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Leg Press vs. Squats and other things

by (7380)
Updated about 21 hours ago
Created May 29, 2012 at 2:36 AM

Hi! I've been reading here for a couple of weeks now. I've been doing paleo for about a year now, and it's been great. I've lost about 100 lbs, and packed on 20-30 in muscle.

For my exercise regimen, I walk 5 or more miles a day (I have two dogs), weight lift 3x a week, and cycle 10-15 miles on Saturday (this incorporates my sprint).

When I started at the gym last year, I started with compound movements, but then found myself slipping into isolation exercises. (What is it about the gym that makes isolation exercises so enticing?) I decided to concentrate on the compound exercises again, so I'm doing leg press, ball squats, dips, pullups, deadlifts, and planks. It's a faster, more efficient workout than all the isolation exercises.

I leg press 270, I weigh 225. My first question is whether the leg press and the squats are functionally the same exercise? My stance is wider with the squats than it is on the leg press. Is it worth it doing both? I really like doing the leg press. I'm a 43 year old woman, and part of it, honestly, is getting statements of admiration from other women (and some men), but the other part is just that I am from good Russian stock, and I have very strong legs. The leg press feels like honest exercise. Even though I dropped a forty-five pound weight on my toe loading the press 2 months ago (and yes, I destroyed it) I don't want to give it up. I don't mind the squats, but even with extra weight, it just isn't as...fulfilling?

The other part of this question is regarding muscle failure. I was reading up on Mentzer, and have been doing three sets of 10-15 reps, with more reps the last one to muscle failure, but I'm kind of afraid to go to muscle failure on the leg press. Any advice? I certainly DON'T want to do it doing squats with a barbell on my shoulders. (I'm a tad gun shy about dropping weights).

Finally, is there a way to measure body fat percentage without calipers?

Thanks!

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5135 · May 31, 2012 at 1:55 PM

I just got Starting Strength in the mail yesterday and it starts with a fairly devestating take down of isolation exercises like the leg press. Beyond the fact that they don't give you useful strength because they don't approximate real life situations in which you might need strength, their effects on your body's hormonal response is not nearly as good as, say, the squat.

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1579 · May 31, 2012 at 2:49 AM

You aren't moving your body weight when you squat. That would mean every time you sat down and got up, you'd be squatting 225…not even close. No matter how much you want the leg press to be a better exercise, it's just not. Translate the movement into real life…when in life would you ever need to push something with your feet to move it? I can name a million ways you squat down and need to pick something up. I'd suggest you start squatting holding dumbbells if you are afraid of a barbell.

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1320 · May 30, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Make sure you squat past parallel. This is very important. It sounds counter intuitive but the deeper the squat the safer it is. If you stop short of parallel, you WILL hurt yourself eventually. Buy Starting Strength to learn the proper squatting technique. When discussing weight with barbells, you include the weight of the bar (45 pounds). BW is a non-constant and not included (a 300# man lifting 200#s is not the same as a 165# man). My 3x5 squat is 360. I can leg press over 500 pounds (back when my squat was 305). The two do not even compare.

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7380 · May 30, 2012 at 4:32 AM

Well, when I am doing leg press, I am just moving 270 (plus the weight of my legs). For a squat, I'm already moving my body weight, which is 225. Could I add 270 on a barbell and do that? No, but I wouldn't have to to get close to 270. If I added a barbell with 270 on it, the combined weight of me and the barbell would be over 400 pounds. I couldn't do that. If you want to bet on me adding a barbell with 270 on it, you'd win. If you add just enough weight to my squat, with my body weight factored in, I bet I could get close.

