How to Safely Use the Leg Press, Leg Curl and Leg Extension Machine

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Woman using leg curl

There are so many incredible machines at the gym to work all the muscle groups in your body (and some muscles you might not even know you had until you feel how well those machines target them)!

Many beginners start with a gym’s machines because the movements are controlled, focused, and basically guided by the equipment. That’s great because there are lots of different options and designs to keep people challenged, building strength and coming back. But like all workouts, it’s important for athletes of every level to keep an eye on form and safety.

This article will focus on leg machines. Some of the most popular, resistance training leg machines to be exact: the leg press, leg curl and leg extension. The leg press machine can give you a great full-leg workout, hitting the quads, calves, hip extensors and even your lower back. Leg curls are all about the hammies (and your glutes.) The leg extension machine is a great way to build knee strength, quads, and frankly—make those legs whistle-worthy!


Now, these machines aren’t carnival rides (although they can be fun) so they don’t come with safety bars, but safety is still our number one priority so please heed the information throughout this article to help you avoid many common mistakes, achieve proper form and make the most of these exercises.

Man using leg press

Leg Press for Success

While it’s a great workout for your entire lower body, if misused, the leg press machine can be a dangerous piece of equipment. If it’s your first time or you want to use heavy weights, it’s a good idea to have someone spot you to prevent injury, otherwise, make sure there are others around in case you need help. When in doubt, go lighter and make every rep count. There are many types of leg press machines (vertical leg press, seated leg press, etc…) utilizing many leg press variations. Here we’ll discuss the 45-degree leg press with step-by-step instructions on proper leg press form.

  1. After setting your appropriate weight, make sure you have the proper foot position by planting your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform.
  2. Make sure to breathe in deep and then exhale as you push away; this will protect your lower back and your ribs from the pressure of the weight. (You might think your legs would bear the heaviest load here, but it’s actually your pelvis.) Inhale as you slowly bring your knees back down toward your butt to a 90-degree angle.
  3. Push on the platform with the entire bottom of your feet, from your toes to your heels. You can accomplish this by imagining you are gripping with your feet.
  4. Try not to lock your knees all the way when you extend your legs.
  5. To decrease tension in your knees, raise your feet a little higher. This will focus more on your hamstrings and take some of the pressure off of your knees.
Man using leg extension machine

Leg Extension Machine Essentials

Many people think they know how to use the leg extension machine. Just lift your ankles up and down, right? Kind of. Proper placement is crucial for this one, so take the time to set things up for your body in order to protect your knee joints and muscles, specifically the two muscles in charge of stabilizing your knees known as the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis. (Your knees are honestly a work of art – respect them and they’ll respect you back.) Then get ready to build prize-winning thighs.

  1. Make sure to align your knees with the pivot point at the end of the seat by adjusting the back pad and press your lower back firmly against it.
  2. The roller should be on a comfortable position at the front of your ankles (do not rest it on your shins).
  3. Start the movement with your feet positioned a few inches out rather than underneath you to decrease tension on your knees, adjust the movement lever so it’s at an angle that makes starting easy.
  4. Curl your toes up toward your body as you extend your legs and focus on contracting your quad muscles.
  5. Pause at full extension, and slowly return to the start position.
Man using leg curl

Legit Leg Curls

Like the leg extension machines, there are many types of leg curl machines; seated leg curl machines, cable leg curl machines and lying leg curl machines to name a few, but they all work the back of your thighs. For this post we will focus on the lying leg curl, using your lower legs to work your upper legs…or hamstrings to be specific. (And even your butt.)

While it looks elementary, many people don’t understand how to use leg curl machines. That’s okay! We all start somewhere so, allow us to impart a little wisdom.

  1. Make sure the machine is adjusted for your height so that the roller pads rest on your ankles just above your shoes and below your calves. Your feet should be a few inches apart.
  2. Determine the appropriate weight. The weight should be challenging for you to lift but also allow you a full range of motion.
  3. Place your torso on the top pad, tightening your core to prevent arching your lower back, and place your thighs on the bottom pad, just below your hips.
  4. Lift your ankles and curl them toward your butt—or gluteus maximus if you want to get fancy. (The roller pads should remain below your calf muscles.)
  5. Pause at the top, then with control, bring your legs back down.
  6. Do 10 reps and if that is not challenging enough, or if it’s too much of a challenge, adjust the weight accordingly, then repeat.

Once you’re comfortable with these movements, get ready for more! There are plenty of ways to work your legs with other machines, gear, or no props at all.

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