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Build Muscle and Fight Aging With a Single, Low-Risk Exercise: Why The Leg Press is The King of Exercises After 50
If you could spend 1-2 minutes doing something that had the power to drastically reshape your body, would you do it?
We’re talking about the Leg Press.
Out of all of the exercises you do, the leg press may be the most important. If the leg press is not part of your routine, this article will make the case for why you should include it in your routine and how you can execute it.
Why You Should Do the Leg Press
The value of the leg press comes from the areas of the body that it targets. The leg press primarily targets the quads (front thighs) and gluteus maximus (butt), the two largest and strongest muscles in the human body. These two muscle groups are important for physical appearance and critical for physical functioning. The secondary muscle groups include hamstrings and calves.
- Increases gluteal and quadriceps strength.
- Improves physical appearance of the thighs and butt by improving the size of both muscles. The thighs and hips become more shapely, which you could notice from front and side views.
- Strengthens the bones of hips and lower back.
- Improves functional ability. Daily activities (standing, climbing stairs, walking, etc.) become easier as the thighs and hips become stronger.
- Enhances balance. Balance is enhanced as the thighs and hips gain strength.
If you’re interested in performing the leg press on your own, keep reading.
How to Setup the Leg Press Machine
Following these steps should help you with getting setup on any selectorized machine:
- Select the seat position. The goal is to get your torso as close to the footplate as possible without being very uncomfortable. Being more “crammed in” will give you a bigger range of movement, which is shown to improve strength and muscle gains (Pinto et al., 2012). Try a few seat positions. Move the seat and sit down to see how it feels. You should ultimately feel a little cramped in the seat, with your knees and chest only a few inches apart from each other. If your hips slide forward, you’re too close.
- Adjust the seat back. If the back of the seat reclines, then adjust that setting next. Similar to the seat, you will ideally be a little crammed. If you have a larger gut or a history of lower back pain, reclining the seat 1-3 notches may make the starting position much more comfortable.
- Find your foot position. Put your feet on the footplate. They should be about hip width apart. You should be able to see your toes just over your knees.
- Place your hands at the sides of the seat. There are typically handles near the sides of the seat. Avoid using a death grip on the handles as this could unnecessarily increase your blood pressure. Instead, let your arms hang and keep your fingers relaxed.
How to Do the Leg Press
Once you’ve set up the machine using the steps previously outlined, you are in the correct starting position and ready to work! Here are the steps for executing the exercise safely and effectively:
- Select a proper weight. Ideally, if you were assessing the difficulty on a 1-10 scale (with 10 being impossible), the difficulty should start in the 6-8 range. Pick a random weight and try a repetition. Adjust the weight until you land in the desired difficulty range.
- Push through your heels. The majority of your effort goes through your heels. As you begin the leg press, build pressure through your heels until the weight starts to move. Keep the focus through your heels as you push out and on the return. Your heels should never leave the footplate.
- Move slowly. Keep the weight moving, but move as slowly as you can without stopping. Use the slow pace when lifting AND lowering the weight. The slow and consistent pace reduces the force of the leg press on your joints, making the exercise very safe.
- Push…MOST of the way. You should push the weight until your knees are slightly bent. When you reach that point, reverse direction and bring the weight down slowly. Avoiding a fully straightened knee is important for safety purposes. Straightening the knees could expose the knee to hyperextending, which could cause an injury.
- Do all that you can do. Continue performing slow reps until you can no longer lift the weight. Hitting that physical wall is a sign that you’ve fully (and safely) stimulated the muscle to grow larger and stronger. This point of physical fatigue is known as “muscle failure.”
Perform one set, to muscle failure, twice per week on nonconsecutive days. Ideally, you’ll complete around 3-6 slow repetitions before reaching muscle failure. If you completed six or more repetitions, increase the weight by 2.5-5 lbs in the next workout.
If you suffer from knee or lower back pain, you can still perform the leg press. Some adjustments may be needed, though.
Use a trial and correction approach. Try the previously mentioned setup. If you feel pain while using that seat position, then make adjustments.
If you have a knee injury or pain that is aggravated by the leg press, try one or more of the following strategies:
- Rotate your feet outwards. Instead of having your toes pointing up, have them point outwards (think “10 and 2” on a clock).
- Move your feet a little higher on the footplate. This will shorten your range of motion but reduce the stress on your knee.
- If neither of the above works, move your seat back 1-2 notches.
If pre-existing lower back pain is irritated by the leg press, try the following adjustments:
- If the seat back can move, recline it by 1-3 notches.
- ‘If reclining the seat does not help, move the seat back by one setting. If that doesn’t create relief, move the seat an additional notch backwards.
Choosing the Right Leg Press Machine
Even though quality can differ greatly, selectorized leg presses are generally the best way to go. Nautilus, Life Fitness, Matrix, Cybex, and Technogym are a few of the companies that produce quality leg press machines which are often found in public gyms. If you have multiple options, choose the leg press that you find most comfortable.
As mentioned before, avoid the plate-loaded leg press machine. This machine typically features the trainee sitting close to the ground and pushing the weight up at an angle. It’s effective for producing results but can be stressful on the lower back. When lowering the weight, the hips often rise, which switches the force of the weight from the hips to the lower back. Put simply, it’s easier to strain or injure the lower back on a plate-loaded leg press.
The leg press is the most important exercise in a workout. Regularly training with the leg press leads to strength and muscle gains in the largest muscles of the body. The leg press also improves mobility and overall physical function.
When using the leg press, choose a challenging weight and start in a cramped but not very uncomfortable position. Push until your knees are slightly bent (and no further!). Keep the focus on your heels, not your toes, throughout every rep. Continue until your hips and thighs are COMPLETELY fatigued, and increase the resistance periodically.
There are many quality models of the leg press. Pick one where you can pin the weight stack. If you have knee or lower back pain, you can still use the leg press. A few positional adjustments should allow you to train without pain!
We know strength training is important, but nutrition is also a huge piece of your wellbeing. If you'd like help learning how to implement these new habits alongside your workouts, schedule a Nutrition Intro session today! Email [email protected] to get started.
- Pinto, R.S., Gomes, N., Radaelli, R., Botton, C.E., Brown, L.E. & Bottaro, M.J. (2012). Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2140-2145.
- Rhodes, E. C., Martin, A. D., Taunton, J. E., Donnelly, M., Warren, J., & Elliot, J. (2000). Effects of one year of resistance training on the relation between muscular strength and bone density in elderly women. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(1), 18-22.
- Zampieri, S., Mosole, S., Löfler, S., Fruhmann, H., Burggraf, S., Cvečka, J., … & Kern, H. (2015). Physical exercise in aging: nine weeks of leg press or electrical stimulation training in 70 years old sedentary elderly people. European Journal of Translational Myology, 25(4), 237.
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