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1579 · May 30, 2012 at 1:49 AM

I'll bet you $100 you can't squat what you leg press.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 10:38 PM

It's true that I am very careful of the range of motion on the leg press. I see people doing it too deep all the time, and lifting off the seat.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 10:34 PM

I think that I could come close to squatting what I leg press, factoring in my body weight, and adding weight. I *am* doing squats, and adding weight with a contraption they have at the gym (a handle with a rope, I don't know what it's called). I am worried about having a barbell on my shoulders. But I've gotten some good answers here about the benefits/problems with both. I'll keep doing both, and maybe I'll get over my barbell issues.

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2799 · May 29, 2012 at 10:33 PM

Thank you for telling me which exercises I can and cannot do.

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1906 · May 29, 2012 at 9:35 PM

You can go to muscle failure on the squat if you do it in a power rack/cage. It's the safest way to do the squat if you're worries about "getting stuck".

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1906 · May 29, 2012 at 9:33 PM

FWIW, Rippetoe doesn't buy the "bad back/knee" arguments. If you start with a lower weight on the squat and slowly build up, you shouldn't have any problems, as you're building muscle to compensate. Of course, if you have a major back/knee injury, you can't squat, but then you probably can't leg press either.

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1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:45 PM

Squats are a full body movement that engages your core, entire posterior chain, and even shoulders (at heavier weights). Over 70% of your muscle mass. For strength training, the leg press is NOT a substitute for squats. If you are training for hypertrophy (bulk like bodybuilder), leg press has its place.

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1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:41 PM

It should be noted that this article is about hypertrophy for bodybuilding and not strength training. The OP implies functionality and strength as goal. Not gaining size like a bodybuilder. Squat is a compound functional movement. The leg press is not.

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1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:37 PM

I think it is misinformation to state that the squat is dangerous. ANY exercise is dangerous when improper form/weight is used. Leg press is not more biomechanically sound. Done incorrectly, the leg press can be a low back death trap. People tend to bring the sled too far back and will round their low back terribly; under heavy compression load this is an excellent way to herniate a disk. Leg press done safely limits range of movement compared to a squat. Squats are superior and should be a core exercise of any strength training program.

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1579 · May 29, 2012 at 4:34 PM

The leg press holds you in a position and isolates the leg muscles. The squat forces you to hold yourself up, develop coordination and mid line stabilization. The squat uses the legs, gluts, abs, back etc. There is a reason you can't squat what you can leg press. Real strength is only transferred into real world..ie you can leg press 250lbs but can you pick up heavy moving boxes or groceries? The leg press takes the weight off your body as you are supported so it's not a "weight bearing" exercise. Both will help with bone density over doing nothing, but the squat is superior.

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96
1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:30 PM

Unless you have some overriding health issue, leg presses should never be substituted for squats. Start with low weight you are comfortable with and gradually add weight over time focusing on form. Starting Strength is a great beginner strength program that utilizes core lifts (squats, deadlift, bench, press, powerclean).

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15976 · May 29, 2012 at 12:04 PM

Jayjay, good point. I do think the squat is very effective generally but I totally agree with you that the time, knowledge(and possible coaching) required to squat well makes it an "expensive" exercise. I think anyone could get more out of a leg press right off the bat. With all that said I still squat, though I more and more am thinking about re-setting with the zercher squat.

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15976 · May 29, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Good point about generally there being more than one way to skin the cat. A good friend of mine is a beast, absolute monster sizewise, cut too. This all at 42. Anyway, point is, he doesn't squat or deadlift. He knows all about them but he's got what he calls a "bad back" and so he just works around it. He's been lifting for prolly 20 years. I don't think you'd find anyone who has been putting in the work for 20 years and isn't strong aas hell.

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3443 · May 29, 2012 at 6:59 AM

FWIW the trap bar doesn't activate my hams and glutes like an oly bar DL.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 4:09 AM

Can you expand on why it's better for bone density? Is it more of a whole body exercise?

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:55 AM

Thanks for the advice on the different positions, I'll use it.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:55 AM

That's true, I am always wondering about form with squats.

Cc3ce03985eac5ebcbb95fc2329f13b0
7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:54 AM

Thanks! That's a good breakdown on my question.

