The leg press is one of the most iconic pieces of machinery in the gym. The exercise itself is a staple in any gym or leg day routine.

The leg press does a fantastic job of challenging our lower body. It incorporates almost all of the muscles from our glutes to our calves.

But what happens when you join a new gym or workout at home and don’t have access to this glorious machine?

This has been a frequent topic of discussion during my many years as a personal trainer.

So, in this article, I will share my 14 best leg press alternative exercises to continue building an even more muscular lower body. 

Table of contents

  • Muscles Used in the Leg Press
  • What makes a great leg press substitute?
  • 14 Best Leg Press Alternatives Exercises
  • Leg Press Alternative Workout
  • Frequently Asked Questions
    • Is leg press the same as squatting?
    • Are leg presses necessary?
    • Is a hack squat better than the leg press?

Muscles Used In the Leg Press

Knowing what muscles are used in the leg press will help you to understand the movement more clearly. That will help improve your training.

Anatomy

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

The leg press is an excellent exercise that utilizes many of the lower body muscles.

Its seated position provides additional support and decreases spinal load, making it ideal for building mass and strength.

Scientific evaluations state that the quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings are required to perform the movement. The quadriceps (muscles at the front of the thigh) elicit the most muscle activation during the exercise.

Research also shows increased activation of the quadriceps as the knee continues to bend during the lower phase of the weight.

Many of the muscles throughout the lower body cross multiple joints. 

Muscles of the hamstrings and quadriceps have components originating from the pelvis, running over the femur (upper leg bone), and inserting around and below the knee.

This makeup of muscles and connective tissue must work together to perform such a complex compound movement. 

Leg Press Alternative

What makes a great leg press substitute?

When it comes to substituting an exercise, whether it is a machine, free weights, or cables, it is essential to consider the purpose of the movements and the target muscles. 

With this in mind, finding a substitute for the leg press should focus on the lower body muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves).

The leg press provides a degree of stability by placing you in a comfortable and seated position.

The exercise eliminates the body’s need to stabilize or balance, allowing you to focus on your technique and move a considerable amount of weight.

Suitable substitutes don’t need to assume the same position or setup. Instead, we must focus on challenging the required muscles.

Exercises such as squat and lunge variations that utilize various equipment can be a fantastic way to activate the same muscle groups while adding an element of instability.

14 Best Leg Press Alternative Exercises

Best Leg Press Alternatives

Related: 10 Reasons You Should Squat Barefoot (+5 why you shouldn’t!)

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent exercise that helps to build unilateral strength through the lower body. 

With the back foot elevated, we can increase the stretching of the hip of the back foot.

This also allows the front knee to bend more comfortably, decreasing knee pressure and pain. 

While you cannot load up the exercise to the same degree as a leg press, the degree of balance and knee and hip flexion makes it an excellent leg press alternative for building the lower body.

What You Need

  • Bench
  • Barbell or Dumbbells

Benefits

  • Uses muscles of the lower body required for a leg press.
  • Uses stabilizers through hips and ankle.
  • Greater glute activation at the lowest point of the movement as the knee gets closer to the floor. 

How To Perform Bulgarian Split Squat

  • With a dumbbell in each hand and a flat bench, stand with your back to the bench.
  • From here, measure a lunging stride away from the bench and reach one of your legs back, with your foot placed on the bench.
  • You should now be in the lunge position, with your back leg elevated.
  • To begin, gradually lower the body, aiming to drop your elevated leg directly down to the ground. 
  • Once your back leg reaches 90 degrees, begin lifting yourself back up, returning to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Before performing the movement, make sure your foot position and stride are comfortable. This will help you avoid discomfort through the movement, and allow you to focus on activating the target muscles (glute, legs).
  • Focus on lowering the back knee directly down. This will help you balance and prevent leaning forward. 

2. Spanish Squat

Spanish squats are a great exercise that allows us to perform the squat movement, without aggravating existing knee pain.

By having the band positioned at the knees, we are able to squat without any anterior force at the knee. This means less pressure on our patella tendon and less pain during our squat. 

