Leg Press vs Squat Compared

Almost every commercial gym has a squat rack and a leg press for training your lower body. And the question inevitably arises; which is better for building your legs?

Some diehard lifters argue that squats are king and leg presses are useless. At the same time, others suggest that the leg press has merits and could even be a substitute for squats. Yet nobody seems to back their opinion with numbers or data!

That’s why I analyzed the leg press vs squat objectively and quantitatively from multiple perspectives. So you can determine which is best for you based on your physical abilities and fitness goals.

Leg Press vs Squat

What Is A Leg Press vs Squat?

Before we get into the detailed comparison, I want to ensure we’re all on the same page with how we define each exercise.

Leg Press

The leg press comes in several types and variations. Some use plate-loaded sleds, while others use a weight selector stack connected to a sliding seat via cables.

Whichever type of leg press you have, the basic concept of the exercise is the same. You sit in a seat and push on a weighted platform with your feet.

This exercise is designed to work the major muscles of your lower body, including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. In addition, you can also do calf raises on the leg press.

To provide a consistent comparison with squats, I’ll mostly be talking about the 45o plate-loaded leg press in this article.

Plate Loaded Leg Press vs Squat

Squat

The squat exercise also comes in many forms like barbell back squats, front squats, hack squats, goblet squats, and bodyweight squats. While the loading and body position vary slightly, the general idea is that you plant your feet on the floor, squat down, and stand back up.

This exercise requires balance and coordination to move your body through the proper range of motion while controlling the weight. As such, it works many muscles including the core, lower back, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

For the purposes of this comparison, I’ll mostly be talking about traditional barbell squats in this article.

Barbell Squat vs Leg Press

Leg Press vs Squat Comparison

To decide which is better for you, we need to compare the leg press and squat from several perspectives. So each section below covers a different aspect of training that might be important to you.

1. Leg Press vs Squat Body Mechanics

The leg press and squat are compound movements involving the knee and hip joints simultaneously. But different body positions in each exercise change the loading on the joints.

As you go down in a squat, your back stays relatively upright to balance the weight on your shoulders. While the seat angle of the leg press means your back is leaned far forward toward your thighs.

As a result, the leg press creates significantly more hip bend and less knee bend at the bottom of the movement. By comparison, squats have more knee bend and less hip bend at the bottom.

Squat vs Leg Press Body Mechanics

Figure 1. A comparison of knee and hip angles at the bottom of the squat vs leg press. The shaded blue and yellow triangles are the same sizes in each picture to illustrate the different angles of the knee and hip.

2. Leg Press vs Squat Muscle Activation

Both the leg press and squats work all the major muscles in your legs. But the distinct body mechanics of each exercise shift the loading to different muscle groups.

For example, the greater hip bend on the leg press emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings. While squats activate more quads due to the more significant knee bend.

However, it’s important to realize that neither exercise is an isolation movement. And there will always be multiple muscle groups involved with the leg press and squats.

Leg Press vs Squat Testosterone

Figure 2. The leg press tends to activate more glutes and hamstrings compared to squats.

Leg Press vs Squat Muscle Activation

Figure 3. Squats tend to activate more quadriceps compared to the leg press.

3. Leg Press vs Squat Heart Rate

One study measured participants’ heart rates during leg presses vs squats. Their results show that heart rate was consistently higher during and after squats than the leg press.

Measurements of the leg press exercise had an average heart rate of around 62% of max. In comparison, squats had an average heart rate of about 70% of max.

Most likely, the seated or laying position of the leg press results in less cardiovascular stress than the upright position of squats.

Leg Press vs Squat Heart Rate

Figure 4. Heart rate during six sets of leg press vs squats expressed as a percentage of maximum. Adapted from Shaner et. al.

4. Leg Press vs Squat Calories Burned

There is a direct correlation between exercise intensity and calories burned. In other words, the higher your heart rate, the more calories you burn. 