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9 Answers

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1495 · May 29, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Squats! Squats! Squats! It's functional - how do you sit in a chair or on the toilet??? By using a squat.

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748 · May 29, 2012 at 10:23 AM

are they functionally the same excercise?

Are you asking about functionality from the perspective of best preparing you for an active life/ resilience/ surviving the zombie apocalypse? or are you asking about functionality in terms of muscle activation, aesthetic goals?

leg press is pushing weight up with your feet, squats are standing up with a weight across your shoulders. they both work the legs, but only one requires trunk stability and balance.

Regarding Muscle Failure. You dont need to reach failure to get the benifits of strength training, but you have to get reasonably close. about 2 or so reps left in the tank will get you the stimulus you need without risking injury as your form breaks down.

Why 10-15 reps? this makes for long boring training, and pumped up muscles. Try increasing the weight to something you can lift for 3-5 times. and each time you get three good sets out, increase the weight by a bit in the next session.

But mostly, best to stay away from reaching failure as this is when you are most likely to get hurt.

Hope this helps, Have fun

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230 · May 29, 2012 at 1:59 PM

If your goal is healthy hips/knees/ankles, a strong core, and good posture, I would do squats. I really can't recommend squats enough, they're the ultimate functional exercise, and way better than a leg press machine in terms of functional movement. Master the two-legged squat, then master the one-legged squat, then master them on an unstable surface (i.e. bosu). Then add weight.

Regarding muscle failure, it depends on what your goals are. If you're training for hypertrophy (big muscles), do 6-12 reps at 75-85% of your maximum intensity. If your goal is maximal strength (lifting the most weight), do 1-5 reps at 85-100% of maximum intensity (i.e. until muscle failure).

EDIT: Just came across this article that probably has everything you need to know about leg presses and squats: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/is_the_leg_press_worthless

Looks like leg presses are not completely worthless, but I would still do squats as well :)

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1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:30 PM

Unless you have some overriding health issue, leg presses should never be substituted for squats. Start with low weight you are comfortable with and gradually add weight over time focusing on form. Starting Strength is a great beginner strength program that utilizes core lifts (squats, deadlift, bench, press, powerclean).

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1579 · May 29, 2012 at 2:59 AM

Do squats, better in every way..including building bone density.

Body fat can be measured in a water tank or you can measure different body parts with a soft tape measure and there is a calculation???it's not exact but pretty close.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 4:09 AM

Can you expand on why it's better for bone density? Is it more of a whole body exercise?

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96
1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:45 PM

Squats are a full body movement that engages your core, entire posterior chain, and even shoulders (at heavier weights). Over 70% of your muscle mass. For strength training, the leg press is NOT a substitute for squats. If you are training for hypertrophy (bulk like bodybuilder), leg press has its place.

Cc3ce03985eac5ebcbb95fc2329f13b0
7380 · May 29, 2012 at 10:34 PM

I think that I could come close to squatting what I leg press, factoring in my body weight, and adding weight. I *am* doing squats, and adding weight with a contraption they have at the gym (a handle with a rope, I don't know what it's called). I am worried about having a barbell on my shoulders. But I've gotten some good answers here about the benefits/problems with both. I'll keep doing both, and maybe I'll get over my barbell issues.

Ab0369a70755bd07f44292b4ca8b2260
1579 · May 29, 2012 at 4:34 PM

The leg press holds you in a position and isolates the leg muscles. The squat forces you to hold yourself up, develop coordination and mid line stabilization. The squat uses the legs, gluts, abs, back etc. There is a reason you can't squat what you can leg press. Real strength is only transferred into real world..ie you can leg press 250lbs but can you pick up heavy moving boxes or groceries? The leg press takes the weight off your body as you are supported so it's not a "weight bearing" exercise. Both will help with bone density over doing nothing, but the squat is superior.

