If you’ve been chasing the physique-changing benefits of leg day for a while, chances are, you will have heard of the leg press.
The leg press is an exercise usually performed with the help of a weighted machine. Using a leg press machine involves taking on a seated position and using your legs to push a stack of weights away from you before releasing in a controlled manner.
Leg press exercises are some of the most effective for building muscle and strength in almost all areas of the upper legs. The leg press targets multiple muscle groups, with the quadriceps as the primary focus. A leg press will also work your glutes and hamstrings.
With that being said, there are many reasons why using a leg press might not be a viable option for everyone.
Aside from the issue of accessibility, the leg press has been linked to a risk of physical injury. The danger with the leg press is that it puts a lot of pressure on your knee joints, especially given the temptation to lock the knees at full extension.
Thankfully, there are plenty of alternative exercises you can use as substitutes for the leg press: 9 of them, in fact!
In today’s article, we’ll be exploring the best 9 alternatives to the leg press, complete with guides, tips, and tricks for getting the most out of your leg day.
Please be aware that even though we describe many of these exercises as beneficial for the spine, you should always seek a professional medical opinion before adjusting your workout routine for back problems.
What to Look For in a Leg Press Alternative
Before we get into the exercises we have chosen as alternatives to the leg press, we should explain why and how we have chosen them.
This will help you to understand the theory behind substituting one exercise for another so that you can make these swaps for yourself in the future.
We’ve already touched on some of the muscle groups targeted by the leg press, but to reiterate, the leg press is designed to work the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. Your calves will also get a good workout from this exercise.
Most of the movement involved in the leg press comes from the hip and knee joints. As a result, your quads and glutes bear the brunt of the load. Meanwhile, the calves and hamstrings provide additional support.
Based on this information, ideal alternatives to the leg press should also target these muscle groups or as many of them as possible. The alternative exercises should primarily work the quads and glutes, with the hamstrings and calves acting in a supporting role, so to speak.
This next point is something that gets forgotten about all too often, but one of the key benefits of the leg press is actually the fact that it takes a lot of pressure off the spine during lifting.
The reason the leg press machine is so beneficial for the spine compared to some other weight-based exercises is that the machine requires users to sit at a reclined angle of roughly 45 degrees.
As a result, the spine does not take on any of the weight. Not only is this much safer for your spine, both in the short term and the long term, but it also means that you are working your muscles to the fullest extent because you’re not compensating by lifting with your back.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the leg press for safety reasons, the last thing you want to do is pick an exercise that shifts the strain from your knees to your spine. Therefore, any replacement you choose as an alternative should minimize spinal pressure.
Alternative Leg Press Exercises
We have used our knowledge from personal experience and research to compile the following selection of 9 alternative leg press exercises.
1. Front Squats
The front squat is one of the most basic weight-based squat exercises, but it shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of its effectiveness.
While a standard squat works all the same muscles as a leg press, with the additional benefit of strengthening the core, a squat performed with a front-oriented barbell puts extra weight on the quads, which is the primary muscle group targeted by the leg press.
If you’ve been using the leg press specifically to bulk up your quads, the front squat could be the best alternative for you.
- Start with your barbell resting in the weights rack parallel to your shoulders.
- Using your shoulder width plus a couple of inches as a guide, position your hands on the bar.
- Next, push downwards with your elbows before pushing upwards to prop the bar against your shoulders.
- Straighten your legs and back until you are standing upright with the bar fully lifted from the rack.
- At this point, make sure that your stance is correct. Move your feet so that they are just over shoulder-width apart, if they aren’t already, and ensure that your center of gravity is balanced.
- When you feel ready, drop into your first squat. Make sure to control your descent, getting as low as you can while maintaining proper form.
- To complete your first front squat, push yourself back up into a standing position.
- The front squat can feel uncomfortable on the wrists, especially when you’re just starting out, because the holding position demands a good deal of extension in this area. You can mitigate this by just gripping the bar with the ends of your fingers rather than curling your fingers fully around the bar. Wearing wrist wraps may also help to ease discomfort.
- Remember to engage your core. When using the front squat as an alternative to the leg press, it’s easy to forget that the squat also relies on the core muscles. To ensure that you aren’t lifting from your back and that you can enjoy the core benefits of the front squat, engage your abdominal muscles throughout.
2. Back Squats
The back squat is related to the front squat in the sense that it involves squatting with the added weight of a barbell. However, with the back squat, the barbell is positioned at the back of your shoulders rather than at the front.
Back squats will work the same muscle groups as the front squat, but because the back squat requires you to angle your body slightly forward to compensate for the positioning of the weight, it engages the abdominal and torso muscles even more than the front squat.
