Switching from the conventional leg press to more dynamic exercises can offer similar muscle gains with added benefits.
The leg press, while popular, falls short in providing a functional workout and engaging stabilizer muscles. It also limits the range of motion, raising concerns about knee safety.
After extensive research, I've identified several effective alternatives that target the same muscle groups as the leg press.
Many of these alternatives can be performed at home, with bodyweight versions available for easier accessibility.
- The ten alternatives to leg press exercises include Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats, Weighted Wall Sit, Resistance Band Leg Press, Barbell Front Squats, Dumbbell Walking Lunges, Barbell Step-Ups, Smith Rack Squats, Barbell Hip Thrusts, Resistance Band Broad Jumps, and Single Leg Dumbbell Step Ups.
- These alternatives target the same primary muscles as the leg press - hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves.
- According to SAGE Open Medicine, while leg presses allow a full range of motion, they offer little functional crossover to real-life movements, emphasizing the need for more dynamic exercises.
- In my opinion, these alternatives not only provide a more comprehensive lower body workout but also enhance functional strength, making them superior to the conventional leg press.
10 Leg Press Alternative Exercises
From my observations, most muscles that work during a leg press exercise include the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves.
That's why I curate the list where all the alternative exercises target the same muscles.
Some of these exercises are more advanced, but a beginner can perform most of them without any difficulty.
1. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats
Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat mainly targets your quads, but the hamstrings and glutes are heavily involved.
This exercise is so effective because it places all the weight on the single leg, which is why you might consider a bodyweight version of the squat too.
In addition, there is no extra tension placed on your spine, which is excellent for injury reduction, considering that many lower body exercises do that.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Take a dumbbell in each hand and fully extend your arms.
- Stand in front of an object that is the height of your knee and face away from it.
- Place one foot on the bench and go forward with another until you reach a lunge-width stance.
- Bend both the back and front leg and lower yourself towards the ground, keep your chest up, weight in the front heel, and front knee behind your toes.
- Push back up until the front leg is straight, but never fully extended (don't lock your knee).
2. Weighted Wall Sit
In my coaching experience, I've found the Weighted Wall Sit to be a super effective leg press alternative, especially for burning the quads and challenging the glutes.
It is the same as a standard wall sit exercise, but the extra weight places more tension on your lower body muscles, making it much harder.
Consider doing the bodyweight version first.
How to Perform Weighted Wall Sit
- Pick a weight plate of suitable weight in your hands.
- Find a wall, stand against it, and walk your feet out.
- Start lowering your body until your thighs get parallel to the ground, keeping your knees in line or behind your toes.
- Place the weight plate on your legs once you achieve the stable position.
3. Resistance Band Leg Press
This is the most similar exercise to the leg press because biomechanically, the movement is the same.
Heavier loads are not achievable with this alternative leg press exercise, but you can still build the muscle.
Also, the added benefit of any banded exercise is that the movement becomes harder to perform as you come closer to the finish of the exercise.
This is because the band creates more resistance as it stretches.
How to Perform Resistance Band Leg Presses
- Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place the resistance band under your feet.
- The other end of the resistance band should be in your hands, which should be up to your chest.
- Tuck your knees to your chest (hips must remain on the ground).
- Push your legs away from your chest against the resistance band.
- Squeeze your quads at the end of the movement.
- Reverse the action and repeat.
4. Barbell Front Squats
From my training sessions, I've observed that Barbell Front Squats are a potent leg press alternative, particularly for targeting the quads.
If you want to work out your glutes more, do a barbell back squat instead since it will target them more.
If you don't have enough mobility in your shoulders to perform a barbell front squat, take a dumbbell instead and hold it to your chest.
How to Perform Barbell Front Squats
- Place a barbell in the rack position at the level of your collarbones.
- Take the barbell on your collarbone, flex your wrists back, and place your elbows up.
- Start bending your knees to move in the squat position.
- Keep your chest and elbows up; the weight should always remain in your heels.
- When your thighs get parallel to the ground, push back up to a standing position.
5. Dumbbell Walking Lunges
This is one of the most challenging leg press alternatives on the list.
Dumbbell walking lunges are a total body dynamic exercise that can tire out your adductor muscles, calves, and lats.
I highly recommend starting with bodyweight walking lunges so as not to experience fatigue immediately.
How to Perform Dumbbell Walking Lunges
- Take a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms.
- Stand in a neutral stance.
- Step forward and then bend your knees until your back knee almost touches the floor.
- Keep your chest up, your weight in the front heel, and your front knee behind your toes.
- Push back and partially extend your knees while taking the next step forward.
6. Barbell Step-Ups
As a coach, I often recommend Barbell Step-Ups for their functionality and effectiveness in building leg muscles, based on my observation and experience.
The barbell step-up is one of the most functional, multi-joint, and unilateral exercises on the list that will easily build your leg muscles.
It is by far the best exercise for your glutes since the hip joint has a lot of bending. In addition, it is a fantastic exercise for developing balance in your legs.
How to Perform the Barbell Step-up
- Place a barbell on your back.
