Even in a gym full of shiny new equipment, the tried and true leg press remains a trainer favorite for lower-body strength training exercises—and for good reason. Not only is it an approachable machine that’s great for varying fitness levels, but it also targets all of the major muscle groups in your legs, so long as you know how to use it to its full potential.
“The leg press engages most of your lower body, from your calves to your hamstrings, quads, and glutes, and gives you much more stability and lower injury risk than barbell squats or similar exercises,” says personal trainer Caroline Grainger, C.P.T., of FitnessTrainer.
Ahead, trainers share their top tips for getting the most out of the leg press machine, from how to use the machine properly to how to mix up your routine to maximize the stimulus on your lower body—and your gains.
General Tips for Using The Leg Press
Before you switch up how you use the leg press machine, make sure you’re following these trainer tips for locked-in form that’ll keep you safe—and every rep effective.
1. Incorporate the machine into lower-body days strategically
In case you’re wondering where the leg press fits into your workout, “I would incorporate it into a lower-body workout after performing free-weight exercises such as squats and lunges in order to burn out the legs,” says personal trainer Kate Meier, C.P.T., of Garage Gym Reviews.
If you’re new to the leg press machine, Grainger recommends starting with three sets of 10 repetitions, using as much weight as you can handle resting as needed between sets. As you get stronger, increase the weight but keep your rep scheme the same.
Keep in mind that as you gain experience it’s important to work until muscle failure, when your muscles are fatigued and can’t perform another repetition, in order to maximize results, shares trainer Jordan Thomson, C.P.T., with The Perfect Workout.
2. Be mindful of your lower back
When you’re using the leg press machine, make sure you don’t let your lower back arch, says Meier. This can put unnecessary pressure on the lower vertebrae and potentially lead to injury. “To avoid this, make sure to sit up tall in the leg press machine and keep your hips touching the back pad the entire time,” she advises.
3. Don’t lock Out your knees
You’ll also want to be cautious with your knees as you churn out those leg press reps. “One mistake I see people making often while leg pressing is that they lock out their knees when they reach the top of the rep,” says trainer Rachel Rivera, C.P.T., of The Clean Happy Life. Doing this can put you at risk of knee damage and injuries. Instead, press out just until the point at which your knees are about to lock, then lower the platform back down, she says.
6 Leg Press Machine Exercises That’ll Maximize Lower-Body Gains
As long as you’ve got your leg press form locked in, incorporate these different moves into your routine to really make the machine go the extra mile for your muscles.
1. Traditional Leg Press
In a traditional leg press, position your feet in the middle of the leg press platform hip-width distance apart and with your toes pointing straight upwards. In this position, the exercise primarily targets your quads, Rivera says.
2. Sumo Press
To target your inner thigh muscles (a.k.a. hip adductors), place your feet slightly wider than hip-width distance apart and point your toes 45 degrees outward, Thomson and Rivera suggest. From there, move through your reps as usual.
3. Glute- And Hamstring-Focused Press
If you want to target your glutes and hamstrings more, place your feet higher up on the platform, says Rivera. Keep your toes pointing straight up and your feet hip-width distance apart as in a traditional press; just position your feet closer to the top of the platform instead of smack dab in the middle.
4. Single-Leg Press
Thomson says that single-leg presses allow you to fully target each leg—and are a great variation for those with injuries or muscle imbalances. Begin with the foot of your working leg positioned near the center of the footplate with toes pointing straight up. Depending on the type of leg press you’re using, you’ll place the other foot that’s not in use on the ground, on the seat (if there’s room), or somewhere on the platform of the machine where it will not interfere with your range of motion or ability to load the targeted leg, he says.
5. Partial Reps
On the leg press, we are weakest at the start and strongest when our knees are almost straight, Thomson explains. As such, you can do partial reps in the weakest part of the movement to gain more strength. To perform these, instead of completing the entire rep or full range of motion, only push until your legs are about halfway extended before lowering the weight back down and repeating.
6. Calf Raises
Bonus move! By positioning the balls of your feet at the bottom ledge of the sled with your heels hanging off, you can use the leg press machine to do calf raises. Press the weight out until your legs are almost fully extended (keep your knees slightly bent). From there, slowly push through the balls of your feet as if going up on your tippy toes as far as you comfortably can, squeezing your calves. Then, carefully return to the starting position.