Find out what research says when the back squat is compared to the leg press for activating quadriceps muscles.

How does the squat compare to the leg press for activating quadriceps? Assume that form is perfect and that there are no low back issues.

As far as building lots of quad mass, how does the squat compare to the more stabilizing, more isolating leg press? Can the quads be loaded more with the leg press?

It seems so, that’s for sure; how many of us have never seen a guy load every 45 pound plate in the gym on the leg press equipment? There can be over 700 pounds loaded on the machine’s pegs.

Before addressing that further, let’s consider a study in quad activation that was conducted by Escamilla et al.

For experienced people, quad activation was greater via the back squat when compared to the leg press.


Interestingly, another study (Anderson et al) showed that the reverse was true for less experienced trainees; the leg press ruled for them.

What’s going on here? Does the standard squat rule only for trained people?

There is a better way to put this: Novices lack the coordination of their trunk activation, lack strength in the lower back and may also have stiff muscles in this area.

I saw plenty of this when I was a personal trainer at a gym.

The movement is uncomfortable, this barbell across their back. Their nervous system has not figured out this exercise.

Thus, quad activation isn’t so hot. But put them in a comfy floor leg press machine, and they can practically take a nap in that position.

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All they need to do is place their feet on the sled and push, not worrying about trunk coordination, keeping an arch in the low back, chest proud, head up – none of that matters; it’s just put the feet up there and push.

Over time, when one gets in enough practice with the squat, trunk activation and form can be mastered, and when this occurs, the squat then becomes the superior choice for building big quads.

The serious novice just has to get over that hump.

At first, the beginner who does not do bilateral squats will benefit from leg presses, but then gains are bound to stall eventually, at which point the trainee will need to start taking squats seriously to resurrect gains.

The beginner or anyone who has never back squatted before should begin with body weight squats to master form, before getting ahead of themselves and struggling with relatively heavy barbells, back rounded and all.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 
Top image: Shutterstock/JRP Studio