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Squat vs. Leg Press for Big Legs

Question: I was wondering if, for hypertrophy purposes, there is any real advantage using bar bell squats instead of leg presses. Looking at things from perhaps an oversimplified perspective, the leg press seems to have the same joint movements and muscle lengthening/stretching as the squat – plus it’s a lot safer for the lower back.

I’m guessing it may come down to maximum load that can be moved. But can people squat more than they can leg press? Also, I’d be surprised if it were practical to use loads >1RM (negatives) for a squat, whereas on a leg press machine with a partner or two it is quite easily done.

I’m thinking the squat just ‘feels’ harder because of all the stabilizers that are used and there is more need for proper technique to make it safe. I know a lot of power lifting purists will scream that the squat is the king of exercises, yada yada yada, but for leg/glute hypertrophy, what is the advantage? Some people also seem to think squatting causes more testosterone and or GH release but is there any solid evidence of this? I would doubt it.

Answer: First and foremost, while I’m sure my answer will offend the hardcore/hardheaded lifters, there is no requirement to perform squats (back or front) to build big legs (or even build leg strength) unless you’re an athlete who must perform that movement as part of your sport.  Powerlifters must squat.  Olympic lifters usually squat (and must front squat to improve their clean recovery).  Strongman competitors often have a squat event as part of their compeition.

From a specificity standpoint this makes sense: if you must squat as part of your competition you have to squat in training.  But outside of those two/possibly three sports, nobody has to squat for any reason whatsoever.  Going further, nobody has to do any movement whatsoever unless it’s required by your sport.  Powerlifters also have to bench and deadlift, Ol’ers have to clean and snatch.  For everybody else….

The History of the Squat

Historically, the reason that squats probably became popular was that, early in the days of weight training, that’s all there was to do.  Leg presses didn’t exist (at least not in any form that wouldn’t injure you) and if you wanted to train your legs that pretty much meant squatting.  It’s all that was available.

As a historical oddity, this is how people used to “leg press” before machines became available.  You either had to roll the bar onto your feet or have two people lift it there for you.  Fun stuff.

Check out those boots
Check out those boots

 

As I stated above, the only people who must squat are powerlifters, for whom it’s a competition lift (except in the push/pull meets where it’s not), and Olympic lifters where it’s a key assistance exercise.  There is even some theorizing that modern Olympic lifting will get rid of the back squat with only the front squat being used to support recovery from the clean.  I don’t know if anybody has ever actually done it.  Strongmen competitors probably have to/need to/should squat.

Nobody else has to squat.

Don’t misread this.  I’m not anti-squat, I’m not against the squat.  It can be an excellent movement for some people.  And for others it’s a complete waste of time in terms of getting stronger or bigger legs.  That depends on how they are built.

Individual Body Mechanics

The reality is that people who get a lot out of squatting in terms of leg growth tend to be built a certain way.  They frequently have shorter femurs and can stay very upright.  This makes it a fantastic leg movement for them.  But not everyone is built this way.

For those people with longer femurs, the squat usually looks like a modified good morning.  The lifter ends up so bent over that their low back will give out long before their legs get a training stimulus. Yes, this can be improved somewhat with shoes or certain squatting technique.  But people with poor squat mechanics will never get as much out of squatting for their legs as someone with better mechanics.

What Makes Muscle Grow?

Beyond that, let’s take a quick look at reality: Anyone reading this can go into any gym in the world and see the following

  • A guy squatting who never adds weight to the bar: His legs will not be growing.
  • A guy doing leg presses who is adding weight to the machine: His legs will be growing.

The exercise clearly isn’t the determinant of growth here.  Because exercise selection per se isn’t the primary determinant of growth; rather as I’ve discussed in recent articles such as Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth, progressive tension overload is the primary stimulus for growth.

Exercise selection is purely secondary outside of a given exercise allowing someone to apply progressive overload safely and effectively.  You can build strength or mass with almost any exercise if the loading parameters and progression are there (which isn’t to say that exercises don’t vary in how well or how poorly they lend themselves to progression).

Put differently, if someone has really horrible mechanics for squatting, they won’t be able to add weight effectively and or will get injured.  That makes squatting a poor exercise choice for them.  If in contrast, someone has good mechanics for squatting, meaning that they can add weight progressively in good form, that will make squatting a good exercise choice for them.

How Most Approach Exercise Selection

Tangentially, it’s worth noting that usually when people say things like “Exercise XXX is the best for growth” what that usually means is “I’m built to do exercise XXX effectively.”  People assume that since an exercise is good for them (since they are built well to do it), it must be the best for everyone.

