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Whether you love them or hate them, leg workouts are a core part of strength training. Building strong legs is essential for balance, speed, and agility, not to mention aesthetics. However, leg day training can be challenging, and having access to the right equipment can make a big difference when it comes to being able to reach your workout goals.
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Many machines can be used to target the legs, each with their own benefits. When selecting machines for leg workouts, it’s important to consider factors such as the muscle group being worked on and your ability.
In this article we’ll take a look at some of the more common machines (and not so common) that you incorporate into your leg workout.
What Are the Main Muscles of the Legs?
There are many muscles, both large and small, that make up the entire musculature of the leg. However, the main muscles responsible for movement of the lower body are the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the gluteal muscles, and the calves.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
The quadriceps are a muscle group located anteriorly (front of the leg) and comprise of four sub-components, hence the name quad. These smaller muscles are the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis.
The rectus femoris helps to flex the hip joint, while the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis help to extend the knee joint. The vastus intermedius helps stabilize the knee joint during movement.
Strengthening the quadriceps is essential for a balanced and injury-free workout. Various exercises, such as squats and lunges, can target the quadriceps helping to build strength and endurance.
The hamstring is part of the posterior chain group of muscles and is located to the back of the upper leg. This large and powerful muscle is responsible for extending the hip, bending the knee, and helping keep the body balanced whilst walking, running, and moving.
Strengthening the hamstrings will aid with balance and stability and lower the risk of injury. Exercises such as Romanian deadlifts, lying leg curls or the good morning exercise will effectively activate the hamstrings.
The gluteal muscles are the largest in the human body and comprise of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. These muscles are responsible for hip extension as well as assisting with internal and external rotation of the leg at the hip joint.
Unfortunately, because we spend so much time sitting, our glutes are often weak and underdeveloped. Over time, this may result in low back pain, stiff hip flexors, and poor posture.
However, activating the gluteal muscles can be achieved by performing numerous exercises including the glute bridge, barbell squat, glute kickbacks and hip thrusts.
Calves are an essential muscle group and can often be neglected during strength training. They comprise of two smaller muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
They may be small, but they are vitally important as they aid with overall balance and plantarflexing the ankle and flexing the knee.
Various exercises will allow for isolation of the calf muscles including the donkey calf raise and the standard calf raise. Additionally, you can incorporate compound movements such as the farmers walk exercise, which will also fire up the calf muscles.
10 Best Machines For Leg Workouts
- Leg Press Machine
- Belt Squat
- V Squat
- Glute Ham Developer
- Hack Squat Machine
- Smith Machine
- Leg Curl Machine
- Leg Extension Machine
- Hip Adduction Machine
- Calf Raise Machine
Leg Press Machine
The leg press is likely the most common leg machine in a commercial gym. However, there are different types of leg press machines, and these are the vertical leg press, the horizontal leg press and 45 degree leg press. Each allow the user to push the weight load at different angles whether that’s vertically, horizontally or at 45 degrees.
The most common variation is the 45-degree leg press which is a plate loaded machine suitable for both beginners and advanced gym goers. Second to that would be the horizontal leg press machine, you tend to find these in commercial chain gyms as they are the safest to use and typically incorporate a weight stack to increase the resistance.
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The least common is the vertical leg press. Whilst these include safety bars to catch a failed lift, they can be quite daunting for many people given the weight load is directly above the user’s head. You’re more likely to find a vertical leg press in a bodybuilding gym.
Any variation of a leg press can activate several lower body muscles. Depending on your foot position on the footplate, you can work the quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and calf muscles to varying degrees, making this is a very versatile machine.
Belt Squat Machine
The belt squat machine allows a user to replicate a standard barbell back squat whilst reducing stress to the spine and correcting their squat form. As squatting is a technically challenging exercise that works many major muscle groups, this makes the belt squat machine a great option for beginners or those looking to improve their squat technique.
It’s available in two different variations, both of which are plate loadable machines. The first is manufactured with a pivot system and the second with a cable system. The pivot system belt squat keeps the weight load positioned either side of the user’s hips making it a true representation of a traditional squat. The only difference being is that there is no weight load across the upper back, therefore reducing spinal load.
The cable system belt squat, however, has the weight load positioned directly in front of the user. The major drawback to this variation is that it’s less like that of a regular squat.
The primary muscles activated when using a belt squat machine are the hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps. They can also help to improve hip and ankle mobility.
V Squat Machine
The V squat machine allows the user to perform a squat variation activating several muscles of the lower leg. It provides support to the upper body meaning there is little weight load placed on the spine. If you want to squat with heavy weights but suffer from low back pain, this could be a good alternative.
The machine works by rotating around a pivot point. This means there is a better range of motion during the squat when compared to using something such as a hack squat machine, which is fixed and runs up and down on rails. It targets multiple leg muscles specifically the quads. Some machines even allow the user to perform front squats, back squats and even shoulder presses.
Glute Ham Developer
A glute ham developer, sometimes called the glute ham raise or simply GHD, is one of the best machines for isolating several posterior chain muscles. However, it’s also challenging to use with good form. It tends to be favored by athletes such as powerlifters who find that it offers good carry over to exercises such as the barbell squat.
