The leg press is a type of resistance training exercise and an effective way to strengthen your legs. It is done using a leg press machine and pushing the legs against weights. Like many other strength training exercises, leg press exercise and leg press alternative workouts can help build muscle, minimize the risk of injury, and may counteract age-related muscle loss.
Leg press exercises are done while seated (seated leg press), with your legs repeatedly pressing against weights. You can adjust these weights according to your fitness level. Generally, leg press exercises target your hips, calves, hamstrings, quads and glutes. The seated position of leg press exercise helps keep your torso and upper body still. Also, it requires less balance to lift the weight, according to this 2016 study.
10 Best Leg Press Alternative Exercises
Despite the many benefits of leg press exercises, there are times when you don’t have access to the leg press machine or want to take a break from this exercise. There are leg press alternatives that target the same muscles as leg press exercises and offer many benefits. Use these leg press alternatives to give yourself a break from leg press workouts or anytime you can’t access leg press machines.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a unique version of the single-leg squat where you elevate the back leg on a sturdy chair or bench. It places a greater focus on your quadriceps and requires balance and coordination. This increases the level of the upper body or core engagement to maintain proper form. Remember, this exercise takes some trial and error to find comfortable foot placement.
The Bulgarian split squat is a great way to take lower-body strength training to an entirely new level as a compound lower-body workout. It targets all the muscles engaged during lunges and squats, such as quads and glutes, abdominal muscles, spinal erectors, calves, and hamstrings. Also, it places greater focus on your core and quadriceps due to its single-leg balance challenge.
Your core strength and agility will improve by improving your balance with comprehensive lower-body workouts like the Bulgarian split squats. This makes it less likely to fall when knocked off balance. Such a level of balance may not seem like a big deal for young people, but the consequences of frequent falls are more pronounced in an elderly population.
Bulgarian split squats are an excellent leg press alternative for older adults who want to keep fit and those recovering from injuries. It involves low-impact movements and takes the stress from your back muscles while supporting core and leg muscle engagement.
How to do it
· Stand approximately 2 feet in front of a knee-level step or bench.
· Place your right foot on the step or bench behind you.
· While engaging your core, carefully roll your shoulder back, lean slightly toward your waist, and lower yourself down on the left leg, bending the knee.
· Stop before your right or front knee falls over the left toes and push up to your starting position.
· Repeat for the preferred number of reps, then switch to your left leg.
2. Bodyweight Squat
Bodyweight squats are also known as air squats and are common in various training programs such as CrossFit and workout routines. They’re a great way to build a solid strength foundation and balance the lower body compared to leg presses. These squats target front and inner thighs muscles, hamstrings, quads and glutes, helping you add more muscle mass to these lower body areas.
Like all other great leg press alternative workouts, you should use a proper form when performing air squats to get the desired benefits and prevent injuries. That means you must stretch and warm up first, even if you intend to do squats only.
When doing these bodyweight exercises, your back shouldn’t round out, your knees shouldn’t go past your toes, and keep your chest lifted. Also, you should not drop your shoulders forward. That means your lower body must be the only part of your body moving.
If you feel knee pain when performing these leg workouts, you’re either going too low or using improper form. In most cases, knee pain occurs due to exerting more weight towards your toes rather than the back of your heels. It’s also possible to feel knee pain if your feet are not turned outwards at a slight angle. Back pain during a bodyweight squat occurs if you inadvertently lean your chest forward, putting strain on your back muscles.
There are instances where these squats should not be part of your workout regimen. If you are struggling to sink low enough, do not exert yourself to a point of injury. Instead, work your way up gradually to increase the depth of your squats. People with sciatica nerve pain shouldn’t do squats without first consulting with their healthcare provider.
How to do it
· Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and your hands at the back of your head.
· Lower your body gently until your inner thighs are parallel to the floor
· Pause, then return to your starting position.
· Repeat your desired number of reps.
3. Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust is a lower-body training exercise that involves lifting your back and torso while keeping your knees bent and the upper body resting on a comfortable bench. When done right, it targets the muscle groups in your entire lower body, especially the glutes. This makes it an excellent leg press alternative even for beginners.
Incorporating barbell hip thrust into your strength training routine has several benefits. This exercise activates glutes, targeting various muscles such as gluteus medius and gluteus maximus. Also, it engages muscles that support natural leg movements like sprinting, walking, and other cardio activities. Performing barbell hip thrusts can also help hip flexor muscles for other hip hinging exercises.
Remember, barbell hip thrusts are different from glute bridges. The main difference is that you must use weights when performing a hip thrust. This leads to greater glute activation and muscle growth, preparing you for other heavy lifts like deadlifts and squats. The glute bridges are often done with the back flat on the floor, while hip thrust requires a low, firm bench.
How to do it
· Put padding around the barbell to prevent it from digging into the hips as you thrust.
· Place your back on a solid bench with the barbell carefully placed across your hips.
· Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor, close to your glutes for support.
· Drive your hips skyward while keeping your core engaged.
· Keep this movement to your lower-body area (avoid rocking your upper body).
