Although any two people can have vastly different strength training routines, the leg press is one of the most universal exercises that most people have tried at least once.
A leg press machine helps you execute an exercise that resembles a squat in terms of the movement pattern and muscles worked, though there are differences between squats and leg presses.
Knowing the muscles worked by the leg press will help you plan your workouts to reach your fitness goals and determine possible muscle imbalances and functional deficits.
If you’ve spied the leg press machine at the gym but never given it a whirl yourself, or perhaps you have but are still not sure which muscles the leg press actually works, keep reading to learn which the leg press muscles worked.
We will cover:
- What Is the Leg Press?
- Leg Press Muscles Worked: What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work?
Let’s get started!
What Is the Leg Press?
The leg press is a lower-body strength training exercise performed on a leg press machine.
The leg press exercise is performed in a seated position, but there are actually two primary types of leg press machines, which are differentiated by the direction that you’re pushing the weight with your legs.
Horizontal Leg Press
The horizontal seated leg press machine has you sitting fairly upright with your feet against a platform that’s directly in front of your body.
As you push your feet against the platform to press the weight with your legs, you extend your legs so that they straighten out parallel to the floor.
In other words, the horizontal leg press machine has you pressing the weight horizontally.
This leg press machine setup is particularly ideal for people who have trouble getting up and down from a low position, so it tends to be more accessible for beginners, the elderly, and people who carry excess body fat.
Incline Leg Press
When you use an inclined leg press machine, you are in a reclined seated position, with your legs against a platform that’s at a 45-degree angle upward relative to your body.
Although the incline leg press machine looks like it would be much more work for your muscles because it appears that you are pressing the weight against gravity, it’s actually no different from a muscular force standpoint because you’re actually just pressing the weight against a cable (that has a negligible mass) attached to a pulley.
Therefore, the actual muscular demand of an incline leg press is no different than the horizontal leg press machine. However, it can be more difficult to get on and off the incline leg press machine because it sits very low to the ground.
The leg press movement pattern is identical between the two types of leg press exercise machines; only the body position and initial setup are different.
Leg Press Muscles Worked: What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work?
Now, on to the important question: what muscles does the leg press exercise work?
The leg press is what is considered a triple-extension exercise, meaning that the leg press movement involves the concurrent extension of all three of the major joints in the lower body: the ankles, knees, and hips.
According to research, this triple extension movement—simultaneous hip extension, knee extension (straightening the legs), and ankle plantarflexion (like pressing the gas pedal in a car) helps improve running performance by increasing the push-off or propulsive power that you have in your running stride.
Triple extension is also required when you jump and sprint, so the leg press is a great way to boost running and jumping ability by strengthening the muscles that allow for this explosive triple extension movement.
As a lower-body, triple extension exercise, the primary muscle groups worked by the leg press machine are the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.
Of all of the muscles worked by the leg press machine, the “primary movers” of the exercise are the quadriceps, also known as the “quads.”
The quads are a group of four muscles that include the rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap; the vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh; the vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh; and the vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center.
The quads are biarticular muscles, which means that they are responsible for moving to different joints: the quads extend the knee and flex the hip.
During the pressing portion of the leg press exercise, the quads are contracting concentrically to straighten your leg from the initial position (where your knees are flexed 90° with your feet up on the platform) to the fully straightened position (with the platform pressed away from you and your legs straightened all the way out).
This is the explosive portion of the exercise where you are pressing with your legs by using your quadriceps.
During the leg press exercise, the quadriceps also work eccentrically when you go from the fully extended finish position back to the starting position with your knees bent.
Because the platform is weighted, it wants to snap back towards your body. Therefore, the quadriceps have to work to prevent your knees from rapidly bending immediately, controlling the gradual movement of the weight back to the starting position.
Note that you can increase the workload on your quads during the leg press by moving as slowly as possible during that eccentric portion as you move from the finish back to the start.
Additionally, lowering the position of your feet on the platform will better target the quadriceps throughout the movement.
The glutes, also referred to as the gluteal muscles or the gluteal muscle group, are the strong, powerful muscles in your buttocks composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus muscles.
There are also many other smaller muscles in the gluteal area, such as the piriformis, obturator muscles, and gemellus muscles, that aid in controlling and stabilizing the hips.
The glutes are involved in the hip extension portion of the leg press exercise at the beginning of the movement when you press the weight away from you and extend the leg at the hip.
The greater the range of motion you get (closer to full leg extension) on the leg press, the more you will use your glutes. You can also adjust your technique on the leg press to target your glutes by placing your feet up higher on the footplate or platform.
The leg press works the hamstrings, though to a lesser degree than the quads.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris—that run along the back of your thigh from their attachment at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) at bottom of your pelvis to the back of your knee.
The hamstrings are antagonists to the quads on the front of your thigh, so they work in opposition to one another.
Whereas the quads are responsible for extending the knee and flexing the hip, the hamstrings are responsible for extending the hip and flexing the knee.
Therefore, during the leg press exercise, the hamstrings assist the glutes in extending the hip during the pressing away portion of the exercise.
The hamstrings do not have to do much work in terms of flexing the knee on the return phase of the exercise because the weights naturally will push your knees into the flexed position.
This is why the quads are targeted so much more with the leg press—they have to do the pressing motion and control what would otherwise be rapid knee flexion as the weights want to snap back to the starting position on the return.
The hamstrings do have to do some work eccentrically to control hip flexion on the return, but it is often less of a relative load because the hips don’t fully extend at the finish (because you are seated rather than standing or lying flat).
Calves and Shins
The muscles in your lower leg are also activated during the leg press because they help stabilize your legs and control the ankle plantarflexion portion of the triple extension movement.
There are a bunch of smaller muscles in the lower legs, but the primary lower leg muscles involved in the leg press exercise are the calves and the tibialis anterior muscle on the front of the shin.
One of the benefits of the leg press exercise is that you can strengthen the calves and shin in a functional movement pattern, which can then translate to improvements in your running and walking gait patterns and vertical jump height.
As a side note, although some people perform calf raises on the leg press machine as a separate exercise (in which you press up onto your toes), with the leg press, it’s important to keep your foot completely flat against the platform.
Your entire foot should be in contact with the platform rather than rising up onto your toes.
The leg press exercise strengthens all of the major muscles in your lower body while reducing the workload on your back and core (relative to the squat) because you do not need to stabilize your body in space— sitting on the machine stabilizes your body for you.
For this reason, while it can certainly be argued that squats are a more functional exercise, the leg press machine helps you isolate the lower-body muscles so that you can lift more weight than you would be able to squat, leading to better muscle gains in the legs (hypertrophy).
If you would like to complement your leg press with functional squats, check out our 20 squat variations to spice up your workout.