If you're looking for a good all-around lower-body workout in one gym machine, the leg press is a good choice. Leg press machine benefits include stronger thighs, healthier knees and little upper-body involvement.
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But if you don't have access to the heavy-duty gym equipment needed to perform this exercise home, you can set up a leg press alternative using dumbbells. In fact, you have a couple of options to choose from.
Leg Press Alternative 1: Squats
Your first option is the squat, which by no coincidence looks a lot like a leg press — except that instead of keeping your body still and moving the sled or footplate with your feet, your feet stay still and you move your body against gravity. This versatile exercise works your glutes, hamstrings, quads and core.
If you've ever lowered yourself down into a chair, then stood up again, you already know how to do a squat — but you'll need to wrangle a pair of dumbbells too.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang naturally at your sides, palms facing in toward your body.
- Bend your knees and thrust your hips back as if you were sitting down in a chair. Continue to let your arms hang naturally by your sides. Stop when your hips break the plane of your knees.
- Press through your feet to stand up again, completing the repetition.
Maintaining proper form is essential when you do squats, so here are a few things to watch for:
- Both the weights you're holding and your shoulders should track up and down naturally in line with your feet.
- Keep your back flat and chest up throughout the motion; This helps your shoulders track up and down over your feet.
- Your knees should point in the same direction as your toes, but not jut forward over them.
Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try
Leg Press Alternative 2: Lunges
If you're not a fan of squats or are looking for another great dumbbell workout for your lower body, try lunges. This versatile exercise comes in a number of variations, all of which place varying degrees of emphasis on your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves and core. Start with a basic static lunge:
- Stand with your feet together, a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging naturally at your sides.
- Take a large step forward with your right foot.
- Bend both knees to a 90-degree angle, lowering your torso — and the weights you're holding — down between your feet.
- Straighten both legs and stand up again to complete the repetition.
Just as with squats, there's a surprising number of details to be aware of in this "simple" exercise — so again, proper form is very important. Here are some of the key points to consider:
- Check the position of your knees. Your back knee should be beneath your hips and your front knee should be in line with your front foot, but not jutting forward past it.
- Keep your core muscles braced to stabilize your body throughout the motion.
- Focus on keeping your torso upright. Remind yourself, "Shoulders over hips, weights under shoulders."
Finally, make sure you remember to switch feet and do another set with your left foot forward.
Don't like holding the weights down by your hips? You can also bend your arms and "rack" the weights at shoulder level, just as if you were carrying a barbell.
Pay special attention to your core and keep your torso upright, tilting neither forward nor backward as you perform the movement.
Try a Lunge Progression
Are you feeling comfortable with static lunges? You can take your dumbbells-instead-of-leg-press game up a notch by doing front lunges. As the American Council on Exercise points out, this compound movement engages the buttocks, hips, thighs and core muscles.
Instead of taking a step forward and then staying there to do the full set of lunges, take the step, sink down into the lunge, and then push off with your front foot to reverse yourself back into the start position, standing with your feet together.
You can do the same variation to the rear. Take a step back and sink down into lunge position, then push off to finish the rep in a standing position, feet together.
The next step — pun intended — in your lunge progression is walking lunges. You can do these going either forward or backward, but going forward is much easier and safer because you can see where you're going.
Step forward, sink down into your lunge, then push off with your back foot and bring it forward to your front foot as you stand up. Alternate lead legs as you continue walking — step forward, sink into the lunge and bring your back foot forward to finish — until you've completed a full set of reps on each side.
What Size Dumbbells?
So, what size dumbbell should you start with on these leg press alternative exercises? The answer is none.
Start with only your body weight for resistance and focus on developing proper technique. If you're a beginner, it may take a few sessions to work up to doing a solid set of eight to 12 squats or lunges with proper technique.
Once you are ready to add dumbbells, start with a light weight. As soon as you can manage to do 12 reps with proper technique, it'll be time to shift up to a heavier dumbbell.
It can be tempting to focus only on the size of the dumbbell you're lifting, but remember that good technique matters the most. Heaving heavier dumbbells around with improper technique might look impressive, but it sets you up for a higher risk of injury because you're not in full control of the motion.
Why Work Your Legs?
Why should you bother with all this squatting, lunging and leg pressing, anyway? First off, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends strength training all your major muscle groups at least twice a week to reach, and maintain, optimal health. That includes your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, all of which work to varying degrees during leg presses and their dumbbell alternatives, squats and lunges.
If that's not compelling enough for you, consider this: Every time you climb a set of stairs, lift a heavy box, pedal a bike or do anything with your lower body, you'll be using the same muscles that you strengthen with exercises like squats and lunges.
Strength training also offers some serious medical benefits that might be a little less obvious in everyday life, according to a review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports in July/August 2012. This form of exercise helps maintain muscle mass as you age, reduces your risk of diabetes and supports cardiovascular health.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Resistance Training Is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health"
- American Council on Exercise: "Forward Lunge"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Walking Lunge"
- ExRx.net: "Lunge"