If you’re looking for a high-quality office chair, and you haven’t heard of the Steelcase Leap, you haven’t done your homework. It is Steelcase’s best-known chair and their biggest sales hit. If you were to make a chart of all-time best-selling high-end chairs, the Leap would almost certainly occupy a (distant) second place after Herman Miller’s Aeron, that mainstay of Silicon Valley startups. The Leap has certainly stood the test of time, having been in production since 1999 (albeit with some changes).
Still, after an initial in-store test, it did not blow me away. The Gesture was the new and shiny model; it seemed to offer better lumbar support and the salesman really talked up the intriguing, almost infinitely adjustable armrests. So the first chair I took home for a spin was a Gesture. Of course, as you know from my review, it quickly turned out the non-adjustable lumbar support was excessive, and the thickly padded seat got much too hot in normal use. So I kept borrowing chairs from high-end dealers, hoping I would find one I liked. After rejecting an unreasonable number of them, I had the chance to borrow a Steelcase Please for two weeks. It won my heart, and I was genuinely sorry when I had to take it back to the store. But then I tested the Leap, and I ended up having to choose between two very close contenders. In the end, I chose the Leap, but it was truly an agonizing choice and I was on the fence until the last minute.
While the human spine is S-shaped, it can be more or less curvy from person to person. What’s more, even for the same person, spinal curvature differs depending on position. So it should be no surprise that a standard office-chair backrest – which is essentially a rigid plastic board on a hinge with some padding – is not the most ergonomically sound solution.
The Leap is different. Its backrest is made of flexible plastic which is fixed only in two places – at the bottom and at chest level – to the metal frame behind it. Everything in between is free to move, which helps the backrest adapt to the shape of your spine.
Of course, the flexibility is not absolute and the backrest will resist larger deviations from the anatomically correct “S”. This is desirable – an ergonomic chair shouldn’t just adapt to whatever bad posture you have, but also encourage correct posture. As you sit more upright, your lower back will “want” to straighten, losing its natural concave shape. (This is called flexing your lumbar spine and is associated with back injuries that I’m guessing you don’t want to experience.) When you flex your lumbar spine on the Leap, the backrest will apply increasing force in that area to help you stay within healthy limits.
The degree to which the chair allows your lower back to straighten is adjustable with the “lower back firmness” knob – a superb feature that is only found on the Leap and the Please (strangely, you won’t find it on the newer and more expensive Gesture). Why is it important? Because people have different lumbar curves and differently shaped intervertebral discs. A “neutral” alignment of lumbar vertebrae (=one in which the pressure on lumbar intervertebral discs is evenly distributed, see here) means something different for different people. It could correspond to a deeper lumbar curve, or a slightly flatter one. If you’re a bit flatter, a chair that forces a deeper curve on you will feel uncomfortable (Gesture, I’m looking at you). If you’re more “curvy”, you want your natural shape to be preserved while you’re sitting.
At the lowest setting, the chair is quite pliable and submissive; at the highest, it’s like a Prussian public officer, fiercely resisting any attempts to deviate from the specified Lendenwirbelkurve. You should probably set it somewhere in the middle to ensure proper lumbar support (it’s better to err on the side of more support) while still allowing the backrest to adapt. Set it too high and the “default” curve may prove too deep for your particular physique. Set it too low and you may end up slouching.
The apex of the lumbar curve should be at around the height of the 4th lumbar vertebra. Whereas on the Please, the backrest moves up and down and you can adjust it to your spine, the Leap is “one-height-fits-all”. For me, the Leap’s lumbar curve is at a perfect height, supporting the critical lowest two lumbar vertebrae (here’s how to check this). It should work well for average and tall users; shorter users may need to sit on some kind of cushion.
The Leap can be purchased with an optional height-adjustable lumbar support, which Steelcase calls “the lumbar”. It’s a horizontal bar (“lum-bar”, get it?) made of hard plastic that you can slide up or down. It doesn’t affect the basic shape of the backrest much – mostly, it makes it stiffer. I decided I don’t need the extra firmness, so I removed mine and put it on a shelf with other stuff I don’t need. As far as I’m concerned, the removal of the lumbar support made the chair more comfortable without sacrificing ergonomics; as a bonus, I don’t have to deal with the support sliding down on its own, which can sometimes happen. (By the way, to get rid of the lumbar support, you need to take off the upholstery on the back, which requires pulling it upward with considerable force. Then you have to clip it on again, making sure all the tabs are secure – watch this video first.)
