Whether you love or hate leg day, one thing is for certain - if you want to build both size and strength in your quads, calves, and glutes, you’re going to need to do some squats and leg presses.
Some lifters have a preference for one over the other, and there are negatives and positives to both. But what are they? And do you need to do both?
Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about both the leg press and squats. We’ll explore what exact muscles they work out, look at the pros and cons of each, and, in the end, you’ll have a much better idea of which move is best for your training goals.
Leg Press VS. Squats - The Difference
Before we start breaking down the pros and cons of each move, let’s look at the difference between a leg press and a squat.
First of all, both moves activate the quads, but the squat also activates a range of other muscle groups. This includes the core, glutes, hamstring, and back. So, while the leg press is ideal if you want to isolate just your quads, the squat allows you to target multiple muscle groups at the same time.
The positioning of both is different, too. With the leg press, you’re usually using a weight machine and you start in a seated position at a 45-degree angle with your back being supported. You then press against a platform with your legs, extending them as you do. This could either be forwards, upwards or a combination of both.
While there are some weight machines designed for squats, you’re more likely to use free weights. You start in a standing position with the weights either across your shoulder (if using a barbell), or down by your sides if using dumbbells.
You then squat downwards, keeping the weight in your ankles. When you’ve reached the bottom of your squat, you drive yourself upwards using your quads and glutes, clenching at the top of the squat.
Leg Press: Pros
Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each move, starting with the leg press. The first advantage of the leg press is that it doesn’t load the spine with weight in the same way that a squat does. This makes it a better option for anybody with back issues while still allowing you to build strength in your legs.
The leg press is also much less fatiguing than squats, and this means that there is a quicker recovery time. So, if you’re looking to train your legs every day, leg presses would be a better option than squats.
If you’re looking to build leg hypertrophy, specifically in the quads, the leg press would be a better move as well. This is because it allows you to isolate the muscle, rather than working several muscle groups at the same time.
You’re also able to lift more weight when you do a leg press as the rest of your body is supported in a seating position. It’s also considered safer as you’re using a weight machine rather than relying on your own body strength to support the weights.
The leg press is an excellent accessory move to the deadlift, too. This is because it mimics the pushing action that you’d use in a deadlift as you push the weights away from you. All the while, you’re able to remain in a seated position.
Leg presses are also a good move for anybody brand new to strength training to learn. There’s no real technical barrier to overcome as the machine you use is designed to ensure you’re in the correct position.
Finally, the leg press may be a more effective leg exercise for taller people. This is because it can be awkward to get into the correct squat position if you have longer limbs.
Leg Press: Cons
As you can see, the leg press is an excellent exercise for many reasons. But, there are also certain disadvantages that might make squatting the better option instead.
To begin with, it can be quite difficult to tell when you’re compensating with a leg press. Since your body is supported and you're using a weight machine, you can’t ever really be 100% certain if you’re putting more power into one leg than the other.
Also, since your body is supported in a seated position throughout the lift, you don’t develop as much stability, balance, or coordination as you do when you’re squatting. As such, it’s not the best choice if you’re weight training with athletics or sports in mind.
It’s also quite easy to get a false sense of security when you’re doing a leg press. Again, this is because you’re in a seated position and your body is mostly supported. This can make it much easier to think that you’re able to lift heavier than you can handle, which could result in an injury.
Finally, the leg press is not a compound move. So, while it’s a good choice for isolating your quads, you won’t be working out more than one muscle group at a time. If you want to incorporate certain weight lifting or bodyweight movements into a HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) program, squats would be the better option.
There are loads of advantages to doing squats. First of all, they are a compound exercise. This means that they are more effective at building muscle strength and size compared to the leg press as they produce a better metabolic response.
Squats have also been shown to burn more calories than running on a treadmill at a slow speed. This means that they are an excellent choice for anybody looking to lose weight without exclusively relying on high-intensity cardio exercises.
Another benefit to squats is that they improve your balance and coordination skills. Since they rely on free weights rather than weight machines, the lifter is required to put more effort into controlling the lift and balancing themselves under the weight load. This also helps to build even more strength throughout your lower body, your core, and your back.
Since doing squats puts so much power and strength into your legs, they are also an essential part of your workout plan if you want to improve your jumping abilities. Research has shown that doing squats can significantly increase your performance in a vertical jump after just 15 weeks.
You also don’t need to rely on gym equipment when it comes to squats. All you need is a barbell and some weight plates. Even a set of dumbbells can be used depending on where you are with your fitness journey. This makes them an excellent choice of compound move if you’re training at home.