· Hold for a count, then carefully lower your hips to your starting position.
· Repeat for eight to ten reps.
4. Barbell Step Ups
Single-leg strength training has been championed as a suitable alternative exercise to bilateral squatting. A lunge and split variations are some of the top choices for people seeking breaks from heavy barbells. An increasing number of strength trainers are recommending the barbell step up as one of the best leg press alternative workouts.
This is a functional, unilateral, and multi-joint movement with a high carryover to various activities of your daily living and sports. Indeed, it’s more than just a squat. It targets the glutes and quadriceps with secondary emphasis on your calf muscles and hamstrings. Also, barbell step ups activate the core muscles to keep the entire upper body upright and stable.
It is not recommended to use heavy weights when performing these step ups due to the required degree of stability and balance. Instead, lightweights combined with a high rep program will generate better results. Also, you shouldn’t cheat by pushing off your trailing leg. So, all the power must come from the leading leg.
Another mistake to avoid is leaning forward. Don’t tilt your hips anteriorly. Instead, keep your upper body upright while ensuring that your hips are square and directly under your torso to get enough support. Be sure to keep your chest up and keep your core engaged. Look straight ahead and keep your spine neutral throughout your lifts.
How to do it
· Stand upright facing a bench with the barbell on your shoulders and keep your feet flat.
· Ensure the bench height allows your front knee to make a right angle
· Leading with the right leg and keeping your upper body upright, exhale as you step up onto the bench.
· Lead with the right leg, inhale as you step down off the bench.
· Bring your feet on the floor.
· Repeat the entire process of stepping up and stepping down the bench.
· Remember to alternate the leg with which you first step up.
5. Dumbbell Walking Lunges
Dumbbell walking lunges are simply a variation on the static lunge exercise and one of the best leg press alternatives you can try. Rather than standing upright after performing a static lunge on one leg, you walk forward in a straight line by lunging out with your next leg. This movement continues for the desired number of reps. Remember, you should hold a dumbbell in each hand when performing walking lunges.
Dumbbell walking lunge is a strength training workout that targets the quadriceps, calve muscles, glutes, traps, shoulders, upper legs, and upper back. It is also a complete leg builder. Although it emphasizes the growth of quads, it works the glutes and hamstrings, and other muscle groups due to its complexity. Remember, this excellent leg press alternative workout brings weights on the sides of your body and prevents forward-leaning, often experienced when working out using a barbell.
It’s important to mention that dumbbell walking lunges require more coordination and balance than static lunges. So, an incorrect form could increase the risk of injuring yourself, especially from falling due to loss of balance. Also, improper form can heighten the risk of pulling a muscle.
The good news is that dumbbell walking lunge exercise is widely considered safe for many people. You should start with static lunges until you get the correct form, balance, and coordination if you are a beginner. Also, you can add light dumbbells before you start the dumbbell walking variation of static lunges.
How to do it
· Stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
· Step forward with one leg (right leg) and allow your knees to bend at the same time.
· Lower yourself until the left knee (back knee) touches the floor.
· Extend your right knee (front leg) as you stand up and return to your starting position.
· Repeat this movement on your left leg.
· Repeat the preferred number of repetitions as you move forward.
6. Wall Sits
The wall sit exercises are real quad muscles burners, targeting the front thigh muscle groups. These leg press alternatives are used for building isometric muscle strength and endurance in your calf muscles, quadriceps, glutes, and entire lower body. Remember, you only need your body and a sturdy wall to perform wall sits.
One of the benefits of either weighted wall sits, or other wall sit variations is that they require numerous muscles and joints in your lower body to work in unison. This exercise increases muscle endurance, and you will realize that you can hold wall sits for longer periods over time. Very few lower-body isometric workouts require the use of all leg muscle groups, which is why a weighted wall sit is considered unique.
When performing a wall sit, you must hold a position, instead of ‘moving in and out of’ of the position as with other excellent leg press alternative workouts. That means the targeted muscles remain ‘in use’ or contracted for the duration of the wall sit. After ten to 15 seconds of holding a wall sit, you will feel your heart rate increasing, and the burn you love will be more pronounced.
There are many variations of wall sit exercises. These include single-leg wall sit, curl combo, and weighted wall sits. So, choose one that best suits your workout goals.
How to do it
· Stand upright with your back against a wall.
· Move your feet 18 to 24 inches forward.
· From your standing position, bend both legs and slide your back gently down the wall until the thighs are parallel to the floor.
· Push your back against the wall and hold for as long as possible.
· Don’t use your hands to support yourself.
· If you are performing weighted wall sits, hold dumbbells in each hand.
7. Resistance Band Squat
Squatting using resistance bands is a convenient and affordable way to increase strength and build muscle. These leg press alternatives target the glutes and other surrounding leg muscles. Since many people don’t find regular squats challenging enough, using a resistance band can provide you with an extra challenge to ensure your squats are more effective.
Resistance band squats are a lower-body strength workout that uses a resistance band for an extra challenge to strengthen your legs and glutes. It is an awesome movie that adds more benefit to regular squats. If you already know how to do the regular squats, then it is time to add a resistant band and get more bang for your workout time.
