The leg press offers a variety of foot positions and stances! You can effectively target specific leg muscles by adjusting your foot placement on the platform.
To better understand the various foot positions and the muscles they target, let’s first clarify what a leg press is and why it’s such a loved exercise.
What Is a Leg Press, and Why Should You Do It?
The leg press exercise is a fantastic way to build muscle. It primarily targets the quadriceps and the glutes (AGONIST muscles).
There are other ‘helper’ muscles involved in creating the movement, called synergist muscles.
These are the hamstrings, Gastrocnemius, Soleus, and Adductor Magnus. As I explain below, your stance will determine which muscles are predominantly used.
One of the main benefits of the leg press is the ability to load a substantial amount of weight without the need to balance, allowing for targeted muscle fatigue in the legs and resulting in increased strength!
Unlike free-weight exercises like squats, the added benefit of back support on the leg press machine removes the need to engage the core-stabilizer muscles. This makes it a safe and effective exercise option suitable for all fitness levels, including individuals with shoulder and back pain.
Leg Press Stances & Variations
1. Regular Stance
This foot position is a gym favorite because it evenly engages the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, facilitating progression to heavier loads.
Most people find this version easier to perform safely, making it a suitable stance for beginners.
2. High Feet (Hip/Shoulder Width)
Positioning your feet higher on the leg press can lead to greater activation of the glutes and hamstrings.
The first picture shows that the glutes and hamstrings work together to assist hip extension. By placing your feet higher on the platform, they must create more force and work harder to move the weight, resulting in a more noticeable activation of these muscles. This can be very useful for quad-dominant athletes.
This foot position can be more challenging and potentially risky if performed incorrectly. So make sure you start with the appropriate weight!
3. Low Feet (Hip/Shoulder Width)
Opposite to the high foot stance, this foot position shifts the load on the quads. However, it’s important to note that other stances may be better if you suffer knee pain or injuries.
4. Narrow Stance (Mid Platform)
To effectively target the outer part of your quadriceps, it’s best to use a narrow stance. This technique allows for more movement since the distance between the thighs and chest is reduced. This can also allow you to lift a heavier load.
To achieve this position, keep your feet in the middle of the footplate and spaced slightly less than hip-width apart.
5. Wide Stance
This variation of the leg press exercise places greater emphasis on the glutes, hamstrings, and inner thigh muscles. Point your toes outwards (ideally from 15 to 30 degrees angle) to activate the inner thighs and glutes more.
It’s essential to recognize that every individual’s body is unique, and some people may feel more comfortable with a straighter toe position.
While maintaining a wide stance, keeping your knees in line with your toes and avoiding letting them cave in is crucial as it can lead to injuries.
This may be challenging for some of you! In that case, narrow your base to maintain a strong, neutral spine position and reach a full range of motion during the exercise.
6. Single-Leg Stance
In this variation, one foot is placed on the platform while the other is lifted off the ground.
This exercise works each leg independently, targeting the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and is a great way to fix and identify side-to-side strength and mobility imbalances in the legs.
This variation can also support you and keep you safe if you are struggling with keeping the lower back in contact with the backrest (avoiding rounding of the back).
FURTHER READING: Top 10 Single-Leg Exercises for Strength, Mass & Athleticism
7. Frog Stance
The frog stance (duck stance) leg press is a variation of the traditional leg press exercise where your heels are touching (you can put them wider apart) and your toes and knees are facing outwards. Quite ‘similar’ to a sumo/wide view.
Despite being less commonly used, the frog stance leg press can provide variety in your workouts.
This variation targets the glutes and inner thighs with a high range of movement.
Strong adductors (inner thigh muscles) and glutes are essential for the following:
- Hip joint stability while walking, running, jumping.
- Preventing you from injuries to the knees, lower back, and hips.
- Athletic Performance: athletes whose sport requires a change of direction, like football players, basketball, etc., need solid glutes and adductors to move quickly and efficiently.
- Looking good on stage, which is vital for bodybuilders.
8. Calf Raises
This variation is done with the feet placed together on the bottom of the platform.
Performing calf raises on the leg press machine can be an effective way to strengthen and tone the muscles of the calves, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.
These muscles are responsible for ankle joint plantar flexion (pointing the toes downward). This movement involves many activities like walking, running, and jumping.
Using the leg press for calf raises is especially handy when your gym doesn’t have a calf raise machine. The seated position allows a higher range of movement, which you might not be able to reach with a standing calf raise position. It is also easier to maintain proper form.
