Squats Vs Leg Press
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) // British Army Physical Training Instructor // S&C Coach.
In this article we shall look at both exercises and which muscles are activated, this way you can see which exercise is more appropriate for your goals.
This article is evidence based and supported by cited studies from reputable sources.
- How to do the perfect squat
- Which muscle groups are worked by squats
- Squat variations
- Incorporating squats in to your routine
- Pros and cons of squats
- Leg presses
- How to do a leg press
- Which muscles are worked by the leg press
- Leg press variations
- Incorporating the leg press in to your routine
- Pros and cons of the leg press
- Squats vs leg press: Which is better?
- When should you do squats
- When should you use the leg press
- Take away
Benefit of Training Legs
Giving your body an all-around workout is important, so even if you hate leg day, you should never skip it. Working out your upper body without paying attention to your lower body will leave you disproportionate, and your overall strength and fitness will suffer.
A peer reviewed study published in 2019 has demonstrated that different exercises had a positive effect on motivation and muscular adaption improvements. 
Furthermore, there is solid evidence that resistance training benefits your health across a number of parameters. 
In addition to this, when naval cadets also included strength training which included squats to the normal physical training routine over a period of 8 weeks they saw improvements to their occupational obstacle course timings. 
Squats and leg presses are two of the most popular exercises for muscle building in the legs, but there is a lot of debate about which one is best. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question.
Both squats and leg presses have their advantages, and they are both effective ways to build muscle. However, they also have their downsides. If you want to decide which exercise is best for your workout routine, you need to consider the pros and cons and the nature of your fitness routine, and as any other factors that affect your workouts, like injuries or weak areas.
This guide will give you in-depth information about squats and leg presses (with some variations) and take you through the benefits and drawbacks of each so you can make an informed decision.
Most people are familiar with what a squat looks like, but it’s worth considering how to do the perfect squat, which muscle groups are worked, and some of the different squat variations that you can throw in to mix up your routine.
Research shows that incorporating a heavy load squat at near maximum weight can positively influence vertical jump performance which can benefit sporting performance. 
Additionally, the squat is considered a staple exercise for any exercise or training regime to help minimize injury. 
How To Do The Perfect Squat
Squats are a brilliant exercise because they’re simple and they work a lot of different muscle groups. Unfortunately, many people do them wrong and when you don’t maintain proper form, you won’t get all of the benefits.
The setup for a squat is incredibly simple. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, pointing your toes outwards slightly. You should also focus on a spot in front of you on the wall and keep your eyes on it throughout the squat. This will stop your head and neck from moving around during the squat.
- Start with your hands out in front of you and keep your spine in a neutral position. Maintaining good posture during a squat is very important.
- Keep your weight in your feet, specifically in the balls and the heels.
- Breathe into your stomach and break at the hips, pushing your glutes back towards the wall behind you.
- As you move towards the floor, make sure that your knees are in line with your feet and they are not moving in or out. Throughout the entire movement, keep your core tight.
- Make sure that your hip joint is lower than your knees. If it isn’t, you’re not squatting deep enough.
- Once you reach the bottom of the squat, drive yourself back up through the heels, keeping all of your muscles engaged as you do.
- Finally, squeeze your glutes together at the top, and then repeat.
These are the basic steps that you need to take to execute the perfect squat.
Which Muscle Groups Are Worked By Squats?
Squats are such an effective exercise because they work multiple muscles. Compound exercises like these are vital if you want to build overall strength. Squatting is also a very natural position for the human body, although we don’t squat as much as we once would have done because we sit on chairs. Practicing this movement regularly is an excellent way to build functional strength.
Most people do squats because they want to build their quadriceps. However, squats also work the following muscles:
In fact, if you execute a squat properly, it works the entire lower body and core in one simple move. Variations on a simple body-weight squat can be even more effective and once you start adding a barbell, squats become one of the most effective compound exercises, working almost every major muscle group in the body.
The basic body-weight squat is perfect for muscle building in the legs and core. However, if you want a more targeted exercise, you should consider some of these variations.
Jump squats are an effective way to boost the benefit you get from normal body-weight squats by making them more dynamic. They also help to improve balance and control as you land.
When doing a jump squat, you start exactly the same way you would a normal squat. When you reach the bottom of the squat, keep your core engaged as you straighten up and jump off the ground slightly. Land as lightly as possible and lower your body straight back into the squat position again. When you first start out, you can do a small jump but as your muscles get stronger, you can increase the height of the jump.
