Leg presses and squats are two of the most common and effective exercises for training your leg muscles.
But which is better?
Is one of them better for building muscle, gaining strength, or improving your sports performance?
In this article, I’ll compare the leg press and the squat and try to help you decide which is the best exercise for your training goals.
What’s The Difference Between the Leg Press and the Squat?
First of all: the squat and leg press use different equipment.
- The squat is a free-weight exercise, usually performed with a barbell.
- The leg press is performed with a machine, usually inclined to 45 degrees or horizontal.
The two exercises have many similarities, but differ slightly in terms of muscles worked, strength gains, and performance enhancement.
Leg Press vs Squat for Muscle Growth
Both the squat and the leg press have a proven track record for building the leg muscles effectively.
But do they build muscle equally well?
Let’s examine what muscles they actually work.
Muscles Worked in the Squat
Muscles Worked in the Leg Press
Both the leg press and the barbell squat are compound exercises, meaning that they work several muscle groups simultaneously:
- Both the leg press and the squat primarily work your quads, adductors, and glutes.
- In addition, the squat works your core muscles (especially your lower back) because you have to support the barbell on your shoulders. In the leg press, your core is more or less unloaded.
- Depending on your foot placement, both exercises can work your calves and hamstrings to some degree, albeit far less than the aforementioned muscle groups.
Which is Better for Building Muscle?
Some of the most important factors for whether or not an exercise is effective for muscle growth are:
- It works the target muscle through a long range of motion.
- The muscles are kept under load throughout the movement, especially in the stretched (bottom) position.
- It is stable enough to exhaust your muscles without balance or technique being a hinder.
We can check off points one and two for both the squat and the leg press machine. Provided that you check your ego at the door and don’t use too much weight, you should be able to learn how to perform a deep squat and go deep in the leg press.
But what about point number three?
If an exercise isn’t stable enough for you to challenge your muscles without worrying about losing balance, it is going to be difficult to build muscles effectively.
That is why squatting on a Bosu ball is not a good idea if you want to build big and strong legs.
The free weights barbell squat is evidently stable enough to see some impressive muscle growth in your lower body. For example, here’s the increase in muscle volume after ten weeks of deep or half squat training.1
The leg press is even more stable, allowing you to exert yourself even more without worrying about losing your balance.
This might allow you to work your leg muscles harder and with a better mind-muscle connection than in the squat, ultimately resulting in greater muscle growth.
For some people and body types, the squat is difficult to master; in these cases, the leg press might be a better option for muscle growth.
In the end, you are probably wise to try both exercises and see which enables you to work your leg muscles best.
Or perhaps do a little of both?
- You could start your leg workouts with the more technically demanding squat, do a slightly lower number of repetitions, and focus more on strength. Stop these sets a rep or two before you reach failure.
- Then you move on to the leg press and go with a moderate-to-high rep range, emphasizing hypertrophy instead. These sets can be taken closer to failure, as you won’t have to worry about balancing the barbell, and you can exhaust your leg muscles fully if you wish.
That was muscle growth. Now let’s examine which exercise is better for increasing your strength.
Leg Press vs Squat for Strength
What are you planning on using your leg strength for?
Do you just want to get stronger in general, or do you have a specific task in mind?
You see, strength can be both general and specific.
- General strength refers to how stronger legs will make you stronger in general in exercises and movements involving the leg muscles.
- Specific strength refers to how you need practice to utilize your strength in a specific task or skill.
A study from 2018 provides a good example.2
26 participants were assigned to ten weeks of strength training, two times per week. But they didn’t train the same exercises. They were split into three groups:
- One group trained 6 sets of barbell squats per workout.
- One group trained 6 sets of leg presses per workout.
- One group trained 3 sets of barbell squats and 3 sets of leg presses per workout.
They did 8–12 reps per set, with 90–120 seconds of rest between sets.
Before and after the ten weeks of training, they tested their 1RM in both the leg press and the squat, for all three groups.
The results showed that all three groups increased their leg press 1RM to a similar extent, by about 30%.
That includes the squat-only group that didn’t even train the leg press.
But in the squat test, the squat-only group increased their 1RM by 32%, the 50/50 squat and leg press group improved by 20%, and the leg press-only group improved by 8%.
An explanation might be that the squat is a more complex movement than the leg press.
- To get stronger in the leg press, it seems sufficient to simply build stronger legs in general.
- To get stronger in the squat, it seems like strong legs alone won’t do – you also need specific practice at the skill of squatting.
Because of this, you must consider what you plan on using your strength for.
