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You want to know the best way to really, really want to back squat? Do a brutal leg press session instead.

The leg press is further maligned in a home gym setting. Expensive, and with a big footprint, the leg press/hack squat combos we see at every commercial gym are tough to Tetris around your Kia and tool chest.

Fear not, intrepid Kia driver. We are here to help you learn how to do a leg press at home.

How To Do a Leg Press at Home: Use Resistance Bands

One of the best leg press alternatives is to substitute the foot plate for resistance bands (significantly cheaper on Amazon than a leg press machine).

  1. Grab an appropriate resistance band and lie on the floor flat on your back
  2. Loop the band under your lower back or hold it in your hands
  3. Swing your feet up to where your soles point to the sky inside the band’s loop
  4. Extend your legs straight up to the sky
  5. Control your legs down
Banded leg press

Trainer Tips for Form

The resistance band isn’t a squat machine; there is no one body position to conform to as setup. Some finagling needs to be done as regards foot position and band placement.

Keep Tension On The Band

This is really the biggest issue with using bands. You don’t want the resistance band to be limp at the bottom of the lift. With a combination of foot position and “widening” the band under your back by pulling apart with your hands, you can make sure there isn’t any slack in the band during a full range of motion1.

Be Explosive, Then Slow

To get the most of the band, use tempo to help build muscle. One of the benefits of the leg press is that you can load a ton of weight onto it (and there reap the many benefits of resistance training2) but it’s hard to get that same level of intensity with bands.

In lieu of a large amount of weight, we can create our own intensity. Really work on pressing your legs up with as much force as possible, then slowly bring your feet back to the starting position. You can experiment with using a 2-count, 3-count, or 5-count.

This is really going to make your quadriceps burn.

Alternatives to Leg Presses to Do At Home 

You don’t need a leg press machine to perform an effective leg workout or build muscle. While it is a luxury some may indulge in, here are some of the best leg press alternatives for your training pleasure.

Squats

The dominant force in all lower body strength training, the squat is both a great exercise in its own right, and a great leg press alternative.

Beginners can benefit from really milking the bodyweight free squat. Using a pause at the bottom and adding some load like a kettlebell or dumbbell can progress the movement and tax even more advanced lifters. 

This pause goblet squat will light up your legs by adding a pseudo-isometric element3. Unlike the leg press, it is also a full body workout. Your upper body gets taxed, with your upper back and abs have to work hard to keep your truck upright.

Once you have progressed with the pause goblet squat, you can increase the frontal load with pause front squats. I like the pause version because it removes the athleticism of bouncing out of the bottom and replaces it with a dead stop push (like in a deadlift).

front squat demo

Lunges

Standing lunges, walking lunges, reverse lunges, and especially jumping lunges are a wonderful way to tax your quads without needing any equipment whatsoever.

Whichever version you choose, the basics are the same: the front leg steps forward and the front knee bends to around 90-degrees. The back knee is kept mostly straight and can tap the ground, but don’t make the mistake of using it as a walking cane.

Wall Squats

Most people will know the static version of this. Known, and reviled, as the wall sit, this is where you put your back into a wall and sit at a 90-degree angle until your quads explode.

The dynamic version of this is the wall sit. Because you’re pushing yourself back into the wall, rather than straight up, the wall squat uses your own bodyweight to create the feel of the leg press. The wall takes pressure off your hamstring and puts more pressure on your quadriceps.

You can do this by leaning back into TRX straps as well. Using this version allows you to finagle your body into different angles to hit different muscle groups harder.

wall sit gif

Bulgarian Split Squat

Even if you can’t find Bulgaria on a blank map without some help (look for the Black Sea and go from there), you will learn to hate their version of this rear-foot-elevated lunge.

The starting position for the Bulgarian split squat is the same as for a lunge, but with your back foot elevated on a bench or plyo box. You then perform a standard lunge by bending your front knee down to a 90-degree angle, all while keeping your back foot on the bench the entire time.