Jump squats are one of the best compound exercises because they work the same muscles as a standard squat but you have to push yourself a bit harder. Sticking the landing also helps to improve your control and build functional strength. Just remember that form is incredibly important here and it’s better to do a few slow reps with good form than it is to do lots of bad jump squats.
If you want to turn a squat into a full-body move, barbell squats are the way to go. Start with the bar on the rack, just below shoulder height. With your hands wider than shoulder-width, rest the bar on your upper back and grip it. Then, stand up and bring the bar off the rack and perform a squat motion as you normally would, making sure that your hips come below your knees. Finally, plant your feet firmly on the ground and return to a standing position. Repeat for around 3-5 reps, depending on your fitness level, and then return the bar to the rack.
The obvious benefit of barbell squats is that they increase the weight, meaning that the muscle building benefits in your lower body are much greater. However, it also forces you to engage your core more and builds muscle in the upper body at the same time. If you’re looking for compound exercises that give you a full-body workout, barbell squats are one of the best.
Sometimes, you may find that certain muscles are weaker than others and it’s important that you find ways to address this imbalance if you want to build good functional strength. People often find that their adductors (inner thighs) are a lot weaker than their quadriceps. All variations of squats are good at building muscle in your quads but if you want to strengthen the inner thigh, you should add sumo squats to your routine as they specifically target your adductors.
The motion of a sumo squat is similar to a normal body-weight squat but you start with your feet in a much wider stance, with your toes pointed outward at around a 45-degree angle. Start by lowering your hips until they are parallel to the floor and then push back upwards again. The wide stance will engage your adductors and they will do most of the work, as opposed to your quads taking the majority of the weight as they would in a normal squat.
Incorporating Squats Into Your Routine
All of these variations of squats will help with muscle building in the lower body but if you want to incorporate more squats into your routine, it’s important to consider your overall fitness goals. For example, if you are trying to build your upper body as well, barbell squats are one of the best compound exercises. However, if you are more focused on weight loss and toning, sumo squats and body-weight squats are the way to go.
If you are just starting out, try to do 10-15 squats 3 times a week. As your strength improves, you can increase the number of reps.
Pros and Cons of Squats
There are a lot of benefits to compound exercises like squats but there are also some downsides to consider when deciding whether to incorporate them into your routine or not.
- Varied Exercises: Variety is so important when working out, especially if you do a lot of weight training. People often make the mistake of sticking to targeted exercises that build strength in specific, isolated muscles. Unfortunately, this strength doesn’t translate into functional strength. The different variations of squats will give you a rounded workout and help to address the imbalance that is caused by spot training. Exercises like the sumo squat can also help to work muscles that get missed by most other exercises.
- Improved Core and Back Strength: Without a strong core, you will struggle to meet your fitness goals because it is the foundation upon which you build everything else. Squats are a simple exercise that strengthens your abs and back muscles while also building muscle in the lower body.
- Better Posture: Poor posture is a common issue that can affect your health in many ways. When you do a squat, it’s important that you keep your back straight at all times, so practicing them on a regular basis can improve your overall posture. Increasing strength in the core and lower body also has a positive impact on your posture.
- Improved Flexibility: Maintaining flexibility can be difficult but it’s very important. Squats are an effective, dynamic exercise that can improve flexibility in the knees and the hips.
- You Can Do Them Anywhere: The great thing about squats is that you don’t need any equipment at all, and they don’t require that much space either, so you can do them anywhere. This makes it a lot easier to add them to your routine and even if you can’t make it to the gym, you can still get a great workout.
- Potential For Injury: Maintaining correct form is vital when doing squats or you risk injury. Knee injuries are a big problem because people move their knees in or out too much during the movement. Leaning too far forward can also lead to back injuries as well. If you are using a barbell, there is a chance that you can strain your back if you don’t get the weight right.
- Barbell Squats Require A Spotter: Although most squat variations can be done alone without any equipment, you will need a barbell and, if you want to guarantee safety, a spotter when doing barbell squats. This can be limiting if you usually exercise alone.
Although squats do have their downsides, they are a brilliant exercise regardless of whether you are trying to lose weight or you are more focused on muscle building. However, there are a lot of leg press benefits that you should consider as well.
Now that you know all there is to know about squats let's look at leg presses and how they can potentially improve your workout routine.
Even if they aren’t part of your normal workout routine, you’re probably familiar with the leg press machine in the gym.
A lot of people don’t like using resistance machines and they assume that free weight exercises or body-weight exercise are always more effective. But that ignores some of the great leg press benefits and the ways that resistance machines can be better than free weights.
