Squats are one of the most efficient lower body exercises of all time. They activate muscles that you use every day – every time you stand up, sit down, or climb stairs. And because they work the largest muscles in your legs, they’re great for building overall muscle mass.  

But many people struggle with the right squat form, especially when they’re new to the gym. That’s where the leg press machine comes in. This machine allows people just starting their fitness journeys to get the most out of leg day. It also accommodates people who are recovering from an injury or have joint or back problems.   

The leg press works all of the lower body muscles, but it really emphasizes the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. One of the big benefits of a machine like the leg press is that it can build those larger muscles, and it’s easy to use. There are those who argue this machine is less effective at building overall strength than free weight exercises; the truth is, no matter what you’ll still get stronger while you’re using it. It’s all about you, and where you are on your fitness journey.

How to use the machine 

To start off, load the amount of weight onto the machine that you want to lift. How much weight you should choose depends on your overall fitness level. As a rule of thumb, novices should start out using half their body weight. People with more experience can start at three quarters of their body weight. Wherever you start, getting the full range of motion out of your reps on the machine should be your goal. Don’t just focus on pressing the most weight you can! Extra weight with poor form gets you nowhere. 

Different machines use different methods of loading the weight. Some use a simple pin system like the one on the assisted pull-up machine. With others, like the ones in our fitness centers, you add weight plates to the bars on either side of the machine. Be careful lifting the heavier plates, especially if you’re just starting out. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if someone has left hundreds of pounds on the machine. Also, be sure to keep the amount of weight even on both sides of the bars. Uneven weight distribution can be dangerous to you and cause the equipment to break. 

Now, sit down and lie back on the machine facing the pressure platform. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Shorter people will have to position their feet lower down on the pressure plate, while taller people will need to place their feet higher up. Experiment until you find a position that’s comfortable. 

Next, disengage the safety levers by the handles at either side of the machine. The leg press allows the user to lift a lot of weight, so those safeties are there to keep things from getting dangerous. Some styles of leg press machines – like the seated leg press – don’t need safety levers. No matter what machine you’re using, be sure you know you can handle the amount of weight you’ve chosen. You’ll get better results from your workout if you start out with a lower weight and work your way up. 

Grab onto the handles near your hips and get ready to press! Take a deep breath, then brace your core like you’re doing a crunch. To complete the movement, engage your legs, pushing the weight away from your body until your knees are extended, and exhale while you push. Never lock your knees at the end of the motion! That puts strain on your joints, keeps your muscles from doing work, and could even cut off circulation in your legs. Another good way to prevent injury is to avoid arching your back. Keep it flat against the backrest throughout the movement. If you are tempted to arch your back or lock your knees, you’re probably pressing too much weight. 

Once your legs are extended, lower the weight toward your body. Keep this motion slow and controlled, and inhale while you’re performing it. You don’t want to let the weight fall toward you. Stop lowering the weight when your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. Now you’re ready to push against the weight again.  

Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps. You should aim for between about five and 10 reps per set, depending on the weight you’re using.   

What’s a Good Workout? 

Most strength trainers prefer free weights because they build overall strength by engaging stabilizing muscles. But that’s not to say that the leg press machine can’t have a place in your routine! If you’re a serious gym-goer, it can be a great accessory workout on leg day, after one or two free weight exercises. If you’re just getting started, it’s the perfect way to work up to free weights.  

In fact, many people use machines instead of free weights because they want more controlled movement while exercising. It can also benefit people recovering from an injury, or those who have reduced range of motion in their joints. The leg press can be paired with the hamstring curl and leg extension machines to target all the muscles in your legs and lower body. If you’re looking for a good warmup that involves your leg muscles, you should try out the rower. Always warm up before you exercise large muscle groups! Try these exercises to get the most out of your leg day: 

Dumbbell Lunges (5 sets of 5 reps with a minute of rest in between) 

Lunges are a great complement to the leg press. Just take a big step forward with one leg, bend your knees, and lower yourself toward the ground. Next use the opposite leg and repeat. 

Leg Press 

This is the main event! First, figure out how much weight you’re comfortable with. Half your body weight is a good benchmark if you’re just starting out. Trust us, by the end of this exercise, it’ll feel heavy! Rest for at least 90 seconds in between each set.  

Set 1: Do 10 reps with a weight that’s about half of your body weight. You can try three-fourths of your body weight if you’re more experienced. You shouldn’t be struggling by the end of this set, but you should definitely start to feel the work that your quads are doing. 

Set 2: Bump up the weight! Try doing 8 reps using about 70% of the original weight.  

Set 3: Now bring the weight up to 90% of the weight you started out with and try to do 6 reps. You should be feeling the burn. Don’t sweat it if you have to extend your rest period after this set. 

Set 4: Now, using 100% of the original weight, try to do 4 reps. It should really be feeling heavy now! 

Hamstring Curl (5 sets of 10 reps with a minute of rest in between)

Finally, head over to the hamstring curl machine. This is a great way to finish your leg exercises since the leg press machine doesn’t work your hamstrings very much. Start out with a lower weight and focus on getting the full range of motion from your exercise.


If you’re ready to try out the leg press machine, you can find it in the middle of the fourth floor of the fitness center at our campus on the Upper East Side, and in the main level of the fitness center at our Battery Park City campus.