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The Truth About The Leg Press And Why Squats Are Superior Exercise For Leg Strength

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 29 June 2016
Hits: 8297

When it comes to choosing the "best" exercise for building strong leg muscles one of the first exercises brought up is the leg press. Yet when you analyze this movement closely and actually see what it does to your body, you will find it close to last on your list of leg exercises, along with a few of it's buddies the leg extension and leg curl. True strength is more than just muscle size and it is definitely never created from training with machines. When it comes to rehabilitation after a knee injury it seems logical to find a safe way to train and get your muscles back by using machines like the leg press. Most people would regard rebuilding strength and muscles as the number one priority, and completed at the expense of balance, stability, coordination and even how you move! Even the sports world who rely on skills are corrupted with this logic. I cannot tell you how many times I have started training with a new client who tells me how strong their legs are and that they can push 300--400kg on a leg press, yet when I test them for functional movements such as Squats, Lunges or a single leg stance they can barely lift their own bodyweight! This article we are going to look closely at the leg press and show you why squats are superior to this exercise in so many ways.

What Abilities Does Each Exercise Require?

Now before we jump right in to the specifics of the two exercises I have provided you with a very simple info-graphic to help you visualize what we are about to explain.

It is important to look at any exercise in this way as your goal with any program is:

"To teach your body how to become smarter and rise to a new level of movement skill, with your ultimate goal to be able to master every form of movement enough times that it becomes automatic!".

Watch the video below about this concept or read the articles below on these topics for detailed explanations.

Both exercises use a similar movement pattern which we would classify as a "Squat" however the timing is completely different which is extremely important when trying to transfer to real life movement.

There is actually 8 different movement abilities we use in real life with many ball sports like basketball or football needing ALL of these at an extremely high level. To see what each of these 8 Bio Motor Abilities are in sports read our article "The 8 Must Haves For Sports". When our exercise program does not utilize or try to enhance these skills is when problems or poor performance arise.

What we are going to do is give both exercises a rating out of 10 for various skills and abilities. 1 = poor, 10= excellent.

The Squat

  1. Strength = 9/10
  2. Balance  = 6/10
  3. Spinal Stability - 9/10
  4. Flexibility = 7/10
  5. Coordination Skill & complexity = 8/10

The Leg Press

  1. Strength = 9/10
  2. Balance= 0.5/10
  3. Spinal Stability = 1/10
  4. Flexibility = 3/10
  5. Coordination, Skill & complexity = 3/10

As you can see here the major difference with the two exercises is in BALANCE, SPINAL STABILITY & COORDINATION. Both can achieve a goal of lifting a large amount of weight. The leg press however sacrifices these skills just to lift more.

But my question to you is - "are you happy having less balance, spinal stability and coordination?"

Sure you can lift a lot more weight in total on the leg press, but I am now teaching my body I don't need to worry about how I can hold my body in an upright position with good posture and everything working together as an integrated unit. The machine can do it for me!

With regards to flexibility you do actually need significant some hip / hamstring flexibility for the leg press to perform the movement with a deep range and be able to keep a neutral (“safe”) curve in your lower back. This is where many people create a herniated disc or disc bulge injury which is a severe injury.  I have seen this happen in a large gym several times as guys try to push incredible weights with a poor posture. With the squat, you would not even be able to get into these dangerous positions as the bar would crush your back. Not only do you require the flexibility of the hips / hamstrings to keep your neutral curve in your lower back, but calf flexibility to keep your ankles mobile to allow you to squat a deep range without leaning forward, shoulder flexibility to keep your body upright (through a barbell squat), and a mobilized thoracic spine (middle back) to keep your posture upright performing the movement.

As for coordination skills & complexity with the leg press, you only need to think about bending the knees and pushing them up in a fixed position. The back rest on the machine does all the rest for you!

With the squat there is many moving pieces that require a great degree of concentration and control.

You require not only the knees, but the correct hip movement mechanics, have an upright posture, more balance and flexibility (as mentioned) which also makes it more complex to perform. There is so many more moving parts that must be correctly timed and sequenced in order for the exercise to be completed correctly. Whereas the leg press requires zero skill.

This is where the ILLUSION OF STRENGTH is created with machines. People think they are strong, but in reality they are big muscles with no idea of how to move.

How Do These Exercises Relate To Real Life Movement?

The Squat is very important movement to get right as it mimics sitting down, jumping and many everyday life movements you need in order to live! And it is for this reason the squat is superior to any form of isolation or machine training is because the relative timing (rate at which body segments move relative to one another) is similar. This means that when you improve squat strength, you are developing strength in a sequence that the brain can immediately apply to similar movements, such as jumping, because it shares a similar relative timing sequence.

See videos below of how a squat is so similar to the jumping movements.

As we have just discussed, movement and use of skills is more important than just strength alone. Leg press, as with it's cousin the bench press, DO NOT relate to real life movement. (see article on Bench Press) Rarely would you need to lie on your back to move something heavy with either your arms or legs! Pushing objects away from you with your arms is often used, but with your legs it is rarely needed in the real world. This is what is known as Closed chain VS Open chain movement. This is important to understand for this is where the timing and skill is created. Most of the time we use our legs to push the ground away from us. The ground is an immovable object and the resistance is our body.