What You Need

  • Closed-loop resistance band

Benefits

  • Great for loading the quadriceps while reducing knee pressure and pain.
  • Can perform with just a band and a post (squat rack).

How To Perform Spanish Squat

  • Using a closed-loop resistance band, find a post or pillar. 
  • Wrap the band around the pillar at knee height using a slip knot.
  • Facing towards the pillar, step both feet inside the band, with the band resting against the upper calf.
  • Take two steps backward, until the band supports your body weight.
  • To begin your squat, gradually lower yourself as if you are going to sit on a chair.
  • When you reach 90 degrees at the knee, push through both legs to return to the beginning position. Repeat.  

Pro Tips

  • Use a moderate to the heavier band, as this will help to support you through the entire movement.
  • Be sure to sit back and trust the band. This will help to reduce knee pressure and improve quadriceps activation.
  • When performing the upward phase, focus on pushing knees back into the resistance of the band and squeezing the quads.

3. Elevated Heel Goblet Squat

Elevated heel goblet squats allow us to with added depth without increasing pressure through the font of the knee.

While the exercises can not be performed with the same amount of weight as a leg press, the depth and increased angle at both the hips and knees make it an excellent exercise for leg muscle activation

What You Need

  • Kettlebell
  • Dumbbell
  • Weight plate or small platform (for elevating heels)

Benefits

  • Elevated heel increases ankle plantar flexion. This allows for greater squat depth.
  • Great squat depth increases the recruitment of quadriceps and glutes.
  • Holding a weight in the goblet position requires core activation and helps to counterbalance your weight, as your hips lower back toward the floor. 

How To Perform Elevated Heel Goblet Squat

  • Place a weight plate flat on the floor, with heels resting on the plate and toes on the floor.
  • Using a single dumbbell or kettlebell, hold the weight under your chin and keep your elbows elevated.
  • Gradually lower yourself into your squat until you reach below 90 degrees (lower if you’re comfortable).
  • Once you reach the bottom, push through the legs, squeezing quadriceps and glutes until you reach the upright position. Repeat.

Pro Tip

  • Ensure you set your plate or platform and foot position at a comfortable level prior to your lifts. This will allow you to squat comfortably and focus on the movement.
  • If you’re having trouble with foot position using one plate, use two smaller plates. This will give you more freedom with your stance.

4. Back Squat

Engaging the entire body, the back squat is the king of all leg exercises. It is great for building both mass and strength and is life applicable.

While it requires a great deal of technique and balance, the squat is an excellent leg press alternative that challenges all the lower body muscles.   

What You Need

  • Barbell
  • Squat rack

Benefits

  • Full body exercise. Requires core and upper back to engage.
  • Great for lower body development, performance, strength, and hypertrophy.

How To Perform The Back Squat

  • Adjust the barbell rack and guard rails to your height.
  • Guardrails should be set to allow for a squat just below 90-degree squat depth, but high enough to remove yourself from beneath the bar after a failed rep.
  • With the barbell racked, walk under the bar, resting it on the meat of your upper traps. 
  • Lift the barbell up, gradually walking back to your squatting position.
  • Place feet shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, and begin the lower phase of your squat, leading with the hips.
  • Gradually lower until you reach 90 degrees at the hip and knees (lower if you’re comfortable).
  • From here exhale and push up using your legs, finishing off the movement by thrusting through the hips and squeezing the glute. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • Focus on your setup and technique. This will allow you to move more weight and improve your results.
  • Before performing each repetition, inhale and tense your abdominals. This will help to create pressure through your core, increasing stability and rigidity through the body.

5. Front Squat

The front squat is a fantastic exercise and similar to the back squat allows us to develop function and strength through our lower body.

The positioning of the bar can provide an additional challenge to the upper body, requiring you to brace to support the weight. This makes it more suitable for intermediate lifters.  

