So, you may agree that the leg press is an AWESOME exercise for building or “toning” the legs. Here at musclelead.com we absolutely love it, due to its complexity and ability to tap into so many different muscle groups including; the core, quadriceps, calves, gluteus and hamstrings to some extent (1).
However, there are some leg press alternatives I would like to offer.
As great as the leg press may be, we always need to alternate between other similar exercises to diminish the tedium factor and continue to draw different motor units and muscle fibers, subsequently allowing us to create a form of overload for progression (2).
So, in simpler terms, you could say changing things up can keep the muscle guessing and improving.
Within this article I will cover; the exact muscles utilized during the leg press, what makes a good leg press alternative in terms of the biomechanics and muscle stimulated.
Once you have got a good idea of the lower extremity functionality, I will provide 12 leg press alternatives with a detailed description of the coaching cues. Lastly, I will highlight some frequently asked questions and my final thoughts.
Muscles Used During the Leg Press
1. Quadriceps Muscles
In fact, the quadriceps are made up of 4 muscles referred to as; vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, rectus femoris (1). Furthermore, the quadriceps are located at the front of the upper leg, thereby are responsible for extending at the knee and flexing at hip (1,3).
2. Gluteus Muscles
Surprisingly, the gluteus is located at the buttocks and is one of the strongest and largest muscles of the body made up of the gluteus maximus, medias and minimus and produce extension, rotation and abduction at the hip (4, 5).
3. Hamstring Muscles
The hamstrings are made up of the semitendinosus and semimembranosus located at the back of the upper leg (5).
Moreover, the hamstring being the antagonists of the quadriceps, they are responsible the opposite movements of flexing the knee and extending at the hip (5).
4. Calf Muscles
In fact, there are two main muscles of the calves, including the gastrocnemius which is the small muscle on the back of the lower leg (6).
Firstly, the gastrocnemius creates dorsiflexion at the ankle and assists flexion at the knee (6).
Secondly, the other muscle is the soleus which runs down the outer side of the lower leg and activated by the opposing movement known as plantarflexions (6)
5. Core Stability
The muscles of the core will contract isometrically during most exercises to help stabilize the movement and maintain and neutral position in the spine (7).
Leg Press Mechanics
Firstly, to engage in the leg press, you must sit on a leg press machine in an upright position and brace the core to form a stable base and ensure spinal neutrality (1).
Furthermore, the next step would be to place your feet on the leg press platform at shoulder width in a 2 o’clock and 11 o’clock angle. Then, exhale and press and the feet and extend the legs to create a kinetic chain or triple extension (plantarflexion, knee extension, hip extension); thereby engaging the soleus, quadriceps, gluteus and hamstring to some extent (1).
During the negative portion you inhale and would move in the opposite motion (dorsi flexion, knee flexion, hip flexion) therefore stimulating the gastrocnemius and hamstrings (1).
What Makes a Good Leg Press Alternative?
Finding alternative exercises for the leg press can be very simple once you possess a foundational understanding of lower limb biomechanics, as we have highlighted. So, we should now understand that an exercise that produced a triple extension will engage similar muscle groups to the leg press (8).
Some exercises may be more beginner friendly or advanced, but all serve a similar purpose which is to stimulate, strengthen and build the lower extremities (8). Also, I have alluded to some alternative exercises bellow in no particular order or difficulty.
12 Leg Press Alternatives
1. Barbell Squats
Firstly, there’s no surprise that I’ve included the barbell squat, based on my personal experience it is the most effective exercise for the lower limb muscle and strength developments. Moreover, it falls on the first place when it comet to leg press alternatives.
Furthermore, the barbell squat can be performed in a high bar or low bar position (9); I personally prefer positioning the bar above the upper portion of the trapezius muscle as I find that it is easier to keep my thoracic spine more neutral which is safer.
The Squat is great in engaging the lower extremities as it requires a triple extension but due to stabilizing a load will engage many muscles of the trunk isometrically such as the pectorals, deltoids, biceps etc (9).
Note that the barbell squat is a more intermediate-advanced exercise (8) due to the requirement of foundational level of core stability and balance, but If you are interested in incorporating it as an alternative or an addition to the leg press during your workout, I have outlined some coaching cues bellow.
How to Do
Step 1. Set up a loaded or unloaded bar on the squat rack which would ideally be in line with the collar bones.
Step 2. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip outside shoulder width and slide the head neck and torso underneath, with the legs poisoned ahead and shoulder width apart.
Step 3. Retract the scapula to form a base or cushion to hold the bar.
Step 4. Brace the core, exhale and press off the center/front of the foot, extend at the knees and hips to draw the bar off the rack
Step 5. While maintaining a stable base, take a few steps back, continue bracing the core, inhale, flex at the hip and knees and place all of the weight on the heel of the foot
Step 6. From this squatted position, inhale and press from the ball of the foot (front/middle of the foot) simultaneously extend at the knee and hip.
