Ask The Trainer #107 – Squat vs. Leg Press

Ask The Trainer #107 - Squat vs. Leg Press

QUESTION:

I’ve been losing fat and gaining muscle ever since I began reading your newsletter. I have a question about my leg exercises. I can leg press 500 lbs. for 8-10 reps, but I can barely squat 200 lbs. for 8 reps. Squats always feel brutal, but for some reason, heavy leg presses feel both heavy and light at the same time? Is it normal to be so much stronger on leg presses than on squats?

Jay


ANSWER:

Hi, Jay. First off, I want to thank you for the positive feedback regarding the newsletter! I’m very pleased to know the content has helped you achieve better progress! Now on to your question…

The leg press is a more constrained, unnatural movement that is not of evolutionary function or motion. When you squat, the resistance is gravity being channeled through your spinal column. This doesn’t occur with a leg press. Plus, when you perform weighted squats, you’re also lifting the weight of your upper body, along with the weight of the loaded barbell.

In terms of natural motion and function, think of a parent squatting down to pick up their toddler or someone picking vegetables out of a garden. Squatting is simply more natural, but that doesn’t make it easier. Squatting involves much more balance and neuromuscular coordination. This is what makes squatting such an awesome compound movement. There are innumerable muscles that must come into play along with the anterior chain of your body when you squat.

Leg Press

The feeling you described of “heavy and light at the same time” is due to the leverage and mechanical advantage provided by the design of the leg press machine. Additionally, the weight is not being supported by your spine. Therefore, you can sit in on a leg press machine and safely push as hard as you want without the fear of losing your balance or tipping over.

The fact leg presses feel easier and safer doesn’t mean you can’t smoke your legs with them. Believe me, when you apply the right amount of resistance, and practice the proper technique, it can be done!


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Squats feel heavy pretty much every time you do them. This is your body’s biological warning system sending you a message. It’s telling you to be careful due to a greater potential for injury to occur. You have to focus on balancing and stabilizing your body as your spinal column is compressed under a heavy load.

I personally know dozens of people who have fallen victim to injury while performing squats. But, I only know of one person who was injured doing leg presses. Simply put, there are more ways a squat can go wrong than a leg press.

Height Is A Factor

Both exercises tend to be difficult at the very bottom of the movement due to poor leverage. Unlike my taller siblings, I’m only 5’9” with a relatively short inseam. Under normal circumstances, leg presses never felt uncomfortable to me unless it was one of those old-school vertical leg press machines where you lie flat on your back.

Generally, the taller you are, the more problematic the bottom portion of the movement will be as your lower back and hips become increasingly compromised because taller individuals may need to contort their bodies in more unnatural positions to even fit in certain leg press machines. We shorter folks rarely experience that problem.

So, to answer your question—YES, it is completely normal for squats to feel much more difficult than leg presses. Both of these exercises have their place in a well-designed leg training regimen, as long as the individual doing them isn’t contending with any injuries or biomechanical issues that would be compromised by either of these exercises.

I hope this helps answer your question. I wish you all the best of success in obtaining your fitness goals!

Prove ‘Em Wrong,
Chad Shaw

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