If building muscle and strength in your legs is your goal, both the leg press and barbell squat have their time and place in your training program. Some lifters decide to do one over another, and some like to incorporate both in order to outweigh the positives and negatives of each movement.
So, how do you compare: leg press vs squat? The leg press and squat work the quads similarly, but squats activate other muscle groups, including your core, glutes, hamstrings, and back. It also increases your hormone response and improves power more than leg presses. But the leg press can isolate quads more, is good for beginners, and doesn’t require a spotter.
If you had to pick between the leg press machine and back squat as the ‘biggest bang for your buck', I would recommend the squat. But the leg press is a perfect match for some lifters, and that might be you. Read on to learn the pros and cons of each movement, muscles worked, how your hormones respond to one lift over another and other facts which will allow you to determine which lift is better for your goals.
Table of Contents
What’s The Difference Between Leg Press And Squat?
Whether you're a powerlifter, bodybuilder, Olympic weightlifter, or just someone who wants to build lower body size and leg strength, the leg press and squat exercises should be some of your go-to exercises.
The leg press is easier to learn since less motor control is involved. This means that you don't have to think about where your body is in space as the movement is fixed within the range of motion set by the leg press machine.
On the other hand, the squat is a much more complex exercise to learn.
Powerlifters spend their entire career trying to refine and master the movement pattern to get every ounce of strength possible out of the exercise. The squat requires stability, coordination, and a heightened sense of confidence.
As such, for those who want to target their leg muscles right away, without the technical barrier of the squat, the leg press should be the lift you prioritize.
However, the squat is still something you should learn in the long run as there are several additional benefits that the leg press simply doesn't provide.
Let's dive into a side-by-side comparison of both the leg press vs. squat.
I also compared the Hack Squat vs Leg Press in a separate article.
Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons
- The squat is a compound exercise. A compound exercise is simply any movement that uses multiple muscle groups simultaneously to complete the movement. Compound exercises are highly effective in building leg strength and size because of their metabolic response (building both strength and muscle hypertrophy).
- The squat has been shown to burn more calories than the treadmill. The energy cost while squatting is about 2X more than low-intensity treadmill exercises, which is great for weight loss goals.
- The squat is used as a primary strength builder across every sport. Strength coaches from all sport disciplines utilize the squat with their athletes to build lower body strength. Therefore, it's been tried and tested across multiple sport contexts to work.
- The squat improves balance and coordination skills. The squat relies on the use of free weights, so the lifter must control each element of the movement and find their balance while under load.
- The squat improves jumping abilities. The squat has been shown to increase performance in a vertical jump test after 15 weeks of training.
- The squat improves core strength. The core stabilizes the spinal position during bodyweight, dumbbell, and barbell squats.
- The squat requires minimal equipment. All you need is a barbell and weight plates to squat.
- The squat is an easily modifiable exercise. If you can't do the traditional back squat, there is a whole range of squat modifications, including bodyweight, dumbbell, and barbell variations to suit an individual's needs.
- The squat is a complex movement pattern. You need a lot of practice to refine the movement and it's likely best to have an experienced coach teach you how to master the squat technique.
- The squat is bad for isolating one muscle group. This is because the squat relies on compensation strategies. This means that when you start to fatigue, other muscles will take over to help you. This is good as it will prevent you from failing the lift. But bad if you're seeking muscle isolation.
- The squat requires additional safety precautions. If you're going heavy you'll need to plan to have spotters or make sure you're squatting in a proper power rack with safety pins. Watch the following video for one of the craziest squat fails I've ever seen.
- The squat requires a superior level of mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips. Each of these joints will require deep flexion at the bottom of the squat, so if your natural mobility lacks, it will be hard to squat deep until it improves.
Leg Press Pros
- The leg press doesn't load the spine because you are in a seated position and the weight is by your feet. The leg press is a great option for people with conditions that impact how much they can or should load their spine.
- The leg press is less fatiguing, which means quicker recovery times. Since the leg press is less of a compounded movement, it requires less overall energy, which can lead to quicker recovery between workouts.
- The leg press can be used as an exercise to build leg hypertrophy. If you want an exercise that helps promote muscle growth, specifically for the quads, then high rep leg press can be extremely effective.
- The leg press can lift more weight. Most people can lift more weight using a leg press, which can help lifters progressively overload a movement a lot quicker.
- The leg press acts as a good accessory to the deadlift. During the deadlift, you want to cue ‘pushing the floor away' off the ground. The leg press mimics this “push” as you drive the machine away from you.