As its name suggests, it isolates the glutes and hamstrings whilst helping to strengthen the lower back. Whilst the glute ham developer is less common in big box and chain gyms, you’ll likely get access to one in gyms that focus on specific strength sports such as powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine allows the user to perform a squat variation whilst providing full support to the upper body. If you have any pre-existing shoulder or back problems, this could be a good choice. The machine works by way of a sled which runs up and down on rails following a fixed movement pattern. Whilst this does limit the range of motion somewhat, it can still be a great way of squatting, especially if you want to keep any stress away from your upper body.
The primary muscle activated during the hack squat are the quadriceps, adductors, and glutes. As far as leg machines go, the hack squat is one of the more common machines due to it being safer to use and therefore minimising the chance of injury.
Whilst not an exclusive leg machine, the smith machine is a great option for leg workouts, as it allows for a wide range of motion and, depending on which exercise you perform, you can target many different muscles.
The smith machine is essentially a rack with a fixed horizonal barbell. The barbell follows a predetermined vertical movement pattern making it a great choice for those new to strength training. Due to the safety aspects of a smith machine, it’s found in many gyms.
The smith machine is very versatile, and you can perform many exercises including the squat, deadlift and lunges. However, it’s not just for lower body workouts, if you incorporate a weight bench you can also undertake chest pressing and shoulder pressing.
Leg Curl Machine
The leg curl machine allows for isolation of the hamstrings by flexing at the knee and pushing the lower leg towards the hamstrings against resistance. Secondary muscles activated are the gastrocnemius, which is the main calf muscle.
There are three variations of the leg curl machine: the lying leg curl, the seated leg curl and the standing leg curl. Each of these places the hamstrings in a different position and have varying degrees of hip flexion.
The lying leg curl, sometimes called the prone leg curl, involves supporting the upper body (chest down) whilst allowing for a greater force of knee flexion whilst reducing stress to the lumbar spine. Hip flexion is at approximately 30 degrees meaning the hamstrings are in a lengthened position.
The seated leg curl supports the upper body by way of resting your back against the back rest so you isolate the hamstrings from a seated position. Your hips are at an angle of approximately 90 degrees providing better support to the pelvis.
Interestingly, studies have shown similar strength gains between the lying leg curl and seated variation but an increase to muscle hypertrophy when using the seated leg curl. This means, if you want to focus on muscle mass, the seated leg curl is your best option.
The standing leg curl machine is a good choice if you want to train each leg independently from the other. Whilst, this can be done on the other two variations, the standing leg curl is specifically designed for unilateral training making it a little easier for range of motion.
Leg Extension Machine
The leg extension machine specifically targets the quadriceps by loading this muscle in its shortened position. It’s found in most gyms as it’s safe to use for both beginners and advanced members.
From a seated position you would extend the knees raising up the ankle rollers. An important thing to remember with this exercise is not to go too fast as this can reduce tension to the quads and potentially cause an injury. Secondly, avoid locking out at the knees, especially when lifting heavy loads, as this can put significant pressure on the knee joints.
Hip Adduction Machine
The hip adduction machine tends to be a dual-purpose machine that works both the adductors (inner thighs) or abductors (outer thighs). Whilst not designed for increasing muscle mass, it can help to strengthen these smaller muscle groups and improve stability and mobility to the hip joints.
It’s popular amongst females who tend to use this machine to focus on glute activation. However, there are several better machines suited for this purpose.
Calf Raise Machine
The calf raise machine isolates both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles whilst working the Achilles tendon. It’s important not to neglect your calf muscles as they play an important role in providing stability to the ankle joints and overall balance.
There are two types of calf raise machine; the standing calf raise and the seated calf raise. The standing calf raise is a better machine to activate the gastrocnemius, the largest calf muscle which sits just under the skin. This is because this muscle attaches to the knee joint and therefore needs to be a in straightened position for effective isolation.
On the other hand, the seated variation is better for targeting the soleus muscle. This is the smaller of the calf muscles which sits under the gastrocnemius and spans down to the Achilles tendon. To isolate the soleus your knees should be in a bent position.
This does mean that for an effective calf workout, you should incorporate both seated and standing calf raises for muscular and strength development.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which Movement Is Better, Leg Machines Or Squats?
Leg machines often isolate just one muscle group, but squats work for numerous muscle groups across the entire body. Squats require coordination and balance and can help build strength and power. On the other hand, leg machines can be beneficial if you are just starting with strength training and need to learn proper form and technique.
Leg machines can also be more helpful in targeting specific muscles and can help reduce the risk of injury.
Often, leg machines can be complementary to barbell squatting, especially if you perform heavy weight squats and use the leg machines for high reps and lower weights.
How Many Reps Should I Do On Leg Machines?
Depending on your objectives, you should look to vary the number of repetitions performed on a leg machine. If you are looking to increase muscle strength and size, then it is recommended that you perform between 8-12 reps with a heavier weight and slower tempo.
However, if you are looking to increase muscular endurance, then it is recommended that you perform between 15-20 reps with a lighter weight.
Are Gym Machines Better For Injuries?
Depending on the extent and location of an injury, machines can be a better choice when compared to performing free weight exercises. This is because, many machines typically follow a fixed plane of motion therefore providing stability and limiting stress to the joints.
However, if you do have any pre-existing injuries, always consult a personal trainer or equivalent before commencing with a new training program
Regularly training the legs can offer tremendous benefits to the entire body and therefore good carry over to daily activities whether that’s walking or climbing the stairs.
A comprehensive leg workout should ideally comprise of both free weight and machine-based exercises. However, always take into consideration your fitness goals and abilities first. Some of the machines listed above are easier to use than others, and it also depends on what you have access to in your local gym.