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Smith machine leg press: How one simple tweak transforms this vertical quad exercise from life-threatening to mass-building

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 1st October 2020

Out of all the Smith machine exercises, the Smith machine leg press has to be the most controversial.

Some lifters swear that doing the vertical leg press Smith machine style is the best way to pump up your quads. Others believe that the exercise is a gimmick. And a handful of people, including me, think that the movement is downright dangerous. I believe that It's (easily) the most dangerous of all the Smith machine leg exercises.

But despite my repeated objections—and despite the disapproval from countless weight lifting experts—I know that some people are still going to do the exercise anyway.

But don't say we didn't warn you...

Smith machine leg press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Hamstrings, calves, abs
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, lifting belt, weightlifting shoes
  • Exercise purpose: Build stronger glutes and quads

How to do a vertical leg press on the Smith machine

  1. Place a mat underneath the Smith machine bar.
  2. Perform a leg press rep with the empty bar (see form below) and then set the safety catches to just below the deepest point in your rep.
  3. Lie on your back and place your midfoot on the barbell, feet shoulder-width apart.
  4. Keep your arms flat on the floor.
  5. As you unrack the bar by extending your knees and hips, actively brace your core and push your back into the ground (ensures that you have a stable base to lift from).
  6. Inhale, and lower the bar by bending your knees and hips until your thighs touch your ribcage.
  7. Forcefully push the bar back up and exhale once you're 2/3 of the way up. There's no need to fully lock out your knees.
  8. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 12-20 reps.
"It doesn't take a lot of weight to get your legs lit on fire."
Erin Wischmann
Men's physique Competitor

Smith machine leg press safety tips

Always, always set the spotter catches

How much can you leg press? 50kg? 100kg? 200kg?

Got the answer? Ok, now let me ask you another question. How painful would it feel to have that much weight resting on your chest or abdomen?

Bloody painful, right?

safety catches

Well, just image that weight falling—or should I say crashing—onto your fragile chest or abdomen. I hate to be morbid, but your survival odds aren't great in this scenario.

Well, believe it or not, the possibility of getting crushed to death doesn't deter some of our hardcore bodybuilding friends. Oh no, these guys are so hardcore, that they don't even set the safety catches.

Better yet, they act like the Smith machine leg pres is just another exercise. This foolish behaviour then causes others to search for it (like you did) and then even try the exercise themselves, which can have some pretty catastrophic consequences.

man performing a vertical leg press

Listen, I don't like to put people down. But sometimes you have to wonder how someone can be so blasé about their own life.

And when it comes to doing the vertical leg press on Smith machine stations, setting the safety catches could, quite literally, be the difference between life and death.

And the irony—the painful irony—is that good old 45° leg presses are much more effective for building your legs. So why do a Smith machine leg press when it's a poor exercise to begin with?

Use a leg press attachment

athletic woman doing a leg press

As we've just established, performing a leg press using Smith machine stations is dangerous because the bar could easily roll off your foot and onto your chest.

However, some Smith machines come with a leg press attachment, which is essentially a big foot platform like you'd find on a regular leg press machine.

This small modification turns this controversial exercise from life-threatening to quad-building, because there's virtually no way the bar could slip away from your control. Unless, of course, you decided that it was a good idea to do calf raises (hint: it's not).

Because I train at home, the attachment was definitely worth the investment. However, since buying my own Leg Press/Hack Squat Machine, I haven't been using my Smith machine as a leg press.

And honestly, unless you're short on space (or money), I don't recommend you do either. After all, you can lift far heavier weights on a 45° leg press. So by using a vertical leg press—no matter how intense the pump is—you're probably leaving a lot of muscle growth on the table.

Keep a spotter handy

Patient at the physiotherapy doing physical exercises using leg press in sport remobilization

Since you've read this far into my article without succumbing to the urge to click away, I'm going to presume that you're fairly intelligent. Therefore, I'm also going to assume that you'd always remember to deploy the safety catches while using a Smith machine as a leg press.

However, I still strongly recommend that you have a competent spotter handy to keep you out of harm's way. Especially consider that re-racking the bar after a set of Smith machine leg presses isn't exactly straightforward.

