The leg press is an effective lower body strength exercise for seniors that can improve your leg strength and muscle mass very fast.
While the leg press is not ideal for functional strength like the squat or the deadlift, it has several benefits for seniors. Unlike squats or deadlifts, leg press doesn’t require good posture and a strong core.
When you are performing a squat, even on body weight, you need a significant amount of base strength that many seniors simply don’t have. This goes both for your legs and your hips and core.
You also need a good amount of mobility and proprioception to perform a bodyweight squat. This is what makes them so effective if you can perform them. They improve your strength, mobility, and proprioception in a way that easily transfers to real-world movement.
But how about if you simply can’t perform squat? Maybe you have postural issues, significant lower back pain or you are simply too weak relative to your bodyweight to practice and perform even bodyweight squats?
This is very common among seniors that have been sedentary for very long and are possibly also obese.
It’s also possible to have balance issues due to neurological diseases that prevent you from doing free weight exercises. That doesn’t make strength training any less necessary for improving health, on the contrary.
So how do you strengthen your legs if you can’t perform squat due to strength, balance or mobility issues? With the leg press of course!
The leg press allows you to start with minimal weight and progress in very gradual increases to achieve progressive overload, the thing that drives strength and muscle gain.
Since the leg press is performed in a seated position, it can be performed even with balance issues and vertigo.
Due to the seated position, the leg press doesn’t require lower back strength and core control, which is a good thing if you have health issues that prevent you from performing squats or deadlifts.
What is the leg press
The leg press is a lower body strength exercise that is performed in a leg press machine. The exercise involves hip and knee extension as is aimed at improving leg strength.
The exercise is performed in a seated position that can vary depending on the machine. The range of motion and resistance can be typically adjusted quite diversly, especially in cable leg press machines.
The leg press emulates a squat to an extent but the two exercises have a distinct difference. Due to the seated position, the leg press doesn’t involve a complete hip extension, which is one of it’s greatest shortcomings.
This is because seniors often have mobility issues in their hips, tight hip flexors and weak glutes. All these can be fixed with a full range of motion hip extensions.
But since the leg press is performed in a seated position, this is also one of its greatest benefits. This is because the exercise doesn’t require your lower back and core to support the load, like in the squat, the leg press can be performed even if you have lower back issues.
The muscles involved in the leg press are the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the calves, and the glutes.
Variations of the leg press machine
The greatest variation in the leg press depends on the type of leg press machine you are using. Other than that you can vary the feet positioning on the platform and perform the leg presses with one or two legs.
Probably the most common type of a leg press machine is the 45-degree free weight sled type. I’m sorry but I really don’t know a better name for and a fast search didn’t bring out any better suggestions.
I’ve seen these in most of the gyms I’ve been to. They consist simply of a seat that’s close to the ground, at a 45-degree angle. Then there is a sled that moves along two rails that are, not so surprisingly in a 45-degree angle as well.
The sled has bars on the sides or in the back (there are several variations) where you can but standard size weight plates. This allows for a very simple and carefree construction, that can be loaded with weight ranging from just the weight of the sled (usually around 30 lbs) to up to 1000lbs.
The seat back angle can be adjusted in some models, to allow different amounts of hip extension and range of motion. Another important function is the safety pins or locks or whatever you want to call them, which keeps the sled securely on the upper position.
Pros of the 45-degree sled machine:
- Simple maintenance-free construction
- Endless possibilities for loading due to the free weight construction
- You have to manually load and unload the plates (this is good exercise, so pro in my books)
- The sled can be too heavy of a starting weight for some seniors
- The low positioning of the seat can make it hard for some seniors to get on and off the machine
- You can get pinned in the bottom position if you don’t have enough strength to finish the last rep or get an injury and lack the mobility to twist your legs out from this position.
The other common type of machine I’ve seen in many gyms is the horizontal cable leg press. It uses a cable to lift a stack of weights instead of free weights.
Because of the vertical orientation and the weight stack you can usually start with resistance as low as 5 lbs, this is something anyone who’s able to walk should be able to lift easily.
On the other hand, because of the weight stack, you can only go up in increments that are smallest on the stack, usually 5 to 10lbs. Many machines have a max resistance of around 225 lbs (some have significantly higher), which is too low for serious strength athletes but perfectly fine for most seniors.
Another difference compared to the sled machines is that the exercise is usually started in the flexed position, i.e. the bottom position where your knees and hips are flexed.
This position can usually be adjusted so it’s impossible to get pinned in the bottom position. It also makes the first repetition resemble a deadlift or a pause squat because you have to get the sled moving without the stretch reflex.
