Many people like to feel strong in their training by loading up the leg press machine and repping it out in the gym. Just because you are able to go heavy and feel strong doesn’t always make it the best lift for you. At some point, you will probably want to incorporate some leg press alternatives to add variety to your training or look for a more challenging substitute.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of the leg press and I am definitely not alone in that thought. While it can be good for beginners to get some basic leg strengthening work in, it might not have much value for anyone who has been training for awhile. This is partly due to the general nature of machine lifting and partly due to the exercise itself.
The battle between free weights and machines has been around since machines started to gain popularity. Neither type of lifting is perfect and neither type is useless. The most important factor in choosing which exercise to do depends on what your goals are and what you have access to. Mixing both in for both mental variety and different training stimulus makes sense for most people.
For athletes, machines may be less valuable, except for certain situations. Being in a fixed position and putting force in one direction is rare in sports. That’s why most strength and conditioning coaches recommend more free weight lifts. Isolated exercises only work the isolated muscle, but a squat, for example, works your whole body and forces your core to be working the entire duration of the lift.
Another reason to find substitutes for the leg press is because they just don’t have one available. Many people will have training programs prescribed to them that the get from somewhere else that have leg presses as a listed exercise. If you don’t have access to one of these big machines, either because you have a home or garage gym or your facility just doesn’t have one, that can be a problem.
If you are looking for leg press alternatives, you probably won’t something that will target the same lower-body muscles in a similar manner. Any of the lifts below can be great for targeting the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. Unsurprisingly, you will find a few squat variations on the list. That is because they are simply among the best exercises for building strength and mass in the legs.
Yep, good old back squats are easily one of the best choices. This may be cheating, because many less serious people try to substitute leg presses in place of squats any chance they get. Most people will receive way more benefit doing back squats, though. A squat with good technique will work your entire lower-body and are one of the best exercises for strengthening the entire core.
If you are using the leg press machine as an assistance exercise, step ups may be a great alternative. They can be done with either a barbell on your back or with dumbbells by your side. Doing them this way allows you to get all of the benefits of using free weights while hitting all of the target muscles that the leg press machine is designed to work.
You can see a demonstration of step ups in the video below. If you are doing these in a commercial gym, you should be able to use a bench or something of similar height. These are also very convenient if you have a home gym. You should have plenty of items lying around that you can use to step on, just make sure it is sturdy for someone of your size. A chair, bench or something similar will do the trick.
Pretty much any type of squat will be a great substitute. Depending on the setup of a leg press machine, front squats can actually put your upper-body in a similar position, but obviously require more work. Front squats force you to have a good, athletic posture and really make your core activate. These are great for building strength everywhere in the lower-body and in the lower back area.
This is another great choice if you are using the leg press machine as an assistance exercise, although it is good enough to be used as a primary lift. This is a more advanced lift and requires strength and balance that may be a little tricky for beginners. You can see a good demonstration of what a Bulgarian split squat looks like in the video below.
To do these, you will need some sort of raised surface to put your back leg on. It might take some work to find what the right height for you is, but it is worth it to figure out because these can have so many benefits. The video shows the lift being done with nothing but bodyweight as resistance. Once you have mastered this, you can add dumbbells at your side or a barbell on your back. Be careful the first time you do these with weights as they can be very difficult to balance and perform good reps.
These will require a special hack squat machine, so it depends on if you have access to one or not. This exercise is probably the most similar in structure to the leg press machine and many people confuse the 2 of them or use them interchangeably. While most leg press machines will force you to push the weight up, in a hack squat the weight is above you, so you are doing a squatting motion, but while laying down at an angle.
If your gym doesn’t have one of these machines, you aren’t entirely out of luck. If you are skilled enough, there are ways to simulate this movement with a barbell, but you shouldn’t try it until you have some experience.
Any of these leg press alternatives will make a great choice to substitute in a new exercise into your training program. Whether you are just looking for some variety in your training, or want a more difficult lift to improve your build or athletic performance, you should try some of these out and always look for a new stimulus in your program.
Photo By: Lance Goyke