The leg press machine is one of the most popular items of equipment in the gym. It’s a great way to make the leg muscles work, and you can lift a heavy weight to failure safely. You can lift through a full range of motion, making the quadriceps muscle group do a lot of work!
In this article we’re going to look at leg press foot placement, and see if foot placement variation has an impact on the leg press exercise and the results you achieve.
We’ll assess the anatomy, the muscle activation patterns and coaching points to see how the tweaks can help or hinder your leg workout. By the end of the article you’ll be able to get so much more out of the leg press machine, improving your results!
Anatomy of the legs
To begin with we’ll look at the anatomy of the legs. This is to help you as a reader, because if you understand the muscles I’m talking about, you’ll better visualize the body parts I’m referring to in the article.
To make it easier for you, I’ll talk about general muscles, rather than going into minute detail about each area. I’ll split them into muscle groups…
Front of the legs…
- Vastus medialis (inner thigh)
- Vastus intermedialis (middle)
- Vastus lateralis (outer thigh)
- Rectus femoris (center of the thigh)
Back of the legs…
- Glutes (butt muscles)
- Biceps femoris (back of the thigh)
- Semi-tendinosus (back of the thigh)
- Gastrocnemius (calf muscles)
This is going to be helpful when we’re discussing the impact foot position has on the muscle activity during the leg press.
How foot placement impacts muscle activation
The greatest impact that the leg press foot placement will have is on the range of movement. Ignoring anything else, the position of your feet on the leg press platform will impact how much flexion you’ll be able to manage at the knee.
This, coupled with the amount of ankle movement you can generate will determine the range of motion you can lift through. This will have an impact directly on the amount of time under tension you’ll experience. As a general rule, more time under tension means more muscle and strength growth.
Marchetti et al completed a study titled ‘Muscle Activation Differs between Three Different Knee Joint-Angle Positions during a Maximal Isometric Back Squat Exercise‘ in 2016.
The researchers concluded…
‘…knee position alters muscles activation of the quadriceps and gluteus maximus muscles. An isometric back squat at 90° generates the highest overall muscle activation, yet an isometric back squat at 140° generates the lowest overall muscle activation of the vastus lateralis and gluteus maximus only.
Although the study used back squats, the point is the muscle engagement at different knee angles. The differences in muscle activation between the different squat depths will be the same in the leg press.
Leg press foot placement: The options
The idea that foot placement causes differences in muscle activation has been known about for a long time. Despite this, it’s still an area of contention amongst researchers. Some studies suggest that the impact is minimal, whereas others highlight larger differences.
There is enough literature on muscle activity out there for us to know that there clearly is a difference when stance and foot placement vary. The argument now falls on how much of a difference it makes.
We’ll look at the evidence before we draw any of our own conclusions…
High foot placement
This is where the lifter places their feet towards the top of the foot pad on the leg press. Evidence from a study by Da Silva et al in 2008 suggests that the higher foot placement brings about a higher muscle activity level in the glutes.
They concluded that…
‘…if the goal is to induce gluteus maximus activity, the Leg Press High (referring to foot placement) should be performed.’
Anecdotally, this has been reported for years. The evidence from the study just confirms what was long experienced in the weight room over the decades.
Middle foot placement
There is limited research on muscle activity where specific middle foot placement is concerned. I can only conclude this is because it’s the standard technique on the machine, and we know what the muscle activation is there.
The wealth of research around the leg press suggests that in a standard position, the primary muscles used are the quad muscles, and the degree to which they are used is dependent on the knee flexion angles. More depth = more activation of the quads.
Low foot placement
The low foot placement is interesting, because it’s where we see the biggest changes in muscle activation.
The study by Da Silva et al in 2008 gave us some additional insight on low foot placement on the leg press. They concluded that…
‘At a high effort level, the rectus femoris and vastus lateralis were more active during the Leg Press Low than the Leg Press High, and gastrocnemius were more active during the Leg Press Low than the Leg Press High.’