What You Need

  • Barbell + Squat Rack
  • Dumbbells

Benefits

  • A great alternative to the back squat.
  • The front squat is excellent for developing techniques as holding the weight at the front counterbalances the hips. It allows you to confidently lower yourself into the squat.
  • Requires core activation as holding the weight at the collarbone engages the upper body.

How To Perform Front Squat

  • Using a rack, adjust the barbell rack and guard rails to your height.
  • Guardrails should be set to allow for a squat below 90-degree squat depth but high enough to remove yourself from beneath the bar after a failed rep.
  • With the barbell racked, walk under the bar, resting it on the front of your shoulders at collarbone level.
  • Lift arms up and cross them so that each hand touches the opposite shoulder
  • Lift the barbell up, gradually walking back to your squatting position.
  • Place feet shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, and begin the lower phase of your squat, leading with the hips.
  • Gradually lower until you reach 90 degrees at the hip and knees (lower if you’re comfortable).
  • From here, exhale and push up using your legs, finishing off the movement by thrusting through the hips and squeezing the glute. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • Start with a lighter weight, to begin with as front squatting can apply great pressure to the upper body.
  • If you are using dumbbells, hold them in the neutral position, and keep the elbows up and pointed forward. This will stop them from dropping during the movement.

6. Banded Squat

The banded squat much like any squat allows us to reach a degree of depth similar to the leg press.

While the band provides less resistance than the legs press, the benefit of using one means that the weight is the greatest at the top of our squat when we are at our strongest. In contrast, being lighter in our weakest position at the bottom.

What You Need

  • Closed-loop resistance band 

Benefits

  • Can be performed anywhere using a resistance band.
  • Can be performed as a front squat or back squat.
  • Replicates back squat technique.

How To Perform Banded Squat

  • Begin by placing feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Using a closed-loop resistance band, step into the loop and place the band under each foot.
  • Pull the band up, and step into the loop, resting the band on the meat of your traps. Hands should now be at your shoulders holding the band for support.
  • Place feet shoulder-width apart with chest up.
  • To begin the movement, inhale, and push your hips back to initiate the lower phase of the squat. 
  • Lower yourself until your upper leg is parallel with the floor (lower if you’re comfortable).
  • From here, exhale, you can begin the lifting phase by pushing with your legs.
  • Finishing off the movement by thrusting through the hips and squeezing the glute. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Use a lighter resistance to begin with, as bands can create pressure that may be uncomfortable at first.
  • Focus on bracing your upper body hands holding the band and shoulder blades back. This will help to practice correct squatting techniques.

7. Sissy Squat

The sissy squat is one of the more difficult variations to execute. The exercise itself is excellent for quad isolation and development, but not without its cost.

Unlike the seated back position of the Spanish squat, the sissy squat aims to apply pressure to quads and eccentrically load them as you lower yourself to the ground. 

This makes it for more advanced lifters.

What You Need

  • No equipment needed

Benefits

How To Perform Sissy Squat

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with weight on the balls of your feet.
  • To begin the movement, bend the knees aiming them forward over your toes.
  • As you lower yourself, lean backward with your torso to counterbalance the weight of your knees going forward.
  • Lower yourself until your knees bend at 90 degrees.
  • From here, push through your legs and return to the upright starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • This movement is for the intermediate and advanced.
  • If you are performing the exercise for the first time, do the exercise next to a bar or rail. This can be used to support your weight using your hand, and provide balance through the movement.

8. Hack Squat

Similar to the leg press the hack squat guides you through the motion of the exercise.

This is because it also replicates the back squat, making it an ideal leg press alternative.

What You Need

  • Hack Squat Machine

Benefits

  • Back squat and leg press hybrid.
  • Removes balance and stability elements from regular squatting, allowing you to focus on pushing resistance.

How To Perform Hack Squat

  • Using a hack squat machine, adjust the platform angle to suit your ankle comfort.
  • Next, adjust the shoulder pad height to match your height. 
  • Step onto the machine, facing away.
  • Place feet shoulder-width apart toward the edge of the platform. This will allow you to squat lower and decrease knee pressure.
  • Grab the hand grips at shoulder level.
  • To begin, inhale and brace the core, bending your knees and lowering your hips toward the platform. 
  • Gradually lower until hips and knees reach 90 degrees.
  • From here, exhale and push up using your legs, finishing off the movement by thrusting through the hips and squeezing the glute. Repeat.