Finally, squats are an easily modifiable exercise. So, if you’re new to strength training and you find it quite difficult to execute a traditional back squat at first, you can hold dumbbells at the side of your body instead. You also don’t need to use weights at all if you don’t want to. Simply use your body weight to squat until you’ve built up enough strength to move onto free weights.
While squats are undeniably an excellent move for any weight training or general fitness program, they aren’t without their cons. The first of these is the fact that to execute a squat successfully, you need to follow a pretty complex movement pattern.
It’s not as simple as lowering your glutes towards the ground and pushing up again. You also need to make sure that your feet are spaced apart correctly, that your knees are turning out, and that you're creating enough muscular resistance and the bottom and top of the lift.
Since squats are a compound move, they aren’t the best choice if you’re trying to isolate just one muscle group either.
There are also some safety precautions to keep in mind when you’re doing squats, too. If you’re lifting heavy weights you’ll either need a spotter or you’ll need to squat in a power rack using safety pins. This will stop you from buckling under the weight at the bottom of your lift and, ultimately, stops you from injuring yourself.
Finally, squats require an extended level of mobility. You’ll need to use your ankles, knees, and your hips, and each of these joints requires deep flexion at the bottom of the lift. With this in mind, if you find you have a lack of natural mobility in any of these areas, it’s best to avoid squats until they improve.
What Muscles Do Leg Presses And Squats Train?
While it may seem as though both leg presses and squats workout the same muscles, they actually train completely different areas.
Squats are a compound movement. This means that they train several different muscle groups at the same time. This includes the quads, inner thighs, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and calves.
The leg press, on the other hand, is an isolation movement. This means that it only trains one muscle group at a time, which is the quads.
However, research conducted in 2001 looked at the different muscle groups the leg press and the squat affected, and how different variations in technique could potentially affect different muscle activity.
This study involved 10 weightlifters who performed the squat, a high-foot placement leg press, and a low-foot leg placement leg press while employing three different stances; wide, narrow, and two-foot angled.
The results were pretty clear:
- The squat generated greater activity in the quads and hamstrings compared with any stance variation of the leg press.
- The wide-stance leg press activated more hamstring activity than other stance when performing a leg press. There was no difference in quad activation with the leg press across all three stances.
Put simply, the research showed that while the leg press does isolate the quads more than any other muscle, the squat is a better choice of movement for targeting both the quads and the hamstrings.
There is another important point that this study found, as well; the squat placed a greater amount of stress on the knees than the leg press. This wasn’t entirely surprising as all free weight exercises put more stress on the joints, but it’s certainly something that can help you figure out which is the better exercise if you suffer from joint issues.
One of the main benefits of strength training is that, as your muscles react to the stress they are put under, your body starts to release certain “good hormones” including endorphins and testosterone. These help with:
- Building muscle
- Reducing body fat
- Increasing recovery time
- Increasing bone mass
- Improving stamina
- Improving mood
But, in the case of the leg press vs. squats, does one exercise beat the other in the number of good hormones produced? To find out, we need to take a look at the science.
One study published in 2004 found that, even at similar weight and repetition intensities, squats produced a higher hormonal response than the leg press. Put simply, this means that squats are better if you’re looking to achieve any of the above points through exercise.
Whether you’re a professional athlete or you’re trying to be the best-performing member of your local football team, weight training is essential to sport performance. But, are leg presses or squats better when it comes to building those transferable sports skills?
Before we answer that, let’s look at the power you need when you play sports. Whether it's basketball, football, or athletics, all sports require “reactive strength”. This essentially means you need to be able to produce explosive power in a split second, such as jumping or sprinting.
A 2016 study found that, after an 8-week training period, squats increased reactive strength by 12.4%. Comparatively, the leg press increased reactive strength by just 0.5%.
The numbers speak for themselves, here. If you’re looking for the best movement to include in your training program for sports performance, squats are the ultimate winner.
Most people start working out with weights to build lean muscle mass and lose body fat. If you fall into this category, you may also be wondering whether squats or leg presses are the most effective exercise.
This 2016 study looked at this in some detail by comparing body composition results after training using three different interventions. There were:
- A training program using just squats
- A training program using just the leg press
- A training program using both the leg press and squats
What were the results? All three training programs showed a significant increase in body mass and fat-free mass. Put simply, only lean muscle mass was gained, regardless of whether the participants were doing squats, the leg press, or a combination of both.
Another interesting thing that this study found was that there was no significant difference in body fat percentages between each group.
