Squats vs. Leg Press (Side-by-Side Exercise Comparison) - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Squats vs. Leg Press

Squats vs. Leg Press

May 31, 2019

Which exercise do you prefer to do for your leg workouts, squats or leg press?

When it happens to be leg day at the gym, do you typically choose one type of exercise or do you mix it up?

Do you wish you had better lower body definition, but aren’t sure which exercise would be best to focus on?

If you mix it up with different lower body exercises like squats and leg presses but aren’t sure if one is better than the other, you are not alone.

Back during the ‘70’s in the Golden Era, squats were the primary exercise for the legs, not only for bodybuilders but for any athlete who was training with weights. Squats were recognized as the best best exercise for building muscle mass and strength in the legs and glutes and as just a great all around movement for lower body power and development.

During the Golden Era of bodybuilding, the bodybuilders focused on aesthetically pleasing bodies that emphasized symmetry and proportion along with muscle size and definition. Unlike today’s bodybuilders, the goal was not extreme size over the beauty of the physique. Training the legs was important to keep the proportions of the body symmetrical and pleasing to the eye.

No Pain, No Gain?

All that has changed in today’s bodybuilding and powerlifting world.

Most of the focus today is on doing lots of reps and sets with heavy weights to force the muscles past their breaking point. After all, it seems to have worked for many others over the years, so how could it not work for you too?

Especially when the focus is to gain massive amounts of muscle to be able to compete against other bodybuilders and powerlifters.

Dave Draper
High reps & sets with heavy weights is part of preparing for bodybuilding competitions.

There wasn’t as much science based studies back then to really help determine the best way to workout to not only meet your goals, but to perfect form and avoid injury. Now, we can review studies and see what works for others in the gym to really focus and get massive muscle gains, to be able to compete with the best in the world, if that’s one of your goals.

Whether you use squat vs. leg press exercises will depend on your goals and any health concerns you might have. People with certain back or knee injuries will likely want to choose something that is low impact so they don’t risk hurting themselves more.

Make sure you are working with your doctor to form a plan that you can stick to until you are released to be able to work out fully again.

There are benefits to doing squats vs. leg presses. Let’s take a look and see what might be the best exercises for you to do so you can meet your goals.

Leg Press Benefits

Leg presses are a really great exercise to do when targeting for strength and leg development. Most people aren’t able to squat using much weight in the beginning because they lack core and leg strength to be able to power through the exercises.

There are two main types of leg press machines:

Diagonal legpress
  • Diagonal or vertical sled leg press machine – the user sits below the weighted sled and pushes up with their feet to complete the exercise
Seated leg press
  • 45 degree or seated leg press machine – the user sits upright and pushes the platform with their feet, with the weights attached to the plate by a long cable

Both types of leg press machines are seen at gyms and can be used for strength training. Due to the incline track design, more weight can typically be used on the diagonal sled machine over the seated leg press machine.

Using the leg press machine can help you max out heavy weighted reps to create well defined quads that are able to handle substantial weight without buckling and causing knee injuries.

Safety Concerns

Have you ever been to the gym and seen someone who looked like they were going to be crushed by the weights on their back during a squat? Can you imagine the punishment their knees and lower back are taking as they tremble under that pressure?

If you are a beginner, it is especially important to get a strong leg foundation before you start adding weights to your squat exercises. Without this foundation, you risk being thrown off balance, or causing back or knee injuries.

It’s also important to have proper form when doing the seated leg press exercises because you can cause knee injuries due to the amount of weight typically added to the machine. Make sure you check with a trainer or someone at the gym who performs this exercise flawlessly for tips on how to position your back, legs, and knees to make sure you are doing it correctly and can get the best results.

Squats Benefits

Squats are a great full body workout that can be done with just bodyweight alone which makes it a great exercise to be done at home or anywhere you have a little bit of space to complete the exercise. If you are wanting to squat with weights to gain muscle or to get ready to compete in your next competition, you have your choice between dumbbells, barbell, or kettlebells.

Tom platz squat
Tom Platz doing the standard squat.

