9 Best Leg Press Alternatives

A leg press is a compound exercise that works multiple different muscles in your legs.

The main muscles targeted are glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. There are 2 main types of leg press machine - cable and sled. Each comes with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Leg presses can be done on a horizontal or a vertical leg press machine. You should always warm up with some dynamic stretches before you attempt any leg presses. This will raise the temperature of your core and improve the blood flow around your body.

Dynamic stretching will also improve the suppleness of your muscle tendons, enhance your movement and prepare your body for the strain of exercise. 

How do you do a leg press?

Sit on the machine, being sure to adjust the seat to the correct height and position from the foot pad.

Raise your legs to the pad. Plant them shoulder width apart, pointing slightly outwards. Your knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle and in line with your feet. 

Sled Leg Press

Carefully release the handles of the leg press and straighten your legs out in a controlled manner. You should ensure you keep your entire lower back against the seat which will reduce the strain on your back. 

Keep your feet firmly planted in the same position as you straighten and bend your legs. Do not lock out your knees as this could lead to serious injuries. 

When you have reached the furthest point of your leg press, pause and hold the movement. Bend your legs and allow your knees to travel towards your chest. Do not allow them to hit into your body.

This is one rep. Once you have completed your set, lock the handles back into place to prevent the weights falling back on you.

Cable Leg Press

When you sit, grasp the handles next to the seat. Rest your head on the pad and press your back into the seat. 

Push on the plate with your feet, keeping them flat as you do so. We suggest exhaling as you push. Try to do this in a slow and controlled manner. 

Do not lock out your knees, but pause as you reach the maximum extension. 

Inhale and bend your knees to allow the footplate to move closer to your body. Your feet and back should remain flat the entire time.

We suggest performing 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Front Squat

Front squats are very similar to more traditional back squats. The main difference comes with where the weight is loaded.

Using the weight at the front of your body means that more strain is put on your quadriceps, forcing them to work harder. Traditional back squats put more strain onto your glutes. 

How do you do it?

You will need a weighted barbell to perform this exercise correctly. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. 

Hold the barbell in front of you, across your collar bones. Your hands should be loose, your wrists should be flexed backwards and your elbows facing the ceiling.

Tighten your core and force the movement through your hips. Bend at the knees and lower your body into a squat position. Keep your back in a stable and neutral position.

Keep your chest up and your elbows facing the ceiling. Do not lean too far forward or you may lose your balance. Try to keep your heels flat on the ground to stabilize yourself. 

Squeeze your glutes as you straighten your body back up. Perform between 10 and 12 reps per set.

Hack Squat

This exercise works all of the same muscle groups as a leg press. You only move vertically and there is no opportunity for your torso to move forward or backward. This means that your body is stabilized and there is less risk of injury. 

There is little work required by your back and abs, as most of the weight is supported by your shoulders. This increases the load on your spine so take care to not attempt to lift weights that are overly heavy.

How do you do it?

To do this exercise you will need a weighted barbell behind your back. Your arms should be by your side with your palms facing backwards. Tense your core as you hold it here.

Bend at the knees and lower into a squat position. As you do this, run the barbell down the backs of your legs. It is very important to keep your lower back straight as you do this. 

Drive through the balls of your foot and stand back up. Take care not to lock out your knees as this could cause injuries. This is one rep.

To make the exercise slightly easier, you can put some weight plates underneath your heels to raise them off of the ground slightly. 

V-squat

This is essentially a variation of a traditional squat, performed with the help and support of a machine. It helps you to stabilize your weight and reduces the risk of injury as a result of losing control of the weight. 

They target your glutes and quads primarily, but also work your abs and back muscles too. You will likely reach your breaking point when your thighs are parallel to the ground. 

For additional tension, you can overload the upper portion of the movement. This can be done by wrapping a resistance band around the machine, forcing your quads to work harder.

How do you do it?

Your first step is to get into position on the platform of the v-squat machine. 

Grab onto the handles located near to your shoulders, ensuring your shoulders are touching the padding.

Stand in a normal squat position, with your feet facing forwards about shoulder width apart. 

Slowly stand upright until the stopper releases. Bend at the knees to lower your body back down again. 

When you reach your lowest point, push the handles upwards and stand back up. This is one rep.

Once you have done 10 to 12 reps, you will have completed your set. Use the stopper to immobilize the machine to allow you to step out.

Resistance Band Broad Jumps

As the name suggests, this alternative to a leg press requires the use of resistance bands. Specifically, a long resistance band. These are also sometimes called leap frog jumps.

They require a lot of explosive power and use this to increase your leg strength. 