Resistance bands are ideal for squats as they control the squat movement from the beginning to the end. They offer more resistance whenever you lower yourself into a squat, the eccentric movement, and the concentric movement when you rise to your starting position. That means your muscles will be working under tension throughout the workout period.
Ultimately, this leads to more muscle growth. Remember, working your muscles harder during resistance band squats causes muscles to ‘tear or break down,’ and this sends muscle repair and growth signals to your body. This is why using a resistance band during squats improves your chances of building more muscle and improving strength.
Resistance band squat is one of the best leg press substitute exercises that target the front thigh muscles, hip flexors or adductor muscles, and glutes. This exercise also targets other muscles, such as the abdominal muscles and back muscles, which your body needs for stabilization and balance. Alternatively, you can also do a resistance band leg press.
How to do it
· With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand on a resistance band and hold the handles close to the shoulders so that band passes behind your arms.
· Sit down gently and back into a squat position while keeping your core engaged and chest lifted.
· Press back up on your heels to a standing position while squeezing your glutes.
· Repeat the process several times (desired number of reps).
8. Smith Rack Squat
The Smith racks offer stability, which enables you to load up on more weight compared to a barbell squat and other leg exercises. If you love loading on weight like you do when using a leg press machine, then Smith rack squats are a perfect exercise for you.
When done correctly, a Smith rack squat helps promote balance and stability. They also allow you to squat confidently, particularly when you already know that the leg press machine will assist you. Note that the bar in the Smith machine moves up and down smoothly, and this creates confidence to lift heavy weights to build strength and trigger muscle growth.
Additionally, the leg press machine may help unlock you into an anatomically proper form, preventing your knees from drifting forward and placing additional stress on your knee flexors. Smith rack squats target various muscles, including quadriceps, calve muscles, glutes, and hamstrings.
How to do it
· Load the correct amount of weights onto a barbell.
· Stand inside a rack, and begin with an athletic position, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
· Gently lower yourself into a squat while keeping your core tight, head straight, and weight on your heels.
· Pause for a second at the bottom of your squat before returning to your starting position.
· Do three sets of eight to 12 reps.
9. Safety Bar Squat
There’s always a place for standard barbells in nearly every workout routine. But when it comes to squats, most trainees struggle with effectiveness and safety for reasons such as limited mobility, improper form, past injury, and more. This is where specialty bars or safety bars come in handy for both beginners and experienced strength trainees.
A safety squat bar looks like it has been pulled from a Viking Village, but do not let that intimidate you. It’s associated with a slew of benefits intended to take your lower-body strength training to an entirely new level. Although a squat position with a safety bar isn’t easy, it is a variation of regular squats intended to challenge your strength and skills.
One benefit of the safety bar squats is that it allows people with upper-body injuries to squat safely. Suppose you have a pec or shoulder injury. In that case, you already know how the pain or discomfort experienced with a barbell compromises the injured area and overall movement. It can also reduce the intensity and frequency of training. A safety bar can help you perform squats safely despite the injury.
Unlike the Olympic barbell, a safety squat bar features handles that extend from a padded harness. This allows you to grab the bar from the front rather than your sides. This change in your arm position can minimize strain on your shoulders. The bar camber also shifts the load forward, helping you maintain an upright posture. This relieves the stress on the lower back.
How to do it
· Using the correct rack, place the safety bar at shoulder height.
· With the bar’s vertical pads resting on your shoulders, dip under the bar carefully.
· Grab the bar handles and keep your elbow on your sides.
· Stand upright and take a few steps back and clear the hooks.
· Keep your core engaged and squat down by bending at your hips and knees at the same time.
· Once you reach the right squat depth, push up to return to your starting position.
10. Jump Squat
Are you bored with stale bodyweight workouts or countless rounds of air or squats that don’t quite cut it for you? If so, you can add athleticism to your workout routine with jump squats or broad jump squats. This exercise does more than just add pogo bounces to your regular or front squat. It helps improve speed, power, and strength during your workouts.
To perform a jump squat correctly, you must be focused on your form and tempo to get the desired benefits. This is important if you are training for power and intend to achieve full trip extension of the knee, ankle, and hip flexors. This explosive movement combined with broad jumps improves core strength and helps burn more calories than a regular or front squat.
How to do it
· Stand upright, with your feet shoulder-width apart in an athletic position.
· Lower yourself as with a normal or front squat, but in a controlled way.
· With as much strength, explode up off the floor.
· Be sure to land softly on your back foot.
· Repeat the process for the desired number of reps.
As with most workout options, it is possible to have too much of a great workout, such as leg press. If leg press is the only exercise in your routine, your muscles might eventually adapt, and this might affect your progress negatively. Over time, no matter how many leg press exercises you do, your muscles may become less responsive to the workout.
Now you know how you can rock your leg day with upper legs and lower body exercise. The good news is that the ten excellent leg press alternative exercises discussed in this article can breathe new life into your lower-body strength training workouts. Most of these exercises can complement or replace your regular leg press exercises.