The leg press burned about 10 calories per minute based on heart rate measurements. At the same time, squats burned about 12.5 calories per minute.

Another way to express this is you burn about 25% more calories with squats.

Leg Press vs Squat Calories Burned

Figure 5. Squats result in a higher exercise intensity at the same relative load (80% 1RM). Thereby burning more calories per minute.

5. Leg Press vs Squat Difficulty

Generally, free weight exercises are challenging to learn and master because they require more balance and muscle coordination than machines. For this reason, beginners often start on the leg press machine before attempting free weight squats.

In addition, squats require more mental and physical effort. A comparison of lifters’ rating of perceived exertion (RPE) reveals that squats consistently feel harder than the leg press at the same relative load.

Squats feel more challenging because you do more work even at the same exercise intensity as the leg press.

Leg Press vs Squat Difficulty

Figure 6. Experienced lifters reported that squats felt more difficult than leg presses on most sets. Both exercises were performed for 10 reps at 80% 1RM. Adapted from Shaner et. al.

6. Leg Press vs Squat Workload

In physics, work is force multiplied by distance. So even if you put more weight on the leg press, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did more work!

For example, the 45o angle of the leg press means that you only feel a fraction of the weight. Plus, you don’t lift your total body mass or move the weight as far as you do in the squat.

Therefore, the total work done during the squat is significantly more than the leg press. According to a comparative study, the squat resulted in 40% more work during a one-rep max (1RM).

Leg Press vs Squat Workload

Figure 7. Comparison of total work performed (Force x Distance) during 1RM on squat and leg press. Workload adjusted for actual load and body mass lifted. Adapted from Shaner et. al.

7. Leg Press vs Squat Hormone Response

Testosterone and growth hormone are natural anabolic compounds that our bodies produce to recover from stress and build muscle. So it’s beneficial to have healthy levels of both of these hormones.

Studies show that squats result in a more significant anabolic hormone response than the leg press. And it’s theorized that the higher total workload is the main contributor to this difference.

Leg Press vs Squat Testosterone

Figure 8. Testosterone levels before, during, and after heavy squats and leg presses. Adapted from Shaner et. al.

Leg Press vs Squat Growth Hormone

Figure 9. Growth hormone levels before, during, and after heavy squats and leg presses. Adapted from Shaner et. al.

8. Leg Press vs Squat Recovery

It’s important to realize that heavy compound exercises like squats and leg press tax your nervous system. And the more intense the exercise, the longer it takes your nervous system to rebound.

Furthermore, this direct correlation between exercise intensity and recovery means it generally takes longer to recover from squats than the leg press.

In practical application, you probably shouldn’t do heavy squats multiple times per week. But you could likely do a combination of squats and leg press.

Leg Press vs Squat Recovery

Figure 10. A generalization of predicted recovery time based on heart rate variability responses to different exercise intensities.

9. Leg Press vs Squat Variations

Finally, it’s important to compare how adaptable the leg press and squat exercises are to fit your needs and goals.

For example, you can change your foot placement on the leg press to target different muscles. Placing your feet low on the platform targets more quads, while feet high targets more glutes and hamstrings.

In addition, you can adjust the seatback to change the range of motion and alter the degree of hip flexion.

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By comparison, you have relatively little room for adjustments on barbell squats because your feet must remain directly below your body.

Although you can use a high bar or low bar position to slightly change the mechanics and muscles activated. Or use the front squat to target more quads.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Mechanics

Figure 11. Placing the bar low on your shoulders shifts your center of mass back, resulting in more hip bend and less knee bend.

Front Squat vs Back Squat

Figure 12. Placing the bar on the front of your shoulders shifts your center of gravity forward, resulting in more knee bend and less hip bend.

Squat vs Leg Press: Which Is Better?

When deciding if the leg press or squat exercise is better for you, it’s necessary to compare the pros and cons of each. Then consider the benefits along with your individual needs and goals.