Ab0369a70755bd07f44292b4ca8b2260
1579 · May 30, 2012 at 1:49 AM

I'll bet you $100 you can't squat what you leg press.

Cc3ce03985eac5ebcbb95fc2329f13b0
7380 · May 30, 2012 at 4:32 AM

Well, when I am doing leg press, I am just moving 270 (plus the weight of my legs). For a squat, I'm already moving my body weight, which is 225. Could I add 270 on a barbell and do that? No, but I wouldn't have to to get close to 270. If I added a barbell with 270 on it, the combined weight of me and the barbell would be over 400 pounds. I couldn't do that. If you want to bet on me adding a barbell with 270 on it, you'd win. If you add just enough weight to my squat, with my body weight factored in, I bet I could get close.

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96
1320 · May 30, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Make sure you squat past parallel. This is very important. It sounds counter intuitive but the deeper the squat the safer it is. If you stop short of parallel, you WILL hurt yourself eventually. Buy Starting Strength to learn the proper squatting technique. When discussing weight with barbells, you include the weight of the bar (45 pounds). BW is a non-constant and not included (a 300# man lifting 200#s is not the same as a 165# man). My 3x5 squat is 360. I can leg press over 500 pounds (back when my squat was 305). The two do not even compare.

Ab0369a70755bd07f44292b4ca8b2260
1579 · May 31, 2012 at 2:49 AM

You aren't moving your body weight when you squat. That would mean every time you sat down and got up, you'd be squatting 225…not even close. No matter how much you want the leg press to be a better exercise, it's just not. Translate the movement into real life…when in life would you ever need to push something with your feet to move it? I can name a million ways you squat down and need to pick something up. I'd suggest you start squatting holding dumbbells if you are afraid of a barbell.

4ec0fe4b4aab327f7efa2dfb06b032ff
5135 · May 31, 2012 at 1:55 PM

I just got Starting Strength in the mail yesterday and it starts with a fairly devestating take down of isolation exercises like the leg press. Beyond the fact that they don't give you useful strength because they don't approximate real life situations in which you might need strength, their effects on your body's hormonal response is not nearly as good as, say, the squat.

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0 · February 05, 2014 at 6:18 PM

Age is key here. Over 35 I say squats get you into dangerous territory. Firstly lets assume you are going to squat enough to make a meaningful difference to your metabolism, in other words 200 pounds plus. As Jay15 points out this is a lot of compression on your spine, a spine that once you are 35 and over is not quite as springy as it used to be. Why risk this for a meesly 4 or 5 extra pounds of muscle? You are getting the results you want from the leg press, then don't mess with success. Just keep the reps on the low side and be sure to bring those legs to your chest nice and low to get a full range and you will be fine. Sure you wont activate as much core muscles used to balance since you are just lying back, but just make sure you're doing planks and some other kinds of standing work to compensate. The way i look at it, throwing your back out for a 4 months will set you back way further than the cons of a leg press will.

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30 · May 29, 2012 at 5:26 AM

I just started working with a trainer at the gym who was highly recommended as someone who could help me learn proper form for all the major exercises.

The first session we worked on squats almost exclusively. I found that I was doing squats completely wrong. I was bending at the knees but not also at the waist. Because of that it turns out I was relying on my quads mostly and was barely getting my glutes or hamstrings into the movement. I used to do way more leg presses since they did feel a lot more satisfying but the trainer said in no uncertain terms that a squat done with proper form is superior in every way.

I understand your hesitation about having weights up high to drop, but maybe you can use some of those pinchy things on the end of the bar that hold the weights on?

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2799 · May 29, 2012 at 3:33 AM

Good article on this...

http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/muscle-gain/squat-versus-leg-press-for-big-legs.html

I have inflexible ankles and a bad knee so I leg press. It annoys me when squat snobs imply that anyone who doesn't squat is a waste of space in the gym.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:54 AM

Thanks! That's a good breakdown on my question.