- Stand in front of an object (box or bench) of an appropriate height (aim for knee height in the beginning).
- Step up on the object with one of your legs, and drive through your heel and the middle of your foot.
- Both of your feet should be on the box/bench before you step down.
- When you step down, repeat with another leg.
7. Smith Rack Squats
Functionality-wise, there are better options than Smith rack squats, but they are a good alternative.
You will be able to load more weight than the standard barbell squat.
How to Perform Smith Rack Squats
- Pick the appropriate weight for your Smith rack.
- Stand in the rack with the bar on your back.
- Your feet should be feet hip apart.
- Keep the weight in your heels, and lower yourself in the squat position.
- Stop once your thighs get parallel to the ground and push back to the standing position.
8. Barbell Hip Thrusts
In my practice, I've found Barbell Hip Thrusts to be excellent for targeting the glutes and hamstrings, a personal favorite for many of my clients.
Barbell hip thrusts target mainly your glutes and hamstrings when doing this exercise. This exercise is excellent for developing functional strength and power in your posterior chain.
However, to achieve these benefits, you must get the form right. Use a hip thrust pad to perform the exercise easier.
How to Perform Barbell Hip Thrusts
- Sit against a stable bench, slightly leaning up.
- Take a barbell and roll it over your lap so that it ends in the crease of your hips.
- Bend your knees so they end up at the 90-degree angle when you push into your thrust.
- Push your hips up until your hips are almost fully extended.
- Hold the position for a second or two, and then lower your hips.
Also Read: Difference Between Hip Thrust & Glute Bridge
9. Resistance Band Broad Jumps
Resistance band broad jumps are another excellent leg press alternative for developing lower body power, according to the study published in PubMed .
The band component makes it extra challenging to perform this exercise.
Broad jumps will effectively target your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves.
How to Perform Resistance Band Broad Jumps
- Attach your resistance band to a cable machine tower (approximately at hip height).
- Step into the resistance bend and place it around your hips.
- Walk away from the machine until you achieve the desired tension.
- Bend your knees, send your arms backward simultaneously, and jump forward to create as much hip drive as possible.
- Land in a semi-squat position with your knees bent so they can absorb the impact of the jump.
- Get back in the starting position and repeat.
10. Single Leg Dumbbell Step Ups
Having incorporated Single Leg Dumbbell Step Ups in various training routines, I've seen their exceptional benefit in enhancing unilateral strength.
A biomechanically very similar exercise to the barbell step-ups, but with more emphasis on unilateral strength.
This exercise is better for building mass in the glutes since they need to get more activated due to other muscles like the quads and hamstrings getting tired.
How to Perform Single Leg Dumbbell Step UPS
- Take a dumbbell in each of your hands.
- Stand in front of a box or a bench (knee height).
- Place one of your legs on the box.
- Come back to the starting position and repeat with the same leg.
Are Leg Presses Necessary?
From my experience as a coach, I can say leg presses aren't strictly necessary. There are many effective alternatives that can achieve similar results.
They are popular due to their accessibility. You can perform leg presses lying on the bench, which makes it easier than a regular squat.
However, this leaves out your stabilizer muscles, which can increase the chance of injury in the future .
Even though the full range of motion is easily achievable with leg press, it doesn't mean it is good, and there is little to no functional crossover into a "real-life" movement, according to the SAGE Open Medicine .
To maximize the benefits of these leg press alternatives, integrating them into a well-rounded workout routine is key. This can include alternating lower body exercises with upper body training days, and balancing strength training with cardiovascular exercises to create a holistic fitness regimen.
"Squats are better than leg press if you had to choose one exercise over the other. This is because the squat recruits almost every muscle in the lower body, improves balance, has a greater metabolic response, and can increase other sport skills compared with the leg press."
- Avi Silverberg, National Powerlifting Team Coach
What Makes a Good Leg Press Alternative?
In my years of coaching, I've found that a good leg press alternative effectively targets similar muscle groups and minimizes spinal load, based on both personal observation and feedback from clients.
Most exercises on the list include both of these parameters. However, finding an exercise that provides only one factor is also acceptable.
Remember that almost all exercises have a bodyweight version, drastically lowering the pressure on your spine, according to the Harvard Health Publishing .
It's important to adapt these leg press alternatives to suit different fitness levels. Beginners might start with bodyweight versions of these exercises, gradually introducing weights as they progress, while advanced individuals can increase intensity with added resistance or challenging variations.
And f you are looking for an ideal barbell for your home gym to perform different leg press alternatives, read our guide on the best barbells for your home gym.
How Do I Do a Leg Press Without a Machine?
To do a leg press without a machine, you can perform a resistance band leg press exercise. The movement is the same in both exercises, but the banded version can't provide as much weight as the regular leg press machine can.
How Can I Mimic My Leg Press at Home?
You can mimic a leg press alternative at home by doing regular bodyweight squats or Bulgarian split squats. These two exercises activate the same muscles as the leg press does.
What Works the Same Muscles as a Leg Press?
Any squat pattern, including bodyweight squats, split squats, step-ups, and hip thrusts, works the same muscles as a leg press.
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