The leg press is a staple in many people's lower body training as it allows individuals to exert a large amount of force through a compound lower body pattern, while providing external support for the rest of the body.
A common trend that we have seen within the fitness world is the incorporation of varying foot stances within our lower body movements to elicit varying responses, in terms of muscular activation. The thought is that based on where you place your feet, you can target different muscle groups. A frequently used variation is a wider stance, with a higher foot position, to use the leg press as a hamstring exercise.
So… Does it matter? Does it work? Does positioning matter during the leg press?
In this review by Martin-Fuentes et al. 2020, 123 articles were reviewed, comparing varying studies on the leg press. They compared varying stance widths, height of foot position, toe angle, between the studies.
When looking at the leg press, the primary muscles measured were the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
It was found, that regardless of the foot position – high vs low, or wide vs narrow stanced, the muscular activation patterns did not change. The EMG (which measures muscle activity) showed mostly quadriceps activity with some hamstring and calf activity, when at the top of the movement, when the knee is at full extension. However, the authors did find an increase in hamstring and glute activity with the higher foot stance position (~11% maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) vs ~20% MVIC from lowest activation to highest), which is similar in magnitude to the activation of the calf musculature (~15-22% MVIC). But when comparing either of the other muscles, to the quadriceps activity, it is still only about half (top end of ~50% MVIC).
Foot position will change the angle and orientation of the femur throughout the lift, which changes the demands at the hip joint from a joint integrity and range of motion perspective. This change in femur orientation could limit the range of motion or ability to generate force, depending on individual anatomical and Personal Fitness.
What we can take away from this as trainers, and lifters ourselves, is that there will be individual differences when it comes to stance preference based on hip anatomy and comfort levels. However, we are really looking for how different individuals can get the most range of motion at the knee joint without compromising their positions (low back/pelvis rotation/etc), to ensure our ability to execute this exercise safely and effectively. If we are looking at using a quadriceps-dominant compound lift but would like to sprinkle in more hamstring and glute activity, then altering the foot position could allow us to do this. Although we are still at relatively low activity levels.
However, a new question now arises as to whether we would be better off doing a separate exercise with the intention of creating hamstring/glute activity, versus adding in variation to our quadriceps exercises, where we would see MVIC raise to more substantial levels?