There are many different variations of the squat that can be done, and they all have benefits to the user. Here are just some of the squat variants:

  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Hack squat
  • Sumo squat
  • Box squat
  • Loaded squat jump
  • Split squat
  • Bulgarian squat
  • Overhead squat
  • Goblet squat
  • Smith squat
  • Trap bar squat
  • Bodyweight squat
  • Hindu squat
  • Jump squat
  • Pistol squat

Golden Era bodybuilding legend Tom Platz believes in the power of the squat so much that he even holds clinics at his gym to show people how to effectively and safely complete the exercise.

Squats will not only develop core strength, but also tone your back, thighs, and increase hip stability. They will also increase leg size and strength. It is considered a very versatile exercise because you can do it with just your own bodyweight or with a heavy weight load, like in bodybuilding and powerlifting competitions.

Leg Press vs Squat Weight

When it comes to how much weight the average person can handle when comparing the leg press to squats, the clear winner is going to be the leg press.

This is due to the fact that you are working on a slope with the seated leg press machine in a seated position, with your lower back and the bench it’s pressed against taking on some of the weight.

Being in a seated position and only using your legs to push the weight allows you to increase the weight as much as three times the amount you can comfortably squat. This is also true for the sled leg press machine where the inclined track allows a greater weight load.

When you are squatting with free weights, you have to work to hold the weight up when you are squatting down. Then, when coming back up, your muscles have to not only push up your body weight, the added free weight, but also has to fight against gravity pulling everything back down towards the floor.

Comparing how much you can leg press vs squat should always show that you can leg press more, but that isn’t an indicator of leg press being superior to squats. It just means that you are able to take advantage of having the machine help you with the weight distribution, rather than it being all on you like when you are doing squats.

Squats vs Leg Press for Glutes

When comparing squats vs leg press and how well they work the glutes, there is no question that the winner is squats.

The seated leg press is a great way to exercise all four muscle groups of the quads – rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis and vastus intermedius. But the muscles worked end there with this type of workout.

The seated leg press is a great way to exercise all four muscle groups of the quads

Squats however, can work the entire body and provide a full workout, depending on the type of squat exercise you are doing. The thighs, hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, back, and core are all being activated and used in order to perform the perfect squat maneuver.

Targeted muscles during squat
Squats activate thighs, hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, back, & core.

Squats even help enhance stability and protect the bones, ligaments, and tendons when done correctly.

Squat vs. Leg Press Muscle Activation

A study was done to determine the effect on knee biomechanics comparing differing techniques during the squat and leg press on 10 experienced male lifters using different foot placement:

  • High foot placement leg press
  • Low foot placement leg press
  • Wide stance
  • Narrow stance
  • Feet straight
  • Feet turned out 30°

The results of the study showed that squats provided more quadricep and hamstring activation above all techniques and foot placement than the leg press. The greater activation leads to better muscle development in the quads and hamstrings.

It also found that the knee takes greater force with the squat, which is to be expected when using heavier free weights compared to the seated leg press machine. Foot placement also plays a part, as low foot placement focuses more on the quad muscle and higher foot placement will work the glutes and hamstrings more.

This study done with 14 women supports that foot placement and stance change the muscles activated when doing leg presses. It concluded that the following leg press forms are best for certain muscle groups:

  • Glute activation was greatest during high leg press
  • Rectus Femoris (inner thigh muscle) and calf muscle activation was greatest during low leg press and 45° angle leg press
  • Quad activation was greatest during low leg press
High leg press
Position your feet high and wide on the 45 degree leg press for a full quad activation.

Hormonal Response Free Weight vs Machine Weight

As with any exercises, hormone levels can change depending on what you do and how you do it. Increased testosterone and growth hormone levels can help with reducing body mass and fat while increasing stamina, muscle size and strength.

Is there any benefit to doing free weight squats over using the leg press machine when it comes to increasing hormones?

Ten men who were trained in recreational resistance exercises were evaluated after completing six sets of 10 reps each of back squat and leg press exercises. Their blood was drawn at different intervals to determine what impact the exercises had on their testosterone, growth hormone, and cortisol levels.

Blood samples were collected:

  • Before exercise
  • Immediately after
  • Fifteen minutes after
  • Thirty minutes after

Once analyzed, the results found that regardless of time the samples were collected, testosterone, growth hormone, and cortisol levels all showed a higher concentration with the squat over the leg press.

