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How to do the leg press correctly

Everyone loves the leg press machines at the gym. But few take the time to use it correctly, often resulting in injuries. This is how you do it right

Get the most out of the leg press.
Get the most out of the leg press. (Istockphoto)

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One of the more ridiculous sights at a gym is when one or more people perch themselves along with the weights of a leg-press machine and make one of their gym buddies attempt a few ultra-heavy reps. It is a near-certainty that form will suffer with this stunt. Even though the leg-press is easier to do than a squat, due to the lumbar support it offers, there are rules on how to do it without injuring yourself. One of these rules is knowing how much weight you should be lifting, even if it is a one-rep max attempt. And even if you can lift all the weights in this world, following the checklist below will help your body cope (with a very unnecessary rep). 

In case you are new to the fitness world, the leg-press machine is designed for you to lie down on an incline, as you place your feet on a platform which can be loaded with weights. One has to unlock the machine’s sled from its resting position to its repping position. This will set the sled free (with its weights) which has to be brought down in a controlled eccentric motion before pushing (or pressing) it back into starting position. That is one leg-press. The exercise works your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves and allows the body to push off a fixed back position. This makes the exercise a favourite on leg-day, even though it is not a substitute for the tried and tested squat. 

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Don’t let the knees cave in: As fit as we may be, most people suffer from tight or weak hips and glutes. This can affect even the simplest of exercises, and especially during heavy lifts that involve knee flexion. “This creates extra strain on your quadriceps muscles and puts the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the front of your knee in what we might call a biomechanically untenable position,” states a article titled Bulletproof Your Squat by Eliminating These 5 Errors.

Don’t let your glutes lift off: While the upper back or the thoracic spine is well supported on the machine, the lower back or the lumbar is still exposed to the dangers of lifting off the machine along with the glutes if you let the sled drop too low. This will immediately transfer the weight to the lower back (which, by the way, is very injury prone), so you need to be in complete control of the sled. Keeping the lower back and glutes firmly supported ensures your legs are doing most of the work.

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Don’t place your hands on your knees: Hold the grips on the sides of the sled when performing a rep. Placing the hands on the knees will break your form. “While you may be taking some pressure off your knees by giving them support with your hands, chances are that you will compromise your back position while doing it. Your back should be absolutely straight while doing leg presses to avoid any injury to your back, therefore, always grab those handles while you do a leg press,” writes therapeutic exercise specialist Anuj Tyagi in a Mensxp article on how you can make your leg press better.

Control your weights and your breathing: It is important to breathe out when applying effort and inhaling when returning to the starting position. Along with this pattern, use weights that you can control. Anything that makes you feel like your legs will collapse is too much weight. A manageable weight will also ensure enough mind-muscle connection to not lock the knees out, something which can cause injury. 

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The leg press is not a substitute for squats: A study published in 2016 in the US National Library of Medicine, on the effects of free-weight and machine-based training, delivers a sound reminder of why the leg-press should not be used in place of squats, but rather, in tandem: “In the comparison of the squat and leg press exercise, both exercises train nearly the same muscles of the lower extremities, but in some aspects they are different: the leg-press has less requirements concerning balancing the weight and therefore, less muscle activity contributes toward stabilization compared to the squat,” it states. The paper also adds that the leg-press does allow one to push more weight in a linear path, which will aid the growth of muscles. The squat and the leg press should ideally both be inducted into your routine.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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