It’s a question that has ruled the weight room in Bodybuilding gyms forever: are squats or leg presses better?
It’s a big old question and it’s not as simple as one or the other – so we’re going to clue you in. If you want the short answer (and to miss a ton of valuable info) it’s here: you need to know what you’re doing it for and then you can pick what works best for you.
However, there’s a ton of value for your own training in understanding why the two compete, how you can implement them, and when the squat or leg press is superior. That’s exactly what we’re going to discuss today, so read on and let’s get to the meat of the subject…
- The Key Differences: Defining the Movements
- Squats vs Leg Press: Weighing Up Benefits
- Squats and Leg Press: Beyond the Rivalry
- Is Leg Press Easier than Squats?
- Can Leg Press REPLACE Squats?
- Does Leg Press Increase Squat?
- Defining Roles: Primary/ Secondary, Classic and Accessory/ Auxiliary
- Single-Leg Leg Press: Setting Up the Unilateral Accessory Benefits
- Final Thoughts
The Key Differences: Defining the Movements
What’s the point of discussing the squat or leg press if you don’t understand the two movements and how they differ?
It’s essential to understand what they offer and how they vary, so you can understand which is best for you and how to practice it for your own goals.
Squats: The Classic Leg Exercise
There are a ton of squatting variations we could be discussing today – whether single- or two-legged. However, we’re going to treat ‘squats’ like it refers exclusively to the barbell back squat since this is the main form of squatting and is the most common in the gym.
The movement includes a whole bunch of really important movement skills: being able to hinge the hips, externally rotate the hips, control the knees, balance your weight, support posture, and keep the hips/core active in the bottom position.
These are all important co-ordination skills for sports, other types of strength training, and life in general. Integrating whole-body, coordinated exercise is a great strategy – but the squat isn’t the only choice.
It’s the complexity of the squat that provides contrast to the leg press and its simplicity. As the simplicity of a leg press is the best and worst thing about it, so is the compound multi-joint complexity of the squat!
If you can squat well, you’ll make great gains, and if you can’t squat well then you should be working on that while using other exercises to build strength and co-ordination. Progressing through air squats, goblet squats, box squats, etc. is a great way to build up these technical skills.
Leg Press: Building Bigger Legs?
The leg press tends to come in two varieties: the horizontal leg press and the 45-degree leg press. These are the kind of machines that you’ve probably got at your gym and we can discuss them interchangeably most of the time.
The 45-degree leg press is objectively better for long-term progress, however. It offers a level of resistance you’re just not going to get from the regular horizontal, Nautilus-style leg press. The former is for serious strength, while the latter is more likely to cap out quickly as you get stronger.
The leg press is super simple – pretty much the point of its invention. It’s a simpler way of training legs that doesn’t require the upfront investment in technical development and coordination that a back squat requires. Even more so when compared to things like the front squat!
The key point here – and the selling point of the leg press – is that anyone can do it safely with almost no practice. Keep it controlled, don’t lock your legs out, keep your knees in-line with your toes, use weights that you are comfortable with. It really should be that simple.
There are some varieties that you can use when it comes to stance width, which may adjust what you’re training, but it’s always still a fixed movement. In this way, you can balance up your use of the leg press a little, but still miss out on stability and coordination gains.
Squats vs Leg Press: Weighing Up Benefits
Ease of Use, Accessibility, and Safety
There’s no question about it – the leg press will always beat the squat for accessibility. It is a heavily simplified version of the leg extension exercise and can be performed by anyone with almost no time spent training/practicing it. This is, perhaps, the foundation for all of the leg press’ benefits.
Nobody should be squatting a barbell without first understanding how to do so, and progressing through a series of simpler exercises. If you’re squatting, you need to work on the postural, mobility, and control variables before you even get under the bar, or it’s likely not being performed correctly.
The leg press doesn’t have this issue at all, and this is probably why a lot of gym-goers feel like the squat is ‘unsafe’. The squat is definitely safe unless you do it wrong, it just has a much larger period of time required for preparation and learning to move effectively. The leg press’ lack of this makes it super easy to use.
