It sounds like an asinine question, but it has a certain logic to it. True, nothing beats the squat for competitive powerlifters. But if all you’re trying to do is build up some muscle or hit your quads a little harder, why bother with the squat in the first place?
Let’s discuss what it would actually take to replace the squat and still reap all the same benefits from your program.
The leg press is a great start for sure, but let’s get one common misconception out of the way: squats work a lot more than just your quads. Despite the thousands of articles online labeling the squat as a “quad exercise,” a proper barbell squat is a compound movement that recruits all the other muscle groups in your lower body as well. That’s why they’re a staple in strength training.
In fact, wide-stance squatters may find the squat predominantly focused on the posterior chain. Depending on your body type, foot placement, and starting position, the barbell squat may put greater emphasis on your glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, abductors, and adductors than your quads.
Effectively replacing the squat would therefore require incorporating isolation exercises that target each of those muscle groups individually into your program. Of course, that means the 4 sets of squats you’re trying to get out of just got expanded into 4 sets of leg press, 4 sets of hip thrusts, 4 sets of lying leg curls, and so on and so forth.
It’s easy to see why it’s worth your while to suck it up and just do the squats, even if you hate them more than anything.
Let’s say you’re okay with having to do a million different accessories to make up the difference.
Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m definitely an outspoken critic of “functional fitness.” Whichever clown decided that a deadlift is “non-functional” but flipping a giant semi-truck tire is an everyday task, they’ve done the world of strength sports a huge disservice.
That being said, the essential idea of functional fitness isn’t fundamentally flawed. Powerlifters should absolutely benefit from their strength both inside and outside the gym. And that’s precisely why you can’t ditch the squat.
Because the leg press provides back support that the free weight squat doesn’t, you aren’t getting the same core activation when you ditch the barbell for the machine. Balancing the bar and maintaining correct posture is half the battle in the squat, after all.
In addition, the degree of proprioceptive awareness the barbell square requires simply can’t be generated from machine exercises alone. Over time, slacking in this area may leave you at increased risk of injuries caused by day-to-day tasks outside the gym.
Don’t you ever talk to me like that again. Sure, you can throw in some combinations of kettlebells, bosu balls, and “unstable” implements, but this only increases the risk of injury from the exercise itself.
Moreover, accessory stabilization movements will never subject your body to as heavy a load as the squat. Hope you don’t like improvements to core strength and bone density, because you’re not gonna find them from these accessories.
Since we’re here, it’s worth reflecting on why you’re trying to get out of squats in the first place. If you feel like squats are simply too difficult or unpleasant to be worth the trouble, check your form and technique before getting rid of them completely. It’s possible you’re inadvertently making them harder than they have to be.
The most common reason for not wanting to squat is fear of injury, and this in turn usually stems from pain or discomfort during the movement that may be caused by poor technique. And you know what that means: time to reach out about our assessment sessions.
While the leg press is nowhere near an adequate replacement for the squat, it is nowhere near useless either. While many of us tend to go HAM on our barbell movements and then skip or sandbag our accessories, pushing the leg press is a great option for those of you needing to build more quad strength.
Other types of leg press movements like single leg or set/rep variations like rest-pause sets offer a chance to mix things up, too.
Generally, we would program this after your main barbell squat work for medium to higher rep ranges, somewhere in the 8-15 rep range. The leg press is also a great option to increase the frequency of leg training and a great step to potentially build towards squatting more times per week.
Additionally, the leg press can be used as a main movement in the case of an injury limiting your ability to squat, though as stated above this is not preferable when squats are an option.
Basically, leg press is good, squats are great, but doing both is better.
It's one thing to read it; it's another to do it. And when you're training without a coach, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.