The squat and leg press are both classic exercises for leg strength and size. But what are the differences between them? And which is best for YOU? In this squat vs leg press article, we’re going to answer exactly those questions. In fact, we’ll look at:
- What’s The Difference Between Leg Press And Squat?
- Leg Press vs. Squat: Muscles Used
- Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons
- Squats Vs Leg Press: Which Exercise Is Best For YOU?
- Squat vs Leg Press Frequently Asked Questions
- Can you squat as much as you leg press?
- How much should I leg press compared to squat?
- Why can I leg press more than squat?
- Are squats harder than leg press?
- Why is the leg press bad for you?
- Squats vs Leg Press for Glutes?
- Squats Vs Leg Press: Which makes you stronger?
- Does Leg Press Help Squats?
- Squats Vs Leg Press: Do I Need to Do Both?
- Next Steps
- References / Further Reading
Let’s jump straight in.
What’s The Difference Between Leg Press And Squat?
The main difference between the leg press and squat is the overall set-up and biomechanics of the lifts, for example:
- The leg press uses a completely different position than the squat. In the squat, you start standing, whereas in the leg press you’re seated, pushing either forwards, upwards or some 45-degree combination of the two.
- Linked to the first point, the leg press seated position 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: Muscles Used
The leg press and squat both use your quads and glutes, with some support and assistance from your hamstrings, calves and adductors. With that said, there are some key differences to consider.
Quads: Both the leg press and the squat use the quads as the prime mover.
BUT, foot placement in the leg press is very important, as bringing your feet too high in the leg press can shift focus away from the quads and more onto the glutes. Here’s a video of the leg press done properly:
Glutes: Your glutes are used is both the leg press and the squat, although arguably slightly more in the squat than the leg press.
Hamstrings: Neither the leg press or squat is a great way to develop your hamstrings, but of the two, squats have been shown to activate them slightly more (especially low bar squats and box squats)
Spinal Erectors: Squats use these muscles to maintain a rigid torso and assist with extension, whereas they are not really activated all that much in the leg press.
Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons
Squats vs leg press have some unique pros and cons, which will help you to decide which is best for your training.
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 an excellent 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 leg presses far better for high-rep bodybuilding style work than squats.
Reduced Spinal Loading and No Shoulder Loading:
Leg presses remove load from your spine and shoulders, making them a far better choice than squats if you’re 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.
That’s a BIG difference between leg press and squat.
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 squat 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. This makes the squat harder and more technical vs. the leg press.
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. So in the battle of squats vs leg press for fatigue management, the leg press wins.
Squats Vs Leg Press: Which Exercise Is Best For YOU?
Whether you use the squat vs the leg press is mainly about your training goals.
Squats vs leg press for powerlifting:
Since squats are one of your big 3 competition lifts, they should form the bulk of your training, and leg press is completely optional.
Squats vs leg press for hypertrophy or bodybuilding:
For gaining muscle size squats or leg press can be a fantastic option. Both exercises allow plenty of loading, a good controlled eccentric and a deep stretch under load.
Squats vs leg press for weightlifting:
If you’re an olympic weightlifter, barbell back squats and front squats will have the best carryover to your snatch and clean, so these should be your main choice instead of leg press.
Squats vs Leg Press if You’re Injured:
If you’re dealing with a back injury then the lower axial loading in the leg press may be a better choice. Similarly, if you’re dealing with a shoulder injury the leg press may be a better choice than the squat, as you won’t have to involve your shoulders or arms.
Squat vs 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?
There’s no such thing as a ‘squat to leg press conversion’ or a ‘leg press to squat conversion,’ so it’s hard to say what you should 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, but that’s not the case.
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 also be a stronger leg presser. But there are no direct calculations or formulas we can use to predict exact strength levels.
Why can I leg press more than squat?
You can leg press more than you squat because the leg press seated position provides far more stability. The weight being loaded on your feet also reduces axial (spinal) loading, making the leg press less fatiguing than the squat.
Are squats harder than leg press?
Yes, squats are harder than leg press. 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?
The leg press is not actually bad for you. 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?
The squat and leg press make you stronger in different ways because 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.”
Does Leg Press Help Squats?
Yes, the leg press does help your squats. leg presses can be sued to build general leg strength as well as size, making them a decent choice of assistance exercise.
Squats Vs Leg Press: Do I Need to Do Both?
You don’t need to do both squats and leg presses since both exercises train a similar movement pattern and similar muscle groups. Which one you use mainly depends on your goals and equipment availability
1) Try implementing the squat or leg press into your weekly training, or consider having me write you a custom programme.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
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
Wirth, K., Hartmann, H., Sander, A., Mickel, C., Szilvas, E., & Keiner, M. (2016). The Impact of Back Squat and Leg-Press Exercises on Maximal Strength and Speed-Strength Parameters. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 30(5), 1205–1212. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001228