Powerlifters need to choose accessory exercises to support their needs and address their weaknesses. Having strong legs are key for successful performances in the squat and deadlift.
One accessory movement that can help powerlifters strengthen the legs, specifically the quads, is the leg press.
So do powerlifters do leg press? Yes, powerlifters often do leg press in their training. The leg press helps powerlifters increase lower body muscle mass and build quad strength for squat and deadlift performance. The leg press can also be used to reduce loading on the upper body and back while still training the lower body.
In this article, I’ll go through exactly why you would do leg press, when you should not do leg press, and how you can incorporate it into your own powerlifting training.
6 Reasons Why Powerlifters Would Do Leg Press
Here are 6 reasons why powerlifters would do leg press:
- Extra Leg Volume To Increase Muscle Mass
- A Way To Train Legs Without Loading The Spine
- Build Quad And Glute Strength For Back Squat
- Build Bottom Range Strength For Deadlift
- Used As A Precursor To Increase Squat Frequency
- Used As A Deload Substitute For Squat
1. Extra Leg Volume To Increase Muscle Mass
Research shows that the leg press can be effective at training the quadriceps, the hamstrings, glutes, and calves. It is a very good way to add extra training reps into your routine for the purpose of increasing muscle mass around all of the leg muscles, though it primarily works the quadriceps.
The leg press can be added to a training day that includes squats or deadlifts to increase training around the legs without having to do more squats and deadlifts.
The advantage of the leg press is that it is a safer option than squat variations to get more leg training because you can push the effort and intensity to a higher degree. With a leg press, there are normally built-in safety mechanisms to help you catch the weight if you fail, whereas failing on a squat can be a risky move if you have to escape from the barbell.
Don’t have access to a leg press machine? Check out the 9 best leg press alternatives you can do with other machines, a barbell, a resistance band, or your own body weight.
2. A Way To Train Legs Without Loading The Spine
The leg press is a good way to train the legs without loading the spine. This is particularly useful if you are working around an injury or trying to manage the training difficulty of your current program.
This can apply to you if you have recently injured your back, your core muscles are very fatigued, or you just want to reduce the risk of injury to the spine if you are feeling tight around your back.
You may also want to consider doing the leg press if you have an upper body injury. Including it in your routine is a good strategy to keep building muscle and strength around the legs without being held back from injuries from the waist upwards.
Do your wrists, elbows, or shoulders get sore from doing squats? Check out these articles for tips on how to alleviate the pain:
3. Build Quad and Glute Strength For Back Squat
The primary muscle group activated in the leg press is the quadriceps, which is made of 4 different smaller muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These are also primary muscles that are used in the back squat.
This study shows that the deeper you sit in a squat, the more your glutes are activated. It also showed that the quads were evenly active through the range of motion.
The leg press also activates the glutes in a range of motion where the hips are bent at a deep angle. This can replicate the bottom range of motion for the squat.
As such, the leg press can be a useful way to strengthen the legs and hips if you have a weakness at the bottom end of the squat.
If you need help activating your glutes when doing the leg press, check out the article How To Leg Press Using Your Glutes (6 Tips).
4. Build Bottom Range Strength For Deadlift
The leg press can provide two benefits for deadlifts. It has a carryover of improving bottom end range strength for the deadlift in the initial portion of the execution. It is also good at teaching you to use “leg drive” as a cue for executing the deadlift.
The reason why the leg press is good at improving bottom range strength is that it can replicate the joint angles and positions that you are likely going to be in at the bottom of the conventional deadlift. This is also when your quadriceps are most active at the first portion of the deadlift.
As your knees extend and become straighter in the leg press, the quadricep activation decreases, but activation in your hamstrings and glutes increases. This is similar to what happens during the first half of the deadlift.
The leg press can also help reinforce the deadlift cue of pushing away from the ground and keeping tension in your legs. A common mistake is thinking about the deadlift purely as a pull. What happens when you think of it like this is that you might find that your hips rise too quickly or you lose good posture.
The leg press can also help if your deadlift is weak off the floor.
5. Used As A Precursor To Increase Squat Frequency
The leg press can be used as a precursor to increasing squat frequency. If you are in a position where you want to focus on bringing the squat up more or you are ready to increase squat frequency, you can first use a leg press.
Before you increase squat frequency straight away, you can program in the leg press on another day. This can be a gradual way of increasing training frequency on your leg and hip muscles in a conservative way.
You can then judge by how you respond to see if you are able to recover from the increased leg training frequency before deciding to fully commit to extra squat training.
Wondering how you can determine what squatting frequency is best for you? Check out my article How Many Times Per Week Should You Squat?
6. Used As A Deload Substitute For Squat
The leg press can be used as an alternative for squats as a strategy to deload training. There are two reasons why the leg press can be used as a deload substitute exercise.
One reason is that the leg press is a shorter range of motion than a squat, especially through the hip flexion and extension. An exercise with a shorter range of motion can be a lesser stimulus or stressor on a muscle.
The other reason is that you can remove any stress going through your back, shoulders, or torso. This will dramatically reduce muscle groups being recruited for training.
Powerlifters should be taking a deload week every 6-12 weeks. Find out why in the article How Often Should Powerlifters Deload? (Depends On 5 Factors).
5 Reasons To Avoid Leg Press If You’re A Powerlifter
Here are 5 reasons to avoid the leg press as a powerlifter:
- Limitations On Training Time
- Don’t Have Quad Weakness
- Struggling With Recovery
- If You Have Major Imbalances
1. Limitations On Training Time
If you have restrictions on how long you can spend training, you may want to cut out some of the accessory movements, which may include the leg press.