- Easier to get on to
- Lighter minimum weight
- Can’t get pinned
- Requires a lot of maintenance to keep the cable moving well and safe
- Start from a dead stop
- Not enough resistance for most strength athletes
As you can probably conclude from that, I think the cable machines are better for most seniors, especially when starting out. I don’t prefer them myself but they have certain safety and loading advantages that make them more suitable for seniors and beginners.
No matter what kind of leg press machine you use, the most important part is to start light and strive for progressive overload over time. Both of these machines can achieve that quite well.
How to perform the leg press
Depending on the type of leg press machine the movement starts either at the knees fully extended position or knees fully flexed position.
The things you should look out for in the leg press are your feet position and the safe range of motion your hips allow. The most important safety rules are to never overextend your knees and never let your lower back round due to running out of hip range of motion.
When you keep these two rules in mind and start light, the leg press is probably the safest lower body strength exercise. The knee overextension is especially important if you have hypermobile joints, as there have been accidents where the knee extends to the wrong direction on the leg press. As in backwards.
It looks and is just as gruesome as it sounds, believe me, and will probably leave your knee permanently injured. So take care to keep your knees just a tad flexed on the upper position.
The lower back rounding happens typically in the 45-degree machine when the user brings the sled lower than their hip mobility allows. When the hip joint runs out of range of motion, the pelvis starts to tilt, which will round your lower back.
This puts a lot of strain on your lumbar spine and can cause a disc herniation or muscle injury. The solution is to use light enough weight that you can control the range of motion and to only bring it as low as your individual mobility allows.
The feet positioning on the platform affect both your range of motion and the activation of the muscles. Generally speaking the lower on your platform your feet are, the more quad activation there is as it makes the knee angle more acute. This usually allows you to get a slightly longer range of motion if your ankles allow it.
When you bring your feet closer to the top of the platform, you will get more posterior chain activation and a reduced range of motion.
All and all these are small nuances and any variation will work in improving overall leg strength. My recommendation is to avoid extreme variations in the feet positioning and stick to the center of the platform with feet shoulder-width apart and turned slightly out.
All leg press variations will include these two steps, the starting position just varies:
- Lowering the sled by bringing your ankles, knees, and hips into flexion.
- Pushing the sled up by extending your hips, knees, and ankles.
Benefits of the leg press for seniors
Like I’ve concluded in several posts before, strength training is very important for your overall health and ability to function independently as you age.
The lower body, including the hips and the legs, are especially important because most of your muscle mass is situated there and your legs are what allow independent movement and activity.
While upper body strength and muscle mass are important as well, it’s definitely as important as lower body strength for performing day to day activities and keeping you healthy.
If you don’t take care of your leg strength as you age, you will first notice that climbing on to awkward positions becomes a lot harder than it was when younger.
Next, you will notice that walking steep stairs will start to become harder, especially on your knees even if you have the cardiovascular capacity to do it without running out of breath.
Next, you will notice that simply getting up from a chair or your bed into a standing position becomes hard. At this point, you have lost a significant amount of your leg strength and muscle mass and it’s only a matter of time you will lose your ability to walk, at least for longer distances.
You will also notice your balance declining, you simply become clumsy. Doing just a few sets of lower body strength training a week can prevent all this and improve your balance. If you can’t perform squats effectively, the leg press is a good option.
Falls due to loss of balance is one of the leading causes of hospitalization to seniors. Once you suffer a bad fall that leaves you hospitalized for weeks or months due to a hip fracture or head trauma, your loss of muscle mass and strength can leave your bedridden for the remainder
So if you want to enjoy your seniors years feeling strong and limber, able to enjoy all the activities you like, leg presses are definitely beneficial for you.
I hope you found this leg press tutorial useful and will include the exercise in your exercise routine along with squats, deadlifts, lunges, calf raises and other lower body exercises that help to maintain and improve your leg strength and mobility as well as your balance skills.
I feel like I’m repeating myself here but since I feel it’s for a good cause, I’ll repeat this once again: Leg strength is extremely important for health and life quality in seniors.
I truly think that compound movements that target the legs are the most beneficial exercises for seniors as the real-world carryover is so great. You will literally notice the benefits after a few workouts.
Simple day to day actions like walking, squatting, bending over, climbing the stairs or cycling becomes easier. You might even notice that your long-term knee and lower back pain start to improve.
So please, take the initiative and include some form of leg strength exercise in your weight training routine to reap all the benefits of strength training. You’ll thank yourself in no-time, I promise!
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