Nonetheless, considering it only costs ~$20, you should probably still buy it just to be on the safe side. In particular, smaller users may want to move the bar all the way down for some extra support in the critical lower lumbar area if the Leap’s standard lumbar bulge is too high to make good contact in that region.
Maximum hip angle
A crucial parameter of any office chair is the maximum hip angle. Sitting upright flexes your lumbar spine, putting uneven pressure on your intervertebral discs. The way to un-flex it is to open up your hip angle by reclining. This will also take much of the weight of your upper body off your spine and transfer it to the backrest. On the flip side, typing becomes harder, and keeping your gaze on the screen will put pressure on your cervical spine and neck muscles.
The maximum recline angle is often limited on more lightweight chairs, because large recline angles necessitate a sturdier, heavier, more expensive construction – otherwise, you might tip over as your center of gravity shifts backwards. The Leap is certainly no lightweight, with a very high 135° maximum hip angle, on par with the Please and the Gesture.
Note that “hip angle” is the angle between your torso and your legs, not the angle between your torso and the floor. It is not enough for the backrest to recline – for the angle to increase, the seatpan also has to stay more or less level. Some chairs recline quite far, but the seatpan tilts back with the backrest, so that the hip angle barely opens up. (One example is the Aeron.) The Leap has no issues with this – the seatpan tilts back just a little as you recline. This is in line with standard ergonomic advice – the slight tilt is supposed to stop your butt from sliding forward.
Sticky backrest mechanism
The recline mechanism is “sticky”, a very interesting and often overlooked design that I have only seen in Steelcase chairs (Amia, Please, Gesture). For details on how it works and how it differs from the more popular “smooth” mechanism, see my article “How to buy a good ergonomic office chair”, but here’s a bullet-point summary:
- The backrest has a certain static friction which causes it to stay at the current recline angle until you make a significant move in either direction.
- Once you overcome the initial friction, you can push the backrest back as far as you want. It does not push back against you more and more – the counterforce is more or less the same across the whole range of movement.
- In effect, you get an excellent range of motion – just put the backrest where you want it, and it will tend to stay there. You don’t need to touch any controls to do it.
This is very different from the smooth mechanism, in which:
- The backrest constantly tilts back and forth in response to the slightest movement (even reaching for your mouse will shift your weight enough to change the recline angle). This is probably healthy, because you get some movement as you sit.
- To prevent you from dropping all the way back, there is a spring which makes the backrest push back more and more as you recline. This establishes a kind of “soft limit” on how far you can go.
- Because of that, while small changes to the recline angle are very easy, major changes (e.g. from upright to reclined) are very hard, because eventually the counterforce will be stronger than your muscles. In order to make major position changes, you have to fiddle with tension controls or tilt limiters.
Both types of mechanisms have their strengths and weaknesses, but I feel the sticky mechanism offers a better trade-off. The prime directive in ergonomics is changing your position frequently. Any one position, no matter how anatomically correct, will do you an immense amount of harm if it is held for a long time. Therefore, the most important goal for an office chair is to allow easy position changes from almost upright to deeply reclined. Is it easy to go from “typing mode” to “casual browsing mode”? Sticky backrests allow you to do so without touching any knobs, and the only thing they sacrifice are micromovements.
The Leap has a 5-stop tilt limiter, which lets you set a hard limit on how far back the backrest will recline. This is useful on smooth backrests; on the Leap, not so much. The Leap’s sticky backrest will tend to stay at whatever angle you set it at, as long as that the back tension control is adjusted correctly to your weight, so there’s little need to mechanically limit the recline angle. I only use the tilt limiter on the rare occasion that I need to give my neck some rest and I want to prevent accidental reclining.
The Leap shares the sticky backrest with the Gesture, the Amia and the Please. What’s unique about it is the fact that the backrest is mechanically coupled with the seatpan. As you recline, the seat will slide forward a little bit (about an inch). According to official Steelcase marketing and the relevant patent application, the motivation for this is to keep you close to your monitor and your keyboard so you won’t strain your eyes, neck, or arms.