Pro Tips 

  • Be sure to set the machine to your settings prior to your lift. This will allow you to focus on your lift comfortably.
  • Choose a lighter weight to begin. If you haven’t used a hack squat machine before, while it is supportive, the movement can feel unfamiliar.

9. Elevated Split Squat

The elevated split squat is an excellent exercise for increasing knee and hip flexion on the leading leg.

Using a step for the leading leg, it also enables us to drop the back knee down to the floor for greater hip extension.

This additional range of motion however isn’t without its drawback as it will require you to decrease your weight considerably.

What You Need

  • Step or Platform
  • Dumbbells
  • Barbell

Benefits

  • Can be performed anywhere with or without weight.
  • Elevated step for the front foot increases hip flexion, while the back leg also goes through greater stretch at the bottom of the movement.

How To Perform Elevated Split Squat

  • Using a pair of dumbbells, find a step (single step height). Assume the lunge position, placing your front foot on the step.
  • From the upright position, with hands holding dumbbells and arms relaxed to the side. Gradually lower yourself.
  • Aim to drop your back knee directly toward the ground.
  • Lower until your back knee is in line with the top of the step (go lower if able).
  • Once you have reached your desired depth, push through your legs to return to your starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • To begin, perform the movement with a lighter resistance or no resistance to gauge your depth.
  • Focus on technique, gradually lowering yourself on the downward phase.
  • On the upward phase, push with the front leg and focus on extending the back leg equally, squeezing the glutes at the top. This will allow you to activate the muscles of both legs throughout the movement.

10. Belt Squat

The belt squat is an excellent exercise for replacing the leg press. The belt attachment means the load is placed on the hips, thus simulating a decrease of spinal load.

The machine requires you to be upright, meaning there will be challenges to balance and stability much like many other squat variations.

What You Need

  • Belt squat machine
  • Bench/steps + weight belt + weight plates
  • Landmine (torsonator) + barbell + weight plate + weight belt

Benefits

  • Decreases spinal load as weight anchors to the hips. Similar to the leg press.
  • Replicates regular squat movement.
  • Provides similar muscular demands to quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. 

How To Perform Belt Squat

  • Begin by stepping onto the platform, feet shoulder-width apart and body over the belt attachment.
  • Wrap belt around waist and hook to machine attachment.
  • To begin, stand in the upright position, and release the safety mechanism. 
  • Place hands on the support bars provided for balance.
  • Unhinging with hips, lower yourself until your knees and hips are flexed at 90 degrees.
  • Once you have reached the bottom of your repetition, begin your upward phase.
  • Push through the legs equally, thrusting hips and squeezing glutes at the top to lock out the movement.

Pro Tips

  • Begin with a lighter weight to start. A belt squat is a safe machine, but the angle of resistance can be challenging for new users.
  • Use a support bar and gradually lower yourself. This will allow for greater activation of quadriceps and glutes with increased hip and knee flexion.

11. Safety Bar Squat

The safety bar squat is similar to almost all of a back squat, with a slight modification to arm position. This makes it excellent for individuals who suffer from injuries and poor range of motion.

Just like any squat, there is a degree of knee and hip flexion, which is great for quad and glute activation, making it a suitable leg press alternative. 

What You Need

  • Squat rack
  • Safety bar
  • Weight plates

Benefits

  • Similar to the back squat, but requires shoulder mobility.
  • Great for people with shoulder injuries.
  • The bar allows for similar activation through the upper body using safety handles. 

