When developing a strength and conditioning program for a group of athletes, coaches must consider a variety of factors including: sport demands; athlete needs; frequency and duration of sessions; access to equipment; dynamic correspondence of exercise; safety, etc. Generally speaking, exercise selection should involve movements that provide the best transfer to on-field performance. Determining which exercises in the weight room transfer to improved athletic ability is a major area of research in the field of sports science.
The age old argument between the barbell back squat and the leg press continues among practitioners. Some prefer the leg press because they consider it to provide less risk of injury and because trainee’s can handle more weight on the leg press compared with back squats. Though the majority of strength coaches tend to use the squat over the leg press, little research has been done that compares the efficacy of these exercises for improving athletic performance variables.
A new study published ahead of print in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research put the leg press and squat exercises head to head in effort to determine which is more useful for athletes. 78 male and female athletes were randomly split into a training group and a control group. These groups were then evenly divided again into a back squat and control groups and leg press and control groups. Training was conducted twice per week for 8 weeks. Both the squat and leg press group performed the same periodized program using the same relative intensity and volume. Before and after the training program, the athletes were tested for 1RM, squat jump, countermovement jump and drop jump.
The results showed that the back squat group demonstrated statistically significant improvements in both the jump squat and countermovement jump (+12.4% and +12% , respectively) while no changes were observed in the leg press group (+3.5% and +0.5%, respectively). Changes in drop jump performance were not significant in either group; however there was a trend for greater improvement in the squat group. 1RM values improved similarly for both groups (+25 kg for squat group and +27.6 kg for leg press group). Overall, these findings suggest that increases in squat strength provide transfer to markers of athletic performance whereas increases in leg press strength offered no meaningful benefit in these parameters. Thus, unless contraindicated for specific reasons (i.e., injury), the back squat is likely a more useful and efficient exercise for improving athletic performance variables in athletes and should be prioritized over the leg press by coaches.
Wirth et al. (2015) The impact of back squat and leg-press exercises on maximal strength and speedstrength parameters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, In press.