If you’re planning on being a powerlifter, then you will have to practice the squat to some extent. If you just want stronger legs in general, then any decent leg exercise will do, though you would probably benefit from some degree of variation to develop a well-rounded strength base. That might also include some single-leg work such as lunges or Bulgarian split squats.
But what if your goal isn’t strength or muscle, but better sports performance in general?
Leg Press vs Squat for Sports Performance
Sports performance is of course a broad concept, but let’s compare the two exercises’ utility based on some kind of sport played on your feet that includes sprinting, jumping, and changing directions, such as soccer, football, or handball.
We can begin by concluding that of these two, the barbell squat is the only exercise that is actually performed on your feet. If you’re squatting with a free barbell, that means you will have to keep your balance while simultaneously exerting force. Just like when you’re accelerating in a sprint, jumping, or changing direction. Considering the principle of specificity, this might make the squat a bit more applicable than the leg press to sports in general.
Let’s dig into some of the science and see what it says.
Leg Press vs Squat for Vertical Jumps
The squat has a proven track record for increasing vertical jump height.
- Deep squat or deep front squat training twice per week for ten weeks improved vertical jump height by 7–8%.
But how does the squat stack up against the leg press for jumping?
I previously mentioned a study by Rossi et al (2018) that had participants train either the squat, leg press, or 50/50 of both, twice per week for ten weeks.
In addition to testing the participants’ 1RMs, they also tested their vertical jump height in the form of a counter-movement jump, before and after the ten weeks of training.
It turned out that the group that had only trained squats improved their jump height most of all, by 8.9%. The second-largest improvement, 6.5%, was seen in the group that divided their training between squats and leg presses. The group that only trained leg presses improved their jump height the least, by just 3.3%.
In another study, 39 participants were tested in the squat jump and countermovement jump before and after eight weeks of either squat or leg press training.3
- The squat group improved their squat jump by 12.4% and countermovement jump by 12.0%.
- The leg press group only improved their squat jump by 3.5% and countermovement jump by 0.5%.
Based on the two comparative studies and the well-established positive effect that squat training has on jump performance, it seems like the squat is clearly the winner when it comes to improving your jump height.
Leg Press vs Squat for Sprints
What about sprinting?
I’m not aware of any direct comparisons between leg presses and squats for sprinting like in the study I just mentioned, but once again there is a rich trove of studies showing that squat training improves sprint performance.
A meta-analysis of 15 studies and 510 participants saw a very large, significant correlation between increases in back squat strength and increases in sprint performance (r=0.77).4
As for correlation, the earlier study on 492 youth soccer players by Keiner et al (2022) saw a correlation of r=0.67 between relative maximum squat strength and 30 m sprint speed.
Squat training is evidently effective for improving your sprint speed, but there’s a lack of research (at least that I’m aware of) showing a similar effect from leg presses. Because of this, and my notion that squats are slightly more similar to sprinting than leg presses, I’d say the squat is the clear winner for sprinting.
Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons
Let’s try to tally up the pros and cons of squats and leg presses, and also see if we can bring up some points that didn’t fit in neatly under the previous sections.
Squat: Pros and Cons
Squat Pros ✔️
- Simple equipment. Barbells and weight plates are cheap, standardized, and available in every good gym.
- Proven track record. The squat has ample evidence showing that it is effective for building muscle, increasing strength, and improving vertical jumping and sprinting.
- Real-life strength. The squat is more similar to lifting objects in real life than the leg press is.
- Easily modified. The squat can be varied by simple means to fit your body type or training goals better, for example by doing box squats, jump squats, or front squats.
Squat Cons ❌
- Tricky to learn. For a lot of people, learning to squat with proper technique is difficult and requires lots of practice.
- Scary. A free barbell squat can be intimidating in several ways: “Am I doing this right?”, “What if I fail?”, “The barbell is uncomfortable on my back!”
- Instability. While still stable enough for great gains in muscle and strength, and also a perk on its own, the greater instability of the squat still means you can’t exert yourself fully as much as in the leg press without risking losing balance.
Leg Press: Pros and Cons
Leg Press Pros ✔️
- Easy to learn. The learning curve of the leg press is very low, and most people can get a good leg workout in the very first time they try it.
- Stable. The stability of the leg press means that you can focus more on the muscles being worked, and train closer to full exertion without risking a loss of balance. It also means the leg press is more accessible to people with compromised balance, such as the frail or elderly.