How To Perform Safety Bar Squat

  • Using a rack, adjust the barbell rack and guardrails to your height (aim to have them just below your desired depth)
  • With the barbell racked, walk under the bar, resting it on the meat of your upper traps.
  • Lift the barbell up, gradually walking back to your squatting position.
  • Grasp safety bar handles, tucking elbows to the sides, and engage upper back muscles (Lats, Rhomboids).  
  • With a deep breath, unhinge at the hips and lower your body toward the floor, with each leg working equally to guide your body down.
  • Lower till your desired depth (aim to have the upper leg parallel with the floor).
  • From the bottom, push through both legs to return your body to the upright position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • If you have not tried the safety bar squat before, begin by just using the bar to familiarise yourself with the movement.
  • Before each rep, focus on exhaling, engaging the core, glutes, and upper back muscles. This will ensure your body is engaged and allow you to push with maximum effort.

12. Step-Ups

Step-ups, like lunges, are great for building unilateral strength. The difference with step-ups is that they require the individual to start at the bottom of the movement, requiring you to lift up to the platform, as well as lowering.

The beginning position of the step-up is similar to the bottom phase of a lunge. This is the weakest part of the movement as your glutes and quadriceps are nearing full stretch.

This mimics the depth and beyond of your standard leg press. 

What You Need

  • A step or bench
  • Dumbbells
  • Barbell

Benefits

  • It is similar to the elevated step up as it requires greater degrees of hip and knee flexion.

How To Perform Step-Ups

  • Begin by grabbing a pair of dumbbells and a step (higher is more difficult).
  • Start by standing in front of the step, with one foot firmly planted flat and arms relaxed at your sides.
  • Using your leading leg, push through the heel and lift yourself onto the top of the box to begin the movement. Your following leg meets your leading leg on top of the box.
  • Once you reach the top, lower yourself by dropping your following leg back to the floor, lowering your body. 
  • Alternate leading legs. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • For beginners, start with a box around mid-shin height. This allows you to focus on technique.
  • To get a more significant contraction through the leading leg, lift your body pushing through the heel and avoid pushing off the floor with the following leg.

13. Sumo Squat

The sumo squat is a great leg press alternative to both the leg press and regular squat.

The wider stance requires a degree of abduction at the hip, which is excellent for glute activation.

The wider stance allows you to go deeper into the squat, allowing for significant activation of your glutes and quads. 

The sumo squat can also be highly beneficial for individuals who are more comfortable in the wider stance.

What You Need

  • Dumbbells 
  • Barbell
  • Squat rack

Benefits

  • Similar to a regular squat, but with a wider stance.
  • Improved stability, and greater depth than a normal squat.
  • Can be more comfortable.
  • Wider stances increase glute activation.

How To Perform Sumo Squat

  • Using a rack, adjust the barbell rack and guard rails to your height.
  • Guardrails should be set to allow for a squat just below 90-degree squat depth but high enough to remove yourself from beneath the bar after a failed rep.
  • With the barbell racked, walk under the bar, resting it on the upper back across the rear deltoid (back of the shoulder).
  • Lift the barbell up, gradually walking back to your squatting position.
  • Place feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle.
  • Take a deep breath and activate your abdominals.
  • Leading with the hips unhinging, lower hips until you reach 90 degrees at the hip and knees.
  • Stop once you have reached a comfortable depth. 
  • From here, begin returning to the upright position. Exhale and push up using your legs.
  • Aim to push equally with both legs, finishing off the movement by thrusting the hips and squeezing the glute. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • For beginners, start with a lighter weight.
  • When finding your stance, aim to have the feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, but not too wide as this can be uncomfortable if at the lower end of the squat.  

14. Reverse Nordics

The reverse nordic is an exercise that focuses on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement.

Similar to the sissy squat, the reverse nordic is excellent for isolating and developing quadriceps and hips flexors. While this does not replicate the leg press, the activation of the quad makes for building lower body strength.

It’s also worth noting that the lowering phases make it a challenging exercise to perform, making it more suitable for intermediate and advanced lifters.

