Ever been embarrassed you got caught up in hype? I’ve been feeling like that about leg training, specifically with respect to squats and their apparent superiority over the leg press. The punchline: as far as building muscle goes, leg pressing is just as good as squatting.
In the Beginning
My squat form was terrible when I first started lifting. I simply couldn’t get the movement down. Structurally, I’m not well suited to them, so I’d hurt my lower back and knees, barely getting any leg stimulation. So I mainly did machine work: leg press, hack squats, extensions, and lying curls.
Over the years, my legs didn’t really grow much. Then along came the fitness industry’s “functional training” obsession. Now everyone knew that you had to squat, deadlift, etc, to get any results.
Sit Back and Watch the Gainz Pile Up
Wow, I thought, no wonder my leg strength and size hasn’t improved much, I haven’t been squatting! I just have to learn to do it in a way that works with my body while avoiding injury.
So began a journey through variations of the movement pattern that lasted quite a few years (which I’ve written about here—the lessons I learned might be useful if you struggle to squat correctly). It took ages, but eventually I found a way to safely squat low.
Sweet, now I just had to keep up my training and watch the gainz explode! No doubt my legs would soon look like they had a butcher’s shop worth of meat surgically implanted.
Time went by. Over the years I played with rep number; rep tempo; ballistic reps; slow, deliberate reps; bar position on my back; workout frequency (even squatting every day); and foot stance. As you’d expect when learning an exercise, my squat strength increased, but my leg development remained as obstinately mediocre as ever.
The thing is, I’d always trained pretty hard, and the machine work actually hit my legs well.
The limiting factor here wasn’t the omission of a magic exercise, it was choosing the wrong parents. I just don’t have the genetics to accomplish much leg-wise (or anywhere on my body, unfortunately).
All Exercises Have Their Place
Not to say squats aren’t a great exercise, they are. But if you’re primarily interested in developing your leg musculature, leg presses are great, too. (Interestingly, six-time Mr Olympia Dorian Yates’ main leg exercise was the leg press. As you can see in the photo above, his leg development was hardly lacking.)
The structure of your body has a lot to do with it. Ironically, I get better stimulation through leg presses than squats. Leg pressing results in better targeting of the muscles I’m trying to train; I just don’t get quite the same jelly-like feeling in my legs and subsequent soreness following squats. I still think squats are a very worthwhile movement, but for me they result in a lot of back work, which takes a bit of intended stress off the legs.
So should you do squats or leg presses? Either or both, each is a great choice.
All the stuff about machines vs free weights, and squats vs leg press is too black and white. There’s no need to fall into one camp—use machines and free weights. Most importantly, choose exercises that work for your body and stimulate your muscles most.