When it comes to strengthening the legs, there aren’t many exercises better than the leg press. It’s a phenomenal exercise for loading up the heavy weight on your lower body.
It also does this without putting as much pressure on your back as squats or deadlifts would.
Don’t get me wrong .... those are great exercises too. However, taking pressure off of your lower back is a major benefit of the leg press.
This is especially true for anyone that deals with back issues and still wants strong legs.
That said, whether you are doing the leg press to build strength, build muscle, or lose body fat ... the question I get from people is almost always the same...
“Does it matter where I put my feet?”
"What's the proper foot placement for the leg press?"
To some people, this may be a straightforward question ... but not for everyone. It actually took me learning biomechanics in college to really understand it on a deeper level.
The fact that you’re reading this right now tells me that you want to understand too, and I’m happy to teach it to you.
To answer the question though, yes it absolutely matters where you place your feet. At the same time though, there is no "proper" way to place your feet. Your foot placement can change and should change depending on the muscles you want to target.
In this article, I'll teach you all about your foot placement and why it matters. But first, let’s cover the basics of the leg press for those of you who may not know what it is...
What is the Leg Press?
The leg press is a machine that mimics a squat, and it can be designed a couple different ways.
These machines will always contain a seat and an oversized platform for your feet. However, there are cable leg press machines and plate-loaded leg press machines.
The only difference between these two is how weight is added and how it moves.
Generally, the plate loaded machines have a seat lower to the ground, and your feet will push the platform up and away. With a cable leg press, your seat will be level or higher than the platform, and you will push your seat up and away from the weight.
Both are great ways to train your legs, but you can typically add more weight to a plate-loaded leg press. That's not to say it's better, but if you hit your weight limit, it can be!
The reason for this is simple. To add resistance on the cable leg press, you just move the pin to a heavier weight, but there are only so many options. Once you reach the heaviest weight, you cannot go heavier.
On a plate-loaded leg press, you can keep adding more plates until there is no more room. So technically, it's also limited by how much weight you can put on. However, the weight limit is most likely 1000+ pounds as opposed to maybe 300+ pounds for a cable leg press.
Now, that should give you a general idea for what a leg press is. If I’m going to explain how your foot placement changes the muscles used though, I need to go over which muscles are used.
Which Muscles Are Used in the Leg Press?
There are a handful of muscle groups that get worked in the leg press. Every change in foot placement changes the degree to which each muscle gets used.
So really, the same muscles are still getting worked regardless of which foot placement you choose. Here are the muscles we're talking about:
• Quadriceps (AKA your Quads)
Other surrounding muscles can still get involved, but not enough to be worth mentioning. After all, these are the four biggest muscles/muscle groups in your legs.
Your quadriceps are the muscles on the front part of your thighs. If you train them correctly, they have a lot of potential for muscle growth. Their main job is to extend your knee joint, but they also play a role in bending at your hip.
I will also mention that while changing your foot position can change the emphasis a bit, the quadriceps are the main focus no matter the variation. Their involvement can go up or down based on foot placement, but they will still be the main focus every time.
Most people are familiar with what the hamstrings are, and they’re located on the back of your thighs. This muscle group helps to bend your knee and aids in extending your hip.
Your glutes make up your butt, and their main role is in extending your hip joint, and abducting your legs. Abducting your legs just means to pull them away from your body like when you spread your legs apart.
I’m sure you probably know what your calves are, most of us do. In case you don't though, they're the muscles below your knees on the back side of your leg. Your calves help you extend your ankle joint, but also help to flex your knee along with your hamstrings.
Your calves aren’t the main focus in any of these variations, but they are still involved.
But, now that you know the muscle groups we’re working with ... Let's get into the different variations for foot placement for the leg press!
5 Foot Placement Variations For The Leg Press
Alright, let’s get down to business. Here I will cover the 5 main ways to switch up your stance in the leg press.
I’ll also explain how each variation changes the emphasis to different muscle groups.
