Ever come across ‘how-to’ articles or videos promising to only grow your glutes – and nothing else? Yeah … please ignore them. Your quad muscles are important too.
Only working on your glutes is a recipe for injury. Why? Two words: muscle imbalance.
Healthy, stable knees require two balanced oppositional forces. One, strong anterior muscles – quads and hip flexors – to straighten the knee and flex the foot forward. And two, strong posterior muscles – hamstrings and glutes – to bend the knee and help pull the leg backward.
So, imagine what happens if your glutes were to overpower your quad muscles. Yep. You’re setting yourself up for an injury..
Getting worried because you’ve only been focusing on growing your butt all this while? Don’t worry.
Here’s everything you need to know about training your quad muscles – including the best exercises you should be doing, plus tips on designing a quad workout that’s suited to your unique training needs and goals. Let’s dive right in.
Quad muscles anatomy
Your quadriceps (as its name suggests) are a group of 4 muscles; 3 vastus muscles and the rectus femoris (1):
- Rectus femoris: Runs from your hip bone to your kneecap; it’s the only muscle of the quadriceps that crosses both the hip and knee joints. It’s the main muscle that flexes your hips (i.e. hip flexion) – and extends at the knee joint (i.e. knee extension).
- Vastus lateralis: Runs down the outside of your thigh; you’d also know this as your ‘quad sweep’. Connects your thighbone to your kneecap – and is the largest of the 4 quad muscles.
- Vastus medialis: Found on the front of your thigh; connects your thighbone to your kneecap. Helps extend your knees and stabilizes your kneecap.
- Vastus intermedius: Located on the front of your thigh, between the other 2 quad vastus muscles (i.e. vastus lateralis and vastus medialis). That means it connects your thighbone to your kneecap. Also helps to extend your knees.
Your quadriceps are a group of 4 muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis. and vastus intermedius. The rectus femoris is the only quad muscle to cross both the knee and hip joint, helping out with both hip flexion and knee extension.
Why train the quad muscles?
We’ve already mentioned one of the most compelling reasons you should train your quad muscles right in this article’s introduction: joint health. But are there other benefits? As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons why you need a quad workout.
Improves kneecap stability
As the quad muscles help keep your kneecap (i.e. patella) stable and in place, weak quads significantly increase the risk of patellar tracking disorder (2).
As such, building and keeping up the strength in your quad muscles would help keep your kneecaps stable – and healthy.
Enhances athletic performance
Running. Jumping. Or, even kicking a ball.
So, no matter your athletic pursuits – build explosive power, improve running speed, or increase lower body strength – you can be sure stronger quad muscles will help with your performance.
Boosts strength in everyday movement patterns
Your quad muscles aren’t only involved in athletic movements.
They’re also engaged in everyday activities – like walking, squatting to pick up something heavy, and getting in and out of a chair.
As a result, strong quad muscles can make your daily activities easier to perform.
This becomes even more crucial as you get older. In fact, research indicates that having strong quads (and legs in general) is one of the best predictors of good physical function as you age (9).
Lowers knee osteoarthritis risk
Research shows having weak quad muscles can put you at risk for knee cartilage loss – the hallmark trait of knee osteoarthritis (10).
You can think of your quads as your body’s ‘natural knee brace’. If you have weakness in your quads, that can lead to a degree of instability in your knees.
And that, in turn, is likely to cause a greater amount of wear and tear within the joint. Want to lower that risk? Build the strength of your quads.
Increases calorie burn
The bigger the muscle group you’re working, the more calories you’re going to burn.
And you can bet that your quads are one of the largest muscle groups of your body – right alongside the glutes and the lats.
So, including a quad workout in your routine would help increase your calorie burn throughout the day (11). This can be an absolute life-saver if you’re trying to lose weight; sticking to your calorie deficit will be a lot easier.
There are many reasons why you should train your quads, including:
- Healthier knees: This includes improved kneecap stability and lowered knee osteoarthritis risk
- Enhanced performance: This doesn’t only relate to athletic performance (e.g. running, sprinting, and jumping), but also to everyday movement patterns like lifting something heavy off the ground.
- Increased calorie burn: The quads are a large muscle group; including a quad workout in your routine would thus increase the number of calories you burn.
Are squats good enough?
As shocking as this may be … no, squats are not good enough to build your quad muscles.
Remember how your quad is made up of 4 muscles: vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris?
Various studies and EMG analyses show that the squats primarily work the single-joint quad muscles (i.e. the 3 vastus muscles), adductors, and the gluteus maximus (12).
Did you spot the missing muscle group from the list? Yep. It’s the rectus femoris.
In case you forgot, the rectus femoris crosses at both the knee and hip joints. It helps with both hip flexion and knee extension.
Imagine what happens during the squat. Both hip and knee extension are occurring simultaneously – that means your rectus femoris is shortening at one end, but also lengthening at the other.
Meaning? Its length remains relatively constant throughout the movement; it never fully shortens (i.e. contracts) and, therefore, fails to be fully activated.
That’s why you should include other quad exercises that adequately stimulate the rectus femoris by holding the hip angle constant.
These are your single-joint exercises (which provide you with similar strength gains to multi-joint exercises, by the way) (13). We’ll take a look at 2 good examples in a bit.
Oh, and just so we’re on the same page: this doesn’t mean you should eliminate the squats from your training plan. The squats are still one of the most effective lower body exercises around.
It’s just that you’ll have to look into adding other exercises – in addition to the squats – for maximum stimulation (and growth) of your quad muscles.
The squat involves both hip and knee extension at the same time. That means the length of your rectus femoris remains relatively constant throughout the movement. As such, the squat fails to adequately activate the rectus femoris. You will thus need to include other quad exercises – in addition to the squat – that do stimulate this region for optimal quad growth.
What are the best quad exercises?
Squats alone aren’t good enough for the optimal development of your quads (remember your rectus femoris?).
But once again, that doesn’t mean you should take it out of your routine! Your back squats are still an excellent exercise for working pretty much all of your lower body.
That said, you should always hit depth with safety in mind. Don’t force your body through a range of motion it’s not ready to accept yet or you might very well end up with an injury.
So, if you’re having difficulty squatting to the appropriate depth?
Squat as deep as you comfortably can go. But in the meantime, you should find out the reason behind your lack of depth – and work on fixing them.
To help you get started, here are a few common reasons someone has trouble achieving good squatting depth (17):
- Tight hip flexors
- Lack of ankle mobility
- Improper setup (e.g. stance width)
- Limitations of one’s anatomy
Oh, and bonus tip. Smith machine squats are not ideal replacements for your free weight squats. There are better options for when the squat rack is unavailable.
A 2009 study showed that free weight squats (i.e. with the barbell) elicited 43% higher average leg muscle activity when compared to the Smith machine squats (18).This means free weight squats are likely going to be a much better bang for your buck as a quad exercise.
To perform the barbell back squat:
Even though the back squat fails to hit the rectus femoris, it is still an excellent exercise for the quads. Just be sure to achieve good squatting depth.
You might have heard of this claim before: “The back squats emphasize the glutes more, while the front squats work the quads more.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
In fact, the front squat may even be slightly superior to the back squat based on the following reasons:
- May emphasize the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris to a greater extent (disclaimer: not maximally, but still to a greater degree) (21)
- Friendlier on the joints, especially if you have knee problems (22)
- Can provide a similar training stimulus even with lighter loads (23)
Of course, programming both the front and back squats into your training program can be challenging – not to mention, fatiguing. More likely than not, you should already have a favorite between the two for your quad workout.
Focus on that, do it consistently, and make sure you progressively overload. Chances are, you’ll see similar gains in your quad muscles either way.
To perform the barbell front squat:
The overall quad muscles activation is pretty much similar between the front and the back squat. That said, the former could be slightly superior to the back squat. Nonetheless, you’re likely to have a favorite between the 2 – focusing on that particular variation and ensuring that you’re suitably progressively overloading is key to optimal quad growth either way.
I’ll be very honest. Both the back squats and the front squats are incredibly technical lifts. To perform them safely and effectively, you might have to spend a few months just figuring out your optimal set-up and fixing your mobility limitations.
What if you hate the barbell squats – no matter if you have the bar in front of you or at the back? Does that mean you can’t have great quads?
If your sport doesn’t call for the need to perform the barbell squat (e.g. powerlifting), you have another fantastic quad exercise: the leg press. Studies show that the leg press can provide you with similar quad activation to the front squats (24).
That said, you’ll need to pay extra attention to your foot placement with this exercise.
According to research, a low foot placement elicits significantly higher quads’ activation compared to either a standard (i.e. right smack in the middle) or a high foot placement (25). The latter options are more glute-focused.
Also, as with the barbell squats, you can’t skimp out on your range of motion with the leg press. The deeper you go with the movement, the more you activate your quad muscles (26).
You’ll want to at least go past 90 degrees of knee bend on the leg press. Don’t stack plates to your heart’s content on the leg press machine – then end up doing half-reps. Lighten the weight. Go through a full range of motion. Your quad muscles will thank you for it.
To perform the leg press:
If the barbell back and front squats are too much of a technical challenge for you, the leg press is a fantastic alternative. It provides similar quad activation to the front squats. To maximize quad activation, pay attention to your foot placement and the range of motion that you use on the exercise.
Chances are, you have significant strength differences between the sides of your body.
Why? Well, that’s because when you go about your daily routine, you’re always unconsciously using the dominant side of your body far more than your weak side. This can be rolling over to push yourself out of bed, pushing or pulling doors open, or the side you always choose to take the first step of the stairs.
This can result in stronger muscles on that side of your body over time. For instance, a stronger right leg compared to the left when you’re right-handed.
And when that happens, you might find yourself relying excessively on your stronger side to do most of the lifting – which only feeds the vicious cycle. Your strong side gets stronger. And your weaker side gets weaker.
This is where split squats come in.
As a single-leg quad exercise, it ensures that you’re able to target both your right and left legs evenly. There’s no way you’re going to be able to ‘cheat’ on this movement!
Now, you might be wondering, “Why split squats instead of lunges?” Well, that’s because split squats require less balance and coordination than lunges. This makes getting a good range of motion much easier – and that’s something you want in order to maximize quad growth (27).
Even better, you can perform the split squat in a way that emphasizes your quads, instead of your hamstrings and glutes. And you can do that by (28):
- Narrowing your stance (i.e. the distance between your front and back feet)
- Keeping your torso more upright throughout the movement
To perform the split squat:
Split squats allow you to work on your right and left legs evenly. This can prevent and/or address muscle imbalances. Just be sure to narrow your stance and maintain a more upright torso throughout the movement – this allows you better shift the load to your quads, instead of your hamstrings and glutes.
If you’ve been paying attention, you would have realized something.
We haven’t managed to hit the rectus femoris – optimally! – with any of the above exercises. All of them involve both hip flexion and knee extension at the same time.
Meaning the rectus femoris doesn’t get to contract fully.
That’s about to change with the leg press. Because your hip angle stays at a constant throughout the movement, you’re able to fully shorten the rectus femoris by extending your knees. In other words: that’s maximum contraction!
Of course, you might still have your reservations about the leg extensions.
There are so many horror stories floating around in the Internet sphere that this exercise is bad for the knees.
Are leg extensions safe?
I’m not going to tell you that the leg extensions are 100% safe. Because, come on, which exercise is 100% safe? There’s a possibility you could hit yourself on the head with a barbell while performing the skull-crushers, for example.
When it comes to leg extensions, yes, there are a couple of reasons why it could stress your knees (29):
- Direction of loading: The force is applied perpendicular to the shinbone (unlike that of multi-joint exercises like the squats, where the direction of force is parallel to the shinbone). This, thus, creates more shear force at the knee joint compared to multi-joint exercises.
- Little to no hamstring activation: In closed-chain movements (e.g. squats and the leg press), the hamstrings are activated as co-contractors – and this helps to alleviate stress on your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). But this doesn’t happen with the leg extensions. Because there’s little (to no!) involvement of the hamstrings, you can expect significantly more stress on your ACL.
Here’s the thing, though. More stress on your knees or ACL doesn’t necessarily translate into injuries.
There’s no evidence to suggest that leg extensions – when done properly – lead to an increased risk of injuries.
Unless you already have existing knee problems (e.g. past ACL tear), the leg extension is one of the best quad exercises you can use to target the oft-neglected rectus femoris.
To perform the leg extension:
As the leg extension only involves knee extension, it allows your rectus femoris to fully shorten. That translates to maximum contraction of this oft-overlooked quad muscle group. Worried about the safety of this exercise? Thankfully, there’s no evidence to suggest that leg extensions – when done properly – lead to an increased risk of injuries.
Reverse Nordic curl
Don’t have access to the leg extension machine? Looking for more ways to hit your rectus femoris? You’re in luck; try the reverse Nordic curl. It’s a perfect addition to your home workout routines as well.
Similar to the leg extensions, your hip angle remains unchanged throughout the movement – and this allows you to fully contract your rectus femoris.
I don’t like to pick favorites, but if you were choosing between the leg extension and the reverse Nordic curls, go for the latter. That’s because the reverse Nordic curls:
Features a large eccentric component
An eccentric contraction happens when a muscle lengthens while producing force. This happens when you lower yourself during the reverse Nordic curl. Because you’re often stronger in the eccentric phase (compared to the concentric phase), you’re able to use more load with the movement. And this can lead to better quad muscles growth over time (30, 31, 32, 33).
Improves hip flexor and quad mobility
Because the eccentric motion increases the sarcomeres in series within a muscle (i.e. effectively lengthening it), researchers have found that eccentric contractions actually improve flexibility (34, 35).
In other words: if you perform the reverse Nordic curls consistently, you’re going to observe significant improvements in your hip flexor and quad muscles’ mobility over time. And that can lead to massive improvements on your execution of quad exercises (e.g. barbell back squats). In turn, enhancing the growth of your quad muscles!
May reduce injury risk
By improving your quad muscles’ eccentric strength (with the reverse Nordic curls), it is possible that you’ll reduce injury risk because your quads will now be better prepared to handle such forces.
To perform the reverse Nordic curl:
As with the leg extensions, the Reverse Nordic curl only involves knee extension – in turn, fully contracting the rectus femoris. That said, the Reverse Nordic curl might prove slightly superior to the leg extension because it features a large eccentric component. In turn, this can result in better quad growth, improved flexibility and mobility, and reduced injury risk.
How often should you train your quad muscles?
Your quad muscles are one of the fastest-recovering muscles around (39). And while that theoretically means you can train it as frequently as you’d like … you shouldn’t.
As with all other muscle groups, there comes a point in time where increasing volume no longer translates to gains. In fact, it could even hinder your progress in the gym!
So, what’s the ideal frequency?
Research suggests that you should train your quads 2 to 3 times a week for optimal development (40).
But of course, training frequency shouldn’t be the only thing you look at. You’ll also have to take into account your training volume. As we all know, volume is one of the key determinants of success when it comes to muscle growth.
Your lifting experience plays a role in your lifting frequency too
Now, your ideal training volume for the quad muscles comes down to your lifting experience. The more advanced you are, the more volume you’ll have to perform. This is in line with the principle of progressive overloading.
According to an in-depth analysis done by researcher James Krieger (41):
- Beginner lifters: 6-10 sets per muscle weekly
- Advanced lifters: 16-20 sets per muscle weekly
Not sure if you’re a beginner lifter – or an experienced lifter? Here’s an easy way to tell. If you’re able to add load to the bar in a matter of weeks to months, you’re a beginner lifter. On the other hand, if you’re only able to see progress after a few months or years of consistent hard work, then you’re an advanced lifter.
And because you should aim to train your quads 2-3 times a week, this is the number of sets you should be looking at:
- Beginner lifters: 2-3 sets per workout (this means you can ‘share’ your workout time with other muscle groups)
- Advanced lifters: 6-10 sets per workout (likely means that you’ll have to dedicate an entire training session to your quads)
No matter your lifting experience, you probably wouldn’t need to exceed 10 hard (i.e. close to failure) sets of exercise for any muscle group in a single day. Anything more than that is likely ‘junk volume’ – which provides diminishing returns and can even start to impair your recovery (42).
Of course, this number does vary individually (i.e. certain individuals may see better growth with more sets). Just take it as a general guideline and see how your body responds.
You should aim to train your quads between 2 to 3 times a week for optimal development. The number of sets per workout depends on your training experience: beginner lifters will be looking at 2 to 3 sets, while advanced lifters will be looking at 6 to 10 sets.
Your sample quad workout plan
With all that said, the one burning question in your mind is undoubtedly this: “How does this apply to my training?” Not to worry. Here’s how you could potentially structure your quad workout for maximum growth.
Note: these are sample workouts for an advanced lifter. Scale down accordingly if you’re a beginner!
If you’re training quads twice a week
If you’re training quads thrice a week
And that’s it, really. That’s all the basics you need to know about growing the quad muscles. Of course, as usual, you should make sure you’re overloading progressively as your quads get stronger and bigger.
Pretty soon, those killer quad sweeps are going to make an appearance.