One of the biggest debates in the strength training world about specific head-to-head comparisons of similar exercises is whether it is better to do squats or leg presses.
But, what muscles does the leg press work?
In other words, are the “leg press muscles worked” the same as the muscles worked by squats?
In this guide, we will provide step-by-step instructions for how to perform the leg press and discuss the muscles worked by leg presses vs squats to help you understand the pros and cons of each exercise for lower-body strengthening.
We will cover:
- What Is the Leg Press?
- What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work?
- Are the Muscles Worked by Leg Presses and Squats the Same?
Let’s get started!
What Is the Leg Press?
Before we look at the leg press muscles worked list, let’s briefly cover what the leg press exercise is. The leg press is a lower-body strength training exercise performed on a leg press weight machine.
To perform the leg press exercise, you sit down and then press a weight-loaded plate away from your body by extending your knees.
There are two different leg press machine positions: The horizontal leg press and the incline leg press.
While the muscles worked by the leg press are similar whether you are doing the horizontal leg press machine or the incline leg press machine, there are some differences in the leg press muscles worked due to the changes in the orientation of how you are pressing or pushing the platform away from your body.However, the differences between the horizontal leg press muscles worked and the incline leg press muscles worked are not as significant as the differences seen between the flat bench press vs incline bench press muscle activation.
The general muscles worked by leg presses will be the same in either movement pattern, whereas the emphasis or muscle fibers targeted by incline vs horizontal bench press display greater differences.
Let’s look at how to do the horizontal leg press and how to do the incline leg press exercise in order to have a functional understanding of our discussion of the leg press muscles.
Horizontal Leg Press
With the horizontal seated leg press exercise, you sit in the leg press machine in a fairly upright position with your feet against a platform that’s directly in front of your body.
In the leg press starting position, you are seated in such a way that your thighs are coming up towards your trunk and your knees are bent 90° with your shins roughly parallel to the floor.
As the name describes, with the horizontal seated leg press, when you extend your legs or press the weight, the pushing motion is straight forward, so the platform moves away from your body in the horizontal direction.
This means that with the horizontal seated leg press exercise, your legs stay mostly parallel to the floor as you extend your knees to press the weight.
Incline Leg Press
The incline leg press exercise uses a similar movement pattern and range of motion, but the body positioning and setup are different.
When you sit down in the incline leg press, the backrest is angled relative to the ground rather than having you seated fairly upright with the regular horizontal seated leg press.
From this reclined position, you still bend your knees and put your feet up onto the platform, but the platform is angled upward since your body is reclined backward.
The incline leg press generally has the platform and backrest angled about 45° from the vertical position so as you extend your knees to push the platform away from your body, the pushing direction is an upward/outward angle rather than straight forward.
Visually, we intuitively think that the muscles worked by the incline leg press have to work significantly harder than with the horizontal seated leg press because you are pushing the weight up against gravity.
However, the relative workload on the incline leg press muscles isn’t inherently greater than it is with the seated leg press with the horizontal pressing position.
This is because the incline leg press machine uses a cable pulley so you aren’t pressing the weight stack itself against the force of gravity, you only have a negligible change in the weight of the cable attached to the weight stack.
Therefore, the actual muscular demand of an incline leg press is not greater than it would be on the horizontal leg press machine, so you should be able to lift the same loads on either machine.
Additionally, while there are some nuanced differences in the incline leg press muscles worked vs horizontal seated leg press muscles worked, because the movement pattern with either leg press machine setup is identical, you won’t see significant changes in the muscles strengthened by leg presses in the incline vs horizontal seated position.
The main difference between the incline leg press exercise and the horizontal leg press exercise is really just in the setup position and how easy it is to get in and out of the machine.
The regular seated 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, people who carry excess body fat, etc.
It can be more difficult to get on and off the incline leg press machine because it sits very low to the ground.
Here are the steps for how to perform the leg press exercise:
- Lie back on the leg press machine with your head and back fully supported, your knees bent to 90 degrees, and your feet up on the platform a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Grip the handles found on either side of the leg press machine seat.
- Explosively press through your heels to extend your legs fully (extending your hips, knees, and ankles) without fully locking out your knees.
- Bend your knees to slowly the weights as you return to the starting position.
What Muscles Does The Leg Press Work?
Here are the primary muscles worked by the leg press machine:
The leg press involves a triple extension—the simultaneous extension of the ankles, knees, and hips.
Because the leg press is a triple extension exercise, the primary muscle groups worked by the leg press machine are the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.
We all know that it is important to have strong glutes or butt muscles.
The glutes are chiefly responsible for hip extension, which is the motion of bringing your leg back behind you, but the smaller glute muscles also play pivotal roles in stabilizing the hip joint, abducting the hip (bringing the leg out away from the body), and rotating the hip.
Placing your feet up higher on the footplate or platform will better target your glutes with the leg press machine, and press forcefully through your heels rather than midfoot or forefoot.
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.”
During the pressing portion of the leg press exercise, the quads help straighten your leg. This is the explosive portion of the exercise where you are pressing with your legs by using your quadriceps.
The quadriceps also contract eccentrically when you go from the fully extended finish position back to the starting position with your knees bent to help control the movement.
During the leg press exercise, the hamstrings assist the glutes in extending the hip during the pressing away portion of the exercise.
Calves and Shins
The muscles in your lower leg are also activated during the leg press because they help stabilize your legs and they control the ankle plantarflexion portion of the triple extension movement.
However, you should be keeping your entire foot in contact with the platform rather than rising up onto your toes and really using your calf (that’s a separate exercise).
Are the Muscles Worked by Leg Presses and Squats the Same?
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).
Plus, using the leg press weight machine will allow you to use the full range of motion to target the muscles worked by squats and leg presses without the need for a spotter.
Weightlifters who try to squat too heavy and use weights that they cannot manage through the full range of motion will often not squat low enough for fear that they will not be able to get back up out of the squat under the weight.
This will compromise your potential gains and/or safety.
In contrast, the fixed path of motion of the leg press machine allows you to safely lift more weight without needing to balance or stabilize your body or rely on a spotter for heavy, free-weight squats.
Plus, if you are hoping to lift heavier loads to build strength and mass in your quads and glutes, doing the leg press vs squat will spare your spine from the compression of a heavy barbell.
For the best exercises to strengthen your legs to improve your max squat weight, check out our guide to the best leg workout for mass here.