This also makes the leg press a less fatigue-sensitive exercise. It’s less likely to present safety concerns and you’re not likely to hit a hard wall of being too tired to coordinate your body effectively (as in a squat).
The leg-only focus of the leg press also means that you’re not really going to need to worry about the influence of exercises like deadlifts on the back/hips. If you’ve tried squatting with a tired back/hips, you’ll understand the huge difficulties this involves – but not as much for the leg press.
It can be a great way to structure your light days, or balance the leg vs hips/back influence in your training. There’s never a bad time to have more tools in your training toolkit.
Muscle Mass: Is There a Winner?
This is one of the biggest questions around the squat vs leg press: will a squat or leg press build more leg muscle mass? And, honestly, it’s a hard question because it doesn’t have a specific answer.
You can get huge legs with either exercise – or both, ideally. The muscle mass is more about the type of training you’re doing and where the leg gains appear. There are a few key factors: how much volume you’re doing, how often you’re training, the loads you’re using, and how well you’re recovering.
The best way to get the best amount – and distribution – of training volume is to use both squats and leg presses. We’ll explain how to do this below. The leg press allows for more weight and more reps, sure, but it’s not stretch-mediated, which is a key factor in better strength/size gains. It’s also likely to cause more muscular damage and be harder to recover from.
Equally, this huge amount of volume works better at low-frequency, while higher-frequency training tends to provide the best environment for growth. Squatting is better as a higher-frequency, lower session to session volume exercise. Basically, squat often rather than doing a ton of squats at once!
So, if you’re able to train squats more often (at least 2-3 times a week), you’re likely to experience better results than leg pressing more, but less often.
The problem is that the squat will develop other areas – and specific areas of the leg – more effectively. The development in the glutes, hip muscles, and core/lower back are significant benefits you won’t get from the leg press.
The single leg press (one of our favourite exercises on a leg press machine) is a good way to counteract this and spur more development in the adductors and hips. This is still dealing with lower loads and more knee stress than a regular leg press, but could be a good choice.
It’s not clear which is better for leg muscle mass. There are some clear benefits to each, and the best approach is to give each their own, appropriate place in your training. If you want to be athletic then squats are better, while leg presses require less time investment.
If you use them effectively and progress your volume effectively in similar ways, it’s not clear that either exercise is superior for leg muscle gains. It’s about how your own training is set up and what you have time, recovery, and the lifestyle for.
Strength and Power
This is a categorical win for the squat in almost every situation. It’s the more athletic movement for how it is performed, but also for how specifically it applies to the types of power movements you’ll perform.
It’s not just that the squat develops strength and power more by itself (though it is possible), but also that it is more similar to jumps, sprints, and other types of power exercise. Strength and power are very specific – they develop at the angles and muscle-lengths you train – and the squat is definitely closer to the jump or sprint.
Again, this isn’t a definitive answer to which you should do. It’s about contextualizing your exercise choice: which one suits your goals and your idea of what you want to achieve? It’s about a whole training program, not just one exercise.
“When we train with unstable exercises, most of the strength gains occur from overloading the agonist muscle directly. This overload of the agonist muscle likely causes gains in maximum force producing ability by various mechanisms, but strength gains will not transfer as well as we might expect to less stable exercises, simply because we have not learned to coordinate the antagonist and synergist muscles.” [here]
The squat is a great test of strength, as well as a tool for building strength.
There’s something pure and very human about performing movements with weights rather than machines, and this is probably why they’re used in sports like Powerlifting. But if you don’t want to be good at the squat – or the things it contributes to – then you don’t have to get on board with strength and power.
Of course, they’re useful in general. Strength and power keep joints healthy, keep you independently mobile as you age, and reduce the risks of declines to bone health and co-ordination. As mentioned before, however, the squat isn’t the only choice and it’s about your whole program.
The squat is, however, one of the most efficient ways to build strength, power, and coordination all at once. In this way, it’s the clear choice for strength and power – especially combined with lower-weight, higher-velocity training (such as jumps, throws, and sprints).
Squats and Leg Press: Beyond the Rivalry
While we’ve discussed the squat vs the leg press so far, what about the squat and the leg press?