Your leg muscles are going to hate you. This is one of those exercises that will tell you where you’re weak. Some people will feel like their glutes are getting shot with a flamethrower, and others will feel like their quadriceps are trying to secede from the rest of the body. Then the next day it will switch.

These are great with high reps and light load. 

bulgarian split squat demo

Smith Machine Leg Press

I get it, if you don’t have room for a legit leg press machine in your home gym, maybe you don’t have access to a Smith machine.

However, if you DO have access to a Smith machine, it can be used as a vertical leg press with no modification whatsoever.

Just lie down under the bar, with the middle of your soles on the bar, somewhere between hip-width and shoulder-width. If you’re fancy you can unrack and rack the bar with your feet. If not, you can just use your hands.

Yoke Pick-Ups

You can do these as bottom-up squats off of pins inside of a rack, but I just love the amount of weight you can use with a strongman yoke.

Set the crossbar so that when you set up with it on your back you are 2-4 inches above parallel (so not quite at a 90-degree angle with your knees). Set every repetition completely down on the ground.

This mimics the absurd weight you can use with a machine leg press more than it does the massive quad activation4.

Trunk/lower back/abs/core is a limiting factor on these, but if you squeeze and “pull in” on the uprights you can really brace hard. You can do what Strongman competitors do and wear two or three weightlifting belts to help. 

The three-belt-look is all the rage in Paris right now.

FAQs: Leg Presses at Home

Can you do a leg press without a machine?

You can get many of the benefits of the leg press without a literal leg press machine.

Leg day doesn’t have to be about machines. Huge quads and hanging hamstrings were built with free weights before the selectorized seated leg press was a gleam in some inventor’s eye.
More and more equipment companies are making leg press rack attachments that fit inside power racks (these may be brand specific, influencing your shopping options, or you could always DIY). 

Add to that the plethora of modern day belt squat options, and you have several ways to load your quadriceps through a fixed range of motion.

What exercise can replace leg press?

The barbell squat is still the king of all lower body exercises. Using weightlifting shoes or a slant board can help mimic the angle created by the foot plate a little bit (although this creates more knee drift, which is also great and terrible… squatting is complicated). I wouldn’t recommend lifting big weights on a slant board.

Heavy goblet squats have more of the “feel” of the leg press for me. If you have access to a strongman yoke, setting the crossbar to where you set up a couple inches above a parallel squat and doing pick-ups can be a way to load more weight on then some other leg press alternative exercises.

What can I do instead of one-leg leg press?

Unilateral work is going to be predicated on your fitness goals and overall health. Useful for rehab and prehab, single leg machine leg presses remove the need to balance (both good and bad depending on what you’re trying to do). 

To simulate the leg press taking away gravity, the resistance band version of the movement can be used. Doing step-ups or lunges with a hand on the wall or rack can also help keep pressure on your quads and glutes if balance or stabilizer muscles are a limiting factor.

References:

1. Pinto RS, Gomes N, Radaelli R, Botton CE, Brown LE, Bottaro M. Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2140-5. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a3b15. PMID: 22027847.

2. Rhodes EC, Martin AD, Taunton JE, Donnelly M, Warren J, Elliot J. Effects of one year of resistance training on the relation between muscular strength and bone density in elderly women. Br J Sports Med. 2000 Feb;34(1):18-22. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.34.1.18. PMID: 10690445; PMCID: PMC1724140.

3. Anwer S, Alghadir A. Effect of isometric quadriceps exercise on muscle strength, pain, and function in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled study. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 May;26(5):745-8. doi: 10.1589/jpts.26.745. Epub 2014 May 29. PMID: 24926143; PMCID: PMC4047243.

4. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Evaluation of the Lower Limb Muscles’ Electromyographic Activity during the Leg Press Exercise and Its Variants: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jun 27;17(13):4626. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17134626. PMID: 32605065; PMCID: PMC7369968.

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