- The leg press can be an effective exercise for taller lifters. Compared with the squat, the leg press can be an easier movement for taller individuals who find the squat awkward because of their longer limbs.
- The leg press is easier to learn. There is virtually no technical barrier for people to learn the leg press.
- The leg press is a safer movement. There is less chance that a person gets hurt during the leg press because the machine has ‘built-in' safety mechanisms.
Also, if you get elbow pain while low bar squatting, the leg press may be a good alternative that allows you to continue to train your lower body without giving you arm pain.
Leg Press Cons
- It's hard to tell when you're compensating during leg presses. If you're using one leg more than the other, the machine won't give you the same feedback as the squat.
- The leg press has less sport application. Because the leg press doesn't require much stability, balance, or coordination, it won't transfer to broader athletic movements such as running, jumping, or contact sports.
- The leg press gives you a false sense of security. Because it's a seemingly ‘easier exercise' to learn, lifters tend to load the movement much heavier than they can handle.
- The leg press is not a compound movement. This means it only targets one muscle group. If you're looking for the best exercises to do quickly, then you'll want to stick with strictly compound movements, like the squat.
Leg Press vs. Squat: Muscles Used
Now let’s dive deeper into understanding the key leg muscles used for leg presses versus squats.
The muscles used in the squat are: the quads, inner thigh (adductor magnus), hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and calves. Squats are a compound movement.
The muscles used in the leg press are primarily the quads. The leg press is an isolation movement.
However, a study by Escamilla et. al (2001), looked at the muscular differences between the squat and leg press and investigated how different technique variations could lead to different activation in the leg muscles.
The study included 10 lifters who performed the squat, a high foot placement leg press, and a low foot placement leg press employing a wide stance, narrow stance, and two-foot angle positions (feet straight and feet turned out).
What were the results when comparing squats versus different foot placements in the leg press?
- As a whole, the squat generated greater quadriceps and hamstring activity compared with any variation of the leg press.
- When comparing different leg press variations with one another, the wide stance high foot placement generally activated more hamstring. There were no differences in quad activation between and of the leg press variations. Check out my other article if you want to learn how to use your glutes more while leg pressing.
- So while the leg press does isolate the quads more than any other muscle while performing that exercise, the study concluded that the squat is likely a better exercise to target both the quads and hamstrings because of the greater muscle activation between the two exercises.
There is one further outcome to consider: the squat saw greater stress at the level of the knee compared with the leg press.
This is not entirely a cause for concern because as a muscle works harder (activates more), the joint is usually experiencing greater stress as a result. This is common among all free-weight exercises using dumbbells and barbells compared with movements using machines.
The important takeaway is that the squat requires a higher degree of technical proficiency to execute effectively and keep the joints safe.
Leg Press vs Squat: Hormonal Response
Does the leg press or the squat help elevate your testosterone or growth hormones? The squat is better, but you’ll learn the details below.
- Build muscle
- Reduce body fat
- Increase recovery times
- Increase bone mass
- Increase stamina
- Improve mood
When we consider doing the leg press over the barbell squat, one consideration might be whether there is a better hormone response doing one movement over another. In other words, is there a greater increase in testosterone or growth hormone after doing leg presses or squats?
In a 2014 study by Shaner et al., it was concluded that even at similar intensities and ratings of perceived exertion, the squat produced a greater hormonal response in both testosterone and growth hormone compared with the machine leg press.
While hormone responses shouldn't be the only factor in deciding to do a specific exercise, if you're running low on time and can only perform one or two exercises in the gym, this might be an important factor.
Leg Press vs Squat: Sport Performance
From a sports performance perspective, we want to consider whether the leg press or squat has a better transfer effect to the skills required in our various sports.
An important skill we need in most sports is to produce explosive power, such as jumping or moving our body quickly in one direction. This is also called ‘reactive strength'.
You will achieve more glute activation by getting into a deeper depth of a heavy squat. The stronger your glutes are and the more you can utilize your glute muscles, the more force you will produce during a jumping sequence.
In a 2016 study by Wirth et al., it was concluded that after 8-weeks of training, the squat increased jump performance in the jump squats by 12.4% and the countermovement jump by 12%. When compared with the leg press group, the jump squat increased by only 3.5% and the countermovement jump by only 0.5%.
Therefore, if strength training programs aim to improve explosive power, including jump performance, then the squat should be the go-to choice for athletes.
Related Article: Jefferson Squat: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
Leg Press vs Squat: Body Composition
An important reason why we lift weights in the first place is to achieve a better body composition. In other words, gaining lean muscle and losing body fat. So, do leg presses or squats lead to better body composition results?
