Soft, squishy thighs might make a nice lap for your toddler, but if you prefer a sleeker look, you've probably cozied up to the vertical leg press machine at your local gym. Vertical leg presses are an old-school gym move favored by bodybuilders looking to bulk up their thighs, but women dig them for fending off excess thigh jiggle. But the classic machines have fallen out of favor with a lot of gyms because of their injury risk. Knowing your way around the machine, and alternate excises, will keep you from falling victim to bad form.
The Risk of Reclining
If you've been hitting the cardio hard, verticle leg presses offer a welcome reprieve. You lie flat on your back on a padded bench while you push a weighted platform away from your body using your feet; if you close your eyes, you can almost imagine that you're actually relaxing! But that reclined position that seems so tempting can be bad news for your back. When you're in a horizontal position with your legs perpendicular to your hips, the force of pushing up the platform could cause your lower spine to flex into a curved position. That arched position might look sexy, but it's one of the weakest mechanical poses for your spine, elevating your risk of injury to your back
It's not just your back that's in the danger zone during a vertical leg press; your chest and ribs are in a vulnerable position, too. Proper positioning of your feet on the platform is crucial for protecting the front of your body; if your feet are too close together, your knees will hit your ribs on the downward movement. If your legs buckle accidentally, that knee-to-ribs action can be painful. Muscle strains and pulls are another hazard. Most women take their deep breath right before they press up on the platform. That inhalation fills up the lungs, expanding the chest and abdominal muscles prior to performing any motion. The added stress of straining to push the platform can prove too much for your muscles, leading to painful chest or abdominal injuries.
Remember hanging over the edge of your bed as a kid and giggling as the blood rushed to your head? That same blood-pooling phenomenon that introduced you to your first natural high will happen in your thighs during a vertical leg press, but instead of feeling deliriously loopy, you'll be left with a muscle burn that can take days to subside. Along with all that blood rushing to your thighs is a cascade of lactic acid, the byproduct of exercise that gives your muscles that warm, achy feeling. The pooling action is a result of poor blood circulation due to the positioning of your legs, and all that lactic acid buildup can actually cause your muscles to underperform. Even if you feel fine during your workout, the recovery period afterward may be marked by shaking thighs that have that on-fire feeling.
A Leg Press You Can Live With
All is not lost if you still crave the classic gym workout. Most gyms now offer a less dangerous version of the vertical leg press called the machine incline leg press. These machines still give you the same impact on your legs without compromising your back or abdomen, because instead of your legs being at a 90-degree angle with your hips, they sit at a gentler 45-degree angle. The slight adjustment relieves the pressure on your lower back without sacrificing the impact of the exercise. You'll still need to keep an eye on your form (back flat, feet apart), but you're much less likely to hobble away injured.
Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.