It is known that the leg press incorporates large muscle groups in the lower-body which translate to improved athletic performance. 
Read on to find out more about how to do a leg press properly, some of the variations that you can try, and the most important leg press benefits.
How To Do A Leg Press
The leg press is a seated exercise that requires the use of a machine in the gym. Although it looks simple, it is still important that you know how to do a leg press correctly to avoid injury and get the most out of the exercise.
There are two main types of leg press machines that you will see in the gym. The first has you sitting up straight with your legs resting against a horizontal plate. The other type has you sitting back at an angle and pushing a plate that is above head height. Both machines work the same muscle groups and have the same potential benefits.
First, you need to get your feet positioned in the right place. They should always be shoulder-width apart and your toes need to be pointed out slightly. If you want to focus on building muscle in your quads, you should put your feet lower down. However, if you want to work on your glutes, put your feet towards the top of the pad.
When you are ready to begin, straighten your legs and let go of the handles to release the weight. It is important that your entire back, especially the lower back, is pressed tightly against the seat and you avoid leaning forward. If you don’t keep your back in the right position, you will put stress on the lower back and take it off the glutes, meaning that you won’t work the correct muscles.
Slowly lower the legs towards the chest, being careful to make sure that your knees don’t come into contact with your chest. Then, extend the legs, leaving a slight bend in the knee to maintain tension in the quads. If you extend your legs too far and lock out the knees, you risk injury. The entire movement should be slow and controlled.
Which Muscles Are Worked By The Leg Press?
The leg press is the ideal exercise if you want targeted muscle building in the lower body. The primary muscles that are worked are the quads and the glutes.  However, the leg press also helps to build your calves and hamstrings.
Unlike squats, the leg press does not do much to improve your core strength or your upper body strength, so it’s not as effective if you are looking for compound exercises. However, that doesn’t mean that the squat is always the better choice. If you want more targeted results from the leg press, there are some variations that you can try.
Leg Press Variations
The fixed nature of the leg press machine means that there are not that many variations to try. But increasing the weight over time does help you to make sure that you are always improving your lower body strength. Other variations that you can try include:
Single Leg Press
One of the issues that people have with weight machines is that the dominant arm or leg sometimes takes the majority of the weight, meaning that you don’t get an equal workout. You can easily avoid this by doing a single leg press and working one leg at a time. If you notice that one leg is more engaged than the other when doing a standard leg press, you should give this one a try. Just be careful with the weight and start low so you can gradually increase it and find the right level.
High Foot Position
Placing your feet higher up on the pad reduces the range of motion in your knees and puts more strain on the hamstrings and glutes rather than the quads. This is a good option if you want to target those specific areas.
Lower Foot Position
A lower foot position has the opposite effect and puts the focus on the glutes by increasing the range of motion in your knees. It is often a good idea to do a combination of high and low foot positions during your workout to ensure equal muscle building throughout the legs and avoid any weak areas.
Incorporating The Leg Press Into Your Routine
The leg press is particularly good for beginners that are looking to move on to a barbell eventually. It allows you to get to grips with the basic motion and start building the right muscles with the assistance and added control of the machine.
It is also very effective if you want to target specific muscles. While compound exercises are important, if you notice that your quads or your glutes are weaker than other leg muscles and you want to balance things out again, the targeted nature of the leg press machine is perfect.
Ideally, you should do around 12 to 15 reps for each set on the leg press machine. If it is incredibly difficult to get that many out, you should lower the weight a bit.
Pros and Cons of The Leg Press
Although some people argue that body-weight and free weight exercises are always better than machines, there are actually a lot of leg press benefits to consider and it does have its place in many workout routines.
- Targeted Muscle Building: The best thing about the leg press is that you can easily isolate a specific leg muscle. Your back is supported and there are hand rests, so you only work your legs and nothing else.
- Easily Adjustable: Isolating the glutes or the quads is very simple as you only need to change the position of your feet slightly to feel the difference.
- Improved Quad Strength: When using a leg press, you have a much smaller range of motion in your knees. This means that there is less emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings and the quads do more work, so it’s ideal if you are looking for an effective way to build quad strength.
- You Can Do It Alone: While the barbell squat is one of the best compound exercises out there, you do need a spotter if you want to do it safely, and that can be limiting. However, with the leg press machine, you don’t need anybody there with you.
- You Need A Machine: The obvious downside to the leg press is that you need access to a machine. Some people don’t like working out at the gym or they can’t afford it, so this is a problem. Even if you do have a gym membership, it might be busy and you will have to wait for the machine to be free.