Squatting increased their reactive strength, which meant that their acceleration speed, agility, and speed in which they change direction had all increased.

The conclusion of the study was, “free weight exercises seem to induce greater hormonal responses to resistance exercise than machine weight exercises.”

Squat vs. Leg Press Maximal Strength and Speed Strength

Over the course of an eight week period, 78 people were studied to determine how back squats compare to leg presses using the 45 degree machine. Half of the group was the control and the other half was then split into groups. One subgroup focused on squats over the eight week period and the other subgroup focused on leg press exercises.

They were tested to determine their jump performance after the eight week training period where both subgroups were tested prior to starting and after finishing.

Squat jump
Step jump squat.

The parallel squat group saw a 12.4% increase in squat jump performance and a 12% increase in countermovement jump performance.

The leg press group saw a much less notable difference in performance with squat jumps at 3.5% and countermovement jumps at 0.5%.

When it comes to maximal and speed strength, back squats offer a much higher performance increase compared to leg press.

Strength Training in Older Women

There is no question that strength training has real health benefits, and that is true no matter how old you are by age or how old you feel.

When older women were studied on their functional strength after completing various exercises, including the leg press, they saw promising results.

Forty five women completed a 12 week training program including leg presses which not only increased their functional capacity and muscle performance, but their overall quality of life. They were divided between a high-speed group and a low-speed group.

Both groups saw a clinically significant improvement in ball throwing, 10 meter walking sprints, and the 8-foot-up-and-go test. The improvement was much greater in the high-speed group over the low-speed group.

A more recent study done on 58 women, all healthy and between the ages of 62 – 72, divided over three different groups support this theory. When compared to the traditional group and power group, the rapid strength group showed the most functional development of all the groups.

Clearly, the leg press can provide some benefits when used correctly, and it seems that high intensity training can lead to better overall function.

Treadmill vs Squats

We figured we’d throw this section in to see if you’re paying attention!

While the treadmill can be a great way to get in some cardio on a day where the weather isn’t the greatest, it’s really no match for the benefits of doing squats.

Women especially are prone to shy away from free weights and heavy lifting, even more so if they don’t want to create large muscle mass and just want to tone up. While it’s true that squats will increase muscle mass, the amount is limited by how much weight is being used during the squat exercise.

If you prefer to do the treadmill, there are studies that support some muscle gain by increasing the incline slope of the treadmill while exercising. The best way to get real results from the treadmill is to do intervals, where you increase your speed for a minute and then take a 30 second break at a lower speed, and then ramp it up again.

Doing this for even 15 minutes can provide you a much greater health benefit than just walking along at a zero incline for an hour. Just don’t expect the results that you would get with doing squats over using the treadmill.

The treadmill does work the quads and hamstrings, so can be considered an alternative low impact exercise, especially when recovering from an injury.

Squats to Leg Press Formula

There is not a one size fits all formula to calculate weight from squats to leg press. There are far too many variables that come into play like weight, height, type of exercise, weight used, slope of leg press machine.

If you are a bodybuilder and aren’t already using Strength Level, it might be something worth checking out. You can keep track of your results and also compare yourselves to other bodybuilders doing the same.

You can calculate your strength based on your personal gender, weight and the type of exercise, weight and repetitions. There are even charts that show the average amount to leg press based on gender and weight to see how you stack up.


Whether you prefer squats or the leg press machine, either will provide you with health benefits, greater functional capacity, and muscle gain.

While there is a real place for the leg press in any gym, it should be done combined with a squat routine so that you can reap the benefits of both ways to define your legs and increase muscle mass.

Squats will always win out because they provide a more full body workout compared to the leg press, which focuses on the lower part of the body. If you are looking for a quicker gym session, doing some sets of squats will give you the most return of time investment.

However, don’t discount the leg press, especially if you are recovering from injury or haven’t gotten down the form of doing squats correctly. Practice makes perfect and if it means building up some more leg muscles and stability to be able to really perform at peak when doing squats, hit the leg press to build up and then go for it.

Do you prefer squats or the leg press machine? Which specific exercise is your favorite? Let us know in the comments

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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