A lot of people ask me whether or not they can substitute the leg press for squats or deadlifts in their jump training programs. After all the leg press is quite a popular exercise and it trains the same muscles right? Well, they do sort of, but not really. In this article I will examine in detail the pro's and cons of using the leg press exercise for people wanting to improve their vertical jump.
Despite what many people think the leg press is actually a very different exercise to the squats and deadlift. The three main differences are as follows:
There is no getting around this, the leg press doesn't have anywhere near the same level of muscle recruitment as a deadlift or squat. As a result it is a far less efficient exercise than those two lifts because in order to get a similar overall training effect you need to do the leg press plus something else.
Of course, for vertical jumping improvements, even doing additional exercises still doesn't yield the same level of improvement as the squat and deadlift as you don't get the same degree of intra and inter muscular co-ordination when leg pressing.
This benefit of squatting and deadlifting should not to be glossed over either. Jumping is a fine motor skill that requires high levels of movement efficiency. Movement efficiency is displayed by contracting your muscles in a synergistic way so that the right groups are firing at the right time to generate maximum power (i.e. high levels of intra and inter muscular coordination).
Improving these forms of muscular co-ordination through full body movements in the weight room has a much better carry over to improving your ability to generate power and thus jump high than performing the leg press.
Due to the seated position of the leg press there is virtually zero hip extension on this lift. Basically a leg press repetition finishes well before your legs are parallel with your torso which means that your glutes are just not contracting forcefully at the end in the same way that occurs when a squat, deadlift, or most importantly, a vertical jump is performed.
Using the leg press tends to skip over this rather important aspect of your athletic development. This lack of hip extension is one of the biggest drawbacks about using the leg press for vertical jump improvements. It is also helps explain why strength gains from leg pressing don't transfer so well in the real world to vertical jump improvement.
Some coaches tout the leg press as being a safer option. This is something I don't believe to be necessarily true. The fact is that with ANY weighted exercises there is the potential for injury if you do it incorrectly or try to use too much weight.
The leg press in particular leaves athletes susceptible to lower back injuries if they go to deep into flexion which occurs frequently when the knees come in to the chest and you start raising your back off the pad. This is surprisingly common. When people do that it leaves their spine open to compressive forces, and with the extra weights used on the leg press when compared to a squat, it can actually be more dangerous.
Another safety issue is that of injury prevention. One of the key functions of weight training for athletes is to make them stronger and more resilient to injury. The fact that the free weight exercises improve balance and coordination so much more so than leg press means these exercises are also far superior choices for assisting in injury prevention.
Think about it. The more body control an athlete has the less likely they are going to get injured because they will be more adept at avoiding those situations. This body control, again comes from performing activities that require you to move your body as a whole, not just by isolating the lower extremities.
People love performing leg press because it is great for their ego. Leg press machines allow people to move really big weights. Certainly it allows you to move much bigger weights than you can squat or deadlift!
Below is a cool video of bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman performing a leg press with 2300 pounds FOR REPS followed by him squatting an also obscene amount of weight (set somewhat lovingly to the Gladiator theme). Now obviously Big Ron is an immensely strong man, who for the record also deadlifts some huge poundages too, but from the clip you can clearly see how much lighter the load is he uses on the squat bar compared the number of plates he had on the leg press (which to be frank, is astonishing).
Naturally people like to think they are stronger than they really are and end up choosing leg presses to maintain this illusion. After all it looks way cooler to load up 6 or more 45 pound plates on each side of the leg press than to get under the bar in the squat rack with only 1 or 2 each side.
There are two common complaints people have about doing squats and deadlifts and both stem from the same source. These complaints are that it hurts their knees or it hurts their back.
When people say that squats hurt their knees or back more often than not what they are really saying is that they haven't warmed up properly or have tried to use too much weight, or they are just performing the lift very badly.
Quite frankly squatting and deadlifting are not as complicated or difficult as people make them out to be. Nearly all the troubles people have with these lifts occurs because people try to use too much weight.
As soon as people swallow their pride and drop the weight a little you will often find that their form improves, their complaints about sore knees etc disappear, and surprise surprise, their vertical jump starts to shoot up.
Despite the arguments I have presented here the leg press is not evil. In fact it is actually a really good exercise. Sure it may not hit as many muscle groups as the key lifts I have compared it to, but it still does a pretty good job of targeting the muscle groups in the legs, particularly the quads and hamstrings which are both important for flexion and extension of the knee.
Also if you do not have access to any free weights such as a squat rack or a barbell then the leg press is clearly the next best alternative for building strength.
The key to successfully using the leg press is to remember that it shouldn't be seen as a substitute for squats or deadlifts, but it is a very good exercise to supplement those two with.
In practice this means that your vertical jump related strength workouts should primarily include some variation of one or both of the two main lifts, and then if you happen to really like performing the leg press (or if your ego needs some stroking after finding out just how weak you really are), then go ahead and add some in to your workout later on..
Personally my favorite ways to use the leg press are the single leg versions and the ballistic versions. With the ballistic version you use a using lighter weight and you actually push with enough force so that it physically propels the press plate off your feet on each rep in an explosive manner.
So that is leg press and vertical jump improvement for you. Is it as good as squatting and deadlifting for developing strength? No. Is it still a good exercise in its own right? Yes definitely. The take home message though is that while you can get some pretty decent results using the leg press, if you want the BEST results from your training, stick with the free weights.
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Squats and Deadlifts
- Squats and deadlifts are the big two strength building exercises for
increasing your vertical jump. Check out our introductory look at these
Strength Training Part 1 - Getting strong is vital for jumping high. Part 1 of our 2 part look at strength training covers the various theories behind strength training.
Weight Training Introduction - To maximize your vertical jump you will need to lift weights. Here is the introduction to our 3 part article on weight training and vertical jump development.
Vertical Jump Coaching - Want to know the fastest way to increase your vertical jump? Find out here.