Recommended lifting gear for Smith machine leg presses

1. Vertical leg press

The vertical leg press itself is actually a fantastic lower body exercise. It's just the Smith machine that makes it suck.

a man using the body solid leg press hack squat machine

I personally train at home these days, and for the longest time, I didn't have access to a leg press. However, when my quads started to shink from a lack of volume, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and level up my home gym with a quality leg press machine.

I tested about 5 different products in person, and I ended up going with the Body-Solid Leg Press/Hack Squat Machine.

This beast holds up to 1,000lbs, and it's by far the closest thing to a commercial leg press that I could personally afford. Still, it wasn't exactly cheap. But considering that Body Solid include a free lifetime warranty, it was a no-brainer in the end.

sporty man performing a vertical leg press

I also strongly considered the Powerline Vertical Leg Press.

I loved the old-school feel of the vertical leg press, and the resistance felt incredible on my quads. My thighs were on fire after just one set. But ultimately, despite it being about 3x cheaper than the other leg press, I had to say no, because the 400lb max capacity was just too low for me.

I didn't actually leg press (with strict form) that much more than 400lbs at the time. But considering that I had every intention of getting stronger, I thought the more robust Body Solid Leg press was the wiser investment of the two.

2. Knee sleeves

It's a well-established fact that people who play sports or perform weight-bearing exercises (like weight training) are 3x as likely to have knee pain as those who don't.

This statistic was a very sobering realisation for me after more than 10 years of putting muscle growth before my joint health. Suffice to say that I started looking into solutions immediately when I had my eyes opened.

I tried a lot of expensive knee braces, even a few expensive therapies. But finally, I settled on simple powerlifting knee sleeves.

red and black beast gear knee sleeves

I personally use the Beast Sleeves by Beast Gear, and I have no complaints.

These sleeves are the most durable and offer the most contoured support of the half a dozen knee sleeves that I tried. The others worked to an extent, but they would all invariably slide around my knee during training, which defeats the purpose of wearing them (that is, for support).

Anyway, as I say, my Beast Gear Knee Sleeves definitely give me more spring in my step (or should I say in my squat?). The 5mm thick Tech-Blend neoprene keeps my patella nice and stable, but it isn't constricting to the point where I can't hit depth on squats and leg presses.

Well worth the investment in my opinion If you've had knee trouble in the past, especially because these particular knee sleeves come with a lifetime guarantee.

3. Weightlifting belt

Maybe I'm missing out on some potential strength gains, but I don't actually wear a belt for leg presses. I find that the belt and the 45-degree angle of the machine just don't mix. In other words, the belt limits my range of motion.

However, for squats, it's a completely different story.

I was squatting with my powerlifter friend in my home gym, and he brought his designer weightlifting belt for me to try. I kid you not: my squat instantly shot up by 7.5kg.

rdx weightlifting belt

However, I'd just paid for my home gym, so I couldn't afford an expensive weightlifting belt at the time. So I ended up going with the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting as a compromise.

To my amazement, my squat strength was the same as it was while wearing my friend's £90 designer lifting belt. I tested my 1RM again the next session to make sure that it wasn't a fluke, and sure enough—with the usual grinding typical of max-effort lifting—the weight went up. And I was one satisfied customer.

My friend?

He sold his "special" weightlifting belt on eBay (43 bids!) and used the money to get an RDX belt and some new lifting straps. Not a bad decision if you ask me.

Smith machine leg press muscles worked

Quads

close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

Due to it's unstable and potentially dangerous setup, the Smith machine vertical press is naturally suited to high rep training.

Therefore, performing the Smith machine leg press for quads, rather than for glutes, is a smart idea. Because research shows that the quadriceps are most active while you're leg pressing with light weight (40% of 1RM) rather than heavier weight (80% of 1RM). [1] [2] [3]

Of course, this is brilliant from a safety perspective because you're much less likely to get into troubler while performing sets of 30 (presuming that you don't train to failure) than you are with heavy sets of 5.

Glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

As I alluded to above, doing the Smith machine leg press for glutes is a horrible idea.

Since the glutes are much more active at higher training intensities (% of 1RM), you'd be putting yourself in a precarious position by attempting to train them with this exercise. In my opinion, the hip thrust is far more effective (and much safer) Smith machine leg press alternative for building the glutes.

Hamstrings

massive bodybuilder doing strength training while at the gym

Many people report that the Smith machine hamstring press (as they like to call it) gives them a great pump in their hamstrings. And while that might be the case, I think that it's probably just the novelty of the exercise that's getting their hamstrings all fired up.

