Squat Vs Leg Press: Complete Guide, Differences and Benefits
If you're looking to build leg strength or add muscle size, then the squat and the leg press are both solid options. With that said, there are some significant differences between the two in terms of movement, technique and results. In this article, we're going to break down the major differences, look at the pros and cons of each exercise, answer some common questions, and finish with some recommendations on whether the squat vs leg press is best for you.
What’s The Difference Between Leg Press And Squat?
With the leg press and the squat, you've got two movements that use the quadriceps as the prime mover, which makes them both good options for developing leg strength and size. But that's largely where the similarities end.
The leg press uses a completely different position to the squat. Instead of being stood up you're seated, pushing either forwards, upwards or some 45-degree combination of the two.
Linked to the above, the leg press requires far less stabilisation and balance, meaning far lower activation of core and hip musculature.
Lastly, the leg press doesn't use a barbell, so there's no specific placement to consider. It allows for focus on the legs, but it takes away some of the 'full body tension' benefits of the squat.
Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons
Because of the differences we just mentioned, the leg press and squat have their own unique pros and cons.
Leg Press Pros
Since the leg press essentially locks you into a single movement pattern it's far easier to learn. Even an absolute gym beginner can get a great leg press workout with little to no instruction.
Since the leg press doesn't require you to pay attention to things like bar placement and balance, you can focus much more on feeling a connection to the muscle that you're trying to work, which makes it great for high rep bodybuilding style work.
Reduced Spinal Loading and No Shoulder Loading:
This makes it a great alternative for someone dealing with a back or shoulder injury but still wanting to build leg strength and size.
Leg Press Cons
Less Transfer to Sporting Movements:
We'll talk about this in more detail in the squat pros section, but one of the biggest issues with leg press is that it doesn't transfer as well to dynamic sporting activities like jumps, sprints and changes of direction. This is because the leg press has no balance, bracing or coordination components.
You Need Access to the Machine
Whilst you can do some variation of a squat pretty much anywhere with basic equipment, the leg press requires a very specific (and expensive) machine.
Could Make You Overconfident
As a coach I've often seen people boast about how much they can leg press, only to fail miserably at squatting, lunging or other more dynamic exercises.
Better for Sports Performance:
In sports, how well you can jump is often a direct part of the game, or an indicator of lower body power and explosiveness, and we know from research (Wirth et al. 2016) that squats outperform leg press in this area. Participants were divided into 2 groups, the leg press group and the squat group, with both groups going through 8 weeks of resistance training.
The squat group saw 12.4% increases in jump squats and 12% increases in countermovement jumps.
Whereas the leg press group only saw increases of 3.5% in the jump squat and 0.5% in the countermovement jump.
Creates a Greater Hormonal Response:
When it comes to building muscle and strength, growth hormone and testosterone are huge factors, and we know from research (Shaner et al 2014) that squats outperform in this area. Participants were put through leg press and squat workouts of matched intensities and RPE's (Rates of perceived exertion) and it was found that growth hormone, as well as testosterone level responses, were greater after squats.
The Squat Has More Variations to Suit Different People and Goals:
When we think of the squat we tend to think of the Back squat, but there are loads of variations we can use for different training effects.
Front squats and hack squats can be used for more quad development
Sumo squats and box squats can be used for more glute and adductor development
Split squats and pistol squats can be used for unilateral (one sided) development to address imbalances.
Jump squats and loaded jump squats can be used to develop explosiveness and rate of force production.
As any good powerlifter or weightlifter will tell you, the squat has way more technical demands than it first appears. You have to position the barbell correctly, breathe and brace, control your descent, rebound and change direction, all whilst maintaining a vertical bar path.
Heavy squats are tiring. Full body bracing and mental concentration under a heavy load takes a lot out of you, which can have negative impacts on the quality of the rest of your training.
Heavy squats require a good spotter and/or access to safety pins.
Leg Press vs. Squat: Muscles Used
Quads: Both the leg press and the squat use the quads as the prime mover.
BUT, foot placement is important too...
Bringing your feet too high in the leg press can shift focus away from the quads and more onto the glutes.
Glutes: Used more in the squat than the leg press.
Hamstrings: Neither exercise is a great way to development hamstrings, but of the two, squats have been shown to activate them more (especially low bar squats and box squats)
Spinal Erectors: Squats use these muscles to maintain a rigid torso and assist with extension. They are not really activated all that much in the leg press.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you squat as much as you leg press?
Generally speaking, no. Most people find that they are stronger at the leg press than they are in the squat. This is because the leg press typically involves a shorter range of motion, and offers far more stability.
How much should I leg press compared to squat?
As a coach, I would LOVE for there to be a simple answer to this, because then I'd be able to swap athletes back and forth depending on equipment available, injury status etc. Unfortunately, that's just not the case, and there's no such thing as a squat to leg press conversion.
Don't get me wrong, if someone squats 200kg and someone else squats 100kg then you can make a fair guess that the first person will be a stronger leg presser. But there are no direct calculations or formulas we can use to predict exact strength levels.
Are squats harder than leg press?
Yes, squats require more balance and stability, as well as more time to refine the technique. The leg press tends to be easier to learn and quicker to recover from.
Why is the leg press bad for you?
It's not. I think this is one of those bizarre ideas that people get because they've seen some horrendous 1 in a million fail video on YouTube. I promise, leg presses are a safe and effective way to build leg strength. Just use sensible weights and you're good to go.
Squats vs Leg Press for Glutes?
A.K.A "Does the leg press make your bum bigger?"
Of the two exercises, squats by far and away recruit for glute muscles, so if you're picking between the two for glute max building, squats are the way to go. With that said, if you're still wanting to use the leg press you can adjust foot position to increase glute activation. A high foot position will provide more glute activation than a low foot position.
However, it will also shorten the range of motion and reduce quad activation, which will make it less effective at building leg strength and size.
Squats Vs Leg Press: Which makes you stronger?
Fun fact, although we like to think of strength as a general quality, it is also highly specific.
An interesting study (Rossi et al. 2016) tested leg press and squatting strength through rep maxes both before and after a 10-week training programme in which participants were divided into a leg press group and squat group. The results showed that the leg press group improved the most at leg press, whilst the squat group improved the most at squats, and that there wasn't a stable correlation between the two.
In other words, you're going to get stronger at the exercise you train the most.
Squats Vs Leg Press: Do I Need to Do Both?
Not at all, since both exercises train a similar movement pattern and similar muscle groups this really just depends on your goals.
Squats Vs Leg Press: Which Exercise Is Best For You?
The best exercise for you is really just about what your goals are...
If your goal is to compete in powerlifting, then squats should form the bulk of your training, and leg press is completely optional. If your goal is bodybuilding or just general strength and fitness, then you can choose whichever exercise you prefer, or use a combination of the two. And if you're dealing with a back or shoulder injury, then leg press might be your best option for the time being.
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References / Further Reading
Rossi, Fabrício & Schoenfeld, Brad & Ocetnik, Skyler & Young, Jonathan & Vigotsky, Andrew & Contreras, Bret & Krieger, James & Miller, Michael & Cholewa, Jason. (2016). Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 58. 10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06698-6.
Shaner, Aaron A.1; Vingren, Jakob L.1,2; Hatfield, Disa L.3; Budnar, Ronald G. Jr1; Duplanty, Anthony A.1,2; Hill, David W.1The Acute Hormonal Response to Free Weight and Machine Weight Resistance Exercise, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 4 - p 1032-1040