Squat Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Greater total muscle activation
  • More calories burned
  • Larger anabolic response
  • Better carryover to athletic performance

Cons

  • More difficult to learn
  • Harder on the back
  • More stress on the nervous system, longer recovery
  • Less adjustability with foot placement

Leg Press Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Easier to learn
  • Less stressful on the nervous system, shorter recovery
  • More variation with foot placement and muscle targeting
  • Lower RPE (doesn’t feel as difficult)

Cons

  • Less overall muscle activation
  • Smaller anabolic response
  • Burns fewer calories
  • Less carryover to athletic performance

With this list of benefits and limitations, you can see which exercise should work better for you.

For example, squats are better for overall power development and athletic performance. However, the leg press might be better for targeting specific parts of the legs or working around an injury.

However, it’s not necessary to pit the leg press against squats. And you can use both or alternate between exercises in your workout routine.

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Leg Press vs Squat FAQ

Now you have a good idea of the significant differences between the squat and leg press. But you might still have more specific questions about these exercises.

So now I’ll answer some of the most common questions regarding leg press vs squat.

Are leg presses better than squats?

No, the leg press is not better than the squat exercise. Squats produce greater muscle activation and more functional strength gains.

Still, the leg press is an acceptable option for beginners or people who can’t do squats. Or if you use it in conjunction with squats for overall leg development.

Does leg press replace squat?

No, the leg press is not a direct replacement for squats. While both work similar muscle groups, the training benefits are different.

Therefore, you should not substitute the leg press for squats unless you have a specific reason for doing so.

Is leg press good for building muscle?

Yes, the leg press is good for building lower body muscle. And it allows you to target and emphasize different parts of your legs by changing your foot position.

However, the leg press is not as good as squats for overall muscle and strength gains.

Does leg press give you a big bum?

Yes, you can use the leg press to work your glutes and build a bigger booty. The key to engaging your glutes is using a high and wide foot placement with a full range of motion.

Why are squats harder than leg press?

Squats are harder than the leg press due to loading and muscle activation. First, squats require you to use more core strength to balance the weight on your shoulders. Second, you’re lifting your body weight and the bar weight.

The leg press feels easier because the weight only moves in one dimension. And the seated position means you only feel the weight of your legs plus the sled weight. Finally, your heart rate doesn’t elevate as quickly on the leg press due to the prone or semi-lying position.

How Much Does A Leg Press Weigh Without Plates?

How much stronger is leg press than squat?

Generally, you should be able to leg press roughly twice as much as you squat. You can do more weight on the leg press because you don’t feel the full load of the sled and weights.

To illustrate, look at the force diagram below. The total weight of the leg press sled goes straight down due to gravity. Some of that downward force goes directly into the rails of the leg press. The remaining force is what you feel on your feet.

Leg Press Force Diagram

Figure 13. This simple diagram illustrates how you don’t feel the full force of the weight on the leg press. And part of the reason why you can put more weight on the leg press than the squat bar.

Leg Press vs Squat Weight Calculator

The amount of weight you can leg press or squat is based on the load on your muscles, not just the weight on the sled or bar. This calculator accounts for the differences in loading between the two exercises.

So you can predict how much you should squat based on how much you can leg press. Or predict your leg press weight based on how much you squat.

Simply enter the maximum number of reps you can do with a certain weight on leg press or squat. Then the calculator shows your predicted weight for the same number of reps on the other exercise.

leg press to squat calculator

More Benefits of Squats

In this article, you learned how the leg press stacks up against squats. And now you should know when to use each exercise based on your health and fitness goals.

But if you’re still on the fence about getting under the squat bar, I get it. Squats are intimidating to learn and grueling even after you master the technique.

However, there are dozens more reasons why you should be squatting! Click here to see all 21 benefits of squats for men and women.

Benefits of Squats For Men And Women
Benefits of Squats

With this information, you’re well on your way to building a better lower body. But don’t stop now! Check out these other great articles for more workout, nutrition, and supplement tips.

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