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Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs

While many take it as an article of faith that all trainees must squat, the reality is far different.   Only a handful of athletes truly must squat and that’s because the movement is part of their competition.  But for everyone else, squats are an optional movement.  And factually, some simply are not built to squat well.  And if their goal is simply getting bigger legs, in many cases it may be better for them to avoid squatting and choose a movement such as the leg press instead.

A properly done leg press exposes the legs to a similar range of motion as your typical parallel squat.  Certainly squats “feel” harder but does this mean it’s automatically a superior movement for growing the legs?  At least some of that feel is the technical involvement, balance, and the increased use of stabilizer muscles.  But this has nothing to do with the legs per se.

Because when the goal is building big legs, there are many ways that the leg press might actually be a superior movement.  So at the risk of offending most of the training world, let’s look at the issue.

Who Must Squat?

Ok, let’s get one issue out of the way quickly.  As I stated above, there are some trainees who must squat.  Powerlifters are one as the squat is part of their competition (unless they do bench only or push/pull).  Powerlifters have to bench press and deadlift as well since it’s part of their competition.

Strictly speaking Olympic lifters only need to front squat since it’s part of the clean recovery.  However, most do back squat to build general leg strength.   Strongmen competitors often have a squat event as part of their competition so it’s more common than not for them to squat.

Clearly anybody who simply wants to improve their squat for one reason or another will need to squat.  If you want to improve a movement, you need to practice it.  This is just a specificity issue.  To improve a movement means doing that movement.

But when you’re talking about muscle growth per se, you’re looking at a different set of issues.     Before I get into that,

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.

But 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.   If you’re built to do it well it can be a great movement.  If you’re not built to do it well, it won’t be and will be more or less a waste of time.

So what do I mean when I say that someone is or isn’t built to squat?

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?

While it was stated for decades that “we don’t know what makes muscle growth”, this was really incorrect.  In the 1970’s it was established that exposing a muscle to high tension was a key aspect of turning on protein synthesis.  There is also clearly a volume component as some number of high tension repetitions must be performed to active the protein synthesis pathways.

So if you perform some number of high tension repetitions, you end up training in some sort of effective hypertrophy zone.   But this is all about muscular physiology and has absolutely nothing to do with any specific exercise.

Rather, any given exercise is only good or bad for growth inasmuch as it lets the trainee expose a muscle to a sufficient number of high tension repetitions safely.  It should also allow them to progress over time.   And no exercise is required for any given trainee to make that occur.  What is right for one trainee may be wrong for another and vice versa.

And in the context of squats, the person with long femurs and poor squatting mechanics will have one or more things happen.  First and foremost, their low back will give out long before their legs.  This might give them a hellishly strong low back but it also means that their legs are never being exposed to an optimal combination tension/fatigue stimulus.

In addition, poor squat mechanics either means they won’t be able to add weight to the bar regularly or they will get injured doing the movement.  And in that situation, squats will be a bad exercise 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.  People for whom squats are a good exercise tend to have relatively short femurs and can stay very upright when they squat.  Their quads get a great stimulus, their low back doesn’t give out.  Squats are great for them.

The problem comes in when the people with good squat mechanics don’t realize that not everyone is built like 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.

Which brings me to the leg press.

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.   They may get a great big ass which is fine if that’s their goal. But they won’t get a good quad stimulus.    If they move to a leg press and take the low back out of the equation, they can now train their quads 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 for them.

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.

Who the hell do you think you are to dismiss the movement?

Comparing the Weights Used

One issue that people bring up regarding squats and leg presses is the poundages used.  Usually it’s to make fun of how your 600 lb leg press doesn’t matter since it’s not a 315 squat.  But here’s the reality: nobody but other lifters give a shit about either.

More importantly, comparing them in this fashion isn’t meaningful.  The leverages on a leg press will allow anyone to move more weight (in absolute terms) than they can lift in a squat.  But this is irrelevant.  Your muscles don’t care about how much weight is on the bar, they simply sense how much muscular tension they experience.

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.  Nor does it automatically mean less.

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.

In this situation, 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.

Mind you, the same can be said for squats.  The guy partial squatting hundreds of pounds is exposing their legs to less muscular tension than the Olympic lifter full squatting half as much weight.  Range of motion, stretch, etc. all play a role.

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.

I guess I should mention the hormonal issue since this is often brought up in terms of the supposed superiority of the squat.  Yes, heavy squats can increase testosterone and growth hormone.   And the impact is absolutely irrelevant because raising those hormones by a few percent for 30 minutes doesn’t mean a damn thing.

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.  For them, that will make the leg press the superior movement.  FOR THEM.

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.

And for some real comedy make sure and read the comments.

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