I contend that this is a misguided design. For one thing, the benefits are marginal. Take look at this video of me going from an upright position to less than full recline. Notice how little the seatpan moves forward compared with how far the head and arms move back. It’s a drop in the bucket.
Second, it is ergonomically questionable, because it tears your lower back away from the backrest. As I explained in my guide, almost every chair (except those with an unusual backrest design) creates a small lumbar gap as you recline. The fact that the Leap will move your butt forward makes the gap slightly bigger, so that your lower back is that much less supported. Don’t get me wrong – thanks to the flexibility of the backrest, the overall gap is still smaller than in chairs with rigid backs (smaller than in the Amia or Think, a bit larger than on the Gesture, Please or Embody), as long as you are seated properly, i.e. with your butt all the way back. Moreover, it has to be noted that the gap only appears in the reclined position, where your back is bearing a much smaller load and your lumbar spine is flexed to a much lesser degree. So, it’s not a big deal, it’s just that the chair could have been a bit better.
Third, it makes the whole mechanical system more complicated. It is probably no accident that the Leap suffers from “backrest lag” problems to a greater degree than any other Steelcase chair; it is also the noisiest office chair I’ve tested yet. I will write more on these topics below – here, let me just say I suspect both problems are a direct consequence of how much the chair is trying to do when you recline.
See what’s happening in the video? I’m trying to bring myself to a more upright position, but the backrest does not want to follow my back. Notice how at one point my upper back loses contact with the backrest. This is because the only way to get the backrest to move forward is to take most of my weight off it. In other words, I have to pull my trunk up using my abdominal (and psoas major) muscles. You can’t see it in the video, but the muscle force bringing my torso and legs together is almost enough to lift my legs off the floor.
This goes beyond the normal friction you’d expect from a sticky backrest. In chairs like the Please or Amia, your back never leaves the backrest. As soon as you tense your abs a bit, the backrest starts pushing you forward. Here, I have to do most of the work myself. Thanks for nothing, backrest!
Let me explain why I consider this an ergonomic issue. Your abs are attached to your ribs (which are attached to your spine) and to the bottom of your pelvis. Now imagine the force that is required to rotate the spine in the pelvis by contracting your abs. It would be very easy if your abs ran from your rib cage to the wall in front of you. But the abs have no such luxury. They have to do the work of lifting the spine even though they are almost parallel to it. This mechanical disadvantage means that whatever force they exert, most of it will be pointlessly directed along the spine, with only a tiny perpendicular component doing the actual rotating work. For any force perpendicular to the spine, the compressive force on the spine will be many times greater. (A similar reasoning applies to the psoas major, another muscle used in this motion.)
Furthermore, most people, when pulling themselves upright, will round their backs because it shifts the center of gravity forward and makes Isaac Newton do part of the work. This is a false benefit, though. Suppose you wanted to give yourself debilitating back pain. How would you do it? The recipe is well-known: (1) flex your lumbar spine, (2) do it under load, and (3) ideally, do it right after sitting for a while. Here, we’ve got three out of three! You’re doing sit-ups (the exercise that Stuart McGill warns against) after sitting motionless for a long time.
Well, okay, I admit it, I’m blowing this out of proportion. You’re not really doing sit-ups – more like “partial sit-ups”, since you are not starting from a supine position (where the required effort is highest) and are not finishing fully upright. So that’s a major difference right there.
Secondly, in my testing, I found a neat trick that makes it easier to go back to an upright position – stretching your arms forward. The weight of your arms will apply torque to your torso, reducing the required abdominal effort and the accompanying spinal compression. For me, this makes the lagginess acceptable.
Now for the really confusing part. Everything I’ve written above applies to the demo unit (around three years old) that I borrowed from the dealer. I also tested two display units in the showroom, and – if memory serves – they lagged in exactly the same way. In addition, I recall talking to a long-time Leap owner and former Steelcase salesman, who confirmed that this is a known quirk of the Leap. Knowing all that, I decided to buy a Leap anyway. I fully expected the backrest to lag, but when I got my chair, I was pleasantly surprised. There was no lag at all, and it hasn’t appeared in the year that I’ve had the chair. As you can see below, the backrest remains stuck to my back as I straighten up, offering constant support. I only have to tense my abs slightly to overcome the initial friction.
In total, I’ve tested three brand-new Leap chairs, and none were laggy. I don’t pretend to know what’s going on here. My best guess is that the Leap’s mechanism starts to stick more and more as it wears out, loses lubrication, or corrodes. I will be sure to update this review if I notice any signs of lag on my chair.
The backrest is curved at the edges, a little like those bucket seats used in automobiles. This presents a problem when using the mouse with a tenkeyless keyboard – when I pull the mouse toward me, my elbow will normally hit the right edge of the seat. As a workaround, I had to learn to limit my mouse movement to avoid the closest part of the desk.
Here’s a video where I show the range of movement in the upright position and in a mid-reclined position (tilt lock 3), with the mouse right next to my tenkeyless keyboard and further away, to simulate where it would be with a full-size keyboard:
Whether you notice this issue or not will likely depend on your individual style of working (things like this are the reason why I always recommend testing a chair in your own workspace). Still, I would suggest you should only worry about this problem if you like to sit close to your keyboard/mouse and (1) or (2) applies:
- You use a tenkeyless keyboard (like me). With a full-size keyboard, the mouse is further to the right, and your elbow will no longer align with the edge of the backrest.
- You like to work sitting upright (unlike me). When you sit upright, the backrest is closer to the desk, which means less space for your arm to move.
I also have an Amia, which doesn’t have curved edges, and whenever I go back to the Leap after sitting on the Amia for a few days, I feel a bit restrained for a while.
Since the recline mechanism on the Steelcase Leap is of the sticky type, it doesn’t allow rocking. However, the flexibility of the backrest means that some rocking action is possible – not as much as on the Amia, and certainly not as much as on any smooth-backrest chair, but it’s better than nothing:
The Leap has fairly thick foam padding, which means it can get uncomfortably hot in ambient temperatures of 25°C or more. If the temperature in your workspace never rises above 25°C (77°F), you probably won’t experience any problems. In the summer, the temperature in my room is often above 27°C, so I switch to my Amia, which is subjectively 15-20% cooler. Of the chairs I’ve tested, the Leap beats only the Gesture in thermal comfort (by a large margin), and is tied with the Please. It loses to the other foam chairs with thinner padding (Amia, Think), and cannot hold a candle to non-foam chairs (Humanscale Liberty, Aeron, Embody). I wish Steelcase would experiment with other materials like gels or foams, or at least make the seatpan padding thinner. If the Amia can get away with less foam without feeling less comfy, why can’t the Leap?
By the way, if you want to buy the Leap and are wondering which fabric to choose, feel free to choose whichever looks best. I have seen comments from Steelcase sales reps recommending the standard polyester (called “Cogent: Connect” in the US, “Atlantic” in Europe) as the “coolest”, but my extensive testing did not bear that out. Even putting an extra layer of fabric on the seat (effectively doubling the fabric thickness) has no noticeable effect on subjective warmth. If you’re sitting on a few inches of foam (the best thermal insulator known to man), the milimeter-thick outer layer is negligible, so long as it’s not something non-breathable like plastic foil. The only things that make a real difference in thermal comfort are the thickness of the foam (that’s why the Amia and the Think are cooler than the Leap and the Please, which are cooler than the uber-thick Gesture) and the material from which the chair is made (meshes and gels are much cooler than foams).
The Leap is the noisiest chair I’ve tested. If you buy one, there is a high likelihood that it will make some kind of mechanical noise when you move the backrest – something that isn’t true of most chairs from Steelcase and other brands. Will the noise bother you? It’s like with backlight bleed in LCD screens – it depends on the unit you get and your individual sensitivity. It will probably be quite tolerable, but you could also be unlucky and get a really noisy unit, as I did. If my experience is any guide, it could also be very hard to get the issue resolved under warranty.
Here are the data points I have: The demo unit from the dealer (2-3 years old) was more or less quiet (perhaps because it had backrest lag). The Leap I ordered was unacceptably noisy. The Leap ordered by a friend of mine was fine. The replacement chair I got under warranty is also fine. If you count only new chairs, that’s 1 out of 3 chairs with serious noise issues.
The Leap I ordered in 2017 developed noise issues about two weeks after I got it. It would make a highly annoying clanking sound whenever I would move the backrest after keeping it still for more than 15 seconds. It was especially irritating when working at night.
I’m not afraid of a little DIY, so I took off the seatpan and tried spraying lithium-based lubricant (which is what Steelcase officially recommends) on all the joints, the seatpan rails, and even inside the mechanism (although it’s hard to get the lubricant to the right places, because it is riveted shut and you can’t see what you’re doing). No effect.
What happened next is kind of a long story. I’ll do my best keep it short.
I contact the dealer (WES in Wrocław, Poland). They pick up the chair, and after about a month, deliver the chair back to me with a replaced mechanism. No more clanking! At last I’ll be able to enjoy my new Leap chair in peace, right? Not quite. After two weeks, the noises are back like some kind of curse. I feel like giving up, but then I get the chance to sit on a Leap that a friend of mine recently bought. It’s so much quieter than mine it’s not even a contest. So I contact the dealer again. Before they come to pick up the chair, I make this video:
By the way, the clanking was not the only noise issue with the chair. If you listen carefully at the very beginning of the video, as I turn toward the camera, you can hear a squeak – that’s the gas lift acting up. I tried applying some silicone oil, but it didn’t do anything. In addition, the center post would often make a soft clicking sound when I was reclined, because there was a microscopic amount of play between it and the base of the chair (the bottommost part where the wheels are attached). However, that last problem was virtually eliminated after I poured some silicon oil where the post meets the base.
Back to the story. I ask the dealer if it’s possible to replace the whole chair, seeing as replacing the mechanism has not fixed the noisy backrest, and the chair has started developing other issues. I’m told that Steelcase does not replace whole chairs, and that I will get a new gas lift. What about the backrest? “The backrest works smoothly and there is no creaking at all. We’ve tested it several times.” I upload my video to YouTube and send them the link. No response. Perhaps they’re doing some additional testing? Finally, after 11 days, instead of a response to my video, I get another one-liner:
“We will deliver the chair tomorrow.”
I try to get them to explain their position, but there is no reply. Out of desperation, I mention my video in a comment under the official launch video for the Steelcase SILQ chair. Shortly afterwards, I’m contacted by Steelcase’s social media person who promises to make things right.
You might be forgiven for thinking that things quickly moved toward a happy resolution from that point on, but the process dragged on for two months. The reasons for such a long delay are not entirely clear to me, but I got the distinct sense that replacements are highly exceptional in Steelcase land (as is Steelcase overruling a dealer’s decision), and a social media person at Steelcase HQ has very little clout with the people in Europe who can authorize one.
Finally, more than 3 months after I reported the noise issues to the dealer, a brand-new Leap chair arrived at my doorstep. At the time of this writing, I’ve had it for almost a year, and so far the clanking has not appeared. The chair makes a duller, much quieter noise, which sounds like plastic rubbing on plastic. Although it’s not silent like most other chairs, that kind of noise does not bother me at all. Here’s a video I recently made to show what my new Leap sounds like:
As I mention in the video, the mechanism has recently developed a faint squeak that you can hear when changing the recline angle. Because it is quite soft (you can’t even hear it in the video unless you turn up the volume), it doesn’t bother me enough to try and fix it with lubricant. I’ll update this section if it gets worse or if any new noises crop up.
A little postscript: all the chairs I’ve tested come from European distribution and were manufactured at Steelcase’s plant in France. Leaps for the American market are made in Mexico. This may or may not affect the likelihood of noise problems.
The armrests on the Leap are beautifully designed. In my mind, they are a reference against which all armrests should be judged. They provide an impressive range of adjustments and – fussy as I am – I have never had difficulty getting them to do what I wanted – whether it was typing, using the mouse, using a gaming controller, or even holding a tablet with my elbows on them. Crucially, the inward adjustment is more than enough to rest your elbows on them while typing – which is a rare quality, even with expensive ergonomic chairs. You can also pull them down if you want to move super-close to your desk. Here’s a demonstration from an official Steelcase video:
There are ergonomists who advise against resting your forearms while typing, and I used to think so, too – but that was before I had the chance to try the armrests on chairs like the Leap, Amia or Think.