And even if it isn't, why not just do Romanian deadlifts?

After all, you can lift far heavier weights on RDLs, and there isn't the imminent threat of being crushed on every rep.

Calves

man with impressive calf muscles

If you thought that doing a single leg vertical leg press on Smith machine stations was dangerous, just wait until you see someone attempting a calf press.

By putting the weight onto the balls of your feet, as you would do during a calf press, you dramatically—and instantaneously— increase your chance of losing control of the barbell. I don't think I need to remind you what the consequences of such a fatal mistake are likely to be...

At least when you're doing a regular Smith machine leg press, the bar is actually centred on your foot.

But a calf press. Seriously?

Why wouldn't you just do a calf raise?

The Smith machine is practically built for calf raises!

Smith machine leg press benefits

Intense quad pump

man doing leg extensions

Although I may have dissed the Smith machine leg press as an exercise that only fools perform, I can't deny that it produces an intense quad pump. Especially if you have a footplate attachment like the one I mentioned earlier.

The footplate enables you to apply more force to the Smith bar, which, in turn, helps you to develop a stronger mind-muscle connection. Naturally, a stronger mind-muscle connection soon leads to noticeable muscle growth because the tension's going exactly where you want it to [4].

Eye-opening muscle growth

a bodybuilder with massive quads

The reason that I say eye-opening muscle growth and not just muscle growth is because your newly acquired leg pressing gains might not actually be because of the leg press. Instead, your gains are due to the novelty effect, most likely [5] [6].

Essentially, because the exercise is new, you see rapid increases in muscular strength, and sometimes, in muscle growth too. However, these impressive results are simply because your body isn't accustomed to the exercise—you're starting as a novice.

Cue noob gains.

More often than not, these rapid gains cause people to cling to one particular exercise as "the best", when, in reality, they could've done any new exercise and received similar results.

So, if you suddenly gain 50kg on your Smith leg press, it's not because the exercise is special, it's merely because you had a lot of room to progress.

More confidence

an athletic man and woman stood in the gym weight room

Yep. If you've got the bottle to leg press in a Smith machine then you, my friend, deserve a badge of honour for your bravery...and a slap in the face for your stupidity.

In all seriousness, though, if you're going to be brave and risk serious injury, at least let it be for a worthwhile cause. I know it might stroke your ego to act as a fitness trendsetter. But is impressing a few people at your gym really worth the potential of dropping the barbell on yourself?

No, I don't think it is.

Smith machine leg press alternatives

So, we've established that it is indeed possible to do leg presses without a machine. However, for many reasons that I've explained ad nauseam, I think that doing a leg press with Smith machine systems is a terrible idea if you're even remotely clumsy.

As such, here are 3 of my favourite alternatives.

Smith machine step up

women using a step up platform

The Smith machine step up is a brilliant alternative to Smith machine leg press training because it ensures that both sides of your body receive equal work.

If you played sports as a lad like me, then you probably have your fair share of lower body muscles imbalances. Therefore, it's worth making step ups—or other unilateral leg exercises—a big part of your workout routine if you want to build symmetrical legs.

Narrow stance Smith machine squat

sporty woman doing back squats

The narrow-stance Smith machine squat is an exercise of two halves. Done correctly, it'll add mass to your outer quad sweep faster than just about anything. Done incorrectly, and it'll wreck your knees in record time. Our guide will set you on the right path to bigger quads.

Smith machine squat

man performing deep squats

Check out our squatting blueprint if you want to learn how to Smith machine squat for the fastest and best results. We cover everything from foot placement to elbow position, and you'll quickly learn why it's one of my favourite leg exercises for people with bad knees. Yes, even more so than free weight squats.

FAQ

Is the Smith machine leg press safe?

runner with knee pain

While the Smith machine leg press can be made safer with a few adjustments—safety catches, competent spotter, footplate—I think that the exercise is best avoided unless you're a very advanced lifter.

Can you do a single leg vertical leg press on the Smith machine?

thinking women with question mark on white background

Yes, it's possible to perform single-leg leg presses on a Smith machine. However, for all the reasons mentioned in this Smith machine leg press guide, I think you're much better of squatting or using a 45-degree leg press machine. Hope that helps.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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