Squat and leg press are both excellent exercises for toning and strengthening the lower body. Both are staples in the gym and while they differ when it comes to execution, both target similar muscle groups to great effect. The question is, which one is better for you? Let’s first take a look at how each should be properly and safely performed.
Powerlifters, body builders and workout buffs perform several variations of the squat to burn calories, tone and build muscle. In order to achieve the best results, the squat is executed using a barbell across the shoulders, but dumbbells and resistance bands are also frequently used. Some opt to perform squats using body weight and without any additional resistance. Whatever you choose in terms of weight variation, squats are executed by planting the feet firmly on the ground and about shoulder-width apart. Keep the weight on your heels and avoid distributing it to your toes or ball of the feet because this is bad for the knees. Move your hips backward, bend your knees, keep the chest lifted and slightly arc your lower back. Stop once your thighs are already parallel to the floor then gradually return to the starting position.
In a leg press, only the lower part of the body is engaged. You can stand, sit, or lie down and push against a platform. Resistance is usually provided by a machine instead of free weights, Most people prefer doing it in a seated position with their feet on a platform. This is known as the seated leg press. Release the levers affixed to the weight plates and lower the safety bars. Slowly push the platform until your legs are fully extended without locking your knee. Keep your back flat then pause and bend your legs slowly at the knees to return to the starting position.
Both squats and leg presses are multiple-joint workouts that engage the muscles at the hip, knee and ankle joints. Both are effective in increasing strength and size of the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. Both squat and leg press improve performance, increase coordination, and boost the body’s metabolism.
While both exercises work the leg and thigh muscles effectively, the squat activates the gluteus maximus more effectively as the main hip extensor. Both exercises also engage the hamstrings, though to a greater extent in a squat. The squat also involves the arms, shoulders, and the back to stabilize the upper body, making it a whole body workout. On the other hand, the leg press provides greater support for your core muscles and your back, allowing you to focus on your leg work.
Good form is a must for both exercises, but poorly executed squats pose a greater risk of incurring injury. If you have chronic knee problems or other joint disorders, leg workouts using heavy weights can cause pain and worsen your condition. Don’t bend your knees less than 90 degrees when doing the squat and leg press. In addition, use a spotter when performing squats to minimize the risk of injury.
It appears there is good reason to integrate both squat and leg press in your workout. However, it is not recommended to use both at the same time at maximum weight. Doing so can lead to overtraining of the muscles involved.
The leg press once served as a weights room colossus, but it has gradually fallen out of favor. Some claim it’s not functional, while powerlifters recommend the squat instead. But the leg press does not deserve such decision because there are certain instances when it is the right thing to do. Consider the following:
Use the leg press if:
Your main objective is weight loss. Leg press is an effective weight loss workout. Load it up with a weight that’s under your regular 10-repetition maximum.
You are too weak to perform squats
This is highly unlikely because even back squats using an unloaded bar will strengthen your legs and allow you to push the weight up eventually. However, if you are totally deconditioned, the leg press can help in building up some basic strength.
You want proper leg and back positioning
The leg press machine serves as a guide to proper leg and back positioning as you perform your lower body workout. For instance, most leg press machines have a padded backrest that promotes proper posture while supporting your back. Leg press machines also feature hand rests where you can place your hands while exercising your legs. This means less risk of injury since you are less likely to use the wrong posture.
Use squats if:
You are training to be functional
Seating with your back properly supported and pressing against a platform can give you a strong lower body. Studies have shown that squats provide substantial levels of posterior chain and core activation that will strengthen your body as a whole.
You want to work all the muscles in your legs
Studies have proven that squats activate more leg muscles (i.e. vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, lateral hamstring and gastrocnemius) than leg presses. Squats also engage your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals.
You want to improve your core strength
Because squats are usually loaded, either using a barbell, a dumbbell or a resistance band, your core has to work double-time in order to prevent injury and maintain proper posture. When it comes to building your six-pack, squats must be a staple.
Want to learn more about different variations of squats and how they compare to the leg press? Check out “Hack Squat vs Leg Press — Building Bigger Legs” over at Dark Iron Fitness.