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The leg press is one of the best exercises you can undertake for building muscle mass and a great way to test your stamina. However, whether you are a beginner lifter or attend the gym regularly, it’s important to ensure you determine the ideal leg press weight before pressing and that the exercise is executed with good form to limit the risk of injury.
If you are new to the gym and not familiar with the leg press machine, it’s likely better to start with a light weight to determine your muscle strength before proceeding to add additional plates and increasing the weight load. In many instances the weight of the sled alone may be enough to begin with as it can weight upwards of 20kg itself.
The starting weight of a leg press (no plates added) will depend on a number of factors including the brand, how it was manufactured and the type of leg press machine you are using.
For example, if the machine is manufactured using thinner steel when compared to a different brand who has opted to use thicker steel, the weight of the sled could be vastly different. If you are unsure what this starting sled weight is, and it’s not stated on the machine, it would be worth asking a member of staff at the gym who may be able to find this out.
This article will explain in more detail about the leg press machine, how to use it and an ideal weight you may want to considering pressing depending upon your strength level.
What Is the Leg Press
The leg press is a resistance based exercise performed on a leg press machine that requires the user to push weight away from them using just their legs. It is classified as a compound exercise as it will activate different muscle groups during the movement.
A leg press exercise is primarily used to add muscle mass and increase strength to the quadriceps. However, it’s worth noting that by varying the position of the feet on the foot platform will allow the user to place more emphasis on different muscles, such as the adductors (inner thigh) and the glutes.
By incorporating leg press exercises into your leg training can play a huge role in helping you to grow your leg size and add strength.
Another point to note is that there are different types of leg press machines.
The vertical leg press machine is the least common, but most challenging, and you may not have access to one at your local gym. The vertical leg press involves lying down with your back resting against the pad, the foot plate is directly overhead so that you have to push the weight up and towards the ceiling. It is more difficult to use as you are required to push the weight against gravity.
The more common leg press machines are the 45 degree leg press and the horizontal leg press.
The horizontal leg press machine is the easiest to use and is typically manufactured with a weight stack. This means you would select the desired weight with a pin.
This is different to the 45 degree leg press and vertical press as both these variations are plate loaded so you would add weight plates on to the machine to increase the weight load. It tends to be the most common in a commercial gym as it is safer to use for the average person. However, when compared to the plate loaded leg press, it does have much less range of motion making it more limiting.
For an in depth guide to the different types of leg press; read our article What Are The Different Types Of Leg Press
Appropriate Weight to Use on Your Leg Press
When determining the most appropriate amount of weight you should leg press would depend on a number of factors including your ability, what your goals are and whether you are suffering from any aches and pains that you don’t wish to exacerbate.
If you are new to the gym and strength training, you’ll likely want to start with a light weight, starting with a leg press weight of about 50 to 75% of your total body weight is ideal. As mentioned above, factor in the weight of the sled itself as this may be heavier than you expect.
If you are using a plate loaded version, test the leg press out, without adding any plates. This way you’ll get a feel for the machine without risking any injuries by way of a failed lift. Typically, the weight of a leg press without weights can range anywhere from 20kg up to 60kg, as explained this will vary depending on the machine brand.
Don’t be afraid of increasing the weight load on the leg press machine. Whilst it can be daunting to use at first, your leg muscles are collectively very strong and you may surprise yourself with what you are capable of. That being said, it’s always a good idea to seek advice on how to use the machine from a personal trainer so you can get the most out of using it.
Even if you’re familiar with the leg press at your local gym, it’s worth remembering that all leg presses are different with some offering adjustable back supports and foot plates so you can want to be sure set up is correct to suit your body type and ability.
With regular use of the leg press, you’ll quickly notice strength gains meaning you can begin to increase the weight load. Be sure to always press with a weight that feels comfortable and doesn’t cause any sharp knee pain or discomfort in the joints or the lower back, if this happens drop back to a lower weight.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming heavy weights will mean more muscle gains.
In fact, when it comes to increasing muscle mass to the quadriceps, it has been shown that these muscles respond better to high volume training with a lighter weight. This is because the quads are made up of mostly type 2A muscle fibres. This means they are more powerful, when compared to type 2B muscle fibres, and fire up quickly under tension. However, type 2A muscle fibres do tire more quickly so rest days between leg training is very important for muscle recovery and allowing your legs to grow.
How to Properly Use the Leg Press
As with any exercise, good form is essential to maximise the benefits of your training and to keep injuries at bay. As stated above, try the machine out without loading any weight and get to grips with your form ensuring you don’t fall foul to common mistakes (listed below). Remember that the functionality may also differ between machines so make sure set up is done properly before you begin.
Irrespective of which type of leg press you use, they all offer the same objective in that they help to increase strength and size to your hamstrings with the primary focus being on the quadriceps. The primary difference between leg press machines is the angle that you are pressing the weight at. The vertical leg press will have you press the weight straight up, the 45 degree leg press involves pressing the weight both up and away from you, with the horizontal leg press allowing you to press the weight away from you parallel to the floor.
