Q: Is it OK to perform Leg Presses as my main lower-body exercise?
A: No, if you’re an athlete, you should not perform the Leg Press. Pressing a huge amount of weight with your legs may seem beneficial, but it can do more harm than good. Here’s why:
It’s Not Functional
When we talk about functional exercises, we refer to their ability to help you achieve your goals as an athlete. STACK Expert Nick Tumminello gives a great explanation here.
If you’re an athlete, you want to run faster, jump higher and increase your power—to improve your game on the field or court.
Will the Leg Press help you achieve those goals? STACK Expert Tony Gentilcore doesn’t think so.
In his article My Case Against the Leg Press, Gentilcore writes, “There aren’t many sports (or real life events for that matter) that ask for an individual to step into a contraption, slap 400 pounds on, sit down, and proceed to push said 400 pounds up and down an incline at 45 degrees using what amounts to an 8-inch range of motion.”
Gentilcore declares that to make matters worse, you’re locked into a machine that does not engage your core and stabilizer muscles. Have you noticed that you can leg press significantly more weight than you can Squat? It’s because you take those muscles—which are used in nearly every athletic movement—out of the equation.
This is why the Leg Press is popular with physical therapists to help rehab lower-body injuries. It isolates the quads—and the glutes to some extent—allowing you to regain strength in a controlled environment. However, as your strength progresses, that same physical therapist will likely prescribe more advanced exercises like Squats and Deadlifts.
You May Hurt Your Back
You train to get stronger, faster and bigger. However, the number one goal of any training program is to keep you healthy. Under no circumstance should a workout program put you at risk for an injury.
If you watch someone performing the Leg Press, you’ll notice that they essentially fold their body in half while controlling huge amounts of weight. Does it seem uncomfortable and awkward? It is.
In his book Low Back Disorders, renowned spinal expert Dr. Stuart McGill explains that the Leg Press causes your pelvis to come off the back pad as the weight lowers, causing stress that increases your chance of suffering a herniated disc.
If you were waffling on whether to include the Leg Press in your workout, that should settle the issue. No sane person would ever voluntarily do something that could cause a herniated disc.
What Should You Do?
Don’t do the Leg Press unless instructed by a physical therapist during rehab or by a strength coach to address specific imbalances. In these cases, the weight load will likely be light, reducing the sheering forces placed on your spine.
This advice applies to moments when your competitive fire burns. If you see someone lifting a crazy amount of weight, you may want to equal or attempt to do more. Don’t.
Stick to the lower-body exercises that are best for athletes, such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bulgarian Split-Squats and Lunges. You may be able to lift less, but you’ll perform better on the field.