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2799 · May 29, 2012 at 10:33 PM

Thank you for telling me which exercises I can and cannot do.

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1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:41 PM

It should be noted that this article is about hypertrophy for bodybuilding and not strength training. The OP implies functionality and strength as goal. Not gaining size like a bodybuilder. Squat is a compound functional movement. The leg press is not.

667f6c030b0245d71d8ef50c72b097dc
15976 · May 29, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Good point about generally there being more than one way to skin the cat. A good friend of mine is a beast, absolute monster sizewise, cut too. This all at 42. Anyway, point is, he doesn't squat or deadlift. He knows all about them but he's got what he calls a "bad back" and so he just works around it. He's been lifting for prolly 20 years. I don't think you'd find anyone who has been putting in the work for 20 years and isn't strong aas hell.

Da8e709acde269e8b8bfbc09d1737841
1906 · May 29, 2012 at 9:33 PM

FWIW, Rippetoe doesn't buy the "bad back/knee" arguments. If you start with a lower weight on the squat and slowly build up, you shouldn't have any problems, as you're building muscle to compensate. Of course, if you have a major back/knee injury, you can't squat, but then you probably can't leg press either.

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18635 · May 29, 2012 at 2:57 AM

My opinion based on experience and study:

Squats are not necessary. Top loading the spine in this manner COULD be dangerous.

Leg press and dead lifts (preferably trap bar dead lifts) are far more biomechanically sound. Your leg press machine should have safety measures like stop bars and such to let you go to failure without being injured.

Another large difference is the technique factors involved. The squat has to be mastered to be useful in any sense. I really don't think it adds much more to your muscle mass or overall functional capacity than doing a good leg press and other movements that will activate your core.

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3443 · May 29, 2012 at 6:59 AM

FWIW the trap bar doesn't activate my hams and glutes like an oly bar DL.

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:55 AM

That's true, I am always wondering about form with squats.

667f6c030b0245d71d8ef50c72b097dc
15976 · May 29, 2012 at 12:04 PM

Jayjay, good point. I do think the squat is very effective generally but I totally agree with you that the time, knowledge(and possible coaching) required to squat well makes it an "expensive" exercise. I think anyone could get more out of a leg press right off the bat. With all that said I still squat, though I more and more am thinking about re-setting with the zercher squat.

Cc3ce03985eac5ebcbb95fc2329f13b0
7380 · May 29, 2012 at 10:38 PM

It's true that I am very careful of the range of motion on the leg press. I see people doing it too deep all the time, and lifting off the seat.

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96
1320 · May 29, 2012 at 4:37 PM

I think it is misinformation to state that the squat is dangerous. ANY exercise is dangerous when improper form/weight is used. Leg press is not more biomechanically sound. Done incorrectly, the leg press can be a low back death trap. People tend to bring the sled too far back and will round their low back terribly; under heavy compression load this is an excellent way to herniate a disk. Leg press done safely limits range of movement compared to a squat. Squats are superior and should be a core exercise of any strength training program.

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0 · May 29, 2012 at 2:50 AM

tl;dr. Squat is superior, but don't let that fool you....you can get a great workout and great results from leg presses.

I like leg presses. I use them nearly all the time. For one thing, I can go really, really heavy with them and I like doing that. Though, I tend to use leg press after I've already done my squats for the day. I'm working up to really heavy squats, but I'm not there yet.

For people close to me, I recommend they try squats, but if they are not right for them to not feel bad if they are doing just leg presses or hack squats. If you are doing leg presses or hack squats, though, I think you should go as heavy as possible...and I think you should use single leg versions in conjunction with the dual leg standard.

Another way to make leg presses really work for you is to use different stances, different depth and raise/lower your feet (focus on the quads by having feet lower, hamstrings/glutes by having feet higher).

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7380 · May 29, 2012 at 3:55 AM

Thanks for the advice on the different positions, I'll use it.

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