Squats vs Leg Press

Written by the Boostcamp staff
Feb 15,2024|13 min| 4146

The Ultimate Battle: Squats vs Leg Press for Muscle Growth

Which exercise is better for building leg muscles: squats or leg press?

Both the classic barbell squats and leg presses exercises are effective for building size and strength in the leg muscles, but squats are generally considered the better option whether you are powerlifting or bodybuilding or even just casually lifting, a workout program will tend to favor the squat over the leg press. Squats engage multiple muscle groups, including the core, while leg press primarily targets the legs by themselves. Squats also promote better balance and overall strength development, but which one really is the king of leg exercises?

Let's break down the debate between squats and leg presses to see who comes out on top. So, throw on your lifting belt and let's dive in.

The Battle for the Best Leg Builder

If you're a fitness enthusiast in search of the ultimate leg workout, you've likely pondered the age-old question, what is the best leg exercise? There are plenty of leg exercises that can help you grow and progress strength wise; Romanian deadlifts, lunges, hack squats, and so on, but often it comes down to a battle between two in particular: squats vs leg press, which is better for achieving your fitness goals? There are pros and cons to both, and choosing can be hard for that reason. This leg exercise comparison aims to provide you with the knowledge and insight to choose the right exercise for your goals. As a fitness expert, I am here to help you navigate the pros and cons of each exercise so you can make an informed decision on whether to use front squat exercises or free weights for leg press.

The Barbell Squat

Squats are a compound, multi-joint exercise that primarily targets the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. They are a great exercise for improving body composition and the age old exercise used to build the legs by bodybuilders and strength athletes alike. Tom Platz, who arguably had some of the greatest legs of all time, swears that you should include them in your leg day, as they force you to grow your entire body.

To perform a squat, you will want to do as follows:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outward

  • Bend your knees and hips, lowering your body as if sitting in a chair, while keeping your chest up and back straight

  • Drive through your heels to return to the starting position

Now, the squat can be a dangerous exercise especially when you are lifting heavier weights. The barbell rests on your back, and you have to push that weight up from the "hole", which is the bottom of the movement. There is a lot of room for error with the squat, and that can lead to injury. It is important to have a spotter or use a squat rack for safety when attempting heavier weights. It is also crucial to focus on proper squat technique before increasing weight.

How To: Deep Barbell Back Squat on Make a GIF

Leg Press

The leg press is a machine-based exercise that primarily targets the quadriceps, with secondary emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. It is much like a squat, but the weight is taken off of your back and placed all on your legs, making it a great option for those with lower back issues or even those dealing with injuries. The leg press also is far easier to do things like drop sets!

To perform a leg press, do the following:

  • Sit in the leg press machine with your back flat against the pad and your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform

  • Push the platform away from your body, extending your knees and hips until your legs are straight

  • Slowly return to the starting position by bending your knees and hips

Because the leg press eliminates the strain on the back, it is a much simpler movement than the squat. However, focusing on form before increasing your weight is always good, as it allows you to really focus on the mind-muscle connection and break down the muscle fibers with specificity. The leg pressing exercise, also known as the leg press machine, offers back benefits as it does not put pressure on the back like some other leg exercises, such as squatting, can. Because you don’t have a barbell resting on your shoulders, and because you aren’t bending in the same way, the leg press machine is much better for your back. The leg press also allows for many different variations involving foot placement, such as the narrow stance, or unilateral vs. bilateral movements to hit the muscles at different intensities and volumes, improving your range of motion and motor control.

Leg Press GIFs | Tenor

Squats: Pros and Cons

Now that we've covered the basics, let's dive into the pros and cons of each exercise.

Pros of Squats:

  1. Functional Movement: Squats mimic a natural, functional movement that you perform in everyday life, such as sitting and standing.

  2. Core Strength: As a full-body exercise, squats engage your core muscles, which helps improve overall stability and balance.

  3. Versatility: Squats can be performed using various equipment, such as barbells, dumbbells, or your body weight, making them accessible to a wide range of fitness levels.

Cons of Squats:

  1. Technique: Squats require proper form to avoid injury, and mastering the technique can be challenging for beginners.

  2. Lower Back Stress: Incorrect form or excessive weight can place undue stress on the lower back, increasing the risk of injury.

Pros and Cons of the Leg Press

Pros of Leg Press:

  1. Isolation: The leg press machine isolates the leg muscles, allowing you to focus on building strength and size in your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

  2. Safety: Since the leg press is performed on a machine, there is less risk of injury due to improper form or balance issues.

