Exercise Technique

Leg Press or Back Squat?

By March 16, 2018 May 23rd, 2019 No Comments

Imagine walking into the gym one day during a busy hour, and only finding the squat rack and a leg press machine free. Which one do you choose as the best exercise for training your legs? In this blog we explore the difference between the two exercises.

The Barbell Squat

The barbell squat is one of the most popular exercises among gym-goers in terms of training legs. Here at Warwick Workout, the barbell squat rack can be found in the free-weights area.

Power is the ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible, as in accelerating, jumping and throwing implements. In a study by Padulo, Migliaccio, Ardigo, Leban, Cosso, & Samozino (2017), it was found that a barbell squat had potential to develop higher maximal power output compared to a leg press.

Performing a barbell squat is also more beneficial than leg press because it requires activation of your core stabiliser muscles during the performance of the exercise.

The barbell squat is recommended to be performed by those experienced in the exercise, or while under supervision from a trainer. Incorrect technique during the performance of a barbell squat can lead to injuries.

• The bar’s starting position must be below shoulder level for an easier way to unrack the bar.
• Keep your back in a neutral spine alignment
• Squat as low possible while keeping neutral spine alignment

Leg Press

Compared to a barbell squat, a leg press involves the use of a machine that will look similar to the photos below.

There is potential for higher maximal force production in leg press compared to a barbell squat (Padulo, et. al, 2017). (Note that force is a pushing or pulling action that causes a change of motion of an object). This can be due to the decreased need to stabilise the upper body, which leads to greater ability to engage the quadriceps muscles. This translates to higher weights being lifted as stabilising muscles are not utilised compared to when a barbell squat is performed.

The leg press is also a great machine to be used by beginners who are commencing a resistance training program. This is due to the machine enabling individuals to have a fixed movement pattern throughout the whole range of  motion in the exercise.

Furthermore, individuals who are recovering from upper limb injuries are also able to use the leg press machine to isolate the lower limb muscles while minimising trunk activation.

Due to its fixed movement pattern and technique, a leg press has less range of motion in the hips (~135º) compared to a barbell squat (~180º) when the knee is fully extended (Padulo, et. al, 2017). This means that stabilising muscles such as the abductors and adductors are activated less.

• Always keep the 5 points of contact – back, feet and hands – on the machine! (Head to be placed where comfortable)
• Avoid fully locking out your knees.

So squat or leg press?

  Barbell Squat Leg Press
Pros Potential for higher maximal power Output

Utilises stabilising core muscles


Potential for higher maximal force production

Recommended for beginners or individuals recovering from injury

Cons More technical requirements of the lift mean more risk of injury if not performed properly.

Recommended for experienced individuals or to be performed under direct supervision from a trainer

Less hip range of motion throughout exercise

Hip flexors, abductors and adductors are activated less due to decreased demand in stability.

If your primary goal is to utilise more of the body’s muscles, the barbell squat is a great exercise to use. The squat enables the use of your lower limb muscles as well as your core stabilisers and positively affects your maximal power output. On the other hand, the leg press is a great exercise if you are a beginner or are recovering from injury. Stabilising muscles are not utilised as much in leg press compared to a barbell squat, therefore individuals are able to have a higher potential for maximal force production while performing the exercise.

by Julian Ramos Exercise, Sports and Rehabilitation Science Student
Curtin University. Julian is currently doing his 3rd year practicum hours with our High Performance Coach Laurence Houghton.