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Leg Press vs Squat: Pros & Cons (+ Variations)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico | Co-Founder & Marketing Director
Last updated: September 14, 2023

As a fitness trainer with over ten years of experience, I’ve had a front-row seat to the age-old debate: leg press vs. squat.

I have helped countless clients achieve their strength and muscle-building goals. I understand the importance of choosing the correct exercises to maximize results and minimize risks.

This article will explore these two popular lower body exercises by comparing their advantages, disadvantages, proper form, and variations.

Let’s get started.

Quick Summary

  • One main difference between leg presses and squats is how they work muscles.
  • The seated leg press is a great beginner exercise.
  • Many squat variations allow work at different angles to gain lower body muscle mass.

How Do Leg Presses And Squats Differ From Each Other?

A gym coach looking at a clipboard

Leg presses and squats primarily differ from each other in how they work similar muscles.

Both the leg press and squats work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but squats are more of a whole-body exercise by engaging the upper body.

An interesting study published in 2018 studied the body composition and functional outcomes of leg press vs. squat exercises.

Researchers divided participants into three groups: leg press, squat, and leg press and squat to perform their respective exercises twice a week for ten weeks [1].

Here’s what researchers found:

  • Results of the study show that free weights and machines can improve functional outcomes.
  • This study highlights the importance of strength training. The leg press group improved balance, while the squat group significantly affected the countermovement jump.
  • The study further demonstrates that strength training exercises, whether they rely exclusively on or include machines, can enhance dynamic balance.

In a nutshell, both leg presses and squats benefit building muscle and strength in the lower body.

Leg Presses

A person doing leg press workouts at the gym

Leg presses are a type of exercise that involves being seated on a leg press machine.

Here’s how to do them:

  • Sit on a preferred home gym leg press machine.
  • Place your back against the padded backrest.
  • Rest your feet on the two footrests.
  • Begin the exercise with your knees bent.
  • Move the weight by straightening your legs and then return them to their bent position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

“Like all strength training exercises, leg presses build muscle, reduce the risk of injury, and counteract age-related muscle loss.”

- Kirsten Nunez, MSc, BSc

Leg Press Pros

A person on a leg press at the gym

Here are some benefits of leg presses:

  • The leg press, compared to the squat, is a great beginner exercise to work the lower body muscles.
  • The leg press can effectively strengthen leg muscles without needing a spotter.
  • Less range of motion than a squat leads to increased emphasis on quads rather than glutes and hamstrings.
  • Adjusting the foot position on the footpads allows for emphasizing different muscles.
  • It is easy to adjust the weight on a leg press machine.
  • There is minimal load on the spine, making it a good exercise for individuals with back problems.

Leg Press Cons

Here are some downfalls associated with leg presses:

  • Injuries in your knees are possible if lifting too much weight or locking your knees when extending your legs.
  • When using a leg press machine, the risk of working one leg harder than the other is present because the machine moves the same whether one or two legs are involved.
  • It is possible to round your back if attempting to lift too much weight on the machine.
  • It is essential to be mindful when loading the machine, as it may be tempting to add too much weight.


A woman at the leg press

There aren’t many leg press variations as leg press machines limit options, but here are the common ones:

  • One-Leg Leg Press: You can do the conventional leg press with a single leg for a more thorough workout. It is important to ensure weight is manageable when using one leg during leg pressing.
  • Higher Foot Placement of Leg Press: Feet placed higher on the footpad increase the extension and contraction of the hamstrings and glute muscles. There is a reduced range of motion at the knee during leg press.
  • Lower Foot Placement: Feet placed lower on the footpad require more effort from the quads and less hamstring and glute activation. This variation increases the range of motion of the knees.


A person at the park doing squats

Squats are a compound exercise that increases lower body and core strength. Unlike leg presses, your feet are on the ground during squats.

Though you can use a machine to perform squats, no equipment is necessary.

Here’s how to do a bodyweight squat:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with toes pointing slightly outward and arms straight out in front.
  • Bend knees to push hips backward while keeping back straight and torso upright.
  • Move as if sitting back in a chair, reaching a 90-degree angle or lower.
  • Push up through feet to straighten legs.

“Changing up the basic squat allows you to target different muscle groups. It also helps with motivation so you don’t get bored with performing the same move repeatedly.”

- Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd

Squat Pros

A person at home doing squats

Here are some benefits of squats:

  • Squats target a range of muscles from different angles.
  • Doing squats can help strengthen the core and back muscles.
  • Squats may improve flexibility in the knees.
  • It is an excellent exercise to increase leg strength.
  • Squatting can help improve posture by focusing on keeping the back straight.

Squat Cons

Here are some downfalls associated with squats:

  • Risk of back injury when leaning too far forward or rounding the back.
  • Shoulder strain is possible when supporting heavy barbells.
  • Chance of getting stuck at the bottom of a squat and unable to get back up.
  • Knee injuries can occur if they move too far in or out during the exercise.
  • A spotter may be necessary, depending on the variation.


A person doing squats outside

Many squat variations are available to help target upper body and leg muscles at different angles.

It is best to master the standard squat technique before tackling the variations:

  • Barbell Squats: The barbell squat involves placing the weight on the upper back behind the neck, bending the knees, and standing up to complete one repetition. It is crucial to avoid bowing forward when doing a barbell back squat, as it can lead to straining of the back muscles.
  • Hack Squats: You can do hack squats with either barbells or machines. A barbell hack squat is performed by bending down to the barbell behind you, standing up, and having it across your buttocks or upper hamstrings. This type of squat helps to reduce strain on the lower back compared to the back squat, as the weight is under your center of mass.
  • Front Squat: Front squats involve a barbell or two dumbbells held at shoulder height while performing a standard squat. They are easier on the knees than back squats and may be safer for the lower back.
  • Wall Squat: Wall squats involve standing against a wall and squatting until the thighs are parallel to the ground. This exercise is suited for those new to squats or with knee pain.
  • Jump Squats: Squat jumps involve squatting to a 90-degree angle and explosively jumping up.
  • Pistol Squat: Pistol squats are an advanced exercise to strengthen the legs. Each leg is exercised separately by extending one in front of you while performing the squat. Pistol squats improve strength for each leg individually, offer a more intense core workout and increase flexibility and balance.

Which Exercise Should You Choose?

A gym girl thinking

You choose the exercise based on your ability and fitness goals.

For those with balance and mobility issues, leg press exercises may be the better option as you perform them while in a seated position.

For anyone looking to work the entire body, squats are the better option because they work the lower body and all the muscles in your torso, including your spinal erectors, abs, and obliques [2].

You may not have to choose at all. Incorporating both into your lower body workouts allows you to reap the most benefit because they engage similar muscle groups in slightly different manners.


Does Leg Press Build As Much Muscle As Squat?

A leg press won’t build as much muscle as a squat. You should perform the two exercises during your leg workouts, but squats are a better overall muscle builder, while leg presses emphasize the quads.

Can Leg Press Replace Squats?

A leg press can’t effectively replace squats because it is an isolation exercise that works the leg muscles, primarily the quads. Squats are a compound exercise giving a more whole-body workout.

Leg Press vs. Squat: Who Wins Leg Day?

The squat and leg press offer unique benefits and challenges for building lower body strength. By understanding their differences, you can make an informed decision about which exercise suits your goals.

In addition to choosing the right exercises, fueling your body with crucial nutrients for optimal muscle growth and recovery is essential.

I recommend incorporating one of the high-quality protein powders we extensively tested into your fitness routine:

Protein powders provide a convenient way to meet your daily protein requirements, giving your muscles the building blocks to repair and grow stronger.


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