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Should seated leg press be avoided?

https://www.t-nation.com/training/4-most-debilitating-exercises advises against using seated leg press:

Unless you're an 86-year-old grandmother rehabilitating a total knee replacement or Brach Warren working on showcasing another vein through his left VMO, you have no business on the seated leg press. It simply hurts people!

These are not the type of injuries that people get over in a few days. The leg press has the ability to cause massive structural damage to the spine that's likely to haunt your functionality for the remainder of your skinny-legged life

Let's break down the mechanics of this movement from a practical standpoint.

The seated position, more specifically the 45-degree seated position, places the lumbar spine in a forward flexing position before your legs even begin pushing through that torturous 8-inch range of motion. This is the equivalent position to squatting with your chest facing the ground – I wouldn't recommend it if you want to remain ambulatory.

The accentuated deep flexion of the hip joints not only causes some heavy compressional forces shooting through the hips that cause joint irritation and degradation, but it also causes a dysfunctional compensation pattern in the lumbar spine, bringing it into further flexion as each segment buckles. Remember, this piss poor posture is just in the setup!

Adding a dynamic component to this setup is where this exercise becomes downright outrageous. Sure it's easy for some uncertified newbie personal trainer to program it because you just sit and push, similar to a bathroom break in the office.

The simplicity of this movement is what keeps it continually being brought back to life in an industry of alleged experts that are just as confused as the clients they're being paid to coach. The simplistic nature of little-to-no stability throughout the spinal column and hips is what intrinsically makes this the most debilitating exercise in the gym.

Bottom line, protecting the spine must be a primary focus at all times during any activity, not just weight training. The seated leg press not only lacks the ability to protect the spine, but also flaunts an unstable, maximally loaded nature that's a powder keg waiting to blow.

Does this mean that no matter what precautions and position we take when using seated leg pres,s one always incurs the risk of low back injuries?

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No, it should not be avoided. Like any machine, it's a tool, and it has a purpose.

The article seems to refer to the fact that during a seated leg press, the weight presses down on your feet, and cascades through your legs and into your lower back, which is pressed against the seat.

They neglect to mention that all weightlifting exercises has this problem, one way or another. Especially the heaviest lifts such as squats or deadlift, the weight will eventually have to propagate through your posterior chain and into your lumbar spine.

But do we neglect these exercises? Of course not! They are tools, and they have a purpose.

ALL exercises have risks, and 90% of what we do at the gym is focus on form, so that risk of injury is minimized.

The article goes on to list bench press, barbell deadlift, and deep squats as "most damaging exercises", and that really puts the nail in the coffin as far as I'm concerned. I don't care what kind of "doctor" this John Rusin is. He has clearly written this article just to stir up some shit.

At the end of the day injury prevention is not achieved by excluding exercises that strengthen you. It is achieved by doing these exercises properly.

As far as seated leg press goes, I will say that I consider it an auxiliary movement, and I always prioritize freeweight alternatives like squats. But that doesn't make it a bad exercise. Tool, purpose, etc.

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Does this mean that no matter what precautions and position we take when using seated leg press one always incurs the risk of low back injuries?

No, that's not what the author is trying to say. You certainly COULD position yourself in such a way, as to minimize any injury risk. Which, you would then have to consciously reinforce throughout the entire set, because it is not even close to a natural movement (pressing up due to pure leg isolation on a stabilized core up on an incline? C'mon now.)

The problem is, although all exercises have risks as mentioned by Alec, this one stands out from the rest. I'm sure everyone here has seen a random dude at the gym loading up 568 45lbs plates at the leg press machine, but the guy can't squat 200lbs. The reason why pretty much everyone can use more weight on the leg press as opposed to squats is because the machine itself provides all the external stability – there’s no inherent challenge to the body to stabilize anything. You just load and press, that's it.

With squats, the body itself has to utilize its internal stabilizers to perform the movement correctly in order to maintain balance, posture, etc.

The point being, with squats (and almost all freeweight exercises), your body will do a pretty good job of defending you against injury assuming your form is not awful. But with leg press, your body doesn't have to stabilize anything, so, you can load more weight than what your body is ACTUALLY capable of, and even if you do it correctly, there will be a higher chance of risk.

Now, isn't this the case with all machine exercises though? Not really. I'll quote Dr. Stuart McGill here, (probably the smartest dude out there in regards to sports science and injuries):

“the leg press sometimes causes the pelvis to rotate away from the back rest when the weight is lowered. The resultant lumbar flexion produces herniating conditions for the disc!”

There aren't many machine exercises, if any, other than the leg press, that can actually cause this. So I don't think it can really be compared.

My point is, you could certainly do leg press and not get injured, assuming you don't let your ego take over and load up too much weight, and additionally assuming you reinforce proper posture, disc position, rep speed, etc. But obviously the chance of getting injured is higher, as compared to, well basically any other machine (except for that rotating side-side oblique twist, that's awful).

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  • Using the valsalva maneuver and maintaining tension in the lumbar spine to avoid rounding (as you would in a squat and deadlift) improves safety on the leg press, I believe. It's what I do. The problem with machines is that people think they're inherently safe by design, or they don't require any practice or understanding of biomechanics to use. Also, do you mean the Russian twist (also known as landmine 180s) in your last sentence? I did that for a while and loved the exercise. You've gotta be very conservative with the weight, though. – G_H Sep 2 '16 at 10:51
  • @G_H Nah, I love Russian twists. I mean there's a machine that lets you sit on your knees, and basically twist left and right, no idea what it's called. – Mert Mumtaz Sep 2 '16 at 13:21
  • Ah, one of those. We have a seated version at the gym I go to. Never felt quite right. – G_H Sep 2 '16 at 13:44
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Before arriving on any conclusion, let's check the physics related to both version of workout.

In the squat one, you can see your spine holding the whole weight. In the seated press, there's no vertical stress on the spine because of the weights. Spine injuries are usually due to vertical stress. In seated press your back is held firm against the seat and of course, there's stress on hip join area and some on the back, but which workout doesn't have its downsides.

Workouts are not harmful by themselves, but doing them the wrong way out, without proper form and adding more weight than the body can handle could lead to injuries.

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  • I'm not sure your diagram for the leg press is appropriate for a 45 degree press. – rrirower Sep 2 '16 at 19:00
  • For 45 degree angles the force along the line of the spine is total weight sin 45 degrees which is 70% of the weights. It's the same calculation as a block resting on a 45 degree plane. – xCodeZone Sep 3 '16 at 1:27
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I think a more appropriate response to your question should include a discussion of any prior history of back/hip injuries. As someone who has dealt with these types of issues, I can tell you that I don't avoid the leg press. I do, however, make it a secondary movement for leg training rather than the “go to” movement. And, when I do decide to leg press, I make sure to use a weight hat I can comfortably handle. I do not attempt any personal records or max lifts with my history of prior back issues. If you train smart and have no limitations, you should be able to use just about any piece of equipment without risk of injury. That's not to say injuries don't occur. They typically happen due to a form break, loss of concentration, or, too much weight.

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