By:  Doug Daniels  

     Finding an effective assistance exercise can be a very important discovery for the powerlifter. An effective assistance exercise should target and strengthen the involved muscular structure of a powerlift and result in improvement in that powerlift.  Of course, assistance exercises should not be included at the expense of the targeted powerlift.  That is, not over train it and becoming stronger in the assistance move over the powerlift.

     Once such effective assistance exercise is the leg press.  Let's look at the benefits offered to the powerlifter.  First, it allows a lifter to work the lower body when the lower back is tired and needs rest.  The leg press is a perfect candidate for light days when you may choose not to squat at all. This can be a real plus for a lifter whose leg strength is sub par but cannot squat more than once per week due to back pain or injury.  Squatting more than once per week can also have a negative impact on a lifter's deadlift also as the lower back, hips, and quads are stressed while deadlifting.  Another factor to consider is that a lifter's squat form may not be conducive to developing maximum leg strength.  By using the leg press, a lifter can strengthen that area and hopefully transfer that power over to the squat.  That does not mean that a lifter not evaluate his squat form for flaws.  If a lifter is suffering from an injury which prevents squatting altogether, the leg press can help maintain leg power while the lifter recuperates.

     Now that we know the benefits of the leg press, let's examine how to incorporate it in your training schedule.  There are many types of leg presses available.  One type is the 45-degree leg press on a sled, another is the 'universal' style in which the lifter sits down and presses the weight straight-ahead. Eagle offers a press in which the lifter lays flat on a movable sled and pushes away from the base.  Old style leg presses require the lifter to lay flat on the floor and push the weight straight up above.  Which one you choose depends, of course, on what is available.  Also, some leg presses offer more comfort to each individual lifter. Comfort is an important factor in deciding which one to use if you have numerous choices.  I prefer the 45-degree sled type.  There is no pressure on my lower back and its operation is smooth and it has a high degree of safety. 

     If the leg press is new to you, progress slowly with weight increases.  The leg press allows the lifter a large range of motion on the lower end of the lift.  Lowering the weight to extreme low positions requires flexibility, as injury can result from premature range of motion excesses.  I really doubt the need for a lifter to use such extreme stretches in the leg press.  Simulate the depth in the squat.  Have a partner tell you when you have reached that depth and use that as your maximum depth level. That way, increases in strength can be measured.  Many lifters have a tendency to decrease the range of motion as the weight increases and mistake that as an increase in power when in actuality, less work is performed and less benefit gained. The lifter only cheats himself.

     A flaw I have noticed in many lifters is when they come out of the bottom of the squat, their knees bow inward as they attempt to rise out of the bottom.  Not only can this cause injury, but it is a very inefficient use of leg power.  This problem is propagated because as a lifter squats, he is not aware that he is doing this unless a coach or training partner sees this.  If this is a problem you possess, the leg press offers hope.  As you press the weight to completion, concentrate on keeping your knees straight throughout the move. Because your knees are in clear view, you can see them buckle in at first and the improvement that hopefully comes over time. If necessary, lower the weight on the leg press until you can maintain this position.  Increase slowly while maintaining this form.  If you combine this type of form with new attention and similar adjustments in your squat, this problem will be history and personal records are just around the corner.

     The deadlift can also be benefited.  The movement of the leg press simulates the use of the legs to push away from the floor as the bar goes up.  For best results, perform your leg presses with the same leg spacing as your deadlift pull.  This favors conventional deadlifters more than sumo stylists.  Your range of motion should be with the squat in mind, as the deadlift will benefit at the same time.

     The leg press is usually classified as an isolation exercise, but unlike other isolation exercises, such as the stiff-legged deadlift, a lifter can generally use more weight in the leg press than he can use in the targeted squat.  This is because the lifter does not need to balance or control the weight during execution.  The weight is also in perfect alignment so that involved muscle groups can effectively move it.  But the fact that some muscle groups are isolated in the exercise and some are excluded, it does qualify as an isolation exercise, albeit and hybrid.

     As with any exercise, lift with safety in mind.  Make sure any leg press you use is in good working order and the weights you use are loaded securely.  If you are going to attempt extremely heavy weights, have a few spotters stand by.  If you miss a rep in the leg press, it may be too heavy for one spotter to get it off you. A 500 pound squatter can be pressing around 1000 pounds.  That can be real heavy!  When warming up, start your light reps with partial presses and increase the range as you progress. 

     Lastly, let's look at how we can incorporate the leg press in our training schedule.  The key thing to remember is not to over train on assistance work.  For most lifters, I would recommend squatting once per week and leg pressing on light days to the exclusion of squats.  This way, your lower back will remain fresh and not be overly stressed by the demands of squatting and deadlifting.  Sets and reps are up to you.  I suggest keeping reps in line with your current cycling set-up.

     Leg presses are not a substitute for hard work in the squat.  They are still your best bet for power.  But incorporating the leg press in your training schedule can allow lifters to strengthen the legs and hips and not over stress the lower back in the process.  It also provides an injured lifter with an avenue to maintain power while on the mend.  Variety is also another benefit.  I hope I have given you some food for thought on what can be an effective assistance exercise; the leg press. 


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Reproduction of this article, in whole or part, for any purposed other than personal use is prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1998 Doug Daniels.