Leg Press Foot Placement for Glutes: Why it Matters

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 1, 2022

Some weightlifters frequently utilize the incorrect foot placement needed to emphasize a specific muscle group, not just in leg presses but also in squats. The results are poor technique, inadequate muscular training, unsatisfactory outcomes, and could lead to an increased risk of injury.

Paoli et al. demonstrated that the gluteus maximus increases its EMG activity when stance width increases. Higher foot placement necessitates more hip extension, which indicates more stretch and stimulation of the hamstrings and glutes.

Meaning, to better engage the glutes during the leg press, the feet should be oriented wide and high.

Gluteal Muscles: Anatomy and Functions

The glutes, or gluteal muscles, is comprised of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The word gluteus comes from the greek word gluotos which literally means buttocks.

The gluteus maximus is a thick quadrangular muscle and performs an essential function in keeping the upper body upright. It connects to various bony structures, including the inner upper ilium, the iliac crest, the lower section of the sacrum, and the coccyx.

gluteal muscles

The gluteus maximus has two attachment points: superficial fibers that attach to the greater trochanter and a fascia lata band, and deep fibers that attach to the gluteal tuberosity between the adductor magnus and vastus lateralis. The gluteus maximus is primarily responsible for extending and abducting the thigh at the hip joint. Additionally, it helps the thigh to adduct and rotate externally.

The gluteus medius is located between the gluteus maximus and the gluteus minimus. It begins on the ilium's gluteal surface, between the anterior and posterior gluteal lines. The muscle then descends in front of and at a lower level to insert on the lateral side of the femur's greater trochanter. This muscle is responsible for abducting and internally rotating the thigh at the hip joint. During the gait cycle, it also helps to stabilize the pelvis and trunk.

The smallest and deepest of the gluteal muscles is the gluteus minimus. It appears between the anterior and inferior gluteal lines on the ilium's gluteal surface. The muscle descends in the front and below, then inserts on the anterior and lateral aspect of the femur's greater trochanter. The gluteus minimus works in tandem with the gluteus medius to abduct and internally rotate the thigh, contributing to pelvic stability.

Benefits of the Leg Press Machine

Leg press machines are standard equipment in most gyms and have three variations: the 45-degree leg press, the vertical leg press, and the horizontal or seated leg press. No matter what leg press machine variation an individual uses, they are all designed to train and isolate the lower body muscles.

leg press

Isolates the Lower Body

Among other significant lower body muscles, the leg press machine works the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and calves. But because it keeps the torso from being under a lot of stress, the device is helpful for physical recuperation or breaking plateaus.

Depending on how the feet are set on the footplate, we can better engage the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.

Improves Balance

The leg press safely supports the upper body on a pad while allowing the individual to lift weights solely with their hips and legs. The action doesn't use the upper body at all, which is especially advantageous if someone has a lingering shoulder issue, back pain, or suffers from balance issues (i.e. unable to deep squat due to limited ankle mobility).

Amateur weightlifters may suffer from balance issues when performing squats or deadlifts due to ankle joint mobility or muscle flexibility. However, contrary to popular opinion, dynamic balance can be improved by strength training activities that mainly or mostly involve machines, as shown in a study by Schoenfeld et al.

It helps Break Plateaus in Squats or Deadlifts

Since the leg press primarily targets the quadriceps, the squat or deadlift can benefit from the strength gains and muscular hypertrophy developed during the leg press. When performing big squats or deadlifts, the lifter depends on their quadriceps, among other muscles, to support the weight at the bottom and propel them back up.

A leg press puts relatively little strain on the upper body, which allows lifters to push heavier weights than they could with a squat or deadlift. The body mostly depends on the machine for core and spine stability when doing leg presses. This stability and reduced risk of injury allow the lifter to break plateaus in deadlift or squat exercises by loading the lower body muscles with more resistance.

Leg Press Foot Placements and Muscles Worked

The leg press is a triple-extension exercise that requires extending three lower-body joints: ankles, knees, and hips.

This triple extension movement of the lower body combines hip extension, knee extension, and ankle plantar flexion at the same time. These movements are required for running, sprinting, jumping, and changing directions.

Like other triple-extension exercises, the leg press works the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and even the calves. However, specific foot placements emphasize one or more muscle groups over the others.

There are three leg stances for the leg press, which are basically the same for squats:

  1. Narrow or hip-width
  2. Shoulder-width
  3. Greater than shoulder-width or wide stance.

There is also high and low foot placement.

So if we combine foot placements with stance width, we get about six variations.

The discussion of these stances' and foot placements' effects on muscular activation are limited to the assumption that we are using a feet placement angle of no greater than ten degrees. Any feet placement angle of more than ten degrees would involve different kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activity.

1. Narrow Stance Leg Press

A common misconception in muscle recruitment regarding stance width is that a narrower stance is more knee-dominant. However, there is no evidence that a narrower stance engages the quadriceps more than a wider stance. Escamilla et al.'s study shows that both narrow and wide stance squats are knee-dominant.

narrow stance leg press feet placement

In another study conducted by Paoli et al., they reported no significant difference in EMG activity of muscles involved in narrow or wide stance squats, except for the gluteus maximus when performing back squats in a wide stance. The levels of activity in the other muscles were not significantly different. 

However, the narrow stance concentrates the leg push more on the quadriceps as there would be less participation from the gluteus maximus as compared to a wide stance and could be equivalent to quad isolation.

2. Wide Stance Leg Press

The hips are slightly abducted due to a wide stance, enhancing glute muscle activation.

wide stance leg press feet placement

The quads will lose some activity as a result of all of this. Nonetheless, the quads continue to be the main focus. Paoli et al. demonstrated that the gluteus maximus increases its EMG activity when stance width increases.

3. Low Foot Placement

Because of the low foot positioning, the heels are towards the bottom of the leg press sled, enabling the knees to travel further over the toes, increasing the strain of the quad muscles.

low stance leg press feet placement

In addition, the ankle dorsiflexion is also to a greater degree causing the calf muscles to stretch more.

4. High Foot Placement

The high foot placement has the toes positioned at the top of leg press sled.

high stance leg press feet placement

This foot placement necessitates more hip extension, which indicates more stretch and stimulation of the hamstrings and glutes while reducing the range of motion around the knees.

The Ideal Feet Placement for Gluteal Muscle Activation

The discussion above suggests that a wide stance and high foot placement would be the best leg press foot placement and is recommended by most strength and conditioning coaches for better gluteal muscle recruitment.

ideal leg press feet placement for glute activation

However, other strength coaches have suggested that a wide-stance low-foot placement be used because it more closely mimics the range of motion of the squat, thereby allowing better control of the movement and adaptability when actually performing the squat.

References

1. Elzanie A, Borger J. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle. [Updated 2022 Mar 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538193/

2. Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Zheng N, et al. Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33(9):1552-1566. doi:10.1097/00005768-200109000-00020

3. Paoli A, Marcolin G, Petrone N. The effect of stance width on the electromyographical activity of eight superficial thigh muscles during back squat with different bar loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):246-250. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181876811

4. Rossi FE, Schoenfeld BJ, Ocetnik S, et al. Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018;58(3):263-270. doi:10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06698-6

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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