I used to be that guy. Every damn plate in the gym loaded on either side of the leg press. Hands on knees, quads quivering, spotter at the ready. That’s right, I used a spotter on the leg press.
Knees locked, I unhinge the safety stops and the madness begins. Nearly half a ton, rep after rep, over a range of motion somewhere between four and five inches. Hey, I’m not trying to hurt myself by bringing my knees to my chest, OK? I’m just trying to build some tree trunk legs and squatting is scary as hell when you’re 18 years old and a self-proclaimed expert on everything anabolic.
Such is the downfall of the leg press – an exercise not inherently evil, but so often misused as an excuse not to squat or as a 12-plate-per-side ego masturbation machine. For this reason, many of us heavy-squatting, dead-cow-eating meatheads have sworn off the leg press as an exercise in cowardice, like peeing sitting down or wearing capris.
But I’ve got news for you. If you use it right, the leg press is a damn good machine for beefing up your quads and glutes. The predicament of the leg press is twofold.
- If our gym has a leg press, many of us are too proud and too macho to use it. Plus we’re too busy squatting ass-to-grass with “Headstrong” by Trapt blasting in our Beats by Dre headphones while wearing our Bodybuilding.com t-shirt with the sleeves freshly removed. ALL RAW.
- If we train at an awesome gym, we probably don’t have a leg press at all. They’re expensive, take up a lot of space, and not essential if we’re squatting/deadlifting frequently.
Ladies and gentlemen of the iron guild, I have a solution: the low-bar, close-stance, heel-elevated, band-resisted trap bar deadlift. Long name, awesome results.
I call it the LBCSHEBRTBD for short. There, is that better? No? OK, we’ll call them trap bar leg presses from now on.
OK, I know this sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. If you hate leg presses, you probably squat and deadlift. You probably even train at an awesome gym with fun toys like the trap bar. Maybe single leg exercises make you hate life (you’re lying if you say they don’t). Maybe you don’t always have time to hit your quads with twice as many sets because you have to work one leg at a time.
Here’s how it works. It’s like any other trap bar deadlift, but you use the low handles to increase the range of motion. This forces you to bend your knees more, sink your hips lower and really smash your quads. Think about where you feet, knees and hips are when you’re leg pressing and bring your thighs to your chest. Look at the picture to the left and notice that the hips are about parallel with the knees, and the knees angle ever-so-slightly over the toes.
You can increase the ROM even more by using 25-pound plates instead of 45’s. Or you can wear Olympic lifting shoes like I am, which elevates the heel and shifts more emphasis to the quads. If you don’t have fancy shoes, stand with 5-pound plates under your heels to get the same effect.
Stand with you feet very close together (heels about 3 inches apart) and your toes turned out about 45 degrees. Instead of “sitting back” like you would for a straight bar deadlift, allow your knees to drift forward a tiny bit while keeping them angled outward in line with your feet. This should hit the VMO (part of your quad on the inside of your knee) really hard.
Adding the band makes this exercise even nastier. Loop the band around the collars and underneath the bar so you’re standing on both sides of the band. Now the band tension will make it harder as you stand up, placing even more emphasis on the quads. Lock it out hard with the glutes, then lower down slowly and under control.
Prepare to hate stairs for a few days.
A few words of caution – keep your chest up tall and your abs tights just like you would during a regular deadlift. If you lack hip/hamstring flexibility and you get “asswink” (your lower back rounds significantly in the starting position – see the photo to the right), try starting with the high handles instead of the low ones. Work on your mobility until you can safely get into position with the low handles so you don’t jack up your spine.
I’ve found that trap bar leg presses are most effective as an assistance exercise to the squat or deadlift, and should be done for higher reps with a controlled eccentric (i.e. lower the weight slowly). Worry more about “feeling” the quads working instead of just heaving heavy weight.
Here’s an example of how to incorporate them into a lower body workout:
1A. Barbell Squats or Deadlifts – 4 sets of 6 reps with 8RM
2A. Trap Bar Leg Presses – 3 sets of 8 reps
3A. Natural Glute Ham Raises – 3 sets of 8 reps
4A. Reverse Crunches – 4 sets of 12-15 reps
I know I’m preaching to a pretty specialized population here and it’s likely that 99 percent of you have a leg press and don’t have a trap bar. But for those of you who have a trap bar and hate leg pressing, give this exercise a try and have fun wobbling out to your car when you’re done.