Obviously, it’s fun and insightful to talk about which is best, but what about how to combine them for the best results? We think this is probably a more important question for most gym-goers.
If you can squat and you can leg press, and you have the time, then the best results often come from using the two together. They do different things and you can make the best of their pros and cons in your own training if you think about it and apply them cleverly!
Is Leg Press Easier than Squats?
There are a few ways of looking at this question – so we’re going to quickly outline and answer them. Overall, we think the leg press is easier than the squat, but here are the frequently asked questions about squats vs leg press for you to make up your own mind…
Is It Easier to Lift the Same Weight in Leg Press?
Yes – the leg press is always easier than the squat when using the same weight. It’s a single, straight line on a track that removes the need for co-ordination. It also involves less forces in other directions, so it’s just your maximal leg strength against the weight.
We tend to think that you can leg press far more than you can squat. There’s always that one guy boasting about a 500lbs leg press, but we all know that has nothing to do with how much he can squat. There’s almost no connection between the two movements since the squat isn’t just leg strength.
There are a lot of 500lbs leg pressers, but not a lot of 500lbs squatters. That’s all we’re saying.
When you add all the technical, stability, and additional muscular demands of the squat, it’s clear that the leg press is the easier movement when it comes to comparing the same weight!
Is It Simpler to Leg Press Than Squat?
Yes – the amount of complexity you take out of a squat by using a leg press is enormous. It’s designed to do exactly that – which is the best and worst thing about the leg press.
It reduces the number of reasons you could fail it reduces the complexity of the movement itself, and as a result, it does also miss out on training these complexities. This is why the leg press makes for a good introductory exercise, but is limited in its application.
Is It Less Stressful on Your Body to Leg Press?
This depends on how you squat and how you leg press. If you can’t squat properly, the answer is probably yes. The complexities make it possible to stress your body in odd ways (e.g. if your heels raise in the bottom of a squat, if your knees cave in, or your back rounds).
The leg press does have its own risks, however: it’s a lot of weight for your legs. If you’re locking your legs out and resting because the reps are hard, you need to lower the weight. We’ve all seen those horrible videos of people snapping their legs on leg presses (warning: it’s gross, watch at your own risk).
The knees and hips can take a lot of stress if you’re leg pressing more than you can handle. This is why you still need to follow the basics of sustainable, healthy progressive overload:
- Add reps before adding weight, if you’re unsure
- Control the movement at all times
- Load weight slowly – leave some in the tank
- Don’t make it an ego lift: focus on the process, not the specific weight you’re using right now
- Rest and recover properly
If you follow these simple guidelines, you should be fine. Leg pressing is accessible and safe if you’re smart about it.
Does It Take Less Time to Leg Press?
Way less. The reduction in the actual on-your-back (axial) loading of a squat and the bracing it requires make it a very slow recovery time. A powerlifter focusing on heavy squats will take 3-5 minutes between sets for recovery.
You don’t need this much time if you’re staying sub-maximal, but the leg press is almost always less tiring. It doesn’t require you to brace your core as much (you should still have a strong core and hip connection/activity).
This means you can get 4-5 sets of 8-15 reps out in a relatively short space of time. The only real limitation is going to be how much it’s going to burn your legs if you’re taking super-short rest periods. Take 90 seconds to 3 minutes for leg presses, and you should be good to go again.
Can Leg Press REPLACE Squats?
It depends what you’re using the squat for. There’s no way that the leg press can replace the biomechanical movements of the squat, the way it builds co-ordination, or how specific it is to power/strength training.
What it could replace is a squat for muscle mass. You don’t need to squat for muscle mass, but you should consider the importance of longevity. You could leg press for muscle mass, but is this as sustainable as squatting properly, with appropriate weights?
The importance of hip and knee control, core strength, and posture in the squat are all key. These movements are very important in life and they develop greater overall body awareness. These are things that the leg press will not develop as well, so it can’t totally replace the squat.
What we recommend, however, is to combine the leg press with other forms of free weight leg training. For example, if you really don’t want to squat, you should combine leg presses with something like the Bulgarian split squat or walking lunge to develop proper control and positional strength.