- Remember to breathe throughout the exercise to draw in oxygenated blood to the muscles and brain.
- Brace the core and keep the torso upright to keep the spine neutral, thus reducing injury risk.
- Also, keep the scapular retracted (pin shoulder blades)
- Squat based on flexibility, but to engage all of the muscle try to create a 90-degree knee position or bellow.
Learn about How Squats Work Your Core
2. HIIT Cycling
Yes, you are right, cycling differentiates to the leg press greatly and it is the second on the list of leg press alternatives. However, I would argue tooth and nail that It has many similarities, especially when performed in the high intensity interval training manner (10).
Furthermore, HIIT cycling requires the same biomechanics (triple extension) and triggers based fast twitch muscle fibers which promote power, strength and hypertrophy (10).
In fact, Buckley et al. (11) conducted a 6-week HIIT based study on recreational sports participants and identified a 39% increase in squat strength, 218% improvement on squat endurance, 18% improvement in the deadlift and a 6% surplus in the broad jump.
So, if you are interested in implementing HIIT cycling I have outlined my coaching cues based on research and anecdote.
How to Do
Step 1. Set up gym-based cycle or spinning cycle with the seat adjusted to hip width.
Step 2. Sit on the seat, grasp the handle and begin to pedal on a light-moderate resistance for around 1-2 minutes
Step 3. Begin to pick up the pace and cycle as fast as possible for 10-30 seconds, simultaneously ramp up the resistance(subjective)
Step 4. Slow down and allow your heart rate to normalize and repeat the sprint (x6)
- Firstly, allow your heart rate to normalize which will depend on the individual
- Also, the resistance will depend on the individual
- Do not allow your back to curve over during the activity
3. Dumbbell Walking Lunges
The Dumbbell lunge can be considered as alternatives as you are basically single leg pressing off the ground.
How to Do
Step 1. Set up a training space of at least 10 meters
Step 2. Grasp some suitable dumbbells based on capabilities
Step 3. Stand erect, brace the core, inhale and take one step forward, placing your weight on the heel of the foot
Step 4. Upon planting the foot, flex at the knee and hip, enabling a lunge movement.
Step 5. press off the ball of the foot, extend the knee and hip
Step 6. Transition onto the alternate leg .
- Maintain upright posture by bracing the core
- Perform repetitions to failure
- Short steps will emphasize the quadriceps while long steps will stimulate the gluteus more.
4. Machine Squat
Unlike the barbell squat, the machine squat offers additional support where the core stability/balance muscles will be engaged to a lesser much similar to the leg press (9). So, is this a better alternative among leg press alternatives?
In fact, I would say yes and no, it entirely depends on your current training level as it can be a better alternative for the beginner lifter who is yet to develop the anatomical foundation or confidence to be able to squat with a loaded bar.
Then again, the machine squat can be a great alternative during deltoid weeks for the advanced lifters, in order to reduce joint loading (12).
How to Do
Step 1. Select your resistance and line the pads of the machine with the collar bone
Step 2. slide underneath the pads, Brace the core, exhale and press off the center/front of the foot, extend at the knees and hips to draw the bar off the rack
Step 3. While maintaining a stable base, take a few steps back, continue bracing the core, inhale, flex at the hip and knees and displace all of the weight on the back of the foot.
Step 4. From this squatted position, inhale and press from the ball of the foot (front/middle of the foot) simultaneously extend at the knee and hip.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is essentially a lunge, but the tension is places on one leg at a time (13) the only benefit this exercise provides is that you do not require a lot of space in comparison to the conventional lunge where you would need to continuously move forward.
How to Do
Step 1. Lift up a pair of dumbbells and stand erect with a bench behind you positioned perpendicular to the body
Step 2. Place the front of the foot onto the bench
Step 3. Perform a lunge with the triple flexion, followed by triple extension that has been stressed throughout this article.
6. Squat Jumps
The squat jumps another exercise that is similar to the squat, with the difference of jumping from the squatting position with high rate of force development. Furthermore, the squat jump is a great alternative to the leg press as the correlate in terms of performance (14).
How to Do
Step 1. Stand erect and brace the core
Step 2. Flex at the hip, knee and place a majority of your weight on the heel of the foot and squat as low as possible
Step 3. stop at the bottom of the movement for a second and burst into a jump by pressing of the ball of the food and extend the whole body into the air.
Step 4. repeat the movement for repetitions to failure.
7. Smith Leg Press
The smith leg press is positioned more vertically compared to the standard leg press; therefore, the center of gravity could cause more tension of the lower extremities based on my personal experience.
How to Do
Step 1. Adjust the height of smith bar to ¾ the length of your extended legs pointing towards the ceiling from lying on the ground
Step 2. Lie underneath the bar in line with the upper portion of the hips.