The material of which the armrest caps are made is a masterpiece. It’s nice and soft, which is important for preventing ulnar nerve injury. At the same time, it’s slippery enough to allow your forearms to slide on top of them as you move the mouse – but not so slippery as to make you lose grip. Finally, it doesn’t overheat your skin on hot days. It’s pretty much unimprovable. (That didn’t stop Steelcase from trying to improve on it in the Gesture chair, with lackluster results.)
You can order the Steelcase Leap with an optional headrest, which looks like it was designed by an unpaid intern. The only adjustment you can make is to move it up and down, which is not nearly enough. When reclining, you need your headrest to move forward to enable your head to stay level, so that you can keep your gaze on the monitor. When sitting upright, you need it to move back so that it won’t restrict your movements.
The headrest on the Leap somehow manages to be annoying regardless of position. When I was sitting upright, it would brush against the back of my head, and limit my head movements (which is ergonomically bad). Considering that my head is positioned too far forward due to my posture problems, anyone with correct posture is sure to find this problem even more troublesome. When I was reclining, it was too far back to offer support without an extra pillow. You can see these problems in the photos shown earlier.
In short, I recommend ordering the Leap without the headrest. It works better that way.
A few tips on the available options
There are a lot of decisions to make when ordering a Leap. I’m planning a separate blog post on the different options – frames, bases, fabrics, casters, etc. Here, I’ll just share three tips, which might save you some time:
- In Europe, only black frames are available, so forget about the “Platinum” (light gray plastic) frame that you can see everywhere in Steelcase’s marketing photos.
- If you decide to buy the Leap with the awful headrest, note that it is only available in black, which probably means you should also order the black frame.
- As I wrote in the “thermal performance” section, the fabrics are thermally equivalent.
The Tom Test
- Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): Pass. The sticky backrest makes it easy to adopt any position you like without messing with any knobs. The backrest seems to develop a tendency to “lag” as the chair ages, which is annoying and ergonomically unfavorable.
- Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass. Very large maximum recline angle.
- Lumbar support: Pass. Thanks to a well-designed backrest with a firmness knob, your lumbar spine is very well-supported when it matters, i.e. when you’re sitting (near-)upright.
- Backrest should adapt to your back: Pass. Brilliant flexible backrest.
- Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
- Micromovements: Pass, but just barely. The back mostly stays put. You can rock, but only a tiny bit.
- Armrests (if you care about them): Pass. The best in the known universe. Message to Steelcase: don’t try to improve them in the next version of the Leap.
- Annoyances: Prone to noise problems (clanking, squeaking) due to the complicated mechanism. Can get too warm. The backrest is curved in a way which can slightly restrict mouse movement.
I spent a lot of time – perhaps too much – talking about various issues with the Leap – the backrest lag, the noise issues, even the curved backrest edges. You could get the impression that I don’t like it very much. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If I didn’t like the product, I would have simply dismissed it rather than spending all this time (over)analyzing its imperfections. So why do I like the Leap in spite of its flaws? Because it fails in areas which are not very important, and succeeds where it really matters.
And what matters, of course, is protecting the health of your spine. Thanks to a well-designed flexible backrest with adjustable firmness, the Leap adapts to your back while supporting proper posture – and does so better than almost any other chair I’ve tested (only Steelcase Please is an equal contender). It allows you to open your hip angle to a very high degree. It has a mechanism which enables you to change your position frequently without touching any controls.
Of course, my ideal chair would be a Leap without the overdesigned moving seatpan, the curved backrest or the noise problems; a Leap with cooler padding and an adjustable headrest. But that chair doesn’t exist, so Steelcase Leap is currently my default recommendation for people looking for an ergonomic task chair – though readers in Europe should also check out the Please. In terms of backrest ergonomics, the two chairs perform similarly despite very different construction. The Leap has significantly better armrests (though the gap has narrowed with the latest 4-D armrest option for the Please), supports some micromovements, and is softer. The Please is a bit cheaper, doesn’t suffer from noise or backrest lag issues, and can be purchased with a headrest that isn’t completely useless. The best choice will depend on your priorities.