Leg Press or Barbell Squat?
Let’s be honest, if you know me, then you know my answer immediately, but it still warrants an explanation. In cutting to the chase I can honestly say that everything has its time and place. Would a powerlifter benefit from yoga? Absolutely. Would a yoga’er (official term) benefit from some weighted squats? Absolutely. My hope is that people across the board can learn to appreciate and embrace the things they decide to skip. We all have room for improvement, and sometimes it’s in the form of the most unorthodox way. With that said, do we leg press or squat?
While cruising the internet and a slew of books to try and find anything beyond a personal opinion, it seems as though the real determining factor derives from personal goals and whether or not someone wants to honestly digest the science behind a static machine versus a dynamic compound barbell movement. It seems to be openly accepted by the world of bodybuilding for its use in isolation and overloading, but I wouldn’t go as far to say the world of bodybuilding dictates what should and shouldn’t be priority. There also tends to be trend in the use of leg press and knee rehabilitation. There’s something to be said for being able to isolate one leg at a time and build such supportive measures like the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) (The knee has a laundry list of supportive factors that keep it primed and stable, so I’m going to spare the knee dissertation and just use the VMO as a good example). The leg press has the advantage in that it allows us to strengthen the leg as a whole without diving into full range of motion weighted squats, which may need to be built upon before executing. You don’t hit the track in a full blown sprint after tearing an ACL, so we must learn to appreciate the baby steps.
I’ve heard and read chatter about the leg press being bad for you lower back. Having used the machine myself I couldn’t really logic my way through it when considering it being done correctly, after all, anything can be bad for the back when done incorrectly. This lead me to venture out into the world wide information highway and seek some confirmation on whether this is true or not.
“The leg press sometimes causes the pelvis to rotate away from the back rest when the weight is lowered. The resultant lumbar flexion produces herniating conditions for the disc!”
-Dr. Stuart Mcgill
This comes straight from his book Low Back Disorders. T-Nation did an interview with him and like they so boldly reiterate, “If you’re going to argue with a professor who has over 300 peer-reviewed publications, you better bring you’re a-game”. The point is, the man knows what he is talking about and it can be counterproductive, but so can any exercise when done with caution thrown to the wind.
Bodybuilding and rehab aside, is there any evidence to promote one over the other? ALAS! There is! The Journal of Strength and Conditioning conducted a study to compare the leg press and barbell squat. They had a group of individuals who worked out on a regular basis do leg press one week, rest up, and then barbell squats the next. They drew blood before, during and immediately after (as well as 30, 60 and 90 minute periods) the exercise to evaluate enzymes and hormonal levels. While not a surprise in itself, the actual difference was staggering! Squats produced higher levels of both testosterone and growth hormone. Not only did growth hormone increase a whopping 200% during squats compared to leg press, they stayed elevated 30 minutes after the workout for a mind blowing 100%. I hate to say it, but… SCIENCE! If these numbers don’t speak for themselves, I’m afraid there’s little hope in helping someone understand the relevance of squats. The study, while a small group, had equivalent increases across the board, not fluky numbers that can be skewed for ulterior motives.
The big picture – there is a time and place for everything, BUT… if we are forced to choose one over the other, I’m afraid squats take the prize. Free standing barbell movements puts the body in an amazing position to provide its own internal stability. Talk about all systems go! I mean, essentially everything from your feet up play a huge role in making sure you don’t crumple into a ball of goo. So there’s my take on it.
When in doubt – SQUAT