The rule is that the higher and wider you go on the leg, the more your glutes and hamstring need to work. The lower and narrower your go, the more your quads are involved. You can mix and match or stick in the middle, see what feels the best for you!
If you want to learn more about the muscle activation of different foot and knee positions during leg press, you can refer to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which used Electromyography to measure muscle activation.
How To Perform a Leg Press
- Choose your desired stance, depending on the muscle you want to work on.
- Hold the handles on each side of the seat to stabilize your upper body.
- Push the footplate away by extending your legs (keep the knees soft at all times) and push the handlebars away from you to detach the machine.
- Brace your core and breathe in when lowering the weight.
- Slowly lower the footplate back towards your body by bending your knees until they are at a 90-degree angle.
- Do NOT round the back or involuntarily lift the heels off the platform.
- Kick your leg back to the starting position and exhale.
Safety While Leg Pressing
Avoid Rounding the Back
It is essential to highlight this section, as there are many cases where injuries occur when people round the back.
As Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s No1 Spinal specialist, said:
‘The leg press sometimes causes the pelvis to rotate away from the backrest. When the weight is lowered, the resultant lumbar flexion produces herniating conditioning for the discs.’
Rounding the back during leg pressing can lead to back pain, herniated discs, and other spinal problems. While rounding the back, your hamstrings and glutes cannot effectively engage, which reduces your lifting potential and the progress you can make with leg pressing.
As a result of the uneven distribution of the weight, it places more stress on the discs and joints, leading to muscle and strength imbalances.
Avoid Locking the Knees Out
As you can see on the right-side pictures, the knee can’t bend anymore; we refer to this as ‘locked out’ knee joints.
It’s important to avoid locking out the knees as you shift the load from the quads to the knee joint, decreasing its stability. This can cause the bones in the knee joint to push against each other, potentially damaging the joint. (I felt loads of pressure on my knee).
To avoid this, maintain slightly bent knees (soft) while performing leg presses. Doing so will help you keep the quads engaged and can support the knee joint during the exercise.
These are a few significant mistakes you can make while leg pressing. It is essential to maintain proper form during leg presses:
- Keep the back straight.
- Keep your knees soft
- Brace your core
- Keep the back supported and in contact with the backrest
- Engage the Glutes and Hamstrings
- Avoid excessive weight that leads to poor form
Toes and Knees In or Out?
Pushing the knees out: The idea of this ‘coaching’ cue is to set the lumbar (back), knee, and pelvis into a good position.
But you should not ACTUALLY push the knees out!
You should create torque (rotating the femur in the hip socket), putting the knees, hips, feet, and back into a safer, more robust position. Doing so will activate the hip stabilizers (glutes max, medius, minimus) and help you deal with a pronated foot position (feet turning inwards), like when squatting.
So do NOT push the knees too far out! Keep the feet flat and the toes aligned with the knees.
The anatomy of your body is also essential to consider when choosing the correct technique FOR YOU.
If you feel a pinging sensation on the hips while lowering the weights, a wider, slight toe-out position with the knees slightly out may suit you better.
That’s because you may have a more shallow ball and socket. In this case, this position can increase your range of movement. At the same time, it can help you maintain a good spinal position.
It will be essential to feel if this works for you and help you to keep a good posture and make your lifting more effective,
A straight knee with an aligned toe position might suit those with deeper hip sockets. It can also be a safer option for those with sensitive knees, as it places less stress on the joint.
It highly activates the quads, allowing you to lift a heavier load. Still, it does not activate the hip stabilizers some may need.
Individual factors such as biomechanics, anatomy, injury history, and training goal will be essential when planning.
You can also consult a professional to help get you into the safest, most effective lifting position.
Toes In or Out?
General textbook rules suggest that the safest way to perform a leg press is to keep the toes pointed straight up rather than flared out.
However, it might not be suitable for everyone, as everyone’s body is different, and I believe there is no one-size-fits-all solution. So I recommend that you position yourself in a way that feels the most comfortable, safe, and effective.
Based on my experience with several clients, in some cases changing the toe position can improve form, increase the range of movement, and help you maintain a strong back.
It may even change which muscles are activated dominantly:
- The toes pointing straight can target the quadriceps muscles more! It is also a good position for beginners or those with a deeper ball and socket, so they can maintain good form without rounding the back.
- Toes pointed outwards 45 degrees or more, called “duck stance,” shift the focus to the inner thighs (adductors) and glutes, especially combined with a wide stance. This position may be helpful for those with weaker inner thigh muscles or those who want to target the glutes more.
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