The Best Leg Machines At The Gym
When you're on the road travelling, you may not find a great free weight set up for a leg session, so this guide dives into the best leg machines at the gym to use instead.
The Only Leg Gym Machines That Matter
TLDR: In this guide we take a look at the best type of pin selected (or plate loaded) machines for leg training. We are going to focus on equipment you’ll likely find in the hotel gyms of the world and give you some idea on how you can train for muscle growth with them
- Leg Extension was picked as the best leg machine for a home gym
- The article is written by fitness professionals
- Leg machine training can replace free weights for developing muscle hypertrophy
Our top all-round pick for the best leg machine in the gym for hypertrophy is the 45 degree leg press – click to read.
Being a large muscle family, you are therefore going to find a wide range of types of leg machines at the gym. From the quads, to the glutes, calves, hamstrings, flexors and more, there is a lot you can grow below the waistline….and sadly some you can’t.
Calves: Donkey Kick – Standing Calf – Seated Calf – Horizontal Calf Press
Glutes: Hip Thrust – Glute Drive – Cable Pull Through
Quads: Hack Squat – Horizontal Leg Press – Vertical Leg Press – 45 degree Leg Press – Belt Squat – Pivot Squat – Pendulum Squat – Leg Extension
Hamstrings: Seated Leg Curl – Standing Leg Curl – Lying Leg Curl
Accessory Muscles: Abductor – Adductor – Knees-to-Chest Ab Crunch
Within these machines groups, some brands favour producing these as plate loaded variations, while others will focus more on manufacturing pin selected (selectorised) machines. Ultimately the differences between these types are down to range of motion and maximal load. If you can’t lift the full stack on a pin selector, then it’s probably perfect for you.
We have written about this before in our guide to the best back machines at the gym, but in tests it was shown that pin selector and/or plate loaded machines definitely elicited muscular adaptation in studied participants. That is to say – those leg machines at the gym DO work.
What does work mean?
- Build Muscle
- Help Recovery
- Lose Weight
- Increase Strength
In tests, machine based strength training (in this case a leg press) saw a lower improvement in vertical jump vs free weight squats, however the results were still positive. After 8 weeks, the study group using leg press saw a 3.1% improvement in leap, while the squat gang witnessed 6.7%.
All this goes to show, that, using machines to train your legs will still elicit an improvement in muscular fibre development. So, if you’re stuck with having to use leg machines to workout only – it won’t be time wasted.
So why use leg machines when you could use free weights? If you’ve seen Ronnie Coleman, former Mr Olympia struggling after years of heavy squats, you may know the answer. Leg machines focus more on the muscles you’re using them for and less on ancillary areas like, your back.
It’s for this reason why Dorian Yates, 6 x Mr Olympia famously said:
“I won 6 Mr Olympia Titles and I didn’t do a single free-weigh squat.”
There you have it, a little bit of science and even a quote from a legend – leg machines at the gym work.
Your legs contain a ton of muscle and a lot of names:
- Biceps Femoris (Hammies)
- Soleus / Gastrocnemius (Calves)
- Tibialis Anterior (Shins)
- Adductors (Outside of the butt – hips)
- Abductors (Inside of the thighs – the Sweep)
Some muscles for your average gym goer possibly don’t warrant a ton of attention. Most can go their whole lives without ever needing to worry about training the muscle on the front of their shins. Others may (ME ME ME) need to do some rehab and end up sat on an abductor machine. For most, the leg press, curl and extension is likely to be more than adequate. Either way, there is a machine for every leg muscle in the gym and in some cases, you can adapt what you find to do a job for you.
Why you can trust our leg machine review
In short, Barbells Abroad is run by two PT trained fitness lords and we are helpfully supported by another writer who is an active PT, specialising in post partum fitness and runs a spinning squadron up in Oxford. Every bit of writing on our site is done by people who care. As for any bias – sure we love a few brands, we all have our favourites; but this guide is written more about the types of equipment than any specific items for sale. The inventor of the 45 degree Leg Press is not paying us to love it.
This guide is impartial, independent and written by people who know how to train others as well as ourselves. And if someone does at some stage want to pay us for a mention, we will admit it too. But for now, we do this for free and as a labour of love.
How we picked the best leg machines
When it came to picking the best leg machines in the gym for this guide we dialled into a few core criteria which would mean something to nearly every gym-goer.
- Muscles Worked – Does it isolate or engage multiple muscles. Is it effective to spend the time on.
- Availability – While I love a glute drive machine, it’s not often seen in gyms – so we’ve aimed to focus on the bits you’re more likely to see.
- Goals Targeted – Is this machine good for a particular muscle or reason to buy.
- Best In Class – Is it legitimately the best bit of kit for a muscle.
Other than these considerations, we brought together our own training experience as well as anecdotal commentary from credible lifters and bodybuilders when picking winners out of our backsides.
Winners - The Best Gym Machines For Legs
So in no particular order, except for the winner at the start – here’s our take on what we’ve found to be the best leg machines for us and could be great for you too. If you want to see more about our lower body training plans, check out my Quad workout for mass guide, showing how I added size to my own legs, with the goal of teardrop legs in mind.
1/5 Best Leg Machine - Winner Overall
Lets say you can only pick one piece of leg training equipment to use in the gym ever – it’s probably not going to be a machine that isolates only one part of your leg group. This is why we picked the leg press and the 45 degree version as the best leg machine in the gym overall. Why the 45 Degree? It is not bound by the fixed weight options of a horizontal pin selector press.
Oh, and we ignored the hack squat as they can be hit and miss as to whether people find them comfortable on the knees to use.
45 Degree Leg Press (Preferably Independent Carriages)
This bit of kit stimulates pretty much every muscle in your lower body. From hamstrings, to calves, glutes and of course the quads. While they will stimulate the quadriceps more than others, it can also be used as a calf press too.
Opt for a unilateral – independent carriage version and you can go single leg without having to stash your non working leg somewhere awkward. That means a much larger range of motion, and a better stimulation to the glutes too.
In tests, it was found leg press were not able to give the user the same degree of depth as a squat and with that comes a loss of muscle engagement. However the single leg movement on a leg press, possibly deals with that as you get more hip flexion.
Quadriceps (Primary) | Hamstrings – Glutes – Calves (Secondary)
Able to load up the weight with a plate loaded version. Usually more adjustable positioning than a traditional pin leg press. Scientifically proven to show positive adaptation in larger fast twitch fibres. Stimulates all muscles in the lower body. Makes a good calf press.
It’s not going to engage your core the same way a free-weight squat would. In tests, the leg press was inferior to the squat for muscle activation. It’s also very quad dominant, which if it’s the only leg machine used, can lead to muscle imbalances.
Ease Of Use:
Easy to use. Load it up, and bring your knees to your chest.
Alternatives To 45 Degree Leg Press:
A conventional leg press does a grand job too. I prefer the additional weight that can be used on the plate loaded variety, but for 99% of leg press users, the selectorised / pin style leg press will do a fantastic job.
Trainers looking to minimise lower back risk, or beginner trainers who have not developed the core strength and balance required for a squat yet.
2/5 Best Leg Machine For Glutes
Criminally neglected by so many men and nearly as many women, the glutes are the single largest muscle in the body. Powerful glutes, improve posture, lower body power and can help you lose weight by improving the size of your body’s daily calorie furnace.
In studies it has been shown that resistance training releases IGF-1 – a natural growth hormone. It stands to reason then, that if you train larger muscles, more will be released.
Train your butt! So, what’s the best leg machine for glutes? The hip thrust of course.
As it stands, I prefer a machine glute exercise over any other form of glute exercise. While I do a lot of Sumo deadlift, and have in the past performed that stupid gym floor limbo, where you slide under a barbell – few things beat a bespoke machine hip thrust.
The picture above shows my local gym’s choice of kit – a Panatta option. It’s a quality machine and it’s why I’ve given this glute machine a 9. Nothing really beats it.
Gluteus Maximus, Medius, and Minimus (Primary) | Hamstrings – Biceps Femoris (Secondary)
Tailor made for building your butt. It’s safe, it’s not difficult to set up and easy to add and drop the weight. The latter something that can’t be said for the barbell version.
Harder to track down in some gyms. Can take a bit of getting used to knowing where to position yourself.
Ease Of Use:
It’s a lot easier than the alternative option, which is great but it still can be a little fiddly getting used to knowing where to position your feet etc at the beginning.
Alternatives To Hip Thrust:
An alternative glute machine would be something like the glute drive. These are rarely made well and can be a little uncomfortable to use. There are exceptions but they are are rare as hen’s teeth. If you can find one, then it’s a solid choice for the bum muscles, but with the unilateral nature, will slow your workout down a touch.
The barbell hip thrust doesn’t strike me as a totally safe move, resting heavy weight on vital organs and sensitive ones too – so I do try to find alternative methods.
Everyone. Everyone should train their glutes and the machine hip thrust is as safe and easy to use as any glute option.
3/5 Best Leg Machine For Quads
Few things will isolate your quads like the leg extension, which is why it makes it into our list of best leg machines. This is our top pick as the best gym leg machine for quads.
We gave this an 8.5 as something makes me think insane squat sessions have helped me build bigger legs with less threat of damage to my knees, but if I want to walk away from a leg session with an horrendous pump, the seated leg extension takes care of this. The fact you’re sat down, isolating one muscle with easy access to the pin selection, makes drop sets and pyramids super easy.
The leg extension makes its entry into this list of the best leg machines in its own right.
Feels amazing to use, easy to adjust weights while in the machine for crazy failure sets and possibly the only pure isolation quad machine out there.
There are some who struggle with knee shearing pain from the machine, not something I have personally experienced but it is reported on. It only hits one muscle, so if you’re short on time, using this machine means you still need to allow for posterior chain work.
Ease Of Use:
Massively easy to use. There are versions of the leg extension that can leave the shin pad stuck in a mid way point and be a touch uncomfortable, but for the most part – it’s a hassle free bit of kit.
Alternatives To Leg Extension:
The Sissy Squat machine can replicate a strong quad focus, but there really isn’t any pure machine alternative to the leg extension as the best machine for quads. It is in a class of its own.
Those with good knees, travellers with limited gym machine options and fans of a hard leg day who love that pump.
4/5 Best Leg Machine For Hamstrings
So what’s the best leg machine for hamstrings? You’ve got a few options, but our pick is the one that removes the threat of cheating movements and focuses 100% on the hamstrings. Introducing – the seated leg curl.
Seated Leg Curl
Nothing is 10 out of 10 perfect, but the seated leg curl is pretty damn close to it, when it comes to finding the best leg machine for hamstrings. Like the leg extension, it offers one of the few controlled ways to isolate the biceps femoris perfectly. While there are lying and standing options, both of those can lead to hip wiggle, which takes focus (and resistance) away from the primary mover – the hamstrings. The seated leg curl fixes you in position – if you can’t curl you can’t cheat to do it either.
Now for some science. There are real studies that put these theories to the test and show that the seated leg curl outperforms the prone (lying) variation in developing muscular volume. Aka – Gains.
Hamstrings (Primary) | Gluteus Maximus (Secondary)
A much easier move on your lower back than RDLs, Good Mornings or Stiff Leg Deadlifts to hit the hammies.
Like the leg extension, if you spend time on this exercise you know you need to add another move into your plan to get some balance. There are no other cons to this for me.
Ease Of Use:
Once you’ve got the hang of 16 levers and a variety of pads, it’s plain sailing. I’d say the irritation here is more about adjusting weight is difficult without releasing the leg pads hyperextending your knee joints.
Alternatives To Seated Leg Curls:
Take your pick. Standing leg curl, prone/lying leg curl, nordic leg curl accessory, glute ham developer. Beyond the machines you have the barbell deadlift options, but seated leg curls are pretty peerless.
This is an everyone bit of leg machinery. You need balanced lower limb muscles or you can find strains and injuries due to affected gait and posture when you’re older.
5/5 Best Leg Machine For Calves
We are getting toward the end now and it’s time to talk Soleus and Gastroc – that’s right, it’s the award for best leg machine for calves. Like the leg curl, there’s a few options, but my favourite for ROM and taking the stress off my lower back is the Donkey Kick Calf Raise.
Donkey Kick Calf Raise
The Donkey Kick is my pick for your on best gym machines for calves but I give it an 8 as I find now calf machine is perfect. Lots of weight loaded onto stiff knees can’t be great, but I feel a lot safer using it than the horizontal calf press, while the seated option can leave you locked into a cramp position. As for the standing calf raise, it does feel great, but if I’ve been doing heavy squats (such as tonight), I don’t want more weight on my shoulders.
It’s a Monday when I write this, so it’s my leg split day and after doing 5 x 5 rear squats and then hack squats, as I get to the end of the workout, the last thing I need is to shoulder more weight. Donkey Kick takes the pressure off. I can literally feel it as I’m at my laptop.
Gastrocnemius – Soleus (Primary)
Offers a comfortable ROM for dorsiflexion and plantar flexion. Reduces lumbar/spine load.
If you position the back pad too far up your back, you defeat the point of the spine saving.
Ease Of Use:
Not the easiest to jump into, not the hardest and not overly complicated but requires a bit of practise getting your positioning right.
Alternatives To The Donkey Kick Calf Raise:
With the horiztonal calf press, seated calf raise and standing raise, you’ve got a good few options. It’s suggested that the seated works the soleus better, while the standing hits the gastroc (the big ball) more. Whatever you pick, as long as you do it, you’ll see benefits.
Those who have perhaps squatted that session, or anyone prone to lower back issues.
Bonus: Best Leg Machine For Home Gym
I couldn’t leave you with one last winner. The best leg machine for a home gym. So, let’s pretend you only have space for one bit of leg equipment, what do you go for? Now, many might say the leg press, the one machine for all, but they need a lot of weight plates and take up a lot of space. For me, the winner has to be the leg extension, and below you will see why.
Courtesy of a Youtube video and the image above, the leg extension can be used to perform movements that hit the three largest lower body muscles. You can hack these machines to do hip thrusts, leg curls and the leg extensions they were meant for.
I’ve seen some smart gym users doing the hip thrust on a leg extension machine in places all over the world and was gobsmacked by the ingenuity, the first time I saw it. So, if I could pick the best leg machine for a home gym, it would be the leg extension due to the ridiculous hackability of it. Plus, who doesn’t dream of watching a box set while pumping out leg extensions in the privacy of your own home gym?
Glutes – Quads – Hamstrings
Hackable so you can perform a primary muscle movement on all three major leg muscles.
Not bespoke for the job so may sometimes feel a little less than ideal. Pin selector versions are going to be heavy to move into location.
As a free-weight fan, I’d probably stick in a power rack or a Smith Machine, as this means squats, hack squats, deadlifts, calf raise, split squats, hip thrusts etc and can also be used for upper body movements too, but if you already have that, then a leg press would just be a duplicate and you’d be mad to dismiss the leg extension.
People wanting to train legs in a home gym space to a near commercial level, and are blessed with a little extra area to use.
Need a great leg machine workout?
If you’re looking for a Bro Split Leg Day that focuses on hypertrophy and know you don’t have much option with what to train beyond machines, then give this a go.
We have given it a Mike Mentzer/Dorian Yates, final working ‘balls to the wall set’ touch. If you do this right, and really fail in every way shape and form on the final set of each leg machine exercise, you’ll feel it the next day.
(P) means primary muscle
- Rope Pull Through – 12 – 12 – Fail | Erector Spinae – Glutes (P) – Hip Flexors – Hamstrings
- Leg Press: 3 Sets > 12 – 12 – Fail inc dropping weight to complete fail | Quads (P) – Glutes – Hamstrings
- Leg Extension: 3 Sets > 12 – 12 – Fail (as above method) | Quads (P)
- Leg Curls: 3 Sets > 12 – 12 – Fail | Hamstrings (P)
- Glute Cable Kickbacks: 3 Sets > 12 – 12 – Fail | Glutes (P) – Hamstrings
- Calf Raise: 3 Sets > 15 – 15 – Fail | Calves (P)
There you have it – the best leg machines at the gym plus a great leg machine only workout to try. We have tried to focus on this being a good guide if you are travelling and find yourself in less than optimal gym settings, but you may find our leg machine workout great to use when back at home too.
If there is anything we have not explained properly or a bit of kit you think we are mad to dismiss, follow us on IG @barbellsabroad and tell us what to add. Thanks for reading and share us your workout photos if you use the plan above.
Your Workout Brand Could Be Here
Think your brand or range of leg machines should have been used for our article’s photos? Or perhaps there is something exceptional about your lower body resistance machines that means we should be telling people. If that sounds like you or your company, you should get in touch.
Drop us a message to contact at barbellsabroad.com and tell us what we’re missing.