This kind of training shows why squats are great: they develop strength and control/posture at the same time. In this way, one of the best benefits of squats is just that they’re efficient: you can use one exercise rather than two.
If you can combine leg presses with other forms of lower body training that require you to stabilize yourself, control the hips and knees, and build core strength, then you can replace the squat with the leg press. Failing to do this, however, could just leave you with big legs but no control or stability when you use them!
Does Leg Press Increase Squat?
This totally depends on you, and the limiting factor in your squat. For some people, it really is the case that their legs are just weak – which the leg press can help with. However, for most people in the gym, technique is the biggest limiting factor.
Squatting is a complicated movement – especially if you’re new to weight training. It requires a few key skills that take time and practice to develop: the hip hinge, properly aligning the hip and knee, deep knee and hip flexion without losing control, and pressuring the floor properly.
We don’t want to scare you out of squatting, but it’s important to note that you’re probably not struggling with just leg strength. If you’re a technically perfect – or at least really proficient – squatter, then leg press could increase your squat.
World-level competitor Bryce Lewis is a good example of this. Bryce has an excellent squat (if you can squat like this, you should) and uses leg presses as a secondary exercise to improve his leg strength. This is the approach we recommend for proficient lifters with great squat technique.
However, for most beginners, the best approach is to work on technical exercises. Things like paused squats and slow-descending (or slow eccentric) squats are great for positions and stability. Studies even tell us this kind of stability is a huge player in how good you are at heavy squats.
So, if your squat problem is weak legs, the leg press is a good choice. If it’s hips, core, stability, technique, timing, or any other factors then it’s probably not the best way to up your squat strength!
Defining Roles: Primary/ Secondary, Classic and Accessory/ Auxiliary
One of the best ways to make these exercises work for you is to define your goal and set out what is primary and what is secondary. For example, if you want to be stronger then the squat should come first (as a classic way of building/testing whole-body strength) and the leg press can be used as an ‘accessory’ exercise.
This is a great way to structure your training. It’s a simple triage approach: put the most effort into the most important things, and then shift your focus afterwards. Use the squat to do most of the work, and then use the leg press for a pump and some extra volume.
This is great for a few reasons. First, the safety and reduced axial loading of the leg press makes it a great accessory exercise. The things that limit your squat – stability, bracing, and coordination – don’t limit your leg press. Once you’ve trained your squat, you can still push leg strength with leg press.
If you take this approach, it follows naturally: squat until you can’t, leg press afterwards to maximize your results. This is also great for getting a pump at the end of a workout – something that is slowly being understood as a great way of setting yourself up for better results/recovery.
It’s nothing new – athletes and bodybuilders have been doing these for years – but it’s something you might be missing out on. This kind of structure to a workout can really change your results.
Single-Leg Leg Press: Setting Up the Unilateral Accessory Benefits
We always suggest using accessory exercises to balance your strength and provide a better overall profile of strength, size, and stability. This is just a great way of keeping your body healthy, reducing overall injury risks, and building more sustainable progress.
For this reason, the single-leg press is one of the absolute best accessories for squatting and leg strength. This adds a unilateral exercise, which you should be including in your training, and adds a new dimension of benefits to the leg press.
This is a great staple in the training of strong squatters. As mentioned above, Bryce Lewis is a big proponent of this type of training, but you’ll also find single-leg presses in the training of other powerlifters like Johnny Candito, and competitive athletes in everything from bobsled to sprinting.
If it’s good enough for the best in the world, it’s good enough for you. Combining single leg press with the big, classical strength movement of a back squat is a great way to balance your training.
The way we see it is actually really simple: if you can only do one, we think the squat is a better choice. However, it’s not the only choice and you usually don’t have to pick one or the other. The best choice is to use the squat for strength and use the (single) leg press as a key accessory.
The leg press is a more accessible, simple option and it can be used as a great alternative if you’re not able to squat – especially when combined with other leg movements like the walking lunge. If you’re using the leg press instead, it’s just going to take some extra effort on other exercises to balance it out!
Whichever way you go, we hope we’ve provided the information and principles you need to make the best of your time in the gym. There’s no ‘sides’ in this comparison between squats and leg press: it’s all about getting the best results for what you want and need!