Squats, Lunges, Step Ups and Deadlifts all share this timing and these movements closely mimic sports movements and even daily activities around the home. The deadlift is a perfect example of where it is essential to learn how to control correct postural position to prevent serious injury to your back. You cannot lift more weight off the floor if you have any mistakes here or you will most likely suffer a bulging disc! The leg press would give someone the illusion they are strong enough to lift a big weight, yet they have never prepared their body for this movement and their core, posture are not able to handle the load, so all that happens is....... You guessed it!

The Leg press violates this rule by making your body the immovable object and the load is now the moving part. This is a disaster if you have muscle imbalance, an injury or even if you are looking to take your sport to the next level. You are now corrupting your body's complex computer system with bad information. This disrupted timing gives a false sense of strength. Remember I said at the beginning how many people tell me they can lift huge weight on a leg press but can hardly do a lunge or squat. Well this is why.

Is The Leg Press Safer?

This is a good question, and one that always is thrown at me first. For if the squat requires so much skill and let's say you are an older adult with no gym experience, coordination, a lack of strength and a balance problem, then the squat would be risky, right? It seems logical that we would use the leg press to help build some muscle first and then over time teach them the squat, right?

It is not strength when sitting in a chair that this person lacks, but STABILITY standing up! To improve their coordination, balance and ultimately strength they must be trained in the very positions they cannot perform. We work everyday with clients suffering spinal cord injuries, car accident injuries, stroke and Multiple Sclerosis, and all wanting to be able to walk more efficiently. We cannot improve walking from training muscles lying on their back. But we can improve walking by exposing them to strategies of reflex stability and movement with single leg stance. We have proven for many years, as have many therapists that strength is improved remarkably fast if you train the nervous system. This increases their strength faster than any other method.

Read our article 6 Ways To Improve Your Walking Ability to see several examples of real clients where do this.

But unfortunately this is not usually what happens, and every day people are prescribed by trainers, and even so called experts like Exercise Physiologists and Physical Therapists to use machines in the belief it is safer. I would argue it is more dangerous, for you are teaching their body to become worse at the very things they need most - BALANCE, COORDINATION & MOVEMENT. How can an exercise that teaches you to ignore reflex stability, balance & coordination be able to improve these skills.

To improve balance you must learn how use balance exercises! I don't mean trying to balance on swissballs or balance boards but single leg stance or even lunges for some people are difficult.

It is an over reliance on strength, and the body building world's ability to corrupt and confuse even the smart therapists way of thinking that this exercise creeps into programs.

We must teach MOVEMENT first and this means you MUST LEARN HOW TO STABILIZE your body before you strengthen!

What If I Have A Knee Injury?

Again, the same rules apply. There is no point trying to strengthen something that does not have enough mobility or stability. In 90% of knee injuries there is a stability and movement problem that is causing a weakness, and in most cases it has nothing to do with the knee. Read our article on Why The Knee Is Rarely The Cause Of Knee Injuries to see what I mean by this. Just strengthening the weakness without addressing the instability and dysfunctional movement is going to set you up for more problems. You must ALWAYS improve mobility and stability prior to trying to strengthening muscles. If you skip these steps and go straight to strengthening you will pay a big price later on! This is what is known as the Success Formula and is the key to long term pain free movement.

The stability stage often involves learning movement patterns such as squats and lunges using regressed versions or tools to assist the learning stage. Far too often I see so many people coming in to see me about a rehab program for their knee after they have wasted a year or even longer using isolated exercises and a muscle approach to training. In nearly every case the leg press has been used at some point and in some cases all the way through their training. This is even more disappointing than the people using it to look good because anyone who truly understands rehabilitation would understand how important it is to re-establish sound movement patterns without compensation. You cannot achieve this on the Leg press, period!

If you do have a Knee Injury I encourage you to get a copy of our Weak VMO & Knee Pain Video & Ebook program.

What Is The Best Technique For Squats?

As this article is already quite lengthy I suggest checking out the articles with stacks of information about how to squat.

And below is two very quick videos you can watch to get ideas on what good form with a squat looks like.

Conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed this article and that you understand the importance of learning great movement over just strength. There really is no contest when it comes to comparing the Squat to a Leg Press.The brain controls everything, so it makes sense to go to exercises that tap into this, such as a squat, if you really want to make changes in your body. As we have proven to you today the leg press gives a false sense of strength and really does not prepare your body for the full requirements or demands of sports and even life activities. By becoming great at squats you can develop incredible strength and skill right up into your golden years and if you play sports it will make you an incredible athlete on the sporting field.

We also have a great Free Report you can download instantly by clicking here that you will find helpful and provide a lot more information regarding injury rehabilitation and learning how to move correctly.

For more specific Injuries and more detailed programs in video and as an ebook you can get an instant copy of our Knee Pain or Back Pain programs by going to our online shop

If you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our programs and schedule a Free Consultation fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours.