I wrote this a few years ago for StrengthCoach.com
Over the years for a variety of reasons, I’ve advocated for more single leg training. I summed up my “whys” in this article for T-Nation back in 2007. In the simplest sense, single-leg training results in less back stress due to the reduced loads used. And, although the phrase “functional training” is overused, single-leg training meets my definition of functional training, the application of functional anatomy to training. You do almost everything in sports from a split stance, or by pushing off one leg from a parallel stance, so it just makes sense to train your body that way.
Since I’ve already made that argument about single-leg training, there’s no need to rehash it here. Instead, I want to present an entirely new question: What if you could actually get more stress to your legs, build more useable strength, and potentially add more size by working around your back, which is often the weak link in bilateral exercises like squats?
This is what bodybuilders have been doing for decades. By bracing your back in the leg press, you can hit your leg extensors — your quads — with far more load. That’s because the load doesn’t have to be transferred through your back to get to your legs.
Now, before you think I’ve done a 180 and come to love the leg press, let me assure you that my opinion hasn’t changed. Yes, the machine allows bodybuilders to pile on the plates, but we now know that the back pays a price. It’s just a different price than the one lifters pay for using heavy loads in the squat. Instead of compressing the spine, the leg press causes a rounding of the back, which over time might create more damage.
Safety isn’t the only reason to avoid the leg press. The exercise has evolved into a kind of a circus act, done with the help of knee wraps, hands on thighs, and abysmal ranges of motion. Did you ever see that video of Pat Robertson, the 74-year-old televangelist, leg-pressing 2,000 pounds? If you took the exercise seriously before, that video surely curbed your enthusiasm.
All that said, when the goal is to build bigger, stronger legs, I still think it’s a good idea to target those muscles without having to place heavy loads on the spine. We just need to find a better way to do it.
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