With Workout Routines Included!
Well developed and sweeping quadriceps are the difference between a novice bodybuilder and a long time lifter. Of course, boulder shoulders and peaking biceps look great, but quads with separation and depth are a testament to dedication and pure strength and contribute to a well-rounded physique.
For some, leg day is the easiest to skip – legs tend to need heavier weights and more complex movements, and grow more slowly than, say, the chest. This is understandable – the quads need specific attention. But thoughtful programming will pay dividends in size and strength.
In this post, we’ll discuss the most important factors for training your quadriceps, including:
- Quadricep anatomy and function
- The best weighted and bodyweight exercises to stimulate quadricep growth
- Example leg workouts to target the quads
- Post workout recovery and supplementation
Read on to learn how to turn your chicken legs into tree trunks.
How The Quadriceps Muscle Works and What It Does In the Body
The quads, or quadriceps femoris, is the primary muscle making up the front of the thigh. It’s what you think of when you think of ‘leg muscles’. The quadriceps actually consists of four distinct heads – the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris. These heads originate at the top of the femur, near the hip, and attach at the patella, or kneecap.
The primary functions of the quadriceps are knee extension and hip flexion – think of standing from a seated position, or kicking your shin forward. The squat and leg extension movements perfectly illustrate the function of the quadriceps; indeed the quadriceps are the primary muscles active during both. The rectus femoris actually attaches to the hip and is the only quadricep muscle that facilitates hip extension, meaning it’s pulling double duty during most compound movements. The quadriceps work opposite – or are functional antagonists to – the hamstring muscles on the back of the leg (think leg curls).
During a squat, the quadriceps contract to straighten (extend) the knee, driving the weight upward. The hamstrings counter this movement to flex the knee during the eccentric phase (lowering).
The quadriceps consist of ~ 50/50 fast and slow twitch muscle fibers, which makes them fatigue resistant, but able to endure heavy loads for single repetitions. This means you can vary your exercises and intensity to maximize gains.
The Most Important Quadriceps Exercises
The quadriceps is the workhorse of the leg, and one of the most important muscle groups of the body. Knowing this, well-developed quads demand somewhat meticulous programming that includes a few fundamental movements, such as the squat. Of course, there’s no harm in performing body weight exercises or calisthenics to improve leg strength. Below we’ll explore those key movements with barbell, dumbbell, and bodyweight variations.
The Best Barbell Quad Exercises
Barbell Back Squat: This is the most important quad-focused exercise; nothing unleashes the full potential of the upper thigh like the barbell back squat. The back squat is a compound movement that heavily recruits the quadriceps and allows for near maximal tension throughout a full range of motion.
Barbell Front Squat: This exercise is like the back squat, but you transfer the load to the front of your torso putting more tension on your quads.
Conventional Deadlift: Deadlifts primarily target the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, but the quads are critical to knee extension and hip flexion. A good program should include deadlifts as part of leg or back day.
The Best Quad Exercises With Dumbbells
Dumbbell Goblet Squat: The goblet squat is a more intimate variation of the traditional barbell squat. During this movement, you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your front, like a goblet, and perform squats for reps or time. Using a lighter weight enables you to take some of the load off your quads, while the forward position allows you to move more of the load onto your quads. Dumbbell goblet squats also enable more knee flexion and a greater range of motion.
Dumbbell Step-up: Step-ups are a great way to target the quads while performing a routine movement akin to walking up stairs. Step-ups also allow you to adjust the step height to suit your ability, and you can isolate each leg. Aside from targeting the quads, step-ups are excellent for building core strength and hip and leg stability.
Dumbbell Split Squat: AKA Bulgarian split squats, these are a cross between squats and lunges. Perform with one leg supported on a bench behind you and squat straight down. This challenges your balance and allows for a ton of knee flexion, which is key to targeting the quadriceps. It’s also an isolateral movement, which allows you to load each leg separately.
The Best Bodyweight Quad Exercises
Air Squat: The body squat is a fundamental movement and a great supplement to a traditional strength training program. I urge beginner and advanced clients to include body squats in their routines to perfect form and add variability.
Lunge: Another fundamental leg exercise, lunges are excellent for targeting the quads as they are isolateral, have a huge range of motion, and there are tons of modifications and progressions.
Box Jumps: Jumps need a bit of vertical space, but without that limitation, they’re great for rounding out weight-free leg exercises. Jumps are ideal for improving leg speed and power and can help to improve overall conditioning and agility.
Sissy squat: Despite the name, some argue this is the single best bodyweight exercise for the quads. The movement is a cross between a leg extension and doing the limbo, and you’ll have maximal tension across all the quadriceps muscles with minimal hip flexion.
Killer Quadricep Workouts
Now that we’re familiar with the best exercises to target the quads, let’s put them to work. Below are three leg workouts that emphasize the quadriceps. They include barbell, dumbbell, and body weight exercises, and will leave you wishing you had another set of legs.