If you suffer from joint pain then you should take care when performing this exercise. It targets the calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

How do you do it?

You will need to be near a cable machine to perform this exercise. Attach the resistance band to the tower of the machine.

Step into the other end and loop the resistance band around your hips. You should be facing away from the tower of the cable machine.

Slowly begin to walk away from the machine, allowing tension to build within the band.

When you reach the furthest distance, bend your knees and pull your arms back. Forcing the power through your hips, jump forward as far as you can.

As you land, try to get your body into a position similar to a squat. Your knees must be bent to absorb the impact of landing and prevent you from injuring yourself. 

Straighten up and walk backwards, all the while maintaining tension on the band. This is one rep, and we advise doing sets of 10 to 12. 

Dumbbell Walking Lunges

Walking lunges will strengthen your core, hips, glutes, and leg muscles.

Walking lunges will strengthen your core more than static lunges as it is forced to work harder to keep your back straight as you move.

How do you do it?

Hold your arms by your side, a dumbbell in each hand. The weight of both dumbbells should be the same and you should try to keep your posture as neutral as possible.

Step forwards with one foot as far as you can without falling. Bend at your knees and lower your body towards the ground. It is the same movement as a simple bodyweight lunge.

You should keep your back straight and your chest facing forwards. Try to distribute most of your weight onto the heel of your front foot, and keep your knees behind or in line with your toes. 

Push upwards and lunge forwards with your other leg. It is a good idea to start holding lighter weights and gradually increase them as you become more confident with the motion. 

It is a good idea to perform 10 to 12 reps on each leg.

Barbell Step-ups 

This exercise works your glutes hard. It is a similar exercise to a leg press, but here you are isolating the muscles on each leg.

You need to do these exercises while keeping your back straight. This means that less strain is put on your lower back. 

How do you do it?

Hold the barbell on your back, as if you were about to do a weighted squat. 

Stand in front of a step or low bench. It should be about the same height as your knees. 

With your non-dominant leg, step up onto the bench. Push through the middle of your foot and your heel to lift your weight onto the bench.

Follow through with your dominant leg. Once both of your feet are on the bench, lower your first leg to the ground and follow through with the other one. 

The next time you step up, lead with your dominant foot. This makes one rep.

Bulgarian Split Squat

You will feel this exercise in the front of your legs, your glutes, your quads, and your hip flexors. It places a large amount of pressure onto your front leg and can be done using weights or just your bodyweight. 

If your legs are not spaced out enough then you could hit into the bench and this can impact your form. If your legs are too wide then you will need a lot of hip flexor flexibility to drop as deep as you want to go.

It is a good idea to mark the sweet spot for your foot position on the ground to ensure you can consistently perfect the move.

How do you do it?

Stretch your arms out at your sides in a neutral position. Stand in front of a lifting bench that comes up to approximately the height of your knees. You should have your back to the bench.

Lift one of your feet onto the bench and allow it to rest there. Walk forwards with your other foot until you are in a lunging position. 

Bend your knees and allow your body to drop closer to the ground. Keep your chest up and your knees behind your toes, distributing the weight onto your front heel. 

Push up on your front leg to straighten it out. Take great care to not lock out your knees as you do so. This is one rep.

You should do 10 to 12 reps on each side before switching legs. 

Barbell Hip Thrusts

These exercises target your glutes and hamstrings primarily but also your hip adductors and quads. It has had a surge in popularity recently and is a variation on a glute bridge.

It enhances your hip extension abilities and can be a safer alternative to traditional squats. 

How do you do it?

Sit on the ground near to a bench that is stable and secure. Keep your feet close to your body and bend your knees. 

Grab your barbell and roll it into the crease between your thighs and stomach. 

Press down with your feet and drive your hips upwards. When you reach the apex of your lift, your knees should be at a 90 degree angle. Your shoulders should be resting on the bench to support your weight. 

At the top of the motion, your hips should be fully extended and you should clench your glutes tightly. Hold this position for a second or two. 

Gently lower your back and butt towards the ground. Do not allow the barbell to roll off as this can cause injuries. This is one rep. We advise completing 12 to 15 reps per set. 

Toes Up Landmine Squats

This exercise is better performed by more experienced gym goers.

They work your gluteus maximus, quadriceps, and hamstrings. 

How do you do it?

You should set the barbell up as if you are performing a landmine. The barbell should be angled with one end anchored to the ground while the lifter holds the other. The bar can pivot in place. 

You should place some light weights onto the barbell to allow you to get used to the mechanics of the movement. As your form improves you can begin adding on additional weight. 

