Alternatives to leg presses

As the roads here in Japan are getting sketchy, I am trying to focus more strength training. The recent episode on strength training was quite useful. One of the pieces of advice was to go for high weights but low reps, and I have tried to put that into practice.

I have rather strong legs, so I can do leg presses with 150-180 kgs. However, I have had two surgeries on my right knee and I can feel that leg presses using gym machines take a toll on my joints. This jives with what was said on the most recent podcast where Chad (I think) mentioned that leg presses on the machine are really bad for your joints.

What are alternatives to leg presses that improve the total strength of the same muscle groups?


If I recall correctly, Chad mentioned leg extensions and leg curls being a poor method to load the leg/joint.

Compound lifts for the legs are: Lunges, Romanian Split Squats and Front/Back/Goblet Squats. Form is vital to avoid injury.

Compound lifts will help strengthen the stabiliser muscles that support the lift. Which machines typically do not help with as much. This might help with knee issues.

Proceed with caution.

Thanks for the advice.
So basically I have to start training with free weights. I am a gym noob, so I was trying to avoid that for the first few months until I get into the groove.

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Lunges and Romanian Split Squats are my favourites and you can begin at home with them. For a easy home gym set up, 2x10 Kilo Dumbbells and focusing on form and you should still be able to hurt your legs sufficiently.

As you have an existing injury, paying a personal trainer to work through these exercises with you to ensure your form is ok would be worthwhile.

Similarly, as you have only mentioned a leg press, you may have a muscle imbalance (dominant quads) and deadlifts might be useful to strength the hamstrings/posterior chain. This will reduce your chance of injury. With strength exercises, it is important to train your body as a whole.

Edit: don’t worry about being a gym noob 99% of the other gym goers are in their own bubble.


Single leg squats with body weight.

All machines are crap, in almost every way for almost everyone. People use them because of laziness and lack of knowledge.

Free weights are fine for squats and dead lifts, but you have to be more commited and the risk for injury is higher than if you did equivalent single leg squats with your body weight and hip thrusts or glute bridges (single leg, TRX, rubber band or whatever).


Agreed. Working your glutes is super important.

I personally am quite prone to injuries with single leg squats. But this is purely anecdotal.

Yes, no machines:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Deadlifts (not too heavy; there’s a recent podcast mention of this on the return)
  • Step Ups (the height of your pedal stroke)
  • Standing calf raises (single leg if you can do it; holding weights even better)
  • Box jumps

Btw: I weigh 68Kg and years ago used to do sets of 10 x 150-200Kg on a leg press machine and learned what a mistake that was (the joint issues you mention). As I found out, you will be able to squat about 1/2 of that with a non-constrained barbell and get stronger. You can also start by using a smith rack (holds the barbell in horizontal alignment) until you get your form down well.

What injuries did you sustain? If done with a fairly straight back, only half way down until your belly meets your thigh (squeezed hip), you should be fine. If you’re not flexible and not used to this and start by doing pistol squats, you’re most likely screwed.

Single leg squats is the best prehab exercise for soccer players regarding knee issues, according to several studies.

Actually, NOW is the time to learn! I hired a personal trainer specifically to teach me how to lift. I spent 2 months doing the same routines (different ones different days) – she was bored stiff – but we both knew I needed the eyes to make sure I was using correct form. Looking back, I would say 4 weeks at 2x a week would have been enough. But I was scared of getting hurt – better safe than sorry.

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They have plenty of trainers, but I don’t think any of them were knowledgable about cyclists. (I kinda expected that going in, though.) But I think I can and will ask them once I have specific exercises in mind.

That sounds like another nice set of exercises. Yes, earlier this week, I made the mistake of pushes myself too hard and tried too much weight (on the upper body).

I tore through my meniscus when I was about 20 (I’m 37 now). The second surgery was much simpler: I had an accident while mountain biking and there was so much dirt and stones so deeply embedded that they had to remove some of the tissue surrounding my knee joint. Fortunately this is my strong leg, so the joint is well-protected by plenty of muscle — unless I do a lot of running, especially downhill. I don’t feel significant limitations when it comes to freedom of movement.

The problem with leg presses is that the joint gets “creaky” for the lack of a better word. I will try pistol squads for sure, it is part of one of the TrainerRoad videos so I can check the correct form there.

I am partial to goblet squats and step-ups with kettle bells. Don’t ignore your other leg muscle groups - adductor, abductor, hip flexor, so on. Quads are only part of the power plant.

Alright, I understand.

However, I wouldn’t try to copy Chads pistol squats if I were you. He’s more flexible than your, maybe genetically so as well, so trying full depth pistol squats when you’re not used to them can be horrible for both your knees and back.
Instead, maybe try doing them with your back straight and the resting leg beneath or behind you. In a pistol squat you bend your spine every repetition and put a lot of stress on your body if you’re not flexible enough in your ankles and hips.

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The trainers don’t need to know cyclists. If you want to learn how to lift free weights – they need to know that. The PT I had was a retired professional bodybuilder. She (yep) knew her stuff.

Look at the stuff @chad has posted about weights. Squats are great but technique is key. My problem with them is I can squat more than my back can handle. Meaning, where the bar rests I get problems. So we got me to doing squats and then leg press.

Talk with the trainers. Tell them what you are looking for. The good ones will tell you who is the best person is for you to work with.

Agreed, perhaps the following variants can get a person to that level whilst mitigating the “big risks” at the beginning of the learning process:

You could do pistol squats while you hang on to TRX ropes, you can still load your leg muscles but have the ropes to assist you in the balancing act.
You just have to make sure they you are not pulling yourself up by your arms instead of rising from your legs.

Another variant would be to use a box/table/bench where you seat yourself and stand up on one leg.

Thanks for the advice. I tried to do some this morning, and they are indeed more difficult than they appear to be. So it is good to know I can start with something that requires a little less coordination and flexibility. How many reps should I do to start with?

Agree with this. There’s lots of other single leg squats the OP can do that put less strain on the knee.

  • reverse lunge
  • kneel to stand
  • split squats
  • goblet squats, overweighting one leg
  • Turkish getups if you want to do a great compound exercise

And all better than a leg press machine for cyclists.

Split squats are Bulgarian. Its deadlifts that are Romanian. :slight_smile: