Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Leg Press, Part Two - Jan Dellinger
The Leg Press, Part Two
by Jan Dellinger (1995)
Part One is Here:
Dr. Ken Leistner has for some time now advocated the leg press exercise, especially on leverage-style machines for the sake of injury avoidance. In fact, his fertile and thought-provoking “The Steel Tip” during the eighties abounded with routines featuring the leg press as a cornerstone, triggering gains in overall strength and lean muscle mass.
Nor did the leg press-deadlift connection escape Leistner’s frame of reference. In the Volume 2, Number 3 edition of “High Intensity Training Newsletter” he outlined the great success football players had training at his facility during 1989. They utilized one all-set of 15-25 reps in the deadlift followed immediately by a set of 15 leg presses. As he put it, “This is a difficult and intense grouping of movements, and will produce quite a bit of huffing and puffing from even the most well-conditioned athlete . . . Invariably, the athlete reports muscular soreness throughout the upper and lower back regions, the buttocks, and both hamstrings and quadriceps.”
Because of his considerable knowledge of physiology and strength training, Dr. Leistner was among the first to recognize that not everyone has the leverage to, as he puts it, “squat well,” and that certain types of physical construction are prone to repeated injury should they persist in continual heavy back squatting. Of course, so long as such people don’t harbor ambitions of being powerlifters, there’s no problem. Productive alternatives such as leg pressing, deadlifting on regular and trap bars, or squats on the “Safe Squat” apparatus, among others, were open. His only proviso was that they had to be practiced with great effort.
Likewise, at college and high school strength coaching clinics, I increasingly encountered heads of strength programs who used the leg press with regularity. Let’s face facts. Strength and size are two of the prime physical components most sought after in athletes (along with speed), especially in regards football players at all levels. If the leg press was not contributing toward getting the job done, it, as well as the strength coach, would be dismissed.
Even if your passion is competitive bodybuilding, there are some staunch proponents of the leg press among this circle. Both Lee Haney and Dorian Yates have expressed decided preferences for this exercise. Also, Franco Columbu stated that nothing replaces the established standbys for maximum muscular improvements. In his estimation, in the case of the thighs and hips, the clear choices were squats and leg presses.
Leg Press Machines
It’s worth noting that both Haney and Columbu favor leg pressing on the conventional vertical-type. Actually, the latter is rather adamant in this recommendation. I bring this side topic up in order to pave the way for a brief discussion of the popular types of leg pressing apparatuses, and the relative safety quotient possessed by each broad group. Be advised up front though, there won’t be a unanimous verdict. Rather, each reader is left to make up his own mind relative to individual body type and some careful experimentation.
As to the “up-and-down” machine, Columbu, who is a chiropractor by profession, contends it is superior to the array of machines at angles currently on the market. His rationale is that his years of experience with the traditional types of machine gave him the results he sought while proving “less damaging to the knee and ankle, and allowed you to train heavier.” Columbu goes on to say that during his competitive days he consistently did the vertical leg press with 600-700 lbs. and never developed an injury in any joint. Moreover, he contends that most of the modern leg press machines promote injury because they do not conform to established “biomechanics and the leverage of the muscle.” And, lastly, he says the vertical units are more productive because they do not attempt to defy the natural pull of gravity as most of the modern machines do.
On the other side of this biomechanical coin are a number of sports medicine authorities who caution to leave the vertical leg press units alone because, in their opinion, most of these models generate excessive compression on the user’s spine, and shearing forces on the knee structure. Having noted Columbu as being “pro” the vertical style, I offer Dr. Leistner, another chiropractor, who has come down four-square against them.
Exactly who is in which camp is not the crux of the question in my mind. But it’s worth remembering that along with enhanced muscular action, isolation and efficiency, one of the standard selling points of machines in general is the claim of greatly reduced likelihood of incurring injury from resistance exercise. This is not to imply that machine manufacturers have fallen short, or exaggerated claims, either individually or as an industry. Frankly, this question is part of a larger debate that has surfaced from time to time for years, one that is well beyond the scope of the issues here. Still, if practical usage and acceptance is a barometer, machines have found plenty of friends among contemporary gym goers. Back and forth the argument goes.
The advent of the angled leg press machines seemed to circumvent most of the alleged risk factors posed by the vertical models, or so I thought. Columbu has not been taken by this category, contending that many of these hurt his joints even while employing half of the resistance he formerly used. Leistner, likewise, does not rave about them either, although his reasoning is in a different vein. Because these angled sleds are constructed so as to afford the user a very favorable leverage advantage, one is required to use a lot of weight, especially very strong lifters and bodybuilders. Is this bad? According to Leistner, this capability to use excessive resistance exposes the soft tissues of the lower body to undue and incredible forces, the kind which can often create painfully prolonged or downright chronic injuries.
These considerations notwithstanding, walk into most commercial gyms across America – from those of renown in Southern California, to the one in your home town – and you will probably see plenty of people shoving the carriage of these angled sleds loaded with a great many 100 and 45-lb. plates. As I said, back and forth the argument goes.
There is, however, a leverage-style of leg press unit available which seems to have passed muster among those who oppose the 45 degree sleds and the vertical machines. I’ve been told by knowledgeable people in a variety of capabilities in this strength game that the design of the leverage-style leg press units definitely reduces the amount of shearing stress focused on the patella tendon, as well as the crushing forces on the spine. Further, their construction is not intended to encourage the usage of ego-boosting amounts of resistance, thereby lessening the damage to the soft tissues while still maximally attacking the hips and quadriceps.
My initial contact with regular leg pressing was on a conventional “up-and-down” apparatus, which I used without repercussions. Come to think of it, I went to leg pressing in the first place because of injury limitations, and stayed with it because it didn’t aggravate existing knee problems. Perhaps I was fortunate not to incur additional damage of any kind. At any rate, these days, in deference to the fragility of my knees, and a desire to train regularly and consistently without incident, all my leg pressing is done on a leverage-style unit.
Leg Pressing Technique
I hasten to add that proper form is imperative in leg pressing, as indeed it is in any exercise. Treat the leg press with great respect and care. Here are some key technique pointers:
1.) Keep your lower back in constant contact with the machine’s back support.
2.) Never round your lower back.
3.) Use a controlled speed of movement throughout the exercise.
4.) Build up the weights carefully and progressively; never let your ego get in the way and rush the progression.
5.) Push through your heels, not the balls of your feet.
6.) Never jam into the locked out position.
7.) Apply force evenly between you two legs; never favor one of them.
8.) Never twist your body or turn your head as you press or lower the resistance.
9.) Never use an excessive range of motion that puts your back or knees at risk.
The Big Three
For my two cents worth, there are three major movements powered, in the main, by the prime movers of the lower body, all with the ability to profoundly influence the comprehensive muscular development and strength of the human body. Of course, the trio is the squat, deadlift and leg press. And please understand that endorsement of all three is couched in the context of their practice as REPETITION exercises, not lifts. Again, in my experience, the leg press in particular yields optimal overall results when executed in moderate to high repetitions per set (8-20), although there’s always room for exercising individuality in a commonsense manner. With these provisos in mind, hard gainers would be well advised to include at least one of the “big three” in any routine they attempt.
Despite much available evidence in the form of documentable cross-generational support by accomplished might and muscle personalities, ascertainable preference among various factions of the strength coaching fraternity, and demonstrable value as an assistance exercise for improved general lower-body power, the leg press still doesn’t command much respect in certain circles. In particular, those of this persuasion chafe at the suggestion of grouping the leg press with the squat and deadlift when it comes to productive returns.
Pardon me, but I fail to comprehend how one can designate the deadlift as a first-rate growth exercise, and then turn around and trivialize a movement which obviously has the wherewithal to enhance the deadlift’s performance. This facility alone gives the leg press “worth” in my mind.
Similarly, some criticize the leg press on the grounds that it is supposedly incapable of matching the same degree of far-reaching muscular and cellular stimulation as the squat and deadlift, even when worked as a repetition exercise. Bear in mind, that progressive resistance exercise is an art, not a science. Trends and common practices emerge, but precious little ever really gets “written in stone.” Merely refer back to the “bane-benefit” controversy on the vertical leg press machine earlier in this piece.
By no means are these questions the only point-counterpoint issues simmering in the realm of weight training. For example, should high-velocity Olympic movements be avoided by all but competitive lifters? Does high-intensity, single-set training build strength commensurate with multiple-set low-rep training? And so on.
Why can’t these debates ever get settled? For one thing, in dealing with physical performance, an incredible number of variables must mesh, with any one possibly having sufficient presence to override the others, and produce an exception.
A more germane example would involve deviations due to leverage variations. A very tall trainee, as well as one of more average height but blessed with proportionately long legs and short torso, who feels it’s squat or bust, may be in for a long and frustrating haul. With obvious leverage disadvantages for the squat, what level of poundage could such a lifter fitting either scenario realistically expect to reach over time? Probably not sufficient to radically enhance his physique or strength levels. On the other hand, such individuals might very well blossom by focusing on the deadlift, complementing this lift and his lower body development with leg pressing.
Conversely, a trainee with a naturally stocky build and short levers will grow like gangbusters via squats, although Columbu’s example indicates that leg presses may augment this person’s leg development and body power as well. Frankly, such physical types often find that their deadlift never goes much beyond their squat from a poundage standpoint. In such cases, all the deadlift really does is test the grip and upper back muscles, and retest the prime movers.
The point is, there are no absolutes in training. Each trainee is responsible for determining which exercises and combinations of sets and reps work best for him, providing this trial and error process is kept within the confines of the basics.
And for those who may still question whether the leg press is a viable exercise, I offer this simplistic and, hopefully, illustrative analogy: If you see someone lying on his back pressing weight off his chest, you probably consider it time well spent in pursuit of upper-body development. However, if you see this same person lying flat on his back pressing weights with his legs, you suddenly think this person is wasting his time?
My question is, where’s the logic?
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