Leg Press Alternatives: Ways to Engage the Leg Muscles

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: May 27, 2021

Alternatives to the leg press provide a similar stimulus for the lower body muscles while also engaging some of the smaller leg muscles. 

Some of the alternatives to leg press include squats and their variations, step-ups, walking lunges, wall sits, and broad jumps. These exercises can be performed by using only body weight. However, free weights can help in strengthening and building more lower body muscle mass.

Muscles Targeted by the Leg Press

leg press muscles

The leg press is considered a semi-compound exercise that mostly targets the lower body muscles. It targets multiple lower body muscle groups at once including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Two variations of the leg press promote different types of muscle activation and growth. The horizontal leg press allows greater amounts of load since it does not put undue pressure on the lower back. The seated leg press is the lesser loaded variation that intends to isolate and train the quadricep femoris muscles.

Usually, the leg press is performed with heavy weights to train the leg muscles and help them reach muscle hypertrophy. Slow and proper repetition of the exercise can help strengthen and improve the major lower body muscles to become more capable of explosive movements and also improve mobility and stability while avoiding injury.

The leg press also promotes a limited range of motion which makes it a good exercise for people rehabilitating from injury. It also builds a strong foundation for people looking to transition towards more complex and compound exercises like the deadlift and squat.

It can improve bone density and promote lower body muscular development through the production of osteoblasts. It also strengthens the function of the central nervous system in relaying information to the brain.

It is a good lower body exercise for all fitness levels; Its weight can be increased or decreased depending on the individual's muscular capacity. Foot placement on the platform can also alter the engaged muscle during the movement.

Read More: The Benefits of the Leg Press Machine

Leg Press Alternatives

The Leg press, however, is also associated with the development of herniated disc in the lumbar area of the spine. The increased pressure from the leg press machine along with the required force to push the weight during the eccentric motion can displace the spinal discs.

The leg press mostly works the major lower body muscles, leaving the smaller stabilizing muscles comparably weaker.

Some of the alternatives to the leg press can offer safer lower body muscular development. While these exercises cannot isolate and engage lower body muscles similar to the leg press, proper execution and the right balance of sets and repetitions depending on the fitness goal can promote similar muscular growth.

Squats

barbell squat

Squats are a basic compound exercise for training the lower body muscles as well as some upper body muscles like the core and latissimus dorsi (lats).

Squats primarily engage the glutes, hamstring muscles, and individual muscles of the quadriceps namely the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis.

The front squat is a variation of the traditional squat that places the free weight to the front rather than the back. The greater amount of weight on the front places more weight on the quads than the posterior lower body muscles such as the glutes and hamstrings.

The hack squat is a machine-assisted squat that targets similar muscles as the leg press. The vertical movement in hack squats stabilizes the upper body through shoulder and spine support, making it more of a semi-compound exercise that focuses on the lower body muscles.

The Bulgarian split squat is also a variation that can be a potential alternative to the leg press. This variation places the weight on the front legs by placing one leg on an elevated platform behind the individual. The quads are in constant pressure through the eccentric and concentric motion of the exercise. It also targets the glutes, hamstrings, as well as the hip flexors.

Step-ups

barbell step up

Step-ups, specifically barbell and dumbbell step-ups, are also good leg press alternatives that use free weights as the primary resistance. It also works with similar muscles as the leg press with similar amounts of pressure through its unilateral movement. In this exercise, the individual places one leg on an elevated surface, preferably knee-level, and then use the leading leg to lift the body to an upright position.

Step-ups do not require machines and can be performed without free weights. Step-ups train mobility and balance and also improve lower body symmetry through the engagement of the leg abductors and adductors.

Walking Lunges

Walking lunges require the person to maintain a perpendicular line between the knees and the ground. The 90-degree angle promotes greater distribution of weight across the leg muscles.

Walking lunges can be performed as a bodyweight exercise like other lunge variations such as the forward lunge and lateral lunge. However, dumbbell walking lunges are better in engaging the leg and hip muscles. It also increases the pressure on the core muscles in maintaining balance.

Wall Sit

The wall sit does not provide a similar muscle activation process as a leg press. This exercise requires the person to maintain a static position for at least 30 seconds.

During the wall sit, the leg muscles are in constant activation and they reach muscle hypertrophy as the muscle loses its endurance. The static nature of wall sits makes it an easy exercise that can be performed by using body weight or free weights.

Broad Jumps

Broad jumps are a compound exercise that extract power from the lower body muscles for explosive jumps. Specifically, this exercise relies on the fast-twitch muscles of the lower body for its burst of energy.

This exercise requires more space than other exercises as the individual leaps as far as possible from a stationary position. It uses the same muscles as squats but with greater activation of the ankles.

Using resistance bands when performing broad jumps can further increase the stress to the lower body muscles and hasten the activation of muscle hypertrophy. This also allows for better engagement of the lower body's adductor muscles

Final Thoughts

For many lifters, the leg press is a crucial exercise for training the lower body muscles. It is capable of isolating the leg muscles, especially the quads. However, people who do not have access to a leg press machine can perform the exercises outlined above to not only reap similar benefits but also strengthen smaller stabilizing muscles.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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