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6 Leg Press Alternatives to do at Home Without a Machine

The leg press is one of the most popular machines in the gym. Research shows they’re an effective way to build muscle and strength, but what if you don’t have access to a leg press machine? 

Leg presses are often used instead of squats by lifters for the following reasons…

  1. They’re suffering with a lower back injury 
  2. They’re struggling with the correct form

In my (almost) two decades as a personal trainer and weightlifting coach I’ve helped people get around these issues with a variety of leg press alternatives.

In this article, I’m going to show you these leg press alternatives, which I personally believe are actually better, more rounded exercises than the leg press itself.

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Why use a leg press?

You might be asking if there are better exercises than a leg press, why use a leg press at all?

Leg presses are effective, but we’re always looking for improvements!

As mentioned before, it’s often to do with injury and form. The leg press takes a lot of spinal loading out of the equation because your back is against a seat, therefore non-weight-bearing. This helps those who suffer from lower back pain.

The leg press also allows a deeper knee bend for some people, because there’s less requirement to maintain an upright torso position throughout the lift, enabling them to achieve a greater range of movement through the leg.

Finally, there’s no need to learn technique.

You just sit on it and push your legs away.

Supporters of the leg press will point to effective engagement of the quadriceps muscle group and the extended range of movement. Others (and I’m in this camp) will acknowledge these but will cite lack of core engagement and lack of athletic cross-over as reasons to opt for alternatives.

My opinion is that it’s better to fix the causes of pain and look to improve ranges of movement, rather than adopt the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ approach.

Leg press alternative exercises

In this section, I’m going to focus on the two main benefits of the leg press – reducing loading on the lower back, and targeting the quads. 

The exercises I’ll suggest will include free weight exercises so you can do them anywhere. These will address some of the common issues people have with squats, and I’ll also put in two exercises that require different equipment (should you have access to it).

To recreate the leg press, we have to look at exercises that drive the feet into the floor and create extension at the knee through a long range of movement. The goal needs to be quad engagement through excellent movement quality.

Leg press alternatives with free weights

The first four leg press alternatives I’ve selected are easy to do in the sense that they require minimal equipment…

1. Barbell Front Squats

The front squat is arguably the most functional and important leg exercise of them all – fantastic for building leg strength, has excellent athletic cross over and it spares the lower back more than back squats. It’s also the perfect exercise for replicating the leg press because it copies the movement.

To address the issue of squat depth, you can use a slant board that will reduce stress on the knees and allows a greater range of movement. If you don’t have one, simply put plates under your heels!

Equipment needed for barbell front squats:

How to do a barbell front squat:

  1. Hold the bar in the rack position – open hand grip, elbows up, chest up
  2. Take a breath in and engage the core – this keeps the lower back safer
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  4. Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Barbell front squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Glutes

2. Rear foot elevated split squats

Just like the barbell front squat, the rear foot elevated split squats are an excellent choice for replicating the leg press. The stable position allows for more squat depth, plus the single-limb nature of the exercise reduces strength imbalances between limbs.

The lighter weights involved help to address the lower back pain issue because there’s significantly less loading on the lumbar spine. Finally, the upright torso removes a lot of the lower back compression.

Equipment needed for rear foot elevated split squats:

How to do rear foot elevated split squats:

  1. Place the back foot on the bench behind you and hop your front foot ahead
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides and engage the core
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, bend your back knee towards the floor and lower the front thigh until it reaches parallel to the floor
  4. Drive front foot into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Rear foot elevated split squats muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

3. Step ups

The step up is a similar exercise to the rear foot elevated split squats in the sense that it is a unilateral exercise, forcing each leg to work on its own. This helps to strengthen the core too, which is almost always a contributing factor to lower back pain.

This is slightly more challenging than the split squats because it includes a coordination element that you just don’t get with the others. This is because you’re constantly stepping up and down onto a high box. It has a long-range of motion, so mimics the range of movement in the leg press.

Equipment needed for step ups:

How to do step ups:

  1. Place the front foot on the step 
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides and engage the core
  3. Step up onto the box by pushing up through the front foot – don’t cheat by springing off the floor using your bottom foot!
  4. When both feet are on the box, lower the back leg down slowly and under the control of the front leg
  5. Repeat as many times as required per leg

Step ups muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

4. Spanish Squats

The Spanish squat is one of the most under-appreciated exercises I know. It forms a part of so many of my training programs because it helps cure a lot of knee pain, it isolates the quads and it allows a good, upright position so doesn’t load the lower back at all.

