November 24, 2021 9 min read
Most commercial gyms will have a Leg Press machine. However, you may not be aware that there are three different types of leg presses available; the 45 Degree Leg Press, the Horizontal leg press and the Vertical leg press.
This article delves into the differences between the three machines and which may be better suited to you, whether you’re buying for yourself or your gym.
The 45 Degree Leg Press, sometimes referred to as the angled leg press, tends to be fairly common in a gym environment and often features an adjustable back pad and a footplate which sits at a constant 45 degree angle.
The Vertical Leg Press is a machine with a back pad which is at floor level and a footplate directly above the back pad. You would lie on the back pad and place your feet flat against the footplate so your legs would be straight up in the air.
The horizontal leg press is somewhat similar to the 45 degree leg press. Sometimes referred to as a seated leg press, they feature a footplate which sits at the same height as your torso. This is a fairly common addition to a gym as they are the easiest to use when compared to other leg press models. One of the other fundamental differences is that a seated leg press tends to feature a weight stack rather than being a plate loaded machine.
The most noticeable differences between the three machines is the direction that the weight is being pushed. With the seated leg press the weight is pushed horizontally (straight out in front of you and parallel to the floor), the 45 degree leg press the weight is pushed diagonally and at an incline of 45 degrees and the vertical leg press the weight is pushed vertically (straight up towards the ceiling).
Each of the three types of leg press machines are used differently with some being easier than others.
As touched on above, the seated leg press is by far the simplest to use. The reason for this is because of where the footplate is in relation to the seat pad. The seat pad tends to be positioned higher off the ground than both the vertical and 45 degree leg press with the foot plate being located immediately in front of you.
A 45 degree leg press is a plate loaded machine, so you’ll want to load up the desired weight to begin with.
The least common of the leg press machines, the vertical leg press is a plate loaded machine so load up the machine with the required number of plates before you begin.
All of the leg press machines offer subtle differences in the way they work and they all essentially target the same muscle groups.
The primary muscles activated with any leg press machine are the quadriceps. Secondary muscles coming into play are the glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles.
Whilst the same muscles are activated during movement, one type of machine may be placing much more of the weight on to your legs over another.
For example, if you select 40kg on a selectorised seated leg press the weight is generally positioned to the side and has to travel through a pulley system that uses cables. This will create an element of drag and take some of that 40kg of weight.
By comparison, if you load a 20kg plate either side of a vertical leg press, this is going to be much more challenging. Firstly, because the weight is positioned directly above you, meaning you will taking the full load of that weight. Secondly, you will also be pressing the weight of the leg press carriage. In some instances these can weigh as much as 40kg.
You can now see that 40kg on a seated leg press is not the same as 40kg on a vertical leg press.
Another important factor to consider with the muscles being targeted, is that of foot placement. By making small adjustments to where your feet are positioned on the foot plate will have an impact on what muscles are taking the bulk of the weight. We go into more details below on different kinds of foot positions and what muscles they target.
Whilst using a leg press doesn’t recruit as much of the lower body muscles as a regular squat, it does offer some advantages.
If you are suffering from lower back pain or any upper body injuries, using the leg press in place of the squat is a good alternative as it keeps the load away from your back and upper body allowing you to isolate the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
The leg press machine is also good for beginners. As it’s an easy machine to become accustomed too, you’re less likely to suffer from injuries when compared to free weight exercises. So the machine will give you a solid base to build leg strength and muscle size before moving over to something more complex, such as the barbell squat.
Using the leg press prior to heavy squatting is a good warm up exercise as it stretches out the muscles and joints and reduces potential for injury when performing squats.
It even offers excellent carry over to cardiovascular exercise such as running and jumping as by utilising the leg press with a lower weight but higher repetitions can help to improve explosive leg strength.
The main difference between a squat and a leg press is that a squat is a compound free weight movement whereas a leg press is an isolation exercise performed on a machine.
