The squat and the parallel-grip deadlift are my primary recommendations for the thigh-glute structure, and provide substantial benefits elsewhere. (The conventional deadlift is another truly great exercise when done properly, and one that I strongly recommend, but it involves less knee flexion than the aforementioned two exercises.)
Leg presses are a much less effective exercise than properly performed squats or parallel-grip deadlifts (or conventional deadlifts). But squats or parallel-grip deadlifts at one workout per week, and leg presses at a second workout per week, is a way for some bodybuilders to get in two effective thigh workouts each week without overworking their lower backs.
Most people who leg press because they think they can’t squat or parallel-grip deadlift effectively, are kidding themselves, and short-changing themselves.
With sufficient desire and application, adequate flexibility, and correct exercise technique, nearly all bodybuilders can prosper big time from the squat or the parallel-grip deadlift.
And most bodybuilders with sufficient desire and application can prosper big time from the squat and the parallel-grip deadlift, although not necessarily in the same routine.
Some bodybuilders, however, do have back or knee problems that prevent intensive squatting or parallel-grip deadlifting. But in many if not most of those cases, the problems can be corrected provided that the desire to squat or parallel-grip deadlift is strong, and the appropriate treatment is applied.
Leg presses can be done seated or lying, depending on the model of machine. Some leg press machines, especially the old-fashioned models where the resistance is pushed vertically, are dangerous for many users. Stay clear of those.
For most bodybuilders, the leg press of choice will be of the leverage style—for example, the models produced by Hammer Strength, and the Nautilus XPLoad Leg Press. If such a machine isn’t available, use a 45-degree leg press, which can be found in most well-equipped gyms. The 45-degree leg presses vary according to their design and adjustability. Ideally, they should be adjustable in small increments for knee flexion, and for inclination of the back support.
Common errors are placing the feet too low on the foot plate, which exaggerates the stress on the knees; using too great a range of motion, which causes rounding of the lower back; and having the feet too close together and with insufficient flare.
Another common error is too short a range of motion in order to permit very large weights. Much better to use as full a range of motion that’s safe for you—that permits you to keep your lower back flat against the back support—even though that will reduce the weight you can use.
Dumbbells permit wrist rotation, and enable you to press at the sides of your head, so that you can find the most comfortable groove for you. But a pair of dumbbells can be tricky to handle, and you may require assistance to get the dumbbells in position.
The one-arm dumbbell press is more manageable because you have just the one dumbbell to get into the starting position. And if you use your other hand to brace yourself against something secure during each set, you’ll have more stability, and it will be easier for you to use correct exercise technique.
Give the deadlift way more importance than the shrug. Assuming that you’re deadlifting properly—with correct technique, with sufficient effort, and with relentless (although gradual) progression in strength—the shrug isn’t an essential exercise. But the use of a shrug in some of your routines as a supplementary exercise, done properly, is helpful.
There are several types of shrugs, including upright, incline, and prone. They are usually done with a barbell, or a pair of dumbbells.
The most common shrug is probably the standing one. With your elbows straight, hold a bar as if you were in the top position of a deadlift. Without bending your elbows, smoothly shrug as high as possible—try to raise your shoulders to your ears—and pause for a second. Lower under control, pause for a second without relaxing, and repeat.
Keep your elbows straight. Use your bench press grip or slightly wider. A close grip, or moving quickly, will prompt your elbows to bend.
Use a pronated grip on a straight bar with adequate knurling, and chalk or rosin on your hands when you need grip support. Only when you need further grip support should you use a reverse grip. Then, from set to set, alternate which hand is supinated.
With a parallel-grip bar, or dumbbells, adequate knurling is also required. Use chalk or rosin, too, when you need additional grip support.
As an alternative to taking equipment from the floor for each set, place a barbell over pins set in a power rack at your bottom position, or, place a loaded barbell, parallel-grip bar, or dumbbells on boxes of the appropriate height. Position the dumbbells one at a time. You may need an assistant to help you set up the equipment.
Keep your body tight, a slight arch in your lower back (don’t round your back), don’t shuffle your feet around, and don’t take more of the stress on one side of your body than the other. Keep the stress distributed symmetrically.
Dumbbells and a parallel-grip bar are better for the upright shrug than a barbell. They aren’t obstructed by your thighs or hips, unlike a straight bar. Use a parallel grip in the dumbbell shrug, with your hands by the sides of your thighs.
The barbell shrug and parallel-grip-bar shrug are performed standing. The dumbbell shrug can be done standing, or seated at the end of a bench.
Don’t use a circular action when shrugging, because it places unnecessary wear on the shoulder joints. Furthermore, keep your shoulders tight at the bottom of each rep—don’t let the weight yank your shoulders.
A common error is to stretch the head forward during the ascent. This can lead to neck and trapezius injuries. Keep your head in an upright, neutral position.
Don’t shrug using a calf machine. With this form of the standing shrug, the resistance rests against the actual musculature that’s primarily worked by the exercise. When the musculature contracts, it’s distorted because of the compression from the weight. This produces a skewed effect on the musculature, and leads to possible tissue damage. The musculature being worked should be free of compressive impediment to its contraction and relaxation.
The negative effect of the calf machine shrug on the trapezius depends on the design of the calf machine, and the body structure of the individual trainee. There’ll probably be a severe pull at the base of the skull regardless of the size of the user or design of the machine. Avoid the calf machine shrug.
If available, the Hammer Strength shrug is perhaps the simplest way to proceed.