It’s leg day, and you’re torn between whether to deploy the popular squat or the trusty leg press to give your quads a burn inducing workout.
You’ve been told the squat is the go-to for legs, bums and tums but looking at the machine, the leg press would seem to isolate the muscles you want to work far better than an all-rounder could.
So, should you do both? A few reps of one and then the other? The answer is that it depends entirely on what you’re looking to get out of the workout. Let’s take a look at both and answer some common FAQs so you can see where each exercise fits in a workout programme.
Are leg presses and squats the same?
The simple answer is: No. The similarities that leg presses and squats share are that both exercises primarily work your quadriceps, your hamstrings and your glutes.
As we assessed before, the squat goes a little further than the leg press because it also targets your abs and hips, whereas the leg press by nature does not do this as it only involves movement of the legs.
Here’s a bit more detail, and some pros and cons.
Leg presses are exercises performed seated, using a leg press machine as demonstrated in the above picture.
To perform the exercise, you sit against the backrest in an almost leant back position, placing your feet in two footrests above you. To begin, your knees should be bent. Once you straighten your legs, the weight will move. A completed rep counts every time your legs have straightened and your knees have returned to their original bent position.
Is the leg press good for quads?
Yes, the leg press is exceptionally good for working the quads. Leg presses are at their most effective when being used to build leg strength as there’s less of a range of motion, allowing the glutes and hamstrings to let the quads run the show if you so wish.
Leg presses aren’t without risk however. If you try to move too much weight, or if you lock your knee there can be consequences so knowing your limits and the correct form is essential before rushing to the machine.
Some other things leg presses are good for are:
- Their ability to support your back. Those with weak backs or who suffer from back problems can struggle with squatting, and so the leg press takes all of the work out of the back by providing a backrest and handrests.
- You can decide which muscles your leg press works. Just by adjusting your foot position on the footpads could give your quads, hamstrings or glutes more emphasis.
- No need for a spotter! This one’s all you. Just be careful with how much weight you pile on if you’re starting at a beginner level.
Squats are exercises performed with your feet on the ground and your feet just wider than hip width apart.
To perform a squat, bend your knees, engage your core and push your hips back, keeping your weight in the heels and balls of your feet. Think of it like sitting deep into an invisible chair. Once your hips are lower than your knees, rise back up again by breathing out, keeping that core engaged and powering your weight through your heels. Keep your knees away from each other whilst you do so, and once you’re back standing at the top, squeeze your bum to activate your glutes.
Squats come in a number of different variations and can feature barbells and dumbbells, or a squat rack to add weight which tones, defines and works even more muscles.
Do squats work your quads?
The answer is yes, but also no. Without going too scientific, quadriceps are called quads because they consist of four muscles: The vastus lateralis, the vastus medialis, the vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris.
Squats work three of these muscles: The entire vastus family, but the rectus femoris does not get as much work as the rest of them. In addition, because of the nature of the exercise and the sitting (squat!) position, you may have guessed that both the hamstrings and glutes get a higher degree of exercise.
Other benefits of squats include:
- Squats strengthen your back and core muscles, like the abdominals and hips.
- Squats can promote flexibility and strength in the knees.
- As a lot of the focus is on maintaining a straight back, squats are also great for posture.
So, which one should I do?
As we’ve summarised, both exercises do work the quads, however depending on which one you go for will depend on what you’re looking to achieve in your particular day’s workout.
For example you could:
Use the squat if:
- You’re following a powerlifting programme, you’re competing at an athletic level, or you’re looking for more functionality in the gym.
- You’re looking to add, or you incorporate mostly, compound movements which work multiple muscle groups.
- You’re looking to improve your posture and core strength
- You’re lacking time and exercise equipment, and want something easily accessible as well as super effective
Or, you could:
Use the leg press if:
- You’re looking for an isolated movement that solely targets the quadriceps
- You want to add variation to your leg days with an effective mix of isolation and compound exercises
- You struggle with the squat because of injuries, weaknesses or personal preference
So, to answer the question we started with: You absolutely could, and perhaps, should do both. However, I would recommend performing both exercises in a training programme that incorporates both isolated and compound exercises, that allows for the time to perform this in a gym routine and that takes into account the maximisation of hypertrophy.
Both exercises will give you increased muscle mass and target the quadriceps with a defining and strengthening workout, but if you’re caught between both: Assess what you want to achieve. Is it stronger quads? Is it overall muscle maximisation in your legs? Is it more of a complete number?
Keep our assessment in mind in your answer, and you should find yourself leaning to either the machine, or the mat.