- A little safer. Unless you are an experienced barbell squatter who knows how to set up safety racks or get out from under a failed barbell squat, I think it’s fair to say that the leg press, with its built-in locks and safety pins, is a slightly safer exercise.
Leg Press Cons ❌
- Worse for sports. Compared to the barbell squat, the leg press seems to be a worse exercise choice for improving your vertical jumping and sprinting speed.
- Not as “functional”. Because you are sitting or lying down in the leg press, it probably builds less “real-world strength” than the free barbell squat, performed standing on your feet, does.
- One size doesn’t fit all. Leg press machines come in many shapes and sizes and might not fit every body type, especially if you’re very big or small.
So Should You Squat or Leg Press?
That depends on your goal, buddy.
- If you want to build big leg muscles, you have many options. You can use the squat, leg press, or plenty of other good leg exercises. Both the squat and the leg press are tremendous for building the legs, and which is better for you likely comes down to personal preference and your individual anatomy.
- If your goal is stronger legs, then you will have to consider the principle of specificity: in what scenarios do you wish to use your strength? In many scenarios, you will likely be standing on your feet, in which case the squat will be more specific to the task than the leg press.
- If your goal is improved sprinting or jumping, the squat seems to be the superior choice, with a proven track record of improving both. When it comes to vertical jump improvement, barbell squat training beats leg press training in direct comparisons.
Last but not least, don’t forget to consider your personal preference. If one exercise comes way more naturally to you and gives you great muscle contact and pump, perhaps it doesn’t matter if it’s not “optimal” according to studies. The exercise in which you can push yourself hard and progressively increase the weight and number of reps, is the one you’ll get the best results from.
With that said, most people can learn to do both squats and leg presses with some guidance and practice.
Are you struggling to learn the free barbell squat?
Our comprehensive squat guide covers everything you might want to know about squat technique and training:
How to Squat: Muscles Worked & Proper Form
Alternatives to the Leg Press and Squat
What if you can’t or don’t want to train either the leg press or the standard squat?
In that case, here are a few squat variations that train similar muscle groups.
1. Hack Squat
Hack squats performed in a hack squat machine is something of an in-between of the squat and the leg press. In contrast to the seated position of the leg press, the hack squat has you in a more upright position. You are doing a squat movement, but with the added stability and safety of the machine.
Taken together, the hack squat is a great exercise for building your leg muscles and adding muscle mass to your lower body.
2. Barbell Hack Squat
Don’t have access to a hack squat machine? Then you might want to try the barbell hack squat.
This exercise is essentially a barbell deadlift performed with the bar behind your back, resulting in more emphasis of your quadriceps muscles.
For me personally, this exercise feels super awkward, and I would rather do regular back squats (or front squats), but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.
3. Front Squat
The front squat is another free-weight exercise performed with a barbell. By placing the barbell on the front of your shoulders instead of on the back, you will emphasize your quadriceps more than in the back squat. Most people will also find it easier to squat deep in the front squat than in the back squat.
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
In contrast to the previous exercises, the Bulgarian split squat is a single-leg exercise. This exercise is performed with lighter weight, usually held in your hands like in the gif above, or in the form of a barbell placed over your shoulders.
This exercise is a great option if you have problems performing the barbell squat, and don’t have access to a leg press or hack squat machine. It is also a great exercise choice for anyone with low back issues, as it takes away a lot of the load from that area.
5. Goblet Squat
The last squat alternative on our list is also one of the easiest squat exercises to learn. In the goblet squat, you hold a kettlebell (or a weight plate, or something else) against your chest, and perform a deep squat. Because of where the weight is positioned, most people can quickly squat really deep in the goblet squat, which is great not only for the muscular development in your legs, but also for your mobility.
The main drawback of the goblet squat is that the weight is limited by how much you can hold in your arms, often significantly less than in the regular back squat. For many people, however, it will be enough to increase their leg strength and muscle mass significantly.
And that’s all, folks!
For further reading, check out our guide on how to squat or some of our other articles on squats below.
- Squat Depth: How Deep Should You Squat?
- Carryover Between The Squat and Deadlift
- Squats vs. Leg Extensions For Quad Growth
Squat Training Program:
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- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1933-1942. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.
- J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Mar;58(3):263-270. Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2016 May;30(5):1205-12. The Impact of Back Squat and Leg-Press Exercises on Maximal Strength and Speed-Strength Parameters.
- Sports Med. 2014 Dec;44(12):1693-702. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0227-1. Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jun;30(6):1534-9. Effects of Strength Training on Squat and Sprint Performance in Soccer Players.