10 January 2012 ~ Comments Off on Should You Do This Exercise?

Should You Do This Exercise?

Bad or just misunderstood?

Recently I received an email from a fitness “guru” with a link to a blog post. I’ll paraphrase the title here:

The #1 Exercise That You Should Never, Ever Do…Ever

I’m not exaggerating much. This guru is actually pretty spot-on about other things, so I took the title under consideration and clicked the link, which led me to the post by a different guru with a list of gym equipment you shouldn’t use.

What was the number-one no-no exercise that will kill you dead if you do it?

The leg press.

(Insert sound of vinyl LP scratch here.)

It’s a good thing this isn’t the guru I follow, because I might have had to unsubscribe after reading that. However, I pressed on, because I wanted to his rationale for making the leg press the Worst Exercise in the World. What I read didn’t impress me much either, but not because he wasn’t right.

That’s what I said—he was right—but only for a specific group of people.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not in that group, at least yet.

Why You Shouldn’t Do It

The argument against the leg press is two-pronged:

  • It isn’t a natural lifting position.
  • It can hurt your back.

The problem with both these arguments is that they can be applied to a number of universally loved exercises. That’s not to say you should be doing the leg press forever—it just means there’s information left out that is kind of important.

“Unnatural Position”

First let’s look at the “unnatural position” argument. It’s true, you generally won’t be pushing a heavy weight with your legs from a seated position in your daily life. And in general, being almost curled into a fetal ball to start an exercise doesn’t seem like a natural position at all.

But have you ever had to lift a box or a sofa all the way from the floor? The first part of that motion is the leg press.

And other great exercises don’t use “natural motion” either. Do you normally lift weight in your daily life using just your shoulders? That would mean you shouldn’t do standing arm raises. Do you normally walk in such a way that your knees touch the ground on each step? There go lunges. But that’s ridiculous, those exercises, done with proper form, can really help you shape and strengthen your shoulders and legs without harm.

The benchmark to me for an unnatural position is something like the leg extension, where even if you perform the exercise with the proper form, you can injure your knees, or the Smith bar, which lets you put your back into all kinds of different positions, some of them really awful. But let’s face it, weight training is full of “unnatural” movements, and the ones you should reject are the ones that can hurt you even if you use good form.

“Injury Potential”

The second and more plausible (stay with me on that) allegation against the leg press is that your lower back can become too rounded, causing injury when you push heavy weights.

That’s a valid argument—but any injury would be caused not by the exercise itself, but by poor form. If you made the same mistakes on any leg exercise, the same injury could result. In fact, it’s easier for a beginner to make sure form is correct on the leg press than on a free-weight leg exercise.

When you’re in the starting position for the leg press, you should be seated with your entire back, from shoulders to tailbone, in contact with the seat. You should also be making sure your kneecaps aren’t out past your toes, while keeping your knees at or just a hair past a 90-degree angle.

If you obey those rules of form, you shouldn’t suffer injury.

Who Should Do the Leg Press

The leg press is actually a pretty important exercise for a beginner, because the better options are also the most mechanically complicated exercises. As I mention above, proper form is much easier to observe on a machine. Once you get your feet into position, the only thing you’ll need to worry about in each rep is making sure your back stays in contact with the pad.

The leg press is also good for a change of pace if you’ve had it up to here with squats and deadlifts. Just remember to also work on your hamstrings, because the real long-term reason to not do the leg press is that it doesn’t engage the hammies or other muscles that you can work with some of the free-weight alternatives. While I’d never ever recommend leg extensions, leg curls are fine to balance out the leg press. A better option is walking lunges, using weights that allow you to do only 10-12 steps in each set, and I’d recommend lunges even if you’re ready for squats.

What You Should Do Instead

The point of the guru’s guru friend’s article is really that you should really be doing squats, stupid. And that’s fair—squats are probably the second-best exercise in the whole gym after deadlifts.

But you should only be doing squats with 10-12 rep weights when you’re fully comfortable with the motion and can do it with proper form and balance, and in an environment where you can safely dump the weight when you can’t get it out of the squat position. (Look for the squat racks with horizontal bars at about waist level or higher.) Most people will end up not doing squats to full failure because failing means dumping 200+ pounds of metal onto the gym floor.

If you’re not fully confident in your squat technique, I recommend that you use the leg press, but each day you do, also practice your squat form with an empty bar or low weight, using these technique tips:

  • Let your shoulders hold the weight. Use your hands for stabilization. Don’t worry about position too much beyond figuring out what’s most comfortable.
  • Stand with your legs a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Your toes will likely start pointing outward, which is fine.
  • Do not put your weight on the balls of your feet, ever. If you can focus on having the weight equally on your ball and heel, fine, but if you need to just try and put your weight on your heels.
  • When you squat down, pretend you’re trying to sit in a chair about 18 inches behind you. Push your tush back. Don’t just squat straight down. Ideally you should go down far enough that the tops of your knees are parallel to the ground. You can even go down farther, engaging your hamstrings more, as long as your kneecaps don’t get out in front of your toes.
  • When you lift the weight, don’t think “lift.” Think about pushing against the ground with your feet.

And the two most well-known rules apply: never fully straighten (“lock”) your knees in the standing position, and never let your knees go further forward than your toes.

When you can put all of this together, increase your weight gradually. When you’re doing squats with proper form and enough weight to limit your reps to 10-12, you can and should do them instead of the leg press, and congratulate yourself on graduating.


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