Squats: the unquestioned king of leg day. The Jay Z of strength training. Both squats and Jay Z are timeless contributors with the accolades and street cred to go along with it. Both have been genuine, authentic, fantastically talented pillars of the industry throughout their life span, earning the respect they garner for good reason. Jay Z and squats are in rare company in that they pass the “if you only had one for the rest of your life, what would you choose?” test for their respective arenas.
Luckily, most of us don’t have to make that choice, we can choose to play 2Pac or do leg presses when we get the urge. This doesn’t mean I think Pac is better than Jay Z or leg presses are better than squats, it means sometimes I want to “have A muthaf$%&in gangsta party” or blast my quads with isolation work, and that’s ok. Too many people in hip hop and strength training get into the “this is better than that” debate when really, most things have their place and can be utilized for a specific purpose. While I know Jay Z is the better lyricist with more classic hits, 2Pac brings a different type of gritty attitude to his tracks that blend perfectly with the 90’s west coast hip hop sound that is so unique to the rest of the genre. As far as a bang for your buck exercise, squats are nearly impossible to beat, but when it comes time to focus on isolating fatigue on the lower body, I’m going leg press all day.
While squatting is a skill, the best thing about the leg press is that it’s dummy proof. It doesn’t take much coordination or athletic ability to toss some plates on, hunker down, and push the sled up and down until you shout, “Dear Mama!” I’ve had clients of all levels of coordination and experience and I’ve yet to find someone who couldn’t figure out the leg press on their 1st or 2nd set. With squats, during an initial screening with a new client, there are usually more than “99 Problems” that need to be corrected before heavy loading. It can take weeks of performing countless sets of body weight, goblet, and box squats to make me feel comfortable putting a barbell on a client’s back and squatting. Loaded squatting before a lifter has created the proper motor pattern for a squat will result in a “Hard Knock Life” for anybody. It takes TIME to develop an effective and safe squat, and I don’t know if you noticed, but most people are impatient when it comes to their results. Does that mean you throw squats out the window? Absolutely not, “The Blueprint” of performing high rep, low-risk squat work to grease the groove of the proper squat while supplementing with heavy leg presses to strengthen and hypertrophy the major lower body muscles in the meantime is your best bet.
Additionally, with the barbell back squat, most lifters will reach lower back failure or fatigue to the point where form is compromised before they reach the same level of fatigue in the quads, glutes, and/or hamstrings. If you thought all you needed was squats to build that booty, “I Aint Mad Atcha”, but think again. If your lower back fails first, you aren’t going to be able to exhaust the lower body enough to produce strength and size gains with squats alone. But “Keep Ya Head Up”, leg press once again saves the day as it calls in back support. The leg press is basically a squat with the advantage of a supported lower back, effectively taking your lower back out of the movement. Now the lifter can crank away at the lower body muscles with heavier loads independently of any other muscle group and create the kind of stimulus that produces size and strength.
Utilizing the Leg Press
To safely use the leg press, make sure your butt and lower back are jammed firmly against the pad and avoid lowering the sled to the point where you lose contact in either of those areas with the support. Most lifters will be best served lowering the platform to the point where the hamstrings are parallel to the platform and stop there. While placing your feet directly in the middle of the platform and cranking out reps is effective at placing an even amount of emphasis on the quads, glutes and hamstrings, much like squats, changing foot position will hit muscle groups differently. Check out the graphic below to make “Changes” to which muscles are emphasized more.
The squat is the gold standard, the Grammy winner. In terms of overall real-world strength, athleticism, and conditioning, there is nothing more effective than “Big Pimpin” in the squat rack and progressing in strength over time. However, if leg strength and size is your goal, isolating those major muscles of the lower body with the leg press may be the best way to “Hit em up” from time to time.
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