It’s not an exercise to perform with a heavy weight. Instead, you want to focus on excellent technique, maintaining a vertical shin angle, and hitting good depth with every rep.

Equipment needed for Spanish squats:

  • Very strong resistance band
  • Suitable anchor point to connect it to i.e. squat rack
  • Kettlebell or dumbbells

How to do step ups:

  1. Wrap the band around a suitable anchor point – a squat rack is ideal
  2. Stand in the loop of the band and position it high on your calf muscles, just below the knees
  3. Keeping your shins as vertical as you can, sit into a deep (thighs parallel to the ground) squat
  4. Stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required per leg

Step ups muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes

Leg press alternatives with machines

There are two exercises that I think are appropriate replacements for the leg press that require machines. The second one I have included (the pendulum squat) can be replicated at home with the right equipment.

5. Inverted Smith machine leg press

The Smith machine can be used as a leg press – it’s a remarkably similar movement pattern, with the only real issue being the comfort (the floor isn’t as comfortable as a padded seat) and the rotation of the bar back into position.

Whilst it’s biomechanically not exactly the same, it’s a pretty good approximation. It’s as close as you’ll get to copying the movement without the machine. It offers the long range of movement and the lack of lumbar spine loading you get with the leg press. 

Equipment required for a Smith machine leg press:

How to do a Smith machine leg press:

  1. Position the bar at a height you can reach with a slightly bent leg
  2. Lie on the floor under the bar and lift your legs to a point where your feet reach the bar
  3. With your feet on the bar, lift it off the catches and smoothly lower towards your chest
  4. Push the bar back away until your legs are straight, but not locked
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Smith machine leg press muscles worked:

  • Quads
  • Glutes

6. Pendulum Squat

The pendulum squat is a better version than the leg press in my opinion. It still protects the back, but I think the angles are much more natural than a leg press. There’s also significantly less risk of hip impingement because the hips are more open.

Pendulum squats aren’t as common as leg press machines in gyms, but they’re more functional and still offer the same back protection and range of movement. I own a pendulum squat in my gym, but I don’t have a leg press – that’s the biggest compliment I can give it. 

There’s a way to replicate the movement of a pendulum squat in your home gym, but you’ll need a slant board and a suspension trainer to make it work effectively. Here’s a useful video to show you the setup. Notice the upright torso that reduces lower back loading, plus the range of motion. 

The vertical shin angle is also useful for people who have suffered from patellar tendinopathies…

Equipment required for a Pendulum squat at home:

How to do a Pendulum squat:

  1. Attach your TRX to a bracket or your squat rack.
  2. Wrap it around your back and place your feet on the slant board with your toes towards the higher slant.
  3. Place dumbbells in your hand (and a weight vest on optionally)
  4. Lower your glutes towards your heels and keep your weight back into the suspension trainer.
  5. Push your feet into the slant board to stand up and repeat as many times as needed

Pendulum squat muscles worked:

  • Quads
  • Glutes

Are leg presses necessary?

No, they’re not. 

They’re popular because they’re accessible – they don’t need much in the way of technique and they’re easy to use.

They’re effective in the sense that they hit target muscles well, but the trade-off is that they hide movement inadequacies and fundamental weaknesses. As a personal trainer, I’d rather people address their movement issues and injuries rather than hide them. 

You might think you’re hitting great depth with your leg press, but there’s little/no functional crossover into ‘real’ life and movement.

I’d always urge you to perfect the leg press alternatives I’ve shown you in this article. They’re more functional, they’ll help solve movement and back issues, plus they transfer into athleticism better.

Leg press alternatives – the bottom line

The takeaway message here is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to a leg press machine. There are plenty of leg press alternatives that are not only as good, but they’re actually an upgrade. 

Even if you have movement or back issues, these exercises will help you to move better, cure imbalances, and train more effectively.

Lower back issues or weakness can affect every exercise you do at the gym. Check out our deadlift alternatives for safe ways to increase your lower back strength. Also, make sure you check out our popular 12-week weight lifting routine to build more muscle and strength.

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Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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