By Carl Valle
No exercise seems to be more underground than the reverse leg press, likely because no clear definition of it exists, and no manufacturer clearly leads the charge. Over the years, the equipment has been reinvented, with slightly different design changes that barely move the needle.
There are plenty of great machines out there, including equipment designed for other exercises using modified movements. I love the reverse leg press, and next to a barbell squat rack and Olympic lifting platform, I always check to see if the machine is available at a new facility. Somewhere between a “butt blaster” and a unilateral leg press, the equipment is always in large commercial gyms, but for some reason I rarely see a fleet of them at high-performance locations. If you need a comprehensive rollup on the most underrated machine for strength training, this article covers everything.
What Is a Reverse Leg Press?
A reverse leg press is any machine that overloads the kickback motion of hip extension, utilizing a bent leg. Nearly every design includes a foot holster or floor plate to push through, and most of the machines use a selectorized weight stack or plate-loading resistance mechanism. I have seen nearly a hundred different machines, and perhaps a few of them are bilateral, while the rest of them are unilateral. Some machines require the user to stand and a few require them to lie prone on a bench mount or similar. The purpose of the machine is to work the hamstrings and glutes, but some also challenge the extensors of the knee.
There is usually confusion over the difference between a butt blaster station or fitness machine and a performance machine such as a reverse leg press. The answer is pretty simple: They are nearly interchangeable if the femur passes the pelvis and the foot pushes and guides the resistance. I hate to speculate too much, but the marketing and stereotypes of the machines as a cosmetic enhancer for the glutes instead of positioning it for athletic performance has hurt the adoption of this wonderful exercise. True, it can’t build muscle for bodybuilding, figure, and other needs, but it’s great for sports.
I can understand the argument that a hip extension device that uses a roller challenges the posterior chain similarly, but due to the resistance not connecting directly to the foot, I look at it as another machine. I classify the hip extension devices that can provide resistance to different muscles of the hip to be single joint actions and a different animal. Currently, I like the research on testing hip strength, but as a training solution it feels sterile and too machine-like. Overall, a good reverse leg press machine is like a kick from a thoroughbred horse: fluid and natural, not robotic.
The Benefits of a Reverse Leg Press
Depending on the model, a reverse leg press is mainly a posterior chain developer. Performance training models, not testing or fitness designs, tend to overload the leg and recruit the entire leg. The core benefits of a reverse leg press are the efficiency and effectiveness of training the posterior chain in a manner with high transfer to the field. Strength training isn’t a perfect process for performance enhancement, but the right model in a great training program offers more potential and more probability of success.
Other exercises, with and without machines, are effective for training the posterior chain, but I would place the reverse leg press as a staple in a program—but not king of the hill, like a squat. It won’t be as effective as sprinting or certain plyometric motions for glutes and hamstrings, but it works very well in supporting the development of those two modalities. I don’t believe maximal speed has any influence from any strength exercise, maybe just early acceleration. You don’t use a reverse leg press to run faster, you use it to help training on the track or turf be less prone to injuries and hopefully support long-term development of the athlete. Here are criteria I look for with this movement:
- Recruit the leg muscles in an efficient manner, specifically with the posterior chain.
- Connect isolated strength motions into a transferable pattern.
- Reduce compensation patterns that are not aligned to the purpose of the training.
- Support safe and effective training in group environments with heavy loading.
Coaches will find other reasons they like the reverse leg press, as it’s a primary movement worth supporting with an equipment investment. Heavy sled pushes are very similar to reverse leg presses; the only difference is most methods overload the forefoot so much it teaches a recruitment pattern that isn’t exciting to me. I am fine with sleds being heavy as a strength exercise if you don’t have a reverse leg press, but usually the range of options is cut off to maintain speed or momentum when the weight becomes heavy.
Why the Science of the Reverse Leg Press Isn’t There Yet
Trust me, there is not a lot of available research on the reverse leg press. If you do a search, you will see a lot of false-hope studies that seem promising, but turn out to really not be what you are looking for. I have looked at isokinetic testing, specific muscle groups, and electromyography studies, and even reverse engineered the search by looking for hip extension machine studies. Nothing really showed up outside of low load rehabilitation and isometric hip extension research.
Hip extension is highly connected to the amount of motion past the vertical midline of the body, and the small degree of loaded resistance past neutral is where the magic happens. It’s not that forces or loading don’t occur earlier in the movement, it is that most bridging or vertical exercises that recruit the hip extensors later are very potent. Sprinting at top speed does this, but acceleration will have a contribution too, so it’s not an either/or scenario. Low-velocity or even high-velocity lifting isn’t the same as sprinting or jumping, so theoretically, resistance options require heavy loads and high recruitment for them to have a chance of supporting sporting actions.
Testing or normalizing EMG usually involves a manual isometric hold with a prone subject that incorporates a bent knee at 90 degrees and force upwards. While this may be a gold standard, exercises that produce a lot of torque have seen readings nearly double the maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) with barbell bridges and hip thrust exercises, but the reverse leg press is nearly 25% less (MVIC) on most machines. Other equipment is under the 100% standard because the position is awkward and doesn’t allow for comfort, so what looks good on paper or in a photo isn’t always what you get.
If you are annoyed with me for bringing up modeling again, don’t blame me, as the cat is now out of the bag for sports performance and sports medicine with engineering success. When a perfect plan doesn’t seem to be available, don’t be disappointed—be excited about the opportunity. When there’s not enough science available to draw a direct conclusion, use what you have or make your own. Sometimes both are possible, and when looking at the studies, a reverse leg press model can be constructed to compare similar motions, like hip extension exercises with barbells and machines.
A hip press—one that looks like a horizontal squat from a prone position—does extend the femur more than 8 degrees behind and loads at maximum end range. Most coaches are familiar with impingement and deep squatting depths; the other direction is less talked about because the exercises used to get “there” are even less researched. If you are sensibly fearful of labral tears from going deep with a squat pattern, some critical thinking about the other direction should be at least discussed.
Common Equipment Designs
Several designs and manufacturers exist, but when I look for machines, most of them are glute machines in the fitness realm. Therefore, if you are interested in getting a reverse leg press today, half your options will come from the commercial fitness setting. While this is not technically a problem, most of them are designed to be selectorized and are not robust enough for athletes who are very strong or large. If you want to get a reverse leg press, the primary question is, are you trying to work the movement specifically or are you trying to isolate the posterior chain? That question alone, if you want leg or posterior hip, determines everything when shopping around.
Coaches can invest in a simple hinge, a fixed sliding platform, or something unique. The design determines the recruitment of the muscles, and the way it loads the hip determines much of the cost. Other exercises, with and without equipment, may have unique qualities that are indeed better than a reverse leg press, but don’t look for a machine that will do everything perfectly. It just needs to be balanced so it helps with the posterior chain, not only the hamstrings or glutes.
Simple hinge systems usually resemble an old donkey calf raise station, requiring the user to bend and lay their torso on the padding so they are not cheating or excessively compensating. Most simple hinge systems are based on gravity, so the pelvic position, leg angle, and push vector determine the strain on the hamstrings and glutes. Simple hinge systems can be unilateral stations like a Power Runner, or a single leg machine that requires the user to switch legs. Two options exist with hinge options—usually a foot bed or a hip roller is used—and that determines the load or strain on the glutes and hamstrings. Isokinetic machines are usually hip roller options, and a primary reason for that choice is that the estimations of output are better than with more complex designs.
Video 1. Some machines are very similar to pressing options of the past, but other options exist for recruiting hip extension. FastTwitch offers an isokinetic device that improves posterior chain development, and also quantifies force output of every repetition.
Sliding track options maintain the resistance demand, but as the foot moves further away from the user’s center of mass, so does the mechanical strain. Most commercial machines that use a track-style solution are great for repetitions, but I am not a fan of the comfort and range of motion that users access. I have very little experience with sliding resistance, and most of the systems are parallel to the ground or at a 45-degree angle up, like the classic butt blaster. Other systems, like those from FastTwitch, are especially interesting and use a unique way to load and measure training. There are cable options that are popular, but without flywheels or load cells, they miss out on the necessary overload and measurements that specialized machines provide.
The Reverse Leg Press and Other Exercises
You will eventually want to commit to an actual machine to do reverse leg presses, but if you don’t have access to one, you can recreate the motion or use a proxy exercise. A few coaches asked me whether, if they are already doing hip extension work with bilateral and unilateral hip thrusts, it is necessary to add a reverse leg press machine. Instead of pushing the foot back and up, the hips are being thrust up while the feet are stationary on the ground.
I don’t care how the posterior is trained, as long as it’s safe and effective. The recruitment of glutes will be higher with a bilateral hip thrust if you look just at EMG. Just be warned that squeezing glutes while in a vertical bridge or standing will have high EMG amplitude readings, but practicing for building or cracking walnuts won’t do much for performance. I am not saying it’s worth doing, as some coaches will roll their eyes and have flashbacks of transverse abdominis bracing, but I think it’s worth exploring.
I would recommend that coaches experiment, see how the differences work with their program, and look at the big picture. Experienced coaches know that the addition of one ingredient usually interacts with other elements of a program, and then they may require either a modification or subtraction of something else. I have found that closed chain exercises with hip extension seem to be more complementary to my program. Sometimes, how something feels determines adoption and compliance with athletes, so while the Nordic hamstring exercise is scientifically effective, when the rubber hits the road it’s about what the athletes are willing to do.
Video 2. If you have no other options, you can create a simple alternative setup for athletes with bands and cables. Some coaches have used blood flow restriction devices to enhance low-load methods, but high-intensity options work best.
Hip extensions with a straight leg can be used with simple cable exercises, but coaches and athletes tend to use them for low-load resistance training or for cosmetic isolation work. Some use cable hip extension work, usually ankle cuff and flutter motions, for activation and rehabilitation training. Crafty personal trainers and strength coaches will sometimes adjust the cable machines to allow a donkey kick motion—the value of the bent knee is that more load can be used and most users like the comfort of the exercise. A straight leg is sometimes uncomfortable for those who feel a tug behind the knee, but most of the preference is just personal style of how they like to extend the femur back. Personally, I like driving through the heel, but anything that creates mechanical overload, such as pushing with the posterior hip or pulling from an ankle, will lead to progress.
While I don’t claim that a holistic program requires a reverse leg press to be complete, the exercise provides a great bang for the buck with athletes and has virtually no learning curve. CLICK TO TWEET
A common argument against the reverse leg press is that maximal velocity sprinting, Romanian deadlifts, Nordic hamstring exercises, GHR stands, and reverse hyper machines are excellent posterior chain developers. I don’t claim that a holistic program requires a reverse leg press to be complete. What I do know is that the exercise provides a great bang for your buck with athletes and requires virtually no learning curve. I am all for teaching athletes to be more proficient, but simple overload works extremely well in nearly every setting. The combination of benefits of the reverse leg press is why I prefer it to other motions, as it satisfies a bunch of checkboxes in my program.
Testing the Reverse Leg Press for Output
I am not a fan of doing conventional 1 rep max testing with the reverse leg press. It’s not that the exercise is dangerous and will hurt someone, I just find it too raw and gross to prove that it correlates or transfers directly to performance. Reverse leg presses are still machine-based strength exercises, and you want to get an indication of ability in the exercise and not chase a phantom benefit.
The issue is that most machines and even modified cable exercises are estimations of the actual work being done to the hip, so the load—as well as estimates of the work from sensors—is an approximation at best. Coaches want precision and reliability in the testing process, and enough accuracy so the numbers are solid for comparison purposes. Within reason, a process that has mild accuracy, but is statistically acceptable, is a useful approach for coaches.
At least four ways are effective for estimating the extension strength or power for coaches. The good news is that using a GymAware or Ergotest system can reveal a lot of information. Load cells, linear encoders, force plates, in-shoe pressure, and EMG are valuable in describing and estimating the work performed during reverse leg press testing and training. Each machine and each exercise motion is a different measurement, and comparison requires a little bit of a judgment call by the coach.
Even with instrumentation the process isn’t perfect, since the summary of work performed can’t be a representation of the value of the exercise. For example, using an ankle weight for a bird dog can produce really high EMG recruitment, but the mechanical disadvantage of the movement doesn’t allow for much force development. Conversely, using a machine such as a power runner can add hundreds of pounds, but it’s more of a total leg exercise and isn’t an isolation movement. Find the exercise and metric that complements your program; don’t search for a holy grail machine and measurement.
Coaches have hacked machines and added force plates, inserted load cells in the cables, and even used a linear encoder for estimations of work using velocity and stroke distance. I mentioned using a GymAware in my horizontal exercise article, and the outcomes have been useful for heavy work using 4-6 repetitions. The issue with single vector estimates, even with angle measurement tools, is that the actual work done to the muscles and force transmitted through the foot are not synonymous. I recommend experimenting and finding what works for you, including isometric tests if necessary. Sometimes, testing the machine isn’t necessary, but manual muscle testing with an instrument can accomplish a lot and is valid based on the research available.
Boost Your Posterior Chain
No excuses. If you value hip extension, invest in a way to recreate a reverse leg press or flat out buy a model you like. I wish a devoted reverse leg press showroom was in every city, but it’s likely you’ll need to attend a vendor expo or talk to other coaches. Visiting a colleague’s gym and giving one a test drive is perhaps the best way to experience the feel and ergonomics of the design.
I think having one for larger athletes is essential, as they struggle more than shorter athletes to get hamstrings and glute development. I love the reverse leg press and I am not a big machine guy. I respect machines, but most of my movements are dumbbell- and barbell-based when possible. So, if you are like me, a free weight fan, trust that the reverse leg press is a great addition to your program.
A true love for sports