How to Do the Leg Press Safely

Avoid Injury and Maximize Your Workout With Proper Form

The leg press is a popular piece of gym equipment that can help build key muscles in your legs. 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.

Leg Press Machines

There are two types of leg press machines commonly found in gyms: the standard horizontal leg press and the 45-degree leg press. The latter 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).

Getting Started

As with all exercises, when you're first starting out, you should not lift too much. You should also stop if you feel any pain. 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.

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. You can also ask him to watch your form and offer suggestions for correcting it.

Position Your Body

Fit woman using leg press
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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 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.
  • Your bottom should not be raised from the seat. If it is and 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.
  • Grasp the assist handles. These provide support during the movement and help keep your spine and head in position. Placing hands on the knees is a common mistake that will break your form.

Ensure Proper Form

Woman doing leg press
George Stepanek

It is important to ensure proper form to get the most out of your leg press routine.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Pause at the top of the movement. Do not lock out your knees and ensure that they are not bowing out or in.
  • While inhaling, return the footplate to the starting position by gradually bending the knees. Keep the feet and back flat throughout.

Safety Checkpoints

Mixed race woman exercising in health club
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Follow these five checkpoints to ensure that you are doing the leg press safely and correctly:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Always follow through the entire range of motion without lifting your hips. If needed, adjust the seat and/or lower your weights.
  4. 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.
  5. If one or both of your knees hurt, do not push through the pain. It is better to start lower and gradually build up. Pushing through will only cause injury.

A Word From Verywell

Safety and preventing injury are the goals of proper form on a leg press machine. 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.

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