- Unequal Workouts: When using any machine of this kind, there is a risk that you will work one leg more than the other. However, as discussed earlier, you can use the single leg variation to avoid this.
- Risk Of Injury: There are a few ways that you could potentially injure yourself when using a leg press machine. If you round your back too much and fail to keep it flat against the seat, you can strain your back muscles. This usually happens because people are tempted to put too much weight on and they are unable to lift it while also maintaining proper form. If you lock your knees out when you extend your legs, this can lead to injuries as well.
Squats vs Leg Press: Which Is Better?
As you can see, both of these exercises can be very effective when used correctly but they also have their downsides.
Squats are one of the best compound exercises out there and if you add a barbell, you can work all of the major muscle groups in your body. They are excellent for building functional strength and there are some great variations that you can use to work different muscle groups.
The leg press, on the other hand, allows you to target very specific leg muscles by making small adjustments to your foot position. You don’t need a spotter like you would if you were doing barbell squats but you do need access to a gym, which is a problem for some people.
Many of the downsides of each exercise are to do with poor form, so as long as you make sure that you are performing the exercises correctly, they each have a lot of benefits. Knowing whether squats or leg presses are better for you is all about your specific fitness goals. It’s important to consider what you are trying to achieve with your workouts and that will help you to determine which exercise is right for you.
When Should You Do Squats?
These are some of the fitness goals that are best met by doing squats rather than the leg press.
Improving Core Strength
Core strength is vital to overall body strength and it also has a big part to play in things like posture. If you are new to working out or you have previously focused on very targeted exercises, it is likely that you lack core strength. A leg press won’t help you to build core strength so it’s best to stick to squats, to begin with, at least.
Pushing large weights on a leg press will help you to build a lot of muscle, but only in specific areas. This is not good for functional training and if your fitness goals are tied to other activities, like running or football, for example, the leg press isn’t the best option. A squat will help to build muscle equally while also improving flexibility and balance, all of which will help you to meet your wider fitness goals.
All-Round Leg Workouts
If you have been working out for a while and your legs are already pretty big, but you notice that certain areas are weaker, you should target those areas with a leg press. However, if you are new to working out and you are looking to generally boost your lower body strength, squats are ideal. A standard body-weight squat will work all of your leg muscles at the same time and if you add a barbell, you can improve upper body strength as well.
People also wrongly assume that the leg press is the best way to get huge leg muscles because you can just increase the weight. However, barbell squats are more effective if you are looking to build large amounts of muscle mass.
When Should You Use The Leg Press?
There are a lot of great leg press benefits and in certain situations, it is a lot more effective than squats.
Barbell Squats Are Too Difficult
In most cases, you should be able to do a barbell squat with an empty bar, even if you are not that strong. However, if you want more resistance than you would get with a body-weight squat but a barbell squat is too hard, the leg press is a great alternative. It will help you to build up your strength until you are strong enough to manage a barbell squat.
Strengthening Weak Muscle Groups
If you have certain problem areas that are weaker than your other muscles, squats are not the best way to fix them. They will strengthen all muscles in the legs equally, which means that the imbalance is still there. Using the leg press is a more effective way to pay attention to one particular area.
You Require Extra Support
Some people feel that they need a bit of extra support and the leg press is perfect for that. If you have been out of action for a while due to an injury, for example, it’s not a good idea to dive straight into barbell squats. But using a leg press allows you to build your strength with the added support of the machine, which is a lot safer.
You Want To Burn Fat
People often underestimate the fat burning benefits of strength exercises and if you are looking to shed pounds, the leg press is a much better option than squats. If you reduce the weight to below your normal level but do more reps in a short space of time, this is a great way to lose weight. It’s quite difficult to do this with squats because you have to worry about form but you don’t have that issue on the leg press machine, so you can focus on speed.
The best way to lose weight on the leg press machine is to do as many reps as you can in 20 seconds, then rest for 10 before starting again. Repeat this up to 8 times if you can and you can burn a lot of fat.
Hopefully, this article has given you more insight into leg press benefits and the benefits of squats. Both exercises are incredibly effective in their own way.
This point was affirmed by a study looking at the outcomes of squats and the leg press. The article which was published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness concluded that both free weights and resistance machines are beneficial to functional fitness. 
However, the squat favored the countermovement jump whereas dynamic balance saw greater improvement from the leg press, so think about what your goals are when deciding which is right for you.
When performing any exercise, ensure you keep properly hydrated.