By extension, when people say that “Exercise XXX is the worst for growth” it generally means that they aren’t built for it or never learned to do it properly.  The latter is especially true in the bench press where many never learned to use their pecs when they bench.

What both groups of people don’t seem capable of grasping is that their individual biomechanics are not everyone’s individual biomechanics.   If you’re built to squat, squats may be a great exercise FOR YOU.  If you’re not built to squat, it is unlikely to be a great exercise FOR YOU. Whether it’s a good or bad exercise for anybody else doesn’t make an iota of difference.

The Leg Press

Given the above reality, the simple fact is that the leg press may be superior to the squat for leg strength or growth for some people.  A big situation is the one I went on about above: people with poor mechanics.  If someone is so far tipped over that their low back gives out, the squat is not a good movement for their legs. Even if it doesn’t, the forward tip tends to throw more stress to the glutes and hamstrings.  It may be useless for their quadriceps.  By using a leg press and taking the low back out of the equation entirely, they will be better able to actually train their legs effectively.

In this vein, even for people built to squat, the leg press is an excellent secondary movement for the legs in hypertrophy program.  Eventually even the best squatter’s low back will become fatigued, limiting the leg stimulus they can generate.  Moving to the leg press at that point allows the legs to get a continued training stimulus while eliminating the weak point.

Is the Leg Press Safer?

It’s worth noting that your comment about the leg press being safer on the low back isn’t automatically true.  Done incorrectly, the leg press can be a low back death trap.  People with poor flexibility and/or who try to bring the sled too far back will round their low back terribly. Under heavy compression load this is an excellent way to herniate a disk.  I dislike the old school vertical leg press for this reason. It starts the lifter with the hamstrings on nearly full stretch and is impossible to do without rounding the low back.

Vertical Leg Press, the Low Back Deathtrap

It’s worth mentioning that doing leg presses one leg at a time (with the other leg on the floor) makes it nearly impossible to round the low back and this may be the safest way of all to do them.  It also saves you a lot of time loading the machine since you won’t have to put as many plates on.  It also hits the gluteus medius and minimus more.

Ed Coan used the single leg press as one of his go-to squat assistance movements.  Who am I to argue with the greatest powerlifter of all time.

Comparing the Weights Used

As far as comparing loads between the two movements, this isn’t really accurate. The leverages on the leg press will allow almost anyone to move more weight (in absolute terms) than squatting.  Ultimately we are not concerned so much with the absolute load on the bar as the muscular tension generated.  The mechanics of the leg press will let folks move more weight (in terms of plates on the machine) but that doesn’t automatically mean more tension on the target muscles.

For example, people who put all the plates in the gym on the machine and move it through a tiny range of motion are actually generating very little muscular tension due to the short lever arm and biomechanical advantage.  Using a lighter weight but moving through a larger range of motion is less weight on the machine but more tension on the muscle.  If you pause the weight at the bottom, this will also limit the weight on the machine while increasing muscular tension since you’re not getting an elastic rebound.

Assuming the flexibility is there, I want people taking their leg presses to at least parallel (e.g. the angle between upper leg and shin should be a minimum of 90 degrees).  For most macho leg pressers, this will mean stripping about half the weight off the machine to get depth.

As to the hormonal response, who cares.  Nobody has ever shown that the small hormonal spikes to training mean a thing and recent research is starting to show that it is simply meaningless.  Whether squats or GH raises hormones a little bit more simply isn’t relevant as far as I’m concerned.

Leg Presses vs. Squats for Leg Growth

As much as macho hardheads tend to think of the leg press as lame or useless the simple fact is that it is a compound movement that allows a major set of muscles to be trained intensely.  Trainees can apply progressive tension overload (the key stimulus to growth) on a leg press just as in a squat.  For some people, they can more effectively progress the leg press than the squat.

And for some people, usually those with mechanics that make squatting a problem, the leg press may actually be a superior choice because it takes limiting muscle groups (low-back is the common issue) out of the equation.   In a related vein, it is often the upper body that fails during squatting (especially higher repetition sets); if the goal is to train the legs, it makes little sense to me to let an ancillary muscle group limit that goal.

Preparing for the Backlash

Finally, since I can only imagine the comments that this article will generate, I’m in no way anti-squatting. I happen to love squatting, I’m also built well for it (short with short femurs).  For people who can squat progressively and effectively, it’s an excellent exercise.  For those with poor mechanics it’s often not worth the time and effort because the results simply won’t be there.

The leg press, properly performed (meaning keeping your ego in check, taking the sled to parallel or slightly below) in a progressive fashion is an excellent way to train the lower body while avoiding some issues that can make squatting problematic for some trainees.

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