[NOTE: Coach Pat Panico is currently employed by the Washington Nationals baseball team where he serves as corrective exercise specialist and strength coach. So yeah, he knows his stuff]
“Welcome to the gym museum. On the left please notice the once popular leg press machine which was made obsolete by the evolution of such revolutionary exercises such as the deadlift and squat. Yes, hard to believe, but this once reliable piece of metal was the go-to leg exercise for meatheads across the globe. Let’s continue, shall we? Ah, the pec dec.”
Ok, you have your dreams and I have mine. We still have a leg press in the Nationals training facilities and I see them at most of the gyms I visit during the season. I admit they have some place in your program, but more and more gym rats are turning to squats and deadlifts. But if you still feel the need to load a ton of weight onto a chair and thrust it into the air, would you please consider what I am about to tell you?
There are times and places for the leg press and its two ugly cousins the leg curl and knee extension. In fact, you will find all these exercises in my athletes’ programs at various times of their yearly cycle. So here are my favorite uses of these machines (other than leaning on) and the time they make sense.
Leg Press Machine.
Negatives: Now I think anytime you use this machine bilaterally you are asking for trouble as your tail bone tends to tuck under which makes the ligaments in your pelvis very vulnerable especially under extreme load. On top of that most athletes do not know how to brace their bodies properly which causes more trouble. But if you only train unilaterally your hips can find more space which puts less stress on the lower back.
Positives: I love the LEG PRESS THREE POSITION HOLDS. You load a moderate amount of weight and as you lower the machine you make three distinct stops and hold each for 1-2 seconds. The purpose is to train the legs to descend, stop and then hold the load which prepares you for jumping and plyometrics drills. After you have mastered this movement you can now explode out of the bottom making it even more dynamic. You can super set this movement with some walking lunges or high box step ups. This sequence would be recommended in the early stages of your strength program to prepare you to accept larger loads under control.
The Leg Curl Machine
To me it is the most functional of the three cousins as you can put the focus on either the medial or lateral heads of the hamstring muscle as well as train to overload the internal (fully contracted) or external (fully stretched) range of the muscle. When we get guys with either hamstring injuries or muscle imbalances, I use this machine like a wizard to develop as much symmetry as possible.
The medial head of the hamstrings in addition to curling the leg and extending the hip also can internally rotate the hip which is important because so many of us have tight external rotators such as the deep piriformis muscle and this leads to a host of problems such at IT Band syndrome. Training your hip into a more neutral position is never a bad idea. Also, most of us avoid training through the full range of motion of the hamstring muscle which causes more imbalance from between internal and external position of load. So here a few ways you can use leg curl machine to work on these imbalances.
SINGLE LEG REP AND ½ INTERNALLY ROTATED LEG CURL is a great way to strengthen the internal rotators at the top ½ of the range of motion. Once you have laid down on machine and gripped the handles, lift your chest up slightly to extend lower back. Now rotate your foot and leg into internal rotation. Imagine you have crayon on your big toe and you want to draw on a piece of paper between your legs. This will put focus on the medial head. Now curl all the way to top, take a brief pause and lower weight down about half way, stop and return to top before lowering all the way down for one rep. Now you have spent more time training the internal or fully contracted range of the muscle. In addition you could put the half a rep at the bottom and train the external range. Just work slow and controlled and make your stops clean. Like the leg press this is a strategy best employed at the beginning of a strength cycle and you could use higher reps such as 10-12 to failure.
Knee Extension Machine
SINGLE LEG REP ½ KNEE EXTENSION. Just like the leg curls you are going to focus on either the internal range of muscle or the external range depending upon your weakness. But when you extend your leg fully putting the muscles into its internal range you are focusing more on the VMO or tear drop of knee. That’s usually where most of us need work. So, it’s all the way up, half way down and back up. Now lower weight slowly and repeat. The big difference with this movement is I never recommend rotating the leg internally or externally to hit medial or lateral fiber of muscle because you can put too much stress on the ligaments.
Here is a great PREHAB leg sequence using some of these principles:
A1 Three position leg press for 8 reps
A2 Rep and ½ leg curl for 10 reps
A3 High box step ups for 10 reps
A4 Rep and ½ knee extensions for 10 reps
A5 Lying hip bridges for 10 reps
A6 Body weight squats with a 2 second hold at bottom until failure. (grip squat rack if you must to accomplish full range of motion)
Do all the movements with a one-minute break in between. It should take about 15 minutes to complete. Repeat the circuit one more time then bike for 20 minutes at a moderate pace. Do this twice a week for three weeks then go back to your regular leg workout and see what happens. Until then try to stay away from the damn Graviton Machine!
Coach Pat has been Major League and Division One baseball Strength coach and corrective exercise specialist for 15 years. In addition, he has been training and rehabbing sports injuries in New York City. He is currently employed by the Washington Nationals Baseball team where he serves as corrective exercise specialist and strength coach.
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