Step 3. Place the center of the feet on the bar, positioned at shoulder width
Step 4. Brace the core Press the bar and tilt the foot back (dorsiflexion) to lift the bar off the rack
Step 5. Inhale, flex at the knees and slowly bring the bar down closer to the body
Step 6. Exhale and extend the legs
Step 7. Once you have completed the exercise, turn your feet in (plantarflexion) to rerack the bar
- Firstly, note there are risk of the bar slipping from the feet
- Also, ensure the bar is balanced to prevent it from slipping
- Place support ramps above your body to prevent the bar from falling onto of you in case of the bar slipping
8. Single or Double Leg Resistance Band Press
In fact, this exercise is a great beginner friendly alternative to the leg press or it can be implemented as a warm up for the more advance lifters.
The exercise produces the same motion as the leg press and offers some positive and negative resistance compared to other leg press alternatives (15).
How to Do
Step 1. Hold a resistance band from the ends and lay supinated on a mat
Step 2. Flex at the hips and knees to form a 90-degree leg position
Step 3. Apply one of your feet to perpendicular and centred to the resistance band
Step 4. Extend the knee and hip forward while grasping the bands right
Step 5. Slowly Flex the knee and hip back to the initial position to maintain tension throughout the movement.
- Firstly, select a suitable resistance band within your capability
- Also, perform repetitions to failure
- Lastly, alternate between legs
9. Front Squat
The front squat is another variation of the squat with the bar placed anterior deltoids an upper chest muscles (9) personally I prefer a lower intensity and higher repetition range on this exercise, because I do not appreciate a heavy loaded bar being dug into these muscles.
How to Do
Step 1. Place a bar on the squat rack Positioned in line with the middle portion of the chest
Step 2. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip at shoulder width
Step 3. position yourself underneath the bar as if you are going to shoulder press it
Step.4. Place the feet in front of the bar at shoulder width
Step 5. Exhale and create a small extension at the knee and hip to draw the bar off the rack and
Step 7. While maintaining a stable base, take a few steps back, continue bracing the core, inhale, flex at the hip and knees and place all of the weight on the heel of the foot
Step 8. From this squatted position, inhale and press from the ball of the foot (front/middle of the foot) simultaneously extend at the knee and hip.
Learn about How Squats Work Your Core
10. Car Pushes
Using car pushes as one of the leg press alternatives may come across as a bit bazar, but in reality, it engages the lower extremities in a similar manor due to the triple extension we have continued to highlight throughout this article (11).
Note that this is a more advanced exercise and must be performed with caution.
How to Do
Step 1. Arrange a clear outdoor space I.e., a car park
Stet 2. Set up a car and a clear 10-15m flat pathway
Step 3. Press your chest and shoulders against the back of the car
Step 4. Get your friend to release the hand break
Step 5. Bring one leg back and Rapidly drive the ball of the foot through the ground and extend the knees and hips as if you are running with the car
- Firstly, collaborate with a reliable partner who is able to observe.
- Also, 6×10-30 second pushing bouts are recommended
- Allow the heart rate to normalize before attempting another pushing bout
11. Dumbbell Step Ups
So, dumbbell step ups are the twelfth among the leg press alternatives. As the name suggests, step ups require you are step up onto a surface that is above the ground forces the “leg press muscles” to engage (16).
How to Do
Step 1. Set up a stable object I.e., an exercise bench positioned perpendicular to yourself.
Step 2. Hold the dumbbells, brace the core and stand upright
Step 3. Flex the hip and knee to step onto the bench
Step 4. plant the foot, extend the knee and hip
Step 5. retract back into the initial position and step up with the alternative leg
- The dumbbell step up can be a difficult exercise due to the requirement of a strong core stability and balance, therefore a regression could be to complete the exercise with bodyweight alone.
12. Incline Walking
It may come as a surprise, but incline walking is a very basic form of lower extremity exercise and I would say that it is an alternative for those who are not physically capable of performing a leg press.
How to Do
Step 1. Stand upright and bring one foot ahead of the other and walk
Step 2. Use arm swing to maintain momentum
- In fact, if incline walking is too difficult you can regress by walking on a flat surface.
Frequently Asked Questions
No! Your body will grow in relation to your hormones, fiber types and frame size, resistance training is recommended to become more “tones”
It really depends on the individual and his/her training level but generally if you train to near failure within a rep range, you should experience a lower limb development. Generally 3-5 reps for strength and 6-15 for hypertrophy with 2-5 sets.
Yes! Leg exercises will help burn calories in the short term and building/toning the muscles will boost the metabolic rate in the longer term, thereby it will be easier to maintain or drop into negative energy balance.
The leg press is a great exercise for the lower limbs, but always consider alternatives and additions for leg day, in order to reduce tedium and maximize development.
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