1. Standard Foot Placement
This is the most common foot placement for the leg press. To do this, your feet will need to be shoulder-width apart in the center of the platform.
Your feet can be straight up and down or turned slightly outward if that’s more comfortable.
This is the most well-rounded foot placement, giving you a little bit of everything. The focus is mostly on your quadriceps, but there will still be some work in your hamstrings and glutes as well. This is where I recommend starting if you haven’t used a leg press before.
2. Wide Foot Placement
This foot placement is still along the midline of the platform. This time though, place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. I like this foot placement because it allows you to load up a little more weight.
As far as your feet go, most people will be most comfortable turning them outward. If you'd like to keep them straight, you can do that as well. It's all personal preference!
This variation still targets the quadriceps primarily, like with every other one. The wider stance will activate the glutes and hamstrings significantly more though.
As I’ve mentioned, one thing the glutes do is abduct the legs, or pull them out away from the midline of the body. So, starting in a wider stance will help to activate your glutes more.
3. Narrow Foot Placement
This foot placement is a popular one in the bodybuilding community, and is just as it sounds. Your feet will stay along the midline of the platform, but your stance will be within shoulder-width.
I recommend keeping your feet straight up and down for this variation. If you do feel more comfortable turning your toes out though, that is still okay too.
This variation will target your quads significantly more than a wide or regular stance. The closer your feet are, the more emphasis is placed on your quads.
This is why bodybuilders love this stance on the leg press! It’s great for developing big quadriceps.
4. High Foot Placement
This is a great variation that might require a bit more range of motion in your hamstrings to get to full depth. Your feet will be above the midline at whichever width you choose.
Again, you can have your feet straight up and down or turned out ... whichever is most comfortable for you is fine.
With a higher foot placement, you will activate more of your hamstrings and glutes. To take that a step further, you can turn the emphasis on those 2 muscle groups even more if you widen your stance at the same time.
The higher and wider your foot placement, the more emphasis goes onto your glutes and hamstrings. Even with that being so, the main focus is still on your quadriceps.
5. Low Foot Placement
This is another popular variation because of the increased range of motion at the knee. This requires your feet to be below the midline on the platform at whichever width you choose.
With your feet this low on the platform, your knees will bend significantly more to get down to depth. For this to happen, you will need good mobility in your ankles.
If you don’t have good mobility in your ankles, your heels may raise off the platform. To fix this, you can try using lifting shoes with a raised heel. Better yet, you can work on your mobility - even though that may not be as fun! This will make it easier for you to get down to full depth without having your heels come off of the platform.
You now know the quadriceps are the main emphasis in every leg press, but with a low foot placement, it emphasizes the quadriceps even more.
When you place your feet lower on the platform, your knees will have to bend more and push over the toes. When this happens, you get a deeper stretch in your quadriceps, which makes it more difficult to push the weight.
This increases the amount of work the quadriceps must do, and that’s why it targets them even more. The low foot placement also stretches your calves more, so your calves are a little more active in this variation too.
If you want to isolate your quads even more, narrow your stance. If you widen your stance in the low position ... it will increase recruitment of your glutes and hamstrings more.
Getting the Most From the Leg Press
The leg press is one of my favorite leg exercises, and it’s quite effective. The key to really getting the most out of it is using weight that you can control through a full range of motion.
This is regardless of where you place your feet on the platform.
Each variation is mostly focused on your quadriceps, but your glutes, hamstrings, and calves play a role too.
After all, the manufacturers of the leg press make the platform big for a reason. This allows you to change up how you work your body without having to adjust anything on the machine itself!
Want to really focus on building the muscle in your quadriceps? Use a lower and narrow stance.
Want to focus on building strength in your hamstrings and glutes on the leg press? Use a higher and wider stance.
You can work your calves as well on the leg press, but the leg press doesn't activate them a whole lot.
That said, if you really want to target your calves on the leg press, it's simple. Just lower your stance until only the balls of your feet are touching the platform, and do calf raises!
That exercise is much better at growing strength and muscle in the calves than any variation on the leg press.
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