Once set up has been achieved on any of these machines, you would rest your back against the support, place your feet upon the foot plate with the most common position being dead centre around hip width apart. After unlocking the sled (functionality may differ depending on the machine), this releases the weight and allows you to lower the sled to your chest before applying resistance and pressing back up until your legs are straight (but not locked out at the knees).
As explained above, different foot placements will allow you to target different leg muscles. For example, by placing the feet high up on the foot plate will target more glutes and hamstrings and if positioned lower down will work more of the quads and calf muscles.
Tips For Using A Leg Press Machine
- Always begin by sitting on the machine and bending your knees to a comfortable position.
- Keep your feet on the leg press at a distance approximately one hip-width apart. This foot placement will keep your heels firmly planted on the machine and allow you to drive through your heels
- Keep your back and head against the pads throughout the exercise to avoid rounding of the lower back.
- Push the weight load through your heels to reduce stress on the knees.
- Always undertake reps with control and slowly.
Always remember to lower the footplate back into position slowly. Allowing it to come down too fast may result in your glutes lifting from the seat and rounding of your back. This could stress your lumbar discs if they need to bear too much force.
Another hint to help you during your sets is to keep your legs straight, but never lock out at the knees. Don’t allow the knees to flare outwards or inwards as this could result in injury.
Setting Up Your Leg Press Sets
Using the leg press is a great way to increase leg strength. However, remember that how you execute your sets and reps determines whether your leg develops muscular size or endurance. Therefore, establish your goals before commencing so you can best determine your workout progress. What effect do you want leg pressing to have on your lower body? Hence, with your goal in mind, you can tune your reps to work best for you.
As a beginner, you should aim to complete 10 – 12 reps. The number should be set low when compared to more experienced bodybuilders, but remember that you’re working on being comfortable first and perfecting your form. You can increase the weights in small increments after each set, depending on how relaxed your body is with the increase and that you can still keep good form. Keep it challenging but don’t lose form as this is counterproductive.
Common Mistakes People Make While Using Leg Press
When new to the leg press machine it’s not uncommon to make some mistakes. One of the primary reasons for mistakes is as a result of incorrect posture. You must remember while doing this routine that it is only effective if you do it correctly. Hence, below are a few common mistakes that are made during leg press routines and how you can avoid them.
Too Much Weight
Don’t be in a rush to lift heavy weight. Your body’s progress is your own and everyone will gain strength differently. Don’t compare yourself to someone who is probably on a different level than you. Be patient and consistent while using the leg press. Proper form is more essential than the weight load you intend to lift. Exercise needs to be done with complete control. Hence, you need to give your legs room to grow.
Glutes Lifting From The Seat
Another common mistake some leg press users make is to allow the carriage to lower so much that their glutes come away from the seat. If your buttocks are off the seat, your legs will be at a sharp angle and you will essentially be folded over. Don’t allow the weight load to come too close to your chest and also double check the adjustments of the seat if the problem persists.
Placing Hands on Knees
Placing hands on knees for support is another common mistake you will come across in leg press routines. Several people put their hands on their knees to support their legs while using the leg press. However, placing your hand on your knees will limit the effectiveness of the leg press. Instead of putting your hands on your knees, grab the assist handles and if you then struggle to press the carriage, reduce the weight load as it’s likely too heavy.
You have to focus on the position of your head if you want to be comfortable while working out. Your head should be steady and well-rested against the headrest. If your head keeps pushing forward, you’re using too much weight on the press and should therefore reduce the weight load.
Not breathing correctly is a common mistake when using the leg press. Do not forget to keep breathing while doing your reps. In short, try as much as possible to avoid holding your breath (more common than you may think). Focus on exhaling while pressing the weight up and inhaling whilst lowering the weight.
Benefits of a Leg Press
Quadriceps development is perhaps the most illustrious benefit of the leg press. However, it also has other benefits for those wishing to focus on leg development. Leg presses also help users develop hamstrings, glutes and calves.
Another benefit of the leg press is its versatility, as mentioned above switching up foot placement can help to focus on other areas of the legs without having to adjust the machine set up. Building strength in these leg muscles helps you overcome imbalances as overall leg development makes for more aesthetically pleasing legs and balanced strength.
Whilst the leg press may look similar to a barbell squat, it’s much less challenging with the core being taken out of the movement and more emphasis on the lower body whereas a front barbell squat is an overall body exercise that is much more technical and challenging to execute. A leg press also reduces spinal load when compared to that of a squat. That being said, if you want to focus on the development of just the leg muscles, regularly leg pressing can carry over nicely to squatting.
The leg press, whilst daunting to a new starter at the gym, is one of the best pieces of workout equipment to strengthen your legs. The leg press is essential to include in a proper lower limb workout because it strengthens several leg muscles at once. Your quadriceps are the primary targets of this exercise because they are the main muscles responsible for pressing the weight load.
A wide range of people can use this piece of equipment in the gym because you can add and reduce weights depending upon your ability. Remember to try out the machine first without adding any weights. This trial will help you familiarize yourself with the machine before you begin your sets. Skipping this can lead to avoidable injuries.