When you take away the leg press, you can focus on doing more squat or deadlift sets to make your training simpler and more efficient.
If you have a busy schedule, a 2-day powerlifting routine may work well for you. Check out my article on how to structure a 2-day powerlifting split.
2. Don’t Have Quad Weakness
If you do not have a quad weakness or if you are good at loading your legs but not your hips due to your torso angle in the squat, the leg press is unlikely going to be suitable for you. If you are someone who shifts forward in a squat, it is unlikely that you have a quad weakness.
Instead of doing the leg press, you may want to focus on a more hip dominant exercise that targets muscle groups such as the glutes and hamstrings. Good examples of exercises like these may be a Romanian deadlift or seated leg curl.
3. Struggling With Recovery
If your performance seems to be going down repeatedly and if soreness around the quads and the knees are not alleviating, then you are struggling with recovery.
It is important to make substantial reductions in your training stress on your legs and specifically on your quads, so you may want to avoid the leg press. Avoiding the squat is not a good idea since it is a key movement for your sport.
4. If You Have Major Imbalances
If your hips shift in the squat or in the deadlift where your pelvis moves sideways during execution, you have major imbalances in strength between the left and right sides.
In this situation, you should avoid exercises where you train both legs at the same time such as the leg press. Instead, you should opt for a single leg or single-sided approach for accessory exercises.
Bulgarian split squats and lunges are two effective single-leg exercises for addressing strength imbalances between your right and left legs. Find out which movement may be best for you in Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunges: Differences, Pros, Cons.
How Powerlifters Should Do Leg Press
There are a variety of ways that you can perform the leg press, but there are 2 specific factors powerlifters should consider when doing a leg press:
- Feet Position
- Single Leg vs. Both Legs
In terms of your foot positioning, you can change where your feet are placed on the footpad, the angle at which you put them, or how far apart they are from each other.
If you want to maximize training for muscle mass, you should keep them as narrow and low as possible on the footpad without causing restrictions in your range of motion.
If you want the leg press to carry over more to the squat, you should try to put your feet in a position similar to your squat stance.
If you want the leg press to carry over more to the conventional deadlift, you should put your feet narrower in your conventional deadlift stance.
For more information on how your foot changes the muscles used in the leg press, check out Leg Press Foot Placements: 5 Stances Explained.
Single-Leg vs. Both Legs
You can also perform the leg press with a single leg or both legs simultaneously. If you do not have any major asymmetry in muscle or strength, you can keep performing the leg press with both legs. If you do have asymmetries, you may benefit from performing the leg press one leg at a time.
The single-leg leg press is also an excellent alternative for pistol squats if you’re still working on achieving your first one.
How To Program Leg Press For Powerlifting
To program the leg press into your training, here are 4 factors to take into consideration:
- Exercise Order
- High Rep vs. Low Rep
- Number Of Sets
1. Exercise Order
How you place the leg press into your training is going to be important because it influences the performance of other exercises. Other exercises will influence your leg press performance, too.
You need to figure out where you place the leg press within a session, i.e. near the start or end. You also need to figure out which session in the week you place the leg press relative to other exercises.
You may want to put the leg press in with a training day without squats if you have low work capacity on your quads and squats seem to fatigue your legs very quickly or if you want to eventually increase squat frequency.
Research shows that for muscular strength, the more important the exercise is for your goals, the earlier it should be in your training session. But for the purpose of hypertrophy, there is no significant difference where you place it.
So if the leg press is very important for targeting your weaknesses, it can be immediately after squatting or deadlifting, or it can be the first or second exercise on another day.
2. High Rep vs. Low Rep
Higher reps refer to 8 or more repetitions and mean that you are lifting with lower intensity weights. This is useful if you are looking either to build muscle mass around your legs or if you want to improve your work capacity for performing more reps in the squat or deadlift.
Lower reps refer to less than 8 reps and can be performed with lower or higher intensities.
If you perform low reps with low intensities and many reps in reserve before failure, the leg press session will feel easy. You may want to program it like this if the leg press is not a major priority in your training routine.
If you want to focus on increasing muscular strength, you may want to perform low reps with higher intensities and fewer reps in reserve i.e. closer to failure.
Not sure how many reps you should do for your powerlifting training? Check out How Many Reps For Powerlifting? (Definitive Guide).
3. Number Of Sets
The number of sets that you do on a leg press has a large impact on how fatigued your legs will get.
As such, when you are introducing leg press into the training routine, you want to be conservative with how many sets you start off with because you want to pay attention to the impact it has on the other lower body exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
If you are a novice, you may want to perform between 2 to 3 sets of the leg press. If you are an intermediate, you may want to perform between 3 to 4 sets of the leg press. If you are an advanced lifter, you may want to perform between 3 to 5 sets of the leg press.
Whatever number of sets you prefer to start with, you should maintain it for 3 to 4 weeks and monitor whether it has any negative effects on performance.
Most powerlifters should be performing the leg press 1x per week if you take into account all the other leg-dominant exercises you do such as squats, deadlifts, and accessory exercises.
If the leg press is a priority, you may want to try it twice per week, but I would recommend that you keep both leg press sessions moderately difficult or have one hard and one easy session.
Many powerlifters have the leg press in their training, but that doesn’t always mean it will reap great benefits. Having an intelligent and reasonable approach to implementing the leg press into your training will optimize the training process.
Start with 2-3 sets once per week and pay attention to how it affects the rest of your training. You can cut it out completely or start doing it more frequently based on how your body responds.
Want to learn more about how powerlifters train legs? Then check out my article: How Do Powerlifters Train Legs? (3 Powerlifting Leg Workouts).
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com