Cons of Leg Press:

  1. Limited Functional Carryover: The leg press is a machine-based exercise and does not replicate the same functional movements as squats, reducing its real-world application.

  2. Less Core Engagement: The leg press does not engage the core muscles as effectively as squats, limiting overall core strength development.

Squats or Leg Press?

So, should you choose the squat or leg press? It ultimately depends on your goals and preferences. If you're seeking a functional, versatile exercise that builds overall strength, balance, and core stability, squats may be your go-to for weight loss. However, if your primary focus is isolating and targeting your leg muscles for hypertrophy, the leg press could be the better choice for boosting testosterone levels. If you're a powerlifter, squats are a must-have in your training routine.

Remember, the best leg exercise comparison is not an either-or proposition. Incorporating both squats and leg presses into your workout routine can help you achieve a balanced, well-rounded leg development while reaping the benefits of both exercises.

Getting the Most Out of Your Leg Days

To get the most out of your leg workouts, consider incorporating both squats and leg presses, also known as lifters, into well-rounded programs that emphasize progressive overload and intelligent exercise selection. A squat does not necessarily have to replace a leg press, nor does a leg press have to replace a squat, as personal preference plays a role in exercise selection. Utilizing these exercises in your programs can be extremely beneficial to gains and leg training.

A key thing to keep in mind is to always warm up before you lift, whether you are doing squats, leg press, or whatever, you need to warm up the body and have it ready to go. It is also crucial to remember that the most important aspect of any workout routine is following the principles of progressive overload and smart exercise selection. Progressive overload ensures that you gradually increase the stress on your muscles by adding much weight, increasing reps, or changing the exercise's complexity. Smart exercise selection involves choosing exercises that effectively target the desired muscle groups and complement your specific goals, including activation of mobility. One of the most effective exercises for building lower body strength and muscle growth is the back squat.

Popular Programs With Squats and/or Leg Press

Here are a few popular programs that include these exercises:

r/Fitness Basic Beginner Routine (3x5): Another beginner-friendly program, StrongLifts 5x5, emphasizes compound lifts and linear progression. Like Starting Strength, this program includes squats in every workout, and you can add leg presses as an accessory movement to target your quadriceps and hamstrings further.

Starting Strength: A beginner-friendly program that focuses on building a strong foundation through compound exercises, including standard squats, deadlifts, and presses. This program incorporates squats in every workout and can be easily adapted to include leg presses as an accessory exercise, helping to improve quad strength.

PHUL (Power Hypertrophy Upper Lower): This intermediate-level program combines strength and hypertrophy training, with a focus on muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. The lower body workouts in the PHUL program include both squats and leg presses, ensuring a well-rounded approach to developing your leg muscles and incorporating a squat variation that targets similar muscle groups.

Alberto Nunez 4 Day Upper Lower: This 4-Day Upper Lower Program is designed by Alberto Nuñez, who is the head bodybuilding coach at 3D Muscle Journey. Alberto is an accomplished lifelong natural bodybuilder, having most recently won Mr. Universe at the 2022 WNBF. The leg press group, including the seated leg press, is an essential part of this program, helping to build lower body strength and muscle mass for those looking to focus on building muscle.

Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 for Beginners: A versatile, intermediate to advanced training program that focuses on long-term strength and muscle gains. Squat training and strength training are a main lift in this program, and leg presses can be incorporated as an accessory exercise during hypertrophy-focused training blocks. This program is designed to challenge your body and push it to its limits, requiring a high level of exertion to achieve maximum results.

All of these programs are free on Boostcamp App.

Boostcamp App: The Last Lifting App You'll Ever Need

To find the best workout programs tailored to your individual needs and goals, check out the free Boostcamp App. Boostcamp offers a wide range of professionally-designed workout programs for all fitness levels, from beginners to advanced athletes. Whether you're looking to build strength, increase muscle size, or improve your overall fitness, Boostcamp App has you covered. You can choose from all sorts of routines from the PPL to the upper lower programs, making Boostcamp versatile.

With the Boostcamp App, you'll have access to free exercise guidance, customizable routines, and progress tracking features that will help you optimize your workouts and stay on track with your fitness journey. So, give it a try and unlock the full potential of your leg workouts by incorporating both squats and leg presses into your routine. Happy lifting!

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