The main takeaway here is that you can expect to increase your lean muscle mass with both squats and leg presses (or a combination of the two), but there is no scientific evidence to suggest one is better for burning fat than the other.
Perhaps you’re training to gain lower body strength rather than build lean muscle and lose body fat. Which is better for this? Again, we need to look at the science!
Another study conducted in 2016 found that perhaps unsurprisingly, squats improved squat strength and the leg press improved leg press strength. But, the interesting thing was that there was no transfer effect between each move.
To put it simply, this means that squatting doesn’t make your leg-press strength any more powerful. Likewise, the leg-press doesn’t make your squats stronger. So, when it comes to building lower body strength, you’ll need to train in line with how you want to perform.
If you’re a competitive powerlifter or an athlete looking to improve sports performance, squats would be the better option. However, if you want to specifically target your quad strength over any other muscle group, you should go for the leg press.
It’s also important to note that just because you may be able to leg press more weight than you can squat with, it doesn’t mean that the leg press is better for building lower body strength. It’s simply easier since you don’t have to concentrate on stability, balance, and coordination as you lift.
How Much Weight Should You Leg Press?
The amount of weight you should leg press ultimate depends on two factors; your skill level and your sex. Below you’ll find a chart that details how much weight you should be able to leg press with both of these things in mind.
1.5 - 1.75 x your body weight for one rep
1.2 - 1.3x your body weight for one rep
2.6 - 2.8x your body weight for one rep
2 - 2.2x your body weight for one rep
3.8 - 4x your body weight for one rep
3.3 - 3.6x your body weight for one rep
These numbers might seem pretty high compared to squats (which we’ll look at next), but there is a good reason for this. Leg presses are considered an easier move. This is because your body is supported throughout the lift and you don’t have to concentrate on stability, balance, or coordination. As such, you’re able to lift more weight.
How Much Weight Should You Squat?
The same two factors apply when you’re looking at how much weight you should be able to squat with. However, as we’ve explained above, there is quite a bit of difference in weight compared to the leg press. This is because there is more to concentrate on, and because you’re training several muscle groups at once.
1 - 1.2x your body weight for one rep
0.7 - 0.8x your body weight for one rep
1.5 - 1.6x your body weight for one rep
1.1 - 1.2x your body weight for one rep
2 - 2.1x your body weight for one rep
1.5 - 1.8x your body weight for one rep
Leg Press VS. Squats: Which Exercise Is Best?
This ultimately comes down to your personal training goals. As you can see from everything we’ve explained above, both the leg press and squats can help you achieve different things. They also work out different muscle groups.
To help you decide which you should include in your training program, we’ve broken down the benefits of each below.
When to Squat
- Choose squats if you are a competitive powerlifter, professional athlete, or if you simply want to be more functional in the gym.
- Choose squats if you want to exercise several muscle groups at once including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, and back.
- Choose squats if you want to improve stability in your back and core.
- Choose squats if you want to achieve greater results in a shorter amount of time.
When to Leg Press
- Choose the leg press if you want to exercise your quads while reducing muscular activation in your hamstrings and glutes.
- Choose the leg press if you’re new to strength training and you find squatting too difficult.
- Choose the leg press if you want to use heavy weights but you don’t have a spotter or a squat rack with safety pins.
- Choose the leg press if you want to add an extra exercise to your existing leg workout.
It’s worth noting, also, that there’s nothing to stop you from incorporating both squats and the leg press into your workout routine. Again, there are some advantages to doing this.
When to Squat and Leg Press
- Do both exercises if you want a well-rounded strength training program.
- Do both exercises if you have the time to add multiple movements to your training program.
- Do both exercises if you want to maximize your lower body muscular hypertrophy.
When it comes to squats vs. the leg press, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Both will provide you with multiple health benefits including increased lean muscle mass and a greater level of lower body strength.
However, if we were forced to choose just one, we’d recommend going for squats. Squats give you the opportunity to train several muscle groups at once which is ideal for anybody looking to get the most out of a shorter workout. Studies have also shown that they are better for building reactive power, making them a better choice for anybody looking to improve sports performance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are leg presses better than squats?
Generally speaking, squats are a better choice of exercise than leg presses. This is because you’re able to train several muscle groups at once while improving your balance and stability. Squats also produce a greater metabolic response and help to build better reactive power.
Why is it easier to leg press than squat?
If you find that you’re able to lift more weight when leg pressing, it’s simply because it’s an easier move. You don’t have to worry about stabilizing your spine or controlling your balance as your body is supported in a seated position. As such, you’re able to push more weight with your legs. You also have the support of the weight machine to help you push more weight.