There's a reason for leg day: Home to the biggest muscle in your body (hello, glutes!), your legs are your foundation. And giving your lower body some extra love can help you move through the world with more ease, both in and out of the gym. Enter leg presses and squats, two lower-body exercises that are a mainstay in the weight room. And while there's no doubt that these moves can help you feel the burn, is one better than the other? To help, trainers explain the benefits of each exercise and which one you should prioritize in your fitness routine.
Meet the Expert
What Are Leg Presses?
Leg presses are done on a machine — aptly called a leg press machine — and heavily target your quads, says Dale Santiago, a trainer and instructor at Rumble. To do them, start by setting the machine to your desired weight (sometimes it takes trial and error to settle on the amount that works best for you, but aim for a weight that feels challenging, not impossible). Then sit down on the machine's seat, usually close to the ground with your chest angled towards the ceiling. Place your feet on the platform, then press into the platform to straighten your legs. With control, return to your starting position and repeat, usually for about three sets of eight to 12 reps.
Benefits of Leg Presses
If quad strength is your goal, then leg presses can help, says Ryan Lasure, a fitness instructor, and CEO of Kuna Fit. And the benefits of exercise don't stop there.
- Quad strength: If your fitness goals involve strengthening your quads, then leg presses are a solid option. The exercise primarily targets your quads, though it also engages your glutes and hamstrings to a certain extent, explains Lasure.
- Consistent movement pattern: Because you do leg presses using a machine, the range of motion is set, says Lasure. This means the movement pattern is consistent with every rep, making leg presses a good option if you're a beginner in the weight room.
- More control: Using the leg press machine also offers you more control over the movement, he adds. You can set and adjust the amount of weight you're pressing, and machines have safety stops that make the exercise easy and safe to try without a spotter.
- It's easier on your back: The machine seat supports your back throughout the movement, which takes a load off your spine so that your legs do all the heavy lifting, says Santiago. So if you have back pain, leg presses may be a comfortable option.
Muscles Targeted During Leg Presses
First and foremost, leg presses work your quads, says Santiago. Though the exercise also engages your glutes and hamstrings, the controlled range of motion from the machine limits how much those muscles get involved, adds Lasure. You can also adjust which muscles are working hardest by switching up the placement of your feet on the platform, like putting your feet towards the top to emphasize glute activation or towards the bottom to keep the activity in your quads.
What Are Squats?
A squat is a foundational strength training move that targets your leg muscles, back, and core, says Lasure. Because you're working multiple muscles at once, squats are a compound exercise. You perform a basic squat starting with your feet about hips-width distance apart. Then, keeping your chest upright, lower your hips down to a seated position. Press into your heels to stand back up, and boom: Squat complete.
And there are tons of other options you can try if you get sick of the basic squat, Lasure tells Byrdie. Add weights or barbells to build strength, or try variations like plie squats for a new twist on the classic move. Whatever your preference, there's a squat out there for you.
Benefits of Squats
There's a reason squats are a go-to exercise, says Santiago: They build strength in your lower body and beyond and are the gateway to a host of other resistance training moves.
- Strengthens multiple muscles: If you want the most bang for your fitness buck, then squats deliver. They target all the major muscles in your lower body, including your glutes and quads, says Santiago. And not only that but your core and low back muscles are also engaged throughout the movement. Throw in a barbell or a set of weights, and your arms are working too, meaning squats can be a full-body exercise.
- They're versatile: Squats come in all shapes and sizes, says Lasure. Do them with or without weights or position your feet differently to switch things up, like doing a sumo squat versus a standard squat.
- Improved stability: A stronger core and low back mean that the muscles holding you upright can better do their job. The result? Better posture, balance, and coordination, says Santiago.
- It's a foundational exercise: Squats are a staple move you'll see in most strength training regimens, says Lasure. Mastering the movement helps build leg strength to take on squat variations and prepares you to nail more complicated exercises like squat presses.
- It's functional: Squats not only serve you in the gym but in real life too, says Santiago. You probably squat on the regular in your everyday life when you pick something heavy off the ground or get up out of a low chair, and drilling that motion in the gym can help make those movements easier.
Muscles Targeted During Squats
When trainers say squats work your entire lower body, they aren't kidding: The move engages your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, groin, and hip flexors, according to Santiago. And because your entire body is moving when you do a squat, your core and low back get in on the action, too, adds Lasure. Bonus? Holding equipment like dumbbells or kettlebells while you squat it out can also challenge your arm muscles so you can get a total-body workout in one convenient move.
Leg Presses Vs. Squats
While both exercises can help build strength in your legs, they're still quite different, says Santiago. Squats incorporate multiple muscles in a single movement, whereas leg presses hone in on your quads, he explains. Squats are a full-body motion with an assortment of variations, many of which don't require equipment—hence it's an easy exercise to incorporate into workouts of all kinds. On the other hand, leg presses focus more precisely on your quads and are most convenient if you have access to the machine.
So if you had to choose one, which one should you pick? Trainers say squats because of the multi-muscle engagement and how the exercise lays the foundation for improved strength and mobility in and out of the gym. "The squat also increases core stability and improves balance and coordination," says Santiago. "It translates better into real-world strength."
That said, there are certain reasons why leg presses might be a better fit for you. If you're looking to target your quads specifically or are new to strength training, leg presses are your guy thanks to the controlled motion and safe machine, says Lasure. And this exercise is more accessible if you have a back injury or limited range of motion, adds Santiago. "Someone might select a leg press over a squat because they want to target their legs but feel unsafe without a spotter," he tells Byrdie. "Mobility can also be a major factor hindering someone from taking on the squat."
Leg presses and squats are both solid options when it comes to building lower-body strength. Leg presses primarily target your quads and are a beginner-friendly exercise thanks to the machines' controlled range of motion and supportive backrest. Squats likewise work your quads, along with the other major muscles in your legs, core, and back. You don't need a machine to try them, though you can incorporate gym equipment into your variation of choice. For those reasons, trainers recommend sticking to squats if you want to get the most out of a single movement. However, leg presses are a great exercise if you prefer to focus on your quads or have a back injury or mobility limitations.