In a 2016 study by Rossie et al., the researchers looked at body composition results after a period of training using three different interventions: (1) a program using just the squat, (2) a program using just the leg press, or (3) a program using both the squat and leg press.
The results indicated that there were significant increases in body mass and fat-free mass after all three weight training interventions. In other words, lean muscle mass (not fat) was gained. However, the groups had no significant difference in body fat percentages.
This means that you can use either the squat, leg press, or both, for building muscle. But don't expect any reductions in body fat by simply performing these exercises.
These results make sense because a reduction in body fat usually involves some combination of diet intervention as well, which wasn't assessed for the purposes of this study.
Leg Press vs Squat: Gaining Strength
You also might be wondering whether the leg press or squat is better at gaining lower body strength.
In a 2016 study by Rossi et al., it was found, as you'd expect, that doing a standard squat improved squat strength, and leg pressing improved leg press strength.
But interestingly, there was no transfer effect between these two movements. In other words, squatting did not make your leg press stronger, and leg pressing did not make your squat stronger.
This is the classic idea of ‘specificity,' which means training how you want to perform.
- If you're a competitive powerlifter or an athlete looking to improve sport performance, then you'll want to focus on squats.
- On the other hand, if you wanted to target your quad strength over other muscle groups because you thought it was lacking, then you should focus on leg press.
Also, just because you can typically leg press more weight than squats, it isn't a sign that leg press is better for increasing lower body strength. This is because the squat relies on greater stability, balance, and coordination.
Here are some strength standards that you should follow for leg press and squat
How much should you be able to leg press?
- Beginner: 1.5-1.7X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Intermediate: 2.6-2.8X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Advanced: 3.8-4X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Beginner: 1.2-1.3X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Intermediate: 2-2.2X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Advanced: 3.3-3.6X your bodyweight for 1 rep
If you are looking for alternatives to the seated leg press, check out my article about the 9 best leg press alternatives.
How much should you be able to back squat?
- Beginner: 1-1.2X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Intermediate: 1.5-1.6X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Advanced: 2-2.1X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Beginner: 0.7-0.8X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Intermediate: 1.1-1.2X your bodyweight for 1 rep
- Advanced: 1.5-1.8X your bodyweight for 1 rep
The leg press is a great hack squat alternative.
Which Exercise Is Best For You?
Use these criteria in deciding when you should incorporate the squat, leg press exercise, or both:
When To Use The Squat?
- If you are a powerlifter, athlete, or want to be more functional in the gym
- If you want to incorporate a compounded movement that uses multiple muscle groups
- If you want to improve your core and back stability
- If you lack time and want the ‘biggest bang for your buck' in terms of a lower-body movement
When To Use The Leg Press?
- If you want a lower body movement that isolates the quads and reduces the muscular activation of the hamstrings and glutes
- If you find the squat too difficult to learn given your current skill level and abilities in the gym
- If you want to go heavy and don't have a spot
- You want to add an exercise variation to your overall leg workout
When To Use Both?
- If you want a well-rounded leg strength training program that incorporates both the pros of each exercise
- If you have time to devote to additional exercises in the gym
- If you want to maximize your lower body hypertrophy (muscle growth)
Frequently Asked Questions
Are leg presses better than squats?
Squats are better than leg press if you had to choose one exercise over the other. This is because the squat recruits almost every muscle in the lower body, improves balance, has a greater metabolic response, and can increase other sport skills compared with the leg press.
Why can I leg press more than squat?
You can leg press more than you can squat because you don't have to stabilize the movement through your spine. The use of the machine assists much of the stability required in the leg press.
Is leg press bad for you?
Like any exercise, there are risks associated with the movement. However, with proper technique, such as keeping your knees stacked over the toes and not rounding your low back as the weight comes down, the leg press is not bad for you.
What is a good weight for leg press?
The average male should be able to leg press 1.5-1.7X their body weight for 1 repetition. The average female should be able to leg press 1.2-1.3X their body weight for 1 repetition.
Can you leg press and squat on the same day?
These movements complement each other with the lower body muscles worked. Since squats are more technical with form than leg press, perform squats first. You can then isolate your quads a little bit more if you do the leg press after.
Whether you decide on the leg press exercise or squat, both will provide you with health benefits, including greater overall levels of strength and increased muscle mass. I would use both the squat and leg press in your training program; however, if you had to pick between the two, the squat would be a better bang for your buck.
Also, if you liked this exercise comparison, check out the following articles: