The leg press is a classic gym exercise. On the surface, it seems great. It offers a way to train the leg and the squat movement without heavily loading the spine.
However, in my opinion, it’s one of the most overrated exercises out there, and, almost regardless of your capabilities, there are better alternatives.
They just take up precious gym space that should be used for other things. I agree with what Mike Boyle says: there are bad exercises.
(Note so that the internet doesn’t yell at me: There are cases where people are recovering from injury where it can make sense.)
The main reason for this is two-fold:
1) You train your muscles in a way you’d never use them in real life. It doesn’t translate to sports, and limits the use of any and all stabilizers.
2) There are a wealth of alternatives.
When I call these exercise “functional” I mean that they’ll translate beyond that exercise and into how you move in sports and life. Leg presses may strengthen and grow your quads, but they won’t help you when you need to sprint, or hike, or keep yourself from falling. Functional = Translatable.
I’m not gonna get into the functional vs non-functional debate, but the bottom line is there are so many better leg exercises, that you should just use those. Here are some great alternatives that still allow you to keep the loads off of your spine while training your legs in a way that transfers to your everyday activities and athletics.
A unilateral exercise that targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. I’m a huge fan of single-leg training. I think there are almost no disadvantages. So when somebody comes to me looking for ways to strengthen their legs without putting stress on the spine, single-leg exercises are the first place I turn.
Stand in front of a bench, place one foot on it, and perform a squat with the other leg.
Don’t go out too far. Many people wind up making it stressful on their back because they’re going out so far.
Go heavy. I’ve seen athletes with my own eyes use hundreds of pounds on this exercise. Once you’ve got it down, it’s a great one to increase the weight on. For this exercise alone, I think it’s worth investing in a weighted vest.
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per leg. Further, do this one towards the beginning of your workout so you’re fresh.
For more, check out my article on Bulgarian Split Squats.
The Goblet Squat is an excellent exercise for beginners. That’s because it’s very spine-friendly, and helps you sink into a squat. The downside if you can’t go super heavy, so eventually you should “graduate” from goblet squats.
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell close to your chest, elbows pointing downward. Squat down as if you’re sitting back into a chair, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
Depth Matters: Don’t cheat yourself by doing half-reps. Go as deep as your mobility allows to engage the full range of leg muscles.
Foot Position: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly turned out. This isn’t just a “quad” exercise; it’s a full lower-body movement.
Core Engagement: This isn’t just a leg exercise; it’s a core blaster too. Keep that core tight throughout the movement.
3-4 sets of 10-15 reps. And don’t be shy about the weight. If you can goblet squat it, you can probably do it for reps.
The Reverse Lunge is another underrated unilateral leg exercise. While it may seem like an accessory move, it’s a powerhouse when it comes to functional strength. Like the Bulgarian Split Squat, I view it as a key strength movement. Compared to the forward lunge, the reverse variation places less stress on the knees, making it a more joint-friendly option without sacrificing muscle engagement. For this reason, I recommend it to those who may gravitate toward a leg press.
Start in a standing position, holding dumbbells at your sides or a barbell on your upper back. Step one foot back and lower your body until both knees are bent at about 90 degrees. Push through the front heel to return to the starting position.
Knee Alignment: Keep your front knee over your ankle as you lunge. This ensures you’re targeting the right muscles without putting undue stress on the knee joint.
Hip Engagement: Don’t just think of this as a leg exercise. Your hips are also heavily involved, especially as you push back to the starting position. Engage those glutes!
Progressive Overload: Once you’ve mastered the form, don’t hesitate to add weight. Whether it’s dumbbells, a barbell, or a weighted vest, increasing the load will make this exercise a true strength builder.
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per leg. Do these after your heavier compound lifts but before any isolation work. They’re demanding enough to build strength but not so taxing that they’ll ruin the rest of your workout.
The Trap Bar Squat is not your typical squat nor is it a traditional deadlift; it’s a hybrid that combines elements of both. Unlike the Trap Bar Deadlift, which focuses more on hip flexion, the Trap Bar Squat incorporates a greater degree of knee bend. This allows for a more quad-dominant exercise that still engages the posterior chain. It’s a fantastic exercise for building raw strength, but because it allows for heavy loads, it’s crucial to master the basics with exercises like the Goblet Squat first.
Stand inside a trap bar with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lower yourself into a squat position and grasp the handles of the trap bar. Keep your chest up and your back straight as you push through your heels to stand up, fully extending your hips and knees.
Hip and Knee Coordination: Unlike the deadlift, focus on bending your knees more as you lower down, making it more of a squatting motion.
Grip Strength: This exercise can also serve as a grip strength builder. Make sure to grasp the bar tightly throughout the movement.
Progression: Master the Goblet Squat before progressing to the Trap Bar Squat. The heavy loads can be unforgiving if your squat technique isn’t solid.
3-4 sets of 6-10 reps. Because of the heavy loads involved, it’s best to do this exercise early in your workout when you’re still fresh.
The 1-Leg Squat to Bench is a deceptive exercise. At first glance, it may seem simple, but it’s a challenging move that can humble even seasoned athletes.
It’s a bodyweight exercise that can be surprisingly difficult, yet it offers a way to build leg strength without putting stress on the spine. It’s also hard without any weight, even for those who are very strong.
With that said, holding a pair of light dumbbells can act as a counterbalance, making it easier to sink into the squat.
To make this more challenging, add a weighted vest and/or hold a dumbbell in the goblet position.
Start by standing in front of a bench or a similar elevated surface. Lift one leg off the ground and extend it in front of you. Lower your body by bending the knee of the supporting leg until your butt lightly touches the bench. Push through the heel to return to the starting position.
- Foot Placement: Make sure the foot of your supporting leg is fully flat on the ground. This ensures better stability and force production.
- Core Stability: Engage your core throughout the movement to maintain balance and protect your lower back.
- Counterbalance Technique: If you’re struggling with balance, try holding a pair of 5-lb dumbbells in front of you. It may sound counterintuitive, but the added weight can actually help you balance better.
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per leg. This exercise is versatile enough to fit anywhere in your workout.
The Reverse Nordic Curl is a lesser-known but highly effective exercise for stretching and strengthening your quads, particularly the rectus femoris. Unlike traditional hip flexor stretches, this exercise actively lengthens the hip flexors, allowing for a deeper range of motion under load. It’s a fantastic option for those looking to improve both hip mobility and eccentric leg strength. Before you jump into this, make sure you’ve got a good grasp of simpler quad exercises, as this one can be challenging.
Start in a half-kneeling position with your hips forward. Take a deep exhale and engage your core muscles. Slowly descend backward, keeping your glutes and abs squeezed. Descend until you feel a deep quad stretch or notice other muscles compensating. Aim for a ~5-second descent and then pull through the hips back to the starting position.
- Pelvic Tilt: Engaging your core will posteriorly tilt your pelvis, placing a slight stretch on the hip flexors and quads from the get-go.
- Eccentric Focus: This exercise targets the quads eccentrically, so make the most of it by descending slowly.
- Active vs Passive ROM: This exercise builds “active range of motion,” not just “passive range of motion,” making it superior for functional movements like deep squats.
For beginners, include one set of 5-8 reps in your warm-up. If you’re more advanced, you can integrate it into your strength programming, perhaps in a superset with Bulgarian Split Squats and Ab Wheel Rollouts.
A good leg press alternative should check a few boxes.
1.Use the same muscles as the leg press
2. Use a similar or the same movement. In this case, that’s knee flexion combined with hip flexion.
3. Reduce spinal load. That’s why I gravitate toward single-leg options.
4. Transfer to real life. If it doesn’t, you’re setting yourself up for injury and poor performance down the line.
The leg press primarily targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. With the alternatives listed above, you can effectively work these muscles while also engaging your stabilizers, and using movements that transfer beyond the gym.
Don’t. If you’re looking for a leg press alternative, you’re already on the right track. There are far better exercises that offer more functional benefits.
If you’re limited to dumbbells, you’re in luck. Exercises like the reverse lunge and dumbbell Bulgarian split squats are excellent alternatives that can be just as effective, if not more so.
The 1-Leg Squat to Bench is a fantastic bodyweight alternative. It’s challenging and offers a great way to build leg strength without putting stress on the spine.
Absolutely, yes. In fact, most squat variations are superior options because they engage more muscle groups and improve functional strength.
Don’t bother. There are plenty of other exercises that can effectively train the same movement patterns as the leg press, without the need for specialized equipment.
Definitely. Single-leg strength exercises like Bulgarian split squats or reverse lunges are arguably more important for functional fitness and can build impressive leg strength.
Squats are a more functional exercise that better mimics movements you’ll actually use in sports and daily life. They engage more muscle groups, including stabilizers, and offer a more comprehensive workout. The ability to move freely also allows for a greater range of motion, which is beneficial for joint health and overall mobility.
Is the leg press a bad exercise? If your goal is to move better, feel better, and perform better, then the simple answer is yes.
Further, these are just the beginning of alternatives I could give you. If you prefer forward lunges, do those. Walking lunges are great too, as are regular split squats. The choices for leg press alternatives are limitless because of the limitless possibilities to effectively train the quads.