It’s leg day and you want to work your quadriceps, the large muscles at the front of your thighs. So you ponder the leg presses versus squats dilemma. Is one safer or more effective than the other?

The truth is that both exercises have their advantages when it comes to building strength and muscle mass. Likewise, they also have their limitations and risks. The right exercise for you may have more to do with what you want to get out of your workout.

This article will take a closer look at both exercises in an effort to help you decide when and why one may be better suited to you.

Both leg presses and squats primarily work your quadriceps, or quads. But they also work your hamstrings (muscles opposite your quads at the back of your thighs) and glutes (the muscles in your buttocks).

Because most of your body moves to perform squats, they tend to engage other muscle groups, such as your abs and hips, whereas leg presses just involve movement of the legs.

Leg presses

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Leg presses are seated exercises done on a leg press machine.

To start, sit with your back against a padded backrest and your feet on two large footrests. Your knees are bent to start the exercise. To move the weight, you must straighten your legs and then return them to the bent position.

Squats

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Conversely, squats are done with your feet on the ground, though there are several variations of this exercise.

With some squats, you start with your legs straight and the weight behind your neck. In other variations, the weight — such as a barbell or dumbbells — is in front of you. The challenge is to bend your knees and then straighten up with the weight providing resistance.

Some types of squats are done with the weight starting on the ground and your knees bent. There are also squat machines.

Leg presses are effective at building leg strength, but they can be risky if you try to move too much weight or lock your knees.

Leg press pros

  • You can focus just on your leg muscles because your back is supported and there are hand rests.
  • You can adjust which leg muscles get extra emphasis simply by adjusting your foot position on the footpads.
  • This exercise works the quads more because there’s less range of motion — and less emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings — than with a squat.
  • You don’t need a spotter.

Leg press cons

  • You need a leg press machine to do the exercise.
  • You risk working one leg harder than the other. The machine will move the same way whether both legs are pushing equally or if one is doing more of the work.
  • There’s a risk of rounding your back if you try to press too much weight.
  • You risk injuring your knees if you try to press too much weight or lock your knees when extending your legs.
  • You may be tempted to pile on more weight than you can handle.

Squats also give your quads a great workout, and they work your glutes and hamstrings to a greater degree than leg presses. But if you’re doing squats with free weights, you run the risk of injury by trying to squat too much or losing control of the barbell.

Squat pros

  • There are a variety of squat exercises you can do, which allows you to work muscles from different angles and keep your workouts varied.
  • Doing squats can help strengthen your core and back muscles.
  • Squats may help improve flexibility in your knees.
  • Because keeping your back straight is key, this exercise can help improve your posture.

Squat cons

  • There’s a risk of back injury, from leaning too far forward during the squat or rounding your back.
  • You can strain your shoulders if you’re supporting a heavy barbell.
  • There’s a risk of getting stuck at the bottom of a squat and not being able to get back up.
  • You risk injuring your knees if your knees move too far in or out during the exercise.
  • You may need a spotter.

If you’re looking for an allover body workout, then squats have the advantage over leg presses. But if balance is a problem, or you have shoulder or back pain, then leg presses may be a better choice.

Though leg presses and squats work the same muscle groups, they do so from slightly different angles and with greater emphasis on one group or the other. That means balancing your leg workouts with both exercises may be the best approach.

A 2018 study looked at the strength, body composition, and functional outcome of participants who did either back squats, leg presses, or a combination of the two exercises.

The study lasted 10 weeks, and participants did two lower-body workouts per week. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that both exercises were beneficial as part of a lower-body workout program.

Leg presses don’t allow for many variations, but there are a few ways to mix things up.

One-leg leg press

Instead of using both legs at the same time, use one leg at a time to make sure each leg gets a thorough workout. Just make sure the weight isn’t too much for one leg to handle safely.

Higher foot placement

Placing your feet higher on the footpad will increase the extension and contraction of your hamstrings and glutes, and reduce your knees’ range of motion during the exercise.

Lower foot placement

Placing your feet lower on the footpad increases your knees’ range of motion. It requires more effort from your quads and less from your glutes and hamstrings.

Squats offer more variations than leg presses do, and each type of squat works your muscles in a slightly different way. Squats can also be done without any weights.

Back squats

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Back squats may be the most familiar to casual weightlifters. The weight is placed on your shoulders, behind your neck. You then bend your knees and straighten back up to complete one repetition.

With back squats, you may be tempted to bow forward a little to help manage the weight on your shoulders. Try to avoid this as it can strain your back muscles.

Hack squats

Like back squats, hack squats can be done with machines or barbells. A barbell hack squat is done by standing in front of the barbell, bending your knees to reach down behind you to grab the barbell, and then standing up with the barbell across your buttocks or upper hamstrings.

Hack squats tend to put less strain on your lower back than back squats because the weight is under your center of mass, not above or in front of it.

Front squats

A front squat is done with a barbell or two dumbbells held up at shoulder height while you perform a standard squat. Front squats tend to be easier on the knees than back squats, and they may also be safer for your back.

The most important safety tip for both leg presses and squats is to avoid overloading the weight. Using a weight you can’t control can cause knee injuries, back problems, and other issues. Start with a weight you can handle easily and build up slowly from there.

If you do both exercises as part of a comprehensive leg regimen, be careful not to overload the weight when you do either exercise. Use a lighter weight than you normally would if you were only doing leg presses or squats on their own.

With squats, it’s helpful to have a spotter ready to assist you.

With leg presses, don’t lock your knees when you extend your legs.

Given that there are pros and cons to both exercises, the leg press versus squats question may have to be settled by what’s available to you and what your workout goal is on a given day.

With research pointing to the fact that there are benefits to both free weights and leg machines, a combination of the two workouts may be just what you need to get a leg up on your fitness goals.