Whilst a squat and leg press both target the same lower body muscles, those being quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings, the squat is going to activate additional muscles such as your core and hips. This is because during a squat, most of your body is taking the entire weight load whereas with a leg press your back and upper body are supported and thus taken out of the equation.
With a leg press you can alter the muscles that are activated by adjusting your foot position on the footplate, thereby giving you greater control over muscles you’d prefer to target.
A squat offers a much larger range of motion when compared to a leg press machine, meaning that whilst both effectively work the quads, the squat is going to be much better at hitting the glutes and hamstrings. This is because you can squat deeper than if you were using a leg press. You’re not able to reach the same depth on a leg press machine as you run the risk of rounding your back and causing injury. Remember, whilst you may physically be able to bring your knees to your chest on a leg press, doing so will mean you are rounding your back and making your spine prone to large compressive forces and this should be avoided. If you want to go to these depths then you need to squat instead.
Another difference between the two is that you’ll be able to leg press significantly more than you can squat. This is because when squatting you use your stabilisation muscles to help with your balance. A leg press machine will stabilise that weight for you. Also, with the seated leg press or 45 degree leg press the weight is being pushed either away from you horizontally or diagonally so gravitational forces are not against you as they would be with a squat.
It may not seem important but where you place your feet on a leg press will have a direct impact on the lower leg muscles that you are focussing on. To get the most out of using a leg press, it’s worth knowing where you can place your feet and what muscles you are hitting.
Below are some options for foot placement along with which muscles they effectively target.
The most common stance where your feet are positioned in the centre of the footplate with feet approximately hip width apart and toes pointing slightly awards. This won’t place emphasis on any particular muscle group but instead offer overall development of the quads, glutes and hamstrings. It’s easy to undertake and particularly ideal for beginners to the machine.
As you perform the movement, keep your feet flat on the platform at all times bring your knees as close as possible to your chest but without rounding your back. Your back and head should remain flat to the pad throughout the exercise.
By placing your feet lower down on the foot plate you’ll be encouraging more activation of the quadriceps. This is because your knees will travel further over your toes as you bring them towards your chest.
Feet should be placed as low down as possible on the platform without your heels overhanging and at hip width apart. Again toes should point slightly outwards. Bring your knees as close to your chest as possible whilst ensuring your feet remain flat to the foot plate and avoid rounding your lower back. Because your knees will be travelling over your toes it’s worth nothing that a degree of ankle flexibility is needed for this movement.
A high foot placement on the leg press will activate more hip extension meaning more emphasis will be placed on the hamstrings and glutes. Because of the additional hip extension being recruited this may not be suitable if you are suffering from any lower back issues. Keeping your feet high will also remove much of the work by your quads.
With a wide stance foot placement it’s necessary to have a good degree of flexibility to the inner thigh muscles. This is to ensure that you can keep your knees out throughout the movement without them ‘caving in’. This particular stance encourages use of the hamstrings and glutes.
To correctly do this movement, place your feet wide apart on the footplate with toes almost overhanging. You may notice that some leg press machines offer a wider foot plate than others so this could dictate to how wide you can position your feet. Your toes will need to be pointing out quite significantly for this one, around 45 degrees or so. Carry out the movement slowly to determine how far you can bring your knees to your chest, this will depend on flexibility.
The narrow stance foot position is ideal for activating of your quads. It does have a fairly limited range of motion as you’ll find your thighs could make contact against your stomach at the bottom of the movement. Because of this however, you’ll likely be able to press more weight so this is a good one if you want to go that little bit heavier.
For this one, keep your feet in the centre of the footplate and just under hip width apart with toes pointing out slightly.
No matter what leg press machine you go for, fundamentally they all offer the user to chance to effectively target their quads, glutes and hamstrings whilst removing most of the stress on the lower back. Common in most gyms, a leg press is great for beginners allowing them to build decent leg strength and muscle size before moving over to undertake more challenging leg exercises, such as a barbell squat.
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