by John Meadows T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• You don't need to choose between squats or leg presses. A smart lifter knows that exercises are just tools and simply uses the right tool for the job.
• While the leg press may not be as "hard" as the squat, it's in a class by itself for sheer leg size since there are many different ways to safely crank up intensity.
The barbell squat is the king of lower body exercises. If I were limited to performing just one exercise for the lower body I'd choose barbell back squats. For overall leg size and strength there's simply no equal.
Fortunately for me (and you), I'm not so limited in my options. I have literally thousands of leg exercises in my overgrown toolbox, many of which are very effective in their own right. Ranking high on my list is the classic leg press.
The leg press gets a bit of a bad rap amongst strength training purists simply because it's easier to perform than the squat. You don't need much in the way of mobility or athleticism to perform the lift – you just load up the plates, hop on and go.
However, just because the leg press isn't as "hard" or even as "effective" as the squat doesn't mean it's a bad exercise. In fact, for sheer leg size, the leg press may be in a class by itself since there are so many different ways to safely jack up the growth-producing intensity.
To that end, here are my top 6 leg press variations for freaky size and strength.
1. Escalating Leg Press
This one is pure shock and awe for the entire lower body. The good news is it's only one set; the bad news is it's probably the longest, most painful set of your life.
You're going to do one extended set with a "micro-stop" every fourth rep. At each stop your training partners will add a 45-pound plate (or a 25-pounder for weaker individuals). Be sure to only lock out every fourth rep, and only long enough to add the weights. The other reps should be short of lockout, using constant tension on the muscle with smooth turnarounds.
Perform as many 4-rep micro-stop sets as you can, which usually ends up equaling about 16 total reps.
It's key to begin this exercise with the right load, and that should be about 60 percent of your 10 RM. So if you can safely leg press 400 pounds for 10 reps, start with 240 pounds as your base weight.
2. Banded Leg Press
Bands are a very effective way to add variety to lifts. In the banded leg press, the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift becomes much more difficult as the bands try to pull the platform down on top of you. The trick is to stay focused and fight the resistance.
Start by attaching one band on each side of the leg press. Do sets of 8 reps and don't lock these out – fire away like a piston, up and down nonstop. Control the weight as it goes down and ram up to three-fourths lockout and then right back down again.
Don't use bands every leg workout. They can beat up your joints if used too frequently.
3. Drop Sets
Drop sets are one of the oldest intensity tricks in the weight-training book. They're also extremely taxing, which is why with the leg press I like to perform just one gut-busting drop set. Ramp up in sets of 4 to a weight that you can use for a drop set. Once there, do 8 reps, drop the weight significantly and do 8 more reps, and repeat the drops two more times for a total of 32 reps. That's it.
4. Three-Second Descents
The key to size is maximizing time under tension or TUT. Three-second descents maximize this particular mechanical tension, and as such will leave you extremely sore for days.
To do them, start by doing a couple low-rep sets to get up to your working weight. Once you get there, do sets of 8 reps using 3-second descents.
Be sure to drive up hard out of the bottom – don't worry about the concentric tempo, just drive the weight up with force. Don't lock out either; stop just short.
Another tip is to use the foot placement that allows you to be at your absolute strongest. This isn't the time to be honing in on your quad sweep. The goal here is to dig deep and push the most weight you can while maintaining the 3-second descent.
5. VMO Supersets
The VMO is also known as the teardrop, the much-coveted quad muscle located right above the kneecap. To attack your VMO with the leg press, assume a close stance and place your feet slightly lower on the platform. These should be done when your legs are pumped so do plenty of warm-up sets to load blood in there.
The goal is to develop a ton of metabolic stress, so all sets will be performed like a piston and for a high number of reps. Do a couple of 25-rep sets to get up to your working weight. Drive up hard out of the bottom and get into a rhythm – just pump the weight up and down. Don't lock out. If you hit 25 reps, go up 25 or 45 pounds per side. Keep going until you just miss 25 reps.
To make this even better (or worse depending on how much you enjoy pain), superset the leg presses with partial leg extensions. The leg extension gets a bad rap among lifters and while it isn't a great mass building movement, it's very effective when supersetted with a meat and potatoes lift like the leg press.
Ramp up with several warm-up sets to get your knees ready and then do the following rep scheme: 20, 15, 10, and 8 reps, going progressively heavier each set. Only work the bottom half of the movement, and lean back in the seat!
6. Quad Sweep Supersets
This version of the leg press is more for quad sweep (vastus lateralis). Assume a wide stance and turn your toes out in a frog-style stance. Allow your knees to come down outside of your body, so you'll be sort of pushing your knees out as you lower the platform.
The concentric portion of the lift should be done explosively. Ideally your leg press will have stops that will allow you to perform rest-pause reps. Set the stops relatively high and let the weight rest for 1 second before blasting it back up explosively. You'll be surprised at how good this shortened range of motion feels.
Keep going up in weight until you can't get 20 reps and be sure to push yourself. If you reach 15 reps and need to rest a second before going for 20, that's okay. My last set sometimes involves 4 or 5 stops along the way to 20.
Do 20 reps on all sets. If you don't have stops, just blast the weight out of the bottom! Do not lock these out.
Now superset these with partial leg extensions, this time using the top half of the movement. Flex hard at the top and only lower the weight half way before driving back up. You'll need to lighten the weight considerably compared to what you were doing on the partials out of the bottom. These should burn like fire!
Press On and Conquer
As you get more experienced in the bodybuilding game you realize that there are very few either/or scenarios. Namely, you don't have to avoid doing one exercise simply because another exercise is superior.
An intelligent size program can and should feature a variety of quality exercises rotated in and out according to the needs of the lifter. The truth is, your muscle-building success is based upon your ability to show up every day and bust your behind – not your exercise choices.