Killer Quadricep Workout Routine 1
Barbell squats: 4 x 10
Dumbbell lunge: 3 x 15
Dumbbell split squat: 3 x 12 each leg
Box jumps: 3 x 15
Killer Quadricep Workout Routine 2
Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8
Leg Extension: 4 x 15
Dumbbell step-ups: 3 x 45 sec each leg
Lunge (alternating): 4 x 1 minute
Killer Quadricep Workout Routine 3
Body squats: 4 x 1 minute
Lunge (no weight): 3 x 20 each leg
Step-ups: 3 x 1 minute
Box jumps: 3 x 15
Sissy squat: 3 x 15
How To Progressively Overload the Quads for Hypertrophy
Progressive overload is an important concept underlying all performance training. Quite simply, it is the concept of increasing intensity in and across workouts to support ongoing and consistent development. The easiest way to do this is by adding weight each workout.
Since the quadriceps are so large and used in compound exercises, they need a different type of stimulation compared to the biceps or triceps. Here are some pointers:
- Volume: a good leg training program should include both low and high volume work. Low volume consists of heavy weights across low sets and reps (eg. 3×5); this is ideal for pure strength and compound movements. A higher volume (high reps and moderate weight) is ideal for the bulk of your workouts and simpler movements and is the basis for growth.
- Compound vs. simple movements: For continued leg growth, you’ll always need to combine compound movements. As a rule of thumb – compound movements tend to facilitate pure strength gains, and should be performed in the lower volume range; simpler movements, like leg extensions, are your primary hypertrophy drivers.
- Frequency: the legs respond well to variability in weight and reps, but they also take time to recover. The best approach is to front load your week with heavy squats and generally lower volume leg work, then cap it off with a second round of higher volume and isolation exercises.
Takeaway: The legs need varying stimulation in the form of mixed volume training, compound and isolation movements, and adjustments in exercise timing. You should always aim to add weight, but you should try to change how you lift that same weight to ensure consistent and comprehensive development. You should take care to cycle between strength/growth and maintenance phases to give the quadriceps time to recover and introduce them to variability over time.
Best Supplements For Quad Muscle Growth and Recovery
There is no supplement designed specifically to help with quadriceps development. That said, here are some things to consider to maintain gains and enhance recovery:
- Protein: nothing is more important for muscular development than protein. You should aim for a daily intake of 0.8g/lb body weight. Dietary protein is the most important protein source, such as from dairy, eggs, beans, and legumes. But supplemental protein (powders, drinks, etc) is a great way to help meet your needs.
- Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s): EAAs are the 9 amino acids you must get from your diet, and include the three branched chain amino acids. EAAs are constituents of complete proteins and contribute to muscle development. Usually, you receive all the EAAs you need from your diet, but if you don’t eat enough protein, you might want to consider supplemental free EAAs. Protein with supplemental EAAs might be superior to protein alone for stimulating hypertrophy.
- Creatine: Creatine is a great tool to help you achieve strength goals. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance that augments energy use during muscle contraction. More available energy means you can hammer out a few more reps. Unfortunately creatine tends to require a loading phase, and you might see diminishing returns if you don’t cycle off and on.
- Sleep: Of course, there is no magic pill to guarantee good sleep, but sleep is the most important factor when it comes to building muscle. Sleep, as we all know, is when most of our recovery takes place. You should try to get a full night’s sleep, and take as many rest days as you need. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but listening to your body is important. If you struggle to sleep you can try over-the-counter sleep aids or even bedtime teas – chamomile and valerian root promote relaxation and can bring on more restful sleep.
Q: What’s the best quad exercise for increasing quadricep mass?
A: The high bar back squat. It allows for heavy weight and engagement from synergistic and antagonistic muscles across a large range of motion.
Q: What’s the best quad exercise for bad knees?
A: The barbell deadlift. This emphasizes the quads less than leg extensions, but also substantially reduces the load placed on the knees during the movement. Alternative: Swiss ball wall squats
Q: Which quad exercises can I do at home?
A: Almost all if you have the right equipment. Leg extensions and machine based workouts will have to go.
Q: Are there quad exercises I can do with no equipment?
A: Yes, almost all. Air squats, lunges, split squats, box jumps, step-ups, wall sits.
Q: Can I gain quad strength without gaining size?
A: For the most part, yes. Strength is an adaptation of training with heavy weights and low reps, but the muscles will inevitably grow to accommodate heavy loads.
Q: What are the best quad exercises for women?
A: Men and women benefit equally from the same exercises. Women may find higher rep ranges and volume to be more conducive to toning and strength gains.
Q: What are the best quad exercises for men?
A: The best quad exercises for men (and everyone in general) would be anything that emphasizes the quadriceps through leg extension, as well as including some variation of the hip hinge. If strength and size are the goals, focus on barbell high squats, deadlifts, leg extensions, weighted sissy squats, and bulgarian split squats. If agility and endurance are your goals, try barbell squats, deadlifts, farmer’s walks, lunges, box jumps.
Zach Pierce is an experienced blogger and personal trainer. He served in Army infantry, during which time he deployed in support of OEF and OIF. After the military, he pursued an M.S. in nutrition and immunology as well as a Master’s in Public Health, both from the University of California, Davis. There he studied the relationships between gut bacteria, diet, and immune function. He became a CPT shortly after to help bridge the gap in knowledge between formal nutrition and practical fitness. He currently works in clinical research and trains individuals and small groups at the YMCA. He prefers to focus on beginner fitness enthusiasts, traditional strength training, and endurance performance.