The Body Part Series #5: Quad Training

Quadriceps Training