What you need

  • Nothing required
  • Band for assistance if needed

Benefits

How To Perform

  • Start by kneeling on the floor, knees shoulder-width apart. Toes on the ground.
  • Starting in the upright position, gradually lower yourself backward.
  • Aim to have your spine in the neutral position the entire time.
  • Lower yourself until your glutes touch your heels (or until a comfortable range).
  • From here, attempt to return to the upright position. Use your hand to push at the sides if you need assistance. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • This exercise is intermediate or advanced.
  • If you are trying the exercise for the first time, test the range of motion, gradually going further down with each repetition.
  • If you are experiencing discomfort with your toes pointing to the ground, roll up a towel and place the ankle flat on the towel.

Leg Press Alternative Workout

Beginner Workout

ExerciseSetsRepetitionsRest Time
Safety Bar Squat38-1245 – 60 secs
Belt Squat38-1245 – 60 secs
Step-Ups38-1060 secs
Elevated Heel Goblet Squat38-1045 secs
Spanish Squat38-1245 secs

Advanced Workout

ExerciseSetsRepetitionsRest Time
Back Squat4845 – 60 secs
Belt Squat4845 – 60 secs
Bulgarian Split Squat3860 secs
Sissy Squat3845 secs
Reverse Nordics3845 secs
Elevated Heel Goblet Squat31245 secs
Leg Press Alternative Exercises

Frequently asked questions

Related: Should You Do Cardio On Leg Day?

Is leg press the same as squatting?

The leg press is not the same as squatting. 

The two exercises both require a degree of flexion at the hip and knees and many of the same muscles. However, the positioning and how they have performed change the demand on the body.

The leg press is an exercise that requires far less technique. Being a machine, it provides you with the framework for the lift.

The seated position also decreases the load on the spine. The seated position offers a degree of comfort and a solid base from which you can lift more.

The squat, on the other hand, requires more technique. It’s a free weight exercise where you must focus on balance, foot positioning, and overall technique.

The squat also requires the engagement of the whole body as it must stabilize to support the weight you are using.

Before initiating the squat, the core and upper back must activate to support the load on the spine. 

The additional depth of the squat requires a greater range of motion through the hips and knees and a supporting cast of stabilizers through the lateral glutes to maintain balance.

Are leg presses necessary?

The leg press is not a necessary part of a gym workout. Many of the muscles and joints used in the leg press can be replicated with other exercises using various equipment.

Variations provide appropriate stimulus to the same muscle groups. 

Machines such as belt squat can help to decrease spinal load and allow you to push higher amounts of weight safely.

Is the hack squat better than the leg press?

The hack squat and the leg press require many of the same muscles, but they are two very different exercises.

The positioning of each requires varying degrees of movement at each joint. This changes the level of activation for the muscles needed.

Hack Squat 

The hack squat, similar to a traditional squat, loads the spine. Resistance is applied through the shoulder, like a safety bar squat.

The weight is typically loaded with weight plates on a machine as you brace shoulders beneath a pair of shoulder pads.

From here, like any machine, you will then be taken through a guided movement. Your only considerations are your foot placement and depth. 

The hack squat is excellent for replicating the squat movement. Research suggests that added support may be suitable for additional knee and spinal stabilization.

Leg Press

The less press offers a more fixed approach to leg training. The seated position and the machine’s guiding movement make it an excellent exercise for those with limited weight training experience.

It allows beginners to effectively hit the target muscles of the legs without the need to focus on aspects of balance and stability.  

Hack squat versus leg press is a matter of preference and purpose, not which is better. 

The hack squat is a machine hybrid of a traditional barbell squat, and the leg press is strictly machine, but they both serve a purpose within any gym workout.

Final Thoughts

The leg press is a fantastic exercise and valuable addition to any workout. However, the absence of the machine doesn’t mean you need to miss out on those leg gains.

By including a variety of exercises that put your knees and hips into flexion, you can target the same muscles used in the leg press.

By implementing some of these leg press alternatives, you can easily attain a set of strong, muscular legs and hips, even without a leg press.

So, what did you think of my list? Are there any of your favorites there, or better yet, do you have one to recommend? 

Let me know in the comments below.