Research Spotlight: Foot positioning doesn’t affect muscle activation in the leg press

Research Spotlight articles share concise breakdowns of interesting studies. The study reviewed is Influence of Feet Position and Execution Velocity on Muscle Activation and Kinematic Parameters during the Inclined Leg Press Exercise by Martín-Fuentes et al. (2021)
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When I got into lifting, I remember bodybuilders proclaiming that close-stance bilateral leg training with your feet facing forward was better for quad growth than wider-stance alternatives, or performing the same exercises with your toes facing out. I’m not sure where this idea got started, but it seems to be taken as an article of faith in certain circles: if you’re doing squats, hack squats, or leg press, stick with a close stance and point your toes straight ahead if you want to maximize quad growth.

I’m not immediately aware of a high-quality longitudinal study to address that claim, but we do have a bit of EMG research to see whether there seems to be greater muscle activation when performing narrow stance movements with the feet pointing forward. I looked at the research examining the effects of squat stance width back in 2017 (long story short: it doesn’t seem like stance width makes much of a difference). For the leg press, the best study on the topic is probably a 2001 paper by Escamilla and colleagues. In that study, researchers had trained subjects (10.1 years of squat experience and 9.0 years of leg press experience) complete eight different leg press testing sessions, including all possible combinations of: close stance vs. wide stance (hip width vs. 2x hip width), low foot position vs. high foot position, and feet pointed straight ahead vs. feet turned out 30 degrees. They found some small EMG differences in muscles outside of the prime movers (gastrocnemius and hamstrings), but mean and peak EMG amplitudes for the superficial quad muscles didn’t differ significantly between all eight conditions.

However, we should never put too much faith in the results of a single study. With that in mind, it’s good to see that the present study by Martín-Fuentes and colleagues got virtually identical results.

Trained subjects (15 males and 13 females) completed six leg press reps with 70% of 1RM with five different techniques: hip-width with feet pointed straight ahead, hip-width with feet turned out 45 degrees, and 1.5x hip width with feet pointed straight ahead; the two narrow stance techniques were performed with both maximal concentric velocity and at a controlled cadence (2 second eccentric, 2 second concentric), while the wide stance technique was only performed with a controlled cadence. Researchers assessed mean EMG amplitudes, normalized to the peak amplitudes obtained for each muscle during a 1RM test. EMG was measured in the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, and glute medius.

To make a long story short, EMG amplitudes were greater when lifting at maximum intended velocity than at a controlled cadence, but stance width and foot angle did not affect EMG amplitudes for any of the muscles assessed.

Now, all standard EMG caveats apply to these results: EMG amplitudes aren’t perfectly synonymous with muscle activation, and acute EMG responses may not be predictive of longitudinal hypertrophy. However, in the absence of stronger evidence, EMG data is, quite literally, better than nothing. And in this case, drawing tentative inferences from EMG data is less tenuous than it may be in other situations. When you’re dealing with exercises that are performed with very different technique (for example, squats versus knee extensions), through different ranges of motion (for example, squats versus half squats), with different relative loads (for example, squats with 50% of 1RM versus squats with 90% of 1RM), or at different proximities to failure, it’s less justifiable to use EMG research to make tentative comparisons between exercises or techniques. However, all of the techniques used in the present study represent relatively small technical adjustments. So, while we certainly can’t use this study to conclusively claim that stance width and foot angle have no impact on quad growth when training the leg press, it does constitute further tentative evidence that, within reason, stance width and foot angle probably don’t matter all that much.

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