If you have been looking for an exercise that will really tone up your torso in addition to your quads and clutches, the back squat might suit you perfectly.
However, be aware that the forward-leaning angle puts more pressure on the spine than the leg press does. When performed correctly and in moderation, this exercise should not create any spinal issues, but if you’re suffering from a pre-existing spinal injury, you might want to sit this one out.
- Start this exercise in the same way as you would begin a front squat by positioning your barbell parallel to your shoulders in a weights rack.
- Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width on the bar.
- Now, instead of lifting with your elbows straight away, bend down and dip your head and shoulders underneath the bar so that it’s resting on the back of your shoulders.
- Brace your core and stand up with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees to begin your descent, making sure that you’re flexing forward at the hips at the same time to keep your center of gravity central.
- When you have lowered yourself as far as you can, push back up to a standing stance.
- When you’re leaning forward to balance the weight of the barbell, make sure that you keep your chest pointed upwards and outwards. This will prevent your upper spine from flexing and will also ensure that you can breathe properly throughout your exercise.
3. Hack Squats
The hack squat is probably the closest alternative you will find to replace the leg press.
Hack squats are also performed using a machine, but unlike the leg press, the foot platform on the hack squat machine remains stable.
By holding onto the handles of the upper part of the machine and flexing the knees to maneuver up and down, the hack squat machine mimics the movement of a weighted squat. It also works the same muscle groups, not only targeting the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves but also focusing on the core muscles.
Unlike the back squat, you don’t need to tilt your torso forward because the machine will not allow you to become unbalanced. However, this is another exercise that we wouldn’t recommend to people with existing back problems because the weight on your shoulders creates more strain on your spine.
- Once you have located and loaded your machine with the correct weight, you can go ahead and position your feet at shoulder-width on the platform.
- Get the shoulder pads comfortably resting on your shoulders and take hold of the handles. You might have to maneuver them in a particular way to disengage the safety lock on the machine as you move into a standing position.
- Flex your knees to drop into a squat, making sure to use controlled motions.
- When you’re ready, simply drive back up to your standing stance.
- Try to keep your knees at a 90-degree angle during the squat so that your knees are hovering over your toes. While it’s not typically dangerous to have your knees protruding further forward, it can lead to problems if you overload the weights. Therefore, try to keep your knees at 90 degrees and your weight load manageable.
4. Banded Squats
We realize that the exercises we’ve shown you so far all involve the use of a barbell or a machine. If you’re struggling to find alternatives to the leg press because you don’t have the budget for, or access to, weighted equipment, the above exercises may not help you too much.
However, you can also perform squats with the help of a simple resistance band and achieve excellent results for your quads and glutes.
- If you don’t already have a resistance band, get yourself one! You can find some high-quality resistance bands for very affordable prices. If you’re used to working with a leg press, a heavy band will probably be most appropriate for your level. If you’re newer to these exercises, a light or medium band will probably work best. Make sure that the band you choose is a looped band.
- Position your feet just over shoulder-width apart on the loop of the band and adopt your squat stance.
- Next, loop the remaining length of the band over your shoulders. Use your hands to stop the band from slipping out of position.
- Stand up from your squat. You should feel the pull in your hamstrings and glutes from the resistance band.
- Make sure that you can feel the tension from the resistance band as you stand up. If you can’t, your resistance band is either too long or too low in terms of resistance.
Another exercise that requires a machine and can be used as an alternative to the leg press is the V-squat.
The V-squat is very similar to the hack squat. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, a V-squat is performed in an upright position, whereas the hack squat machine encourages a recline.
So, you’re working all the same muscles as the hack squat and free-weight squats, but you do have to lean forward at the hips as you would with a back squat.
- As you would for a hack squat routine, start by placing your feet on the platform and lining your shoulders up with the pads.
- Grab the handles and push upwards to adopt a standing position. Doing so should also disengage the safety lock.
- Drop back down into your squat, flexing both your knees and hips.
- Finish off your first rep by driving back up through the floor to stand.
- As with the back squat, you’ll be leaning forward slightly at the hips during the V-squat, so remember to keep your chest open to facilitate your breathing and prevent spinal loading.
6. Belted Squats
If you want to physically challenge yourself while also taking a load off your spine, belted squats make a great alternative to the leg press.
Belted squats are performed using a belt squat machine and a weighted dip belt to encourage proper, controlled squats while targeting the quads and hamstrings.
This is an exercise we would definitely recommend to anyone looking to build strength despite back pain because it really minimizes stress on your spine.
- Secure your belt around your hips and attach the appropriate number of weight plates from the machine.