Place 2 weight plates of equal thickness on the floor in front of you. By choosing plates that are the same weight you can guarantee that both are the same height. 

Face away from the anchor point of the barbell. Pick up the loose end of the barbell and place it on one of your shoulders. Rest your feet on the weight plates so that your heels are touching the ground but your toes are on the plates.

Lean back slightly, using the barbell to support you. Bend your knees and drop into a squat. When you reach the lowest point, hold your body in place for a second or two. 

Drive through your heels and stand up, ensuring that you do not lock out your knees. This is one rep. We suggest doing 10 to 12 reps before switching the shoulder the barbell is resting on. Repeat for a further 10 to 12 reps.

What are the benefits of a cable leg press?

This machine is very useful for beginners to practise on. They can be operated at a much lower weight to ensure you get your form right to start with. 

It is also the best machine to use as a form of rehabilitation following an injury. It will allow you to ease yourself back into exercising and build your endurance levels back up. 

What are the benefits of a sled leg press?

You can add more weight to the sled leg press machine than you can with a cable machine. This pushes your muscles into the hypertrophic zone, where the cells grow and become more defined. 

Your muscle building progression will speed up using this exercise due to the compound nature. 

What are the disadvantages of a cable leg press?

There is a limit to the amount of weight you can load onto a cable leg press machine. This means that if you have a high strength level, cable leg press machines may not be very useful for anything but endurance. 

The use of the weighted plates means that strength imbalances between your legs can be hidden. This can lead to a real uneven distribution of muscle across your body.

What are the disadvantages of a sled leg press?

There is a higher chance of injury if your form is incorrect while performing this exercise.

You should try to refine your form before adding on additional weights. Add weights slowly and carefully to ensure you do not strain yourself. 

What are the overall benefits of the leg press exercise?

It is Applicable for All Fitness Levels

You can use the leg press machine no matter how advanced your weightlifting skills are. As it is a machine, this takes some of the guesswork out of getting the correct form. The weights can be increased or decreased according to your strength level. 

By placing your feet in different positions on the foot pad, you can target different muscles. Higher foot placements can increase the work undergone by your glutes and hamstrings.

Lower foot placements mean that your calves will have to stretch more. Wider stances mean that your thighs will be targeted too. 

It Strengthens Your Gluteal Muscles

Your glutes are used to stabilize your lower body during a leg press.

This strengthens your muscles through repetition. Your glutes are used for many different purposes when moving your lower body.

It Strengthens Your Hamstrings, Calves, and Quadriceps

Horizontal leg presses will strengthen and tone your hamstring muscles. This will give you explosive power through your legs and will reduce your risk of injury.

The enhanced flexibility the leg press trains your hamstring for will allow you to have more stamina and less pain radiating from your calves. 

The lower you place your feet on the pad, the more strain your calves are placed under. This will force them to stretch further and you will use them more to force weight through. 

You must engage your quads to push the weighted pad away from your body. This is where most of your power generated comes from. You can even do single leg leg presses to further work out your quadriceps. They are also used to stabilize your leg as you draw it back in. 

It Increases Your Speed Levels

The more power you store within your muscles, the faster you are able to move.

The leg press exercises increase your explosive strength, giving you more endurance. This is applicable for both running and jumping. 

It Improves Your Balance

Balance relies heavily on the stability and strength of your legs.

Doing leg presses consistently means that you have a better posture and a more stable foundation. This will help to improve your balance and posture. 

Less Injury Risk

This is when compared to free weight exercises. Using a machine means that the weight is supported and is much less likely to fall back onto you if you fail a lift. You do not need any training or technical skills to operate a leg press machine, nor do you need someone to spot you. 

As the weights are supported, this is a good machine to use as a beginner while you are building up your strength levels. This also means that you do not need to use additional muscles to remain upright. This reduces your chances of overworking or straining muscles.

Good for Injury Rehabilitation

Most of the pressure during this exercise is felt in the glutes and hamstrings. Particularly for people with lower back and knee injuries, this is a good machine to use. This is because the strain is taken off these potentially problematic areas.

The machine remains still and only moves within a limited range of motion. This means that through repetition, your body will train itself to move along a certain path. This provides a very decent foundation for you to build on, particularly if you intend to move on to free weights.

Increases Bone Density

As this exercise forces you to bear a heavy load on your legs, it promotes muscular development and bone formation. This is because the stress produces osteoblasts in the body. These in turn generate bone mass and increase your bone density. 

Neuroscientists have also discovered that weight-bearing activities boost the functionality of your brain and the development of neural cells. These are fundamental to the brain and central nervous system and relay messages around our bodies.

Kevin Harris
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