine squat press, seated leg press

Targets: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: Leg press machine

Level: Beginner

The leg press is a popular piece of gym equipment that can help build key muscles in your legs. There are two types of leg press machines commonly found in gyms: the standard horizontal leg press and the 45-degree leg press that has a seat that reclines at an angle while your legs press upward in a diagonal direction. Both machines are used to develop the quadriceps and hamstrings of the thigh as well as the gluteus (buttocks). While it seems like a simple exercise, it's important to learn how to use it properly. By paying attention to your form, you can maximize the strength-building benefits and prevent injury. The leg press is used as part of a leg strengthening routine or a machine circuit workout.

Benefits

The leg press machine allows you to get the benefits of a barbell squat for developing the quadriceps. Secondarily, it develops the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calves. By varying your foot position you can emphasize different muscles. It builds strength in these muscles and you can use it to overcome imbalances, such as when runners have more developed hamstrings than quadriceps.

Step-by-Step Instructions

When you sit down at a leg press machine, your body should be in a particular position. Sit on the machine with your back and head resting comfortably against the padded support. Place your feet on the footplate about hip-width apart while ensuring that your heels are flat. Your bottom should be flat against the seat rather than raised. Your legs should form an angle of about 90 degrees at the knees. If your feet are too high on the plate, it will stress your glutes; too low and it puts unnecessary pressure on your knees. Your knees should be in line with your feet and neither be bowed inward nor outward. As you press, make sure to keep this alignment. Grasp the assist handles to provide support and keep your spine and head in position.

  1. Brace your abdominal muscles and push the platform away with your heels and forefoot. Your heels should remain flat on the footplate. The front of your foot or toes should never be used exclusively to move the pad forward.
  2. While exhaling, extend your legs and keep your head and back flat against the seat pad. Extend with slow control rather than with an explosive movement.
  3. Pause at the top of the movement. Do not lock out your knees and ensure that they are not bowing out or in.
  4. While inhaling, return the footplate to the starting position by gradually bending the knees. Keep the feet and back flat throughout.
  5. If you have never done leg presses before, start modestly with three sets of 10 leg presses. You can advance from there as you build strength.

Common Mistakes

It is important to ensure proper form to get the most out of your leg press routine. To ensure you are doing the leg press safely, avoid these errors.

Too Much Weight

One of the biggest factors is ensuring that you're not trying to lift more weight than you should. If you can't control the movements, you will need to reduce the weights. Proper form is more important than the amount of weight you're lifting. While the exercise should require effort, it needs to be done with complete control. Never rush through the exercise or allow your legs to collapse at the end of the movement.

Buttocks Not Flat Against Seat

If your buttocks are raised off the seat, your legs are at too sharp of an angle. You will need to move the seat back until your knees and buttocks are comfortably positioned. You can recognize poor positioning when you feel cramped and/or your knees seem to be directly in front of your eyes.

Placing Hands on Knees

Placing hands on the knees is a common mistake that will break your form. Grip the assist handles instead.

Short Range of Motion

Always follow through the entire range of motion without lifting your hips. If needed, adjust the seat and/or lower your weights.

Raising Head

Focus on the position of your head. It should be steady and laid comfortably against the seat back. If you are jerking your head forward, you are using too much weight.

Breathing

Remember to keep breathing during the effort phase and to avoid holding your breath. If you focusing on exhaling on exertion and inhaling on release, your breathing will eventually become automatic.

Modifications and Variations

You can adjust the leg press to make it more accessible as a beginner and to use it to progress.

Need a Modification?

This is a very individual exercise that you need to adjust to fit your body. As machines can vary, you may want to ask a trainer to show you how to adjust it safely before starting.

Beginners should use lighter weights and develop good form. Concentrate on slow and deliberate movements rather than how many reps or the amount of weight you're lifting. If you notice any unwarranted stress or pain, ask a trainer to review your form and get some personalized advice.

Up for a Challenge?

Foot positioning can be used to work muscles in different ways. Using a wider foot placement will work the inner thigh muscles. Using a narrower foot placement will work the outer thigh muscles. Placing your feet higher on the foot plate will work your gluteus maximus and hamstrings to a greater degree. Placing your feet lower on the foot plate will emphasize the quads more, but this also places more stress on the knees and should be done with caution.

You can also use the leg press one leg at a time if you are working to overcome imblances.

Safety and Precautions

Avoid the leg press if you have weak pelvic floor muscles as it places a lot of stress on the pelvic floor. Instead, do safer leg strengthening exercises as recommended by your doctor or physical therapist. You should not use this machine if you have a knee injury. If one or both of your knees hurt, do not push through the pain. Pushing through will only cause injury. This exercise can also place stress on your back, so it should be avoided if you have a back injury or back pain.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources

  1. Due U, Brostrøm S, Lose G. Lifestyle advice with or without pelvic floor muscle training for pelvic organ prolapse: a randomized controlled trial. Int Urogynecol J. 2016;27(4):555-63. doi:10.1007/s00192-015-2852-0

  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet.