The History of the Leg Press Machine

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Though oftentimes derided on the gym floor, the leg press machine has nevertheless become a staple of weight lifting life through the globe. Yes it’s not as ‘hardcore’ as the squat and yes it’s oftentimes abused by bros quarter repping but this piece of equipment has a long and interesting history behind it.

A long and interesting history, which will take us into today’s post. We felt that having only really covered the Smith Machine in detail, it was time we began to look at the history behind some of the more popular machines known to lifters.

No Machine? No Problem!

In the first instance it’s important to stress that although the Leg Press itself has a long history, a point we’ll soon expand on, lifters of yore often created their own make shift leg presses with nothing more than a barbell and handful of courage (or stupidity depending on your point of view!).

Spurred on by lifting’s origins in the Vaudeville and variety show sphere, many old time physical culturists used to include some form of pressing, usually accompanied by grandiose names such as ‘The Tomb of Hercules’ as part of their individual acts. One such example coming from the 1920s below shows Henry (‘Milo’) Steinborn supporting a car using just the strength of his legs.

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Photography courtesy of Naturalstrength.com

Let’s see the ‘Bro’ leg presser try that one eh?

Now in any case, such vaudeville feats are important to note as the classical leg press was often an imitation of this very act. As early as the 1910s and 20s we have examples of workout programmes utilising a leg press. Unlike the machines of today however, the term leg press was used at that time for an altogether different movement. Back then, lifters would lie flat on their backs, raise their feet towards the air and place a barbell across their heels. The wonderful Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban features a two piece article by Jan Dellinger vaguely covering the history of the leg press. Replete with great images, it includes the following sketching of Sig Klein getting in to position for this lift

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The end result would be similar to the position shown here with the similarly impressive 1960s lifter Wilbur Miller.

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Courtesy of OldTimeStrongman.com

This form of leg press was a mainstay in exercise routines throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It featured in both Weider and York Barbell courses and one imagines that the prospect of doing reps to failure was relatively low back then for obvious reasons! If you’re interested, ironcompany.com features a series of York training courses from the late 1930s. Many of which contain this very leg press movement. Note exercise number eight in the below routine. Now while some York courses used Iron Boots for the leg press, a much safer idea IMHO, the majority relied on this form of pressing with the barbell.

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Although many would scoff at doing a leg press in such a manner nowadays, this approach can still be utilised as part of one’s leg day routine with some important caveats. Thanks to my own cowardice, which is nearly as strong as my desire to try just about every form of lift imaginable, I have found the Smith Machine to be a great compromise in trying to get a feel for this particular lift. Erin Wischmann provides a great video instruction of this style:

What I enjoy about this particular approach is that the lower back is completely taken out of the equation. Oftentimes during a regular horizontal leg press, people fail to maintain a strong brace during the pressing movement which means that their lower back rounds. This problem is largely negated doing leg presses as shown by Erin, although the bewildered stares of your fellow gym goers may not be worth it!

I digress…

So in the first instance we see that one tradition of leg pressing stems largely from the world of vaudeville and also necessity. Lifters wanted to recreate the movements shown on stage by men like Steinborn. The availability of machines was limited, hence they began placing barbells across their feet and pressing. As evidenced by the Wilbur Miller photograph above, this approach was still alive well into the 1960s. But this is not the entire story, as leg press machines or their equivalents were being used, invented and tinkered with during this period.

The Machine Rises!

So who invented the first leg press machine? Unfortunately this relatively simple question is proving remarkably difficult to answer and at present, I can’t provide you with any definitive answers. What I can do however is run through some early proponents and inventions.

To begin then we return to Sig Klein, that turn of the century strongman who ran a highly successful and popular gym located on the East Coast of America. Well so enthused was Sig about the possibilities of the leg press that he invented his own variation known as ‘the Tomb of Hercules’. Giving credit again to the Dellinger article, we have a crude drawing of Klein’s invention.

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What’s interesting about this particular device, for myself anyway, is the angle the lifter presses from. Unlike those lifters using a barbell across their heels, Klein’s device required the user to press at a 45 or opposed to a 90 degree angle. An interesting design choice that was largely unique amongst the rudimentary machines of the time.

One of Klein’s contemporaries for example, the great George Jowett, chose to go with a vertical leg press variation instead.

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Comparing the Klein and Jowett styles, it is interesting to note that although many Leg Presses today resemble the Klein style, the initial boom in Leg Press machines favoured those designed like Jowett. Returning again to Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell, we see that for many decades York specialised almost exclusively in vertical leg presses such as the one advertised here in Strength & Health magazine in 1952.

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This piece of machinery proved to be particularly popular and it is remarkable to see it being used during the 1960s and 70s by well known bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Variety as the Spice of Life

It appears that the Leg Press or Squat Machine as it was known in some quarters went through quite a bit of variation from the 1970s onwards. Though the vertical pressing machines were still being used, new angles, new approaches and new machines were emerging each year. At the forefront of this was undoubtedly Arthur Jones and his Nautilus equipment. Discussed elsewhere on this blog, Jones helped to raise the bar (forgive the pun) with regards workout machines for lifters throughout the globe. His Nautilus machines were innovative, unique and for many lifters, effective. As of yet, I’m struggling to find a Jones Leg Press, but the Squat machine shown below, demonstrates how Jones’ was rethinking the mechanics of the Leg Press.

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Nautilus Squat machine, c. 1975. Courtesy of Dr. Darden’s HIT.

Jones however, was not the only one interested in Leg Press machines and a cursory glance through US patent records from the 1970s serves up a veritable smorgasbord of leg press devices. Take for example, this all in one exercise device patented in 1973 by J Feather and J Walker (Available here). Aside from a series of other movements, we see that there device was using a horizontal style leg press.

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An even earlier example from 1971 can be found here. By the 1980s, the Leg Press at a 45, 90 and horizontal angle had seemingly become commonplace across the gym floor. A mainstay in the routines of bodybuilders, power lifters and us common folk seeking to remain in shape. Even hardcore squatters like Tom Platz were not averse!

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Similarly Lee Haney referred to Leg Press as an old standby during an interview with Flex magazine some time in the early 90s. So while the inventor may remain anonymous, the use, promotion and reliance of the weight lifting community on the leg press continues!

As always…Happy Lifting!

P.S. Oh who are we kidding… we can’t do a whole post without addressing Half Reps! Enjoy.

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