How to Use The Leg Press Machine

by Evelyn Valdez

Have you ever seen a machine at the gym that looks complex or difficult to use? Your answer is probably yes, and while we may agree, we’re here to tell you that looks don’t equal difficulty! In fact, most gym machines are pretty easy to use, like the leg press machine, you just need to learn how to do it.

Even though the most popular type of leg press machine looks like it’s almost upside down, it’s one of the best ways to give your legs a good burn at the gym without engaging your upper body. But before you hop on it, you first need to learn how to use it properly and which common mistakes to avoid.

Luckily for you, we’ve got you covered! We’ll tell you all you need to know about the leg press machine, as well as show you some leg press variations so you can maximize your leg pressing sessions.

Getting to know the leg press machine

The leg press machine might look strange at first, but it’s one of the best strength training machines for your lower-body days! It’s particularly great for beginners because it’s a safe way to move a lot of weight with your legs, and you can make gradual progress with it over time. Depending on your gym, you might find the 45-degree leg press machine, the horizontal leg press machine, or the vertical leg press machine.

As the name indicates, this piece of gym equipment allows you to do a leg press, which is a lower-body pressing exercise in which you lie down with your back flat and place your feet on a plate, pushing it against resistance to give your leg muscles a good burn.

This movement is known as a killer quad exercise, but it also works your glutes and hamstrings with a slight activation of the calves and adductors, making it a great way to build a bigger and stronger lower-body and to make progress safely without the need for a spotter or a personal trainer.

Here’s how to correctly use a leg press machine on your leg days:

  1. First, load the machine. If it’s your first time using the leg press machine, lean lighter on the weights so you can begin practicing good form instead of diving head-first into a challenging session.
  2. Adjust the machine according to your height and sit on it with your back flat on the backrest, making sure your hips and your head are all resting on it too, and place your feet on the platform in front of you. They should be positioned at the center of the platform, at a shoulder-width distance, and toes slightly pointing out.
  3. Once you’re comfortable, begin the exercise by pressing the platform with your legs until you’re at full extension, but without locking your knees. Keep your core tight and your legs in control, without opening or closing them.
  4. Hold this extended leg press position for a moment, then slowly bring the platform back by bending your legs at the hip and knee joints. This is one rep.

After one press, you can make sure that the weight and seat are working for you. If not, you can always load more or less weight, and adjust the seat to your liking, so don’t be afraid to stop your exercise to make it more comfortable for you!

Common mistakes

While leg pressing can be a very safe and straightforward exercise, there are a few mistakes that could make the movement less effective or even dangerous. These are some of the things that you need to be careful with when using the leg press machine:

Pushing only with the ball of your feet

While the pressing effort will come from your legs, it still needs to go through your feet to push the platform, so make sure your feet are positioned correctly.

If you push only with the ball of your feet, either because you’re not stepping correctly on the platform or you’re leaving your heels hanging out of it, you’ll have less support for pushing. This is because you’ll reroute the tension and end up pressing with your feet through your shin, putting an unnecessary strain on your knees and preventing you from correctly lifting the weight.

The firmer your feet are, the better your control will be over the weight. By correctly planting both feet on the platform and driving the weight through your heels, you’ll be able to exert maximum force effectively and give your legs a great workout.

Going over the ideal range of motion

When using the leg press machine, it’s important to keep the range of motion controlled so that you can keep your muscles working throughout the whole exercise.

Going over the ideal range of motion means either contracting or extending your legs too much. You’ll want to press the platform until your legs are fully extended, but you shouldn’t lock your knees, because that shifts the tension of the weight away from the targeted muscles.

Similarly, if you contract your knees too much to the point that they almost reach your chest when bringing the platform back, you’ll end up losing your form and tension, which is why you should make sure the seat is adjusted for your height.

Going under the ideal range of motion

As you may have guessed, going under the ideal range of motion is the opposite, so not extending or contracting all the way. Doing this will prevent your muscles from fully engaging in the movement, and you won’t experience the burn of the weight - which is the whole point of the leg press machine!

Ideally, you should contract your legs until you’re forming a 90-degree angle (or slightly narrower) between your thighs and your calves, so the targeted muscles stay engaged and can push through without struggling.

Pushing through your hands

This one sounds like it’s not possible, but it is! Leg press machines usually come with handles for your hands that you can grab to prevent your upper body from sliding or moving out of place. 

That said, during the pressing portion of the exercise, a lot of people tend to grab the handles so strongly that they end up pushing the weight through their hands. Of course, doing this isn’t ideal at all because you want to make your legs work against the weight, not your upper body. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use the handles, just pay attention to your hands when you’re pressing to make sure they’re not helping your legs to push the platform.

Lifting your body off the seat

One key aspect of good leg pressing form is keeping your back flat on the cushioned backrest at all times - but that doesn’t go just for the back!

When you’re on the contracting part of the movement, there’s a chance that you’ll lift your butt off the seat to compensate. But don’t do this! Make sure to keep your whole spine flat on the backrest and only go as far as your legs can without compromising this form and placing an unnecessary strain on your lower back.

Another mistake that people make is looking at their legs the whole time, lifting their heads in the process. You can look for the first couple of reps to make sure you have the proper form, but after that lay your head down and concentrate on just moving your legs. By lifting your head, you’ll put unnecessary tension on your neck and your spine will be compromised, preventing you from exerting max force when pressing.

Leg press variations that you can try

Just like every other strength training exercise, the leg press has variations that you can add to your workouts! You can target different muscles or make the movement more challenging just by changing a few things.

Here are three of our favorite leg press variations:

Banded leg press

This variation of the leg press incorporates a resistance band to the exercise, but surprisingly it’s not for your legs - it’s for the machine!

Grab a long resistance band and loop it around the weight pegs and the side of your seat to increase the tension of the weighted platform without actually increasing the weight. This is great to enhance concentric strength, and it helps make the top of the movement more difficult since the band will be stretched out and resisting the press.

Low stance leg press

You now know that the correct foot placement for the standard leg press is at the center of the platform, but you can actually move your feet and place them differently depending on which muscles you want to target.

In the low stance leg press, your foot position will be low on the platform, with your heels almost at the edge. This stance will emphasize your quads more than the standard leg press, and it works as a great substitute for squats since presses and squats are similar. That said, if you have knee problems you might want to skip this variation since it puts more tension on your knees.

Wide stance leg press

You can also narrow or widen your stance according to which muscles you want to emphasize. For the wide stance leg press, the muscles targeted will be your inner thigh muscles, known as the adductors.

To do it, place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart at the center of the platform, similar to the sumo squat stance. This is a great variation of the leg press because it targets an often forgotten area of your legs, so it will definitely help you have a more complete leg workout!

And there you go! There are more leg press variations that you can try, such as the single-leg press, narrow stance, or placing your feet higher on the platform, so feel free to get creative on your lower-body days to get the most out of the leg press machine. And remember to avoid those common mistakes that we talked about!

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