- Adopt your squat position with the usual foot width and grip the support rails.
- Lower yourself into your squat, making an extra effort to exercise muscle control on your descent because of the weight on your hips.
- When you feel ready, drive back up and repeat.
- Be careful not to overload your belt with more weight than you can handle. Using too much weight will make it difficult for you to squat in a controlled way and may compromise the benefits of this exercise for your spine.
- Always consult your doctor before trying out a new exercise if you suffer from back pain or other spinal issues.
7. Bulgarian Splits
The Bulgarian split squat is an interesting exercise that allows you to focus on one leg at a time while replicating the muscular engagement of squats and leg press workouts.
The trouble with squats is that it’s easy to inadvertently work one leg over the other due to positional issues. With Bulgarian split squats, you can give each leg your undivided attention as you work the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves.
- Position a bench or some type of support block behind you and stand on one leg with the other leg extended behind you, toes resting on the block.
- Bend your supporting knee. You should now be in a position that looks like a lunge, except that your back foot is still propped up, so only your back knee and front foot are touching the floor.
- Drive back up to adopt your starting position, then rinse and repeat.
- Experiment with the positioning of your front foot relative to your bench or support squat. Getting closer in proximity to the bench will work your quads even harder, but don’t get too close, or you’ll feel cramped. Similarly, try not to get too far away from the bench because you’ll end up compromising the depth of your squats.
8. Sissy Squats
We’re not big fans of the name of this exercise because its implications are very misleading, but nonetheless, it’s a highly effective squat exercise to use as an alternative to the leg press.
This is a demanding squat variation that essentially involves leaning backward while squatting on the balls of your toes. The exercise isolates your quats for a really intense workout while also targeting the hamstrings and glutes.
- Start in your regular pre-squat stance with your feet spaced apart to either side of your shoulders.
- Lower down into the squat, pushing your knees forward as you do so.
- While you’re lowering yourself to the ground, you will also need to lean back, activating your hip flexors.
- When you reach your maximum depth, you should be on the balls of your feet with your heels raised and your torso reclined to about 45 degrees.
- Make sure to hold onto something for support if you feel unbalanced while doing your squats. This will need to be something that won’t fall over if you do, so try to choose something that’s built into the floor if possible.
9. Specialty Bar Squats
The specialty bar squat, also known as the safety bar squat, makes an ideal replacement for leg press workouts.
A specialty or safety bar is a substitute for a barbell that features handles and shoulder pads to ensure secure and comfortable placement. It encourages roughly the same stance as the front squat, engaging the quads, hamstrings, and glutes as well as the core.
If you have any pain in your back or knees, the specialty bar squat is a great way to take the strain off these parts of your body and ensure that your workout is focused entirely on your lower body and your core muscles.
- The start of setting yourself up for a specialty bar squat is similar to what you would do leading up to a back squat, even though the form more closely resembles that of the front squat.
- Once you’ve positioned your safety bar in the rack at the right height to match your shoulders, bend down and duck underneath the bar so that the pads make contact with your shoulders.
- Holding onto the handlebars, lift the bar from the rack and make sure that your feet are in the correct stance before dropping into the squat.
- Get as far down as you can without leaning too far forward, and then bring yourself back up.
- If possible, try not to lean forward while completing the safety bar squat. It might feel intuitive to do so because the positioning of the bar is similar to that of the barbell for the back squat. However, the safety bar is designed to push the weight forward on your shoulders even though the back of the shoulder pad rests behind your shoulders. This means that leaning forward is likely to throw off your stance.
In this article, we have covered a wide variety of potential alternative exercises to replace the leg press in your leg day workouts.
Some of the squat variations we’ve mentioned typically require the use of a machine, although many others can be performed at home with very minimal equipment.
If you like the look of an exercise that normally uses a machine, but you don’t have access to one, don’t worry. You can often adapt a machine-based squat to work without a machine with a few tweaks, such as incorporating a resistance band.
Remember: to effectively replace the leg press in your workout routine, you should make sure that the key muscle groups worked by the leg press are also targeted in your alternative exercise.
Accurately replicating the motions of the leg press will involve targeting your quadriceps and glutes as the top priority. Ideally, the calves and hamstrings should get a good workout, too. Some of the exercises we’ve touched on are also great for core strength, so if this is an area you’d like to work on, you have plenty to choose from.
Something else to think about is the strain (or lack thereof) on your spine as you are working out. The leg press involves very minimal spinal stress, so make sure that your chosen replacement is also good for your back.
If you have any pre-existing pain or injuries related to your back, please consult a medical professional before trying any of the above exercises as a leg press alternative.