This means that placing your feet low on the pad works the central and outer quads, and the calf muscles more than the other foot positions. It will require more ankle flexibility to make this work though. Good ankle flexibility is important to allow full range of movement.
How does stance width impact results?
One thing we can be sure of is the impact stance width will have on the results from the leg press.
In 2001 Escamilla et al published a research study titled ‘Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press‘.They drew a number of conclusions, but the one that is relevant here is…
…’the wide stance leg press high foot generated greater hamstrings activity than the narrow stance leg press high foot, whereas the narrow squat produced greater gastrocnemius activity than the wide stance squat.
This is the clearest information in the literature on muscle activity that we have. It indicates that stance width has an impact on muscle recruitment during the leg press. These findings also offer support to the findings from the Da Silva study, showing the high foot placement recruits more of the posterior chain muscles.
The additional hamstring activation with a high foot position is useful for varying the activity in muscles on the exercise. Coaches and lifters can use this information to their advantage.
Does foot angle change things?
Now we know that there is a difference in muscle activation when the foot height is altered, but what about the orientation? Does the internal or external rotation of the feet have an impact on the results of the exercise?
A 2022 study from Martin-Fuentes et al titled ‘Influence of Feet Position and Execution Velocity on Muscle Activation and Kinematic Parameters During the Inclined Leg Press Exercise‘ concluded that…
‘Muscle activation presented no differences between conditions regarding feet width stance or feet rotation.’
This conclusion is echoed around the research on the leg press exercise. To further investigate this, I looked at the influence on foot position during the squat, to see if that had an impact…
An article titled ‘Effect of Foot Position on the Electromyographical Activity of the Superficial Quadriceps Muscles During the Parallel Squat and Knee Extension’ was published in the journal of strength and conditioning research in 1995. The researchers concluded…
‘Bipolar surface electrodes placed on the bellies of the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis and on the lateral and medial portions of the rectus femoris revealed no significant differences in electrical activity for any muscle due to changes in foot position during the squat.’
I think we can safely say there is no difference in muscle activation, regardless of foot angle during the leg press.
Leg press tips
What we’ve learned so far is that the leg press is an effective way of stimulating the thigh muscles. Whether you use a narrow stance, a wide stance or a regular stance, you’re going to help build leg strength.
It’s also a way to train legs to failure with a very low risk of injury.
Here’s a few tips to get the most from the exercise…
#1 – Use leg press variation
We know that wider foot placement hits the back of the thighs more, and that higher foot placement hits the glutes more. When you bring your feet lower on the pad, you hit the middle and outer thigh muscles. Mix things up with different width and foot placements. It’ll help you achieve your muscle growth goals.
#2 – Lift through a full range of motion
This is a non-negotiable. The research on this is clear – the greater the lifting range, the better the results. As you lift through a full range, you stimulate different muscles in the lower body. At a deep knee flexion you fully engage the quads, as you extend more you bring about more gluteus maximus activity.
#3 – Take advantage of the machine
This might sound like an odd tip, but go with me. The beauty of the leg press is that you can push yourself to muscular failure with very low risk. Training to failure helps your muscle growth goals enormously. Also training to failure will build your quad strength, which will transfer to exercises such as squats.
#4 – Go for volume
We know from the literature on muscle activation that the leg press doesn’t stress the muscles and joints as much as squats . This means you can increase the volume of training, without stressing the knee joint or the muscles as much. Using the leg press for high reps is a great way to put additional focus on the legs.
Leg press foot placement takeaways
We’ve established that the leg press foot placement can have a significant impact on training results. By switching stances between feet wide, regular stance and narrow stance, we can elicit different responses from the machine.
The height of the foot placement on the foot pad is also an effective way of emphasizing different muscles during the lift.
Experiment with the basic foot positions, weights, sets and reps to get the most from your leg pressing.