You can see them lined up in virtually every gym across the world: gleaming rows of strength training machines, each targeted to a different body part. Among the ones for your lower body, you may find leg extension machines, hamstring curl machines, combination inner and outer thigh machines and even a few just for your buttocks. But one machine rules them all when it comes to building your thighs and calf muscles -- the leg press.
We Have a Winner
In order to build size and strength in your thighs and calves, you need to commit to lifting quite a bit of weight. The only way these muscles will grow is if you train them hard and heavy by doing movements like squats and lunges. Doing these exercises with free weights, however, may pose some challenges. Just holding on to enough weight to get the job done may be rough, as your legs are much stronger, in general, than your arms. Doing squats and lunges improperly puts your back and knees at risk. The beauty of the leg press is that it enables you to move significant amounts of plate around more safely, letting you focus on your form during exercises.
Types of Leg Press Machines
Two basic styles of leg press are standard in many fitness facilities: the vertical press and the horizontal press. In a vertical press, you recline flat on your back or more typically at a slight angle, then place your feet on the foot plate and press the weight up and out. Horizontal leg press machines have seats that are more upright, and you press the weight away from your body. Both come in plate-loaded and selectorized models. With a plate-loaded model, you adjust the weight by adding barbell plates to the machine. Selectorized models have weights built in, and all you usually have to do is move a pin to select the amount of weight you want to press.
Leg Press Exercises for Thighs and Calves
For your thighs, focus on squat variations. You can use both legs simultaneously or challenge yourself by working one leg at a time. Additionally, you can vary the position of your feet, keeping them hip-width apart for general strengthening or taking them wider to recruit greater hamstring involvement. For your calves, you can use the leg press to rise up on your toes and then lower your heels to the foot plate with control against the resistance. Turning your toes slightly in or slightly out can help to refine the shape of your calves overall.
Taking your hips lower than your knees can put a great deal of strain on them, especially if you are using significant amounts of weight. Bear in mind that in order to build your thighs and calves, you'll need to be prepared to lift more weight than you have in the past. Be certain to work with a fitness professional to learn proper use and technique of the leg press machines available at your gym.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Effects of technique variation on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press
Amy Kreger has a Masters degree in health and physical activity and is an adjunct professor instructing anatomy and physiology at the college level. For more than 10 years she has also taught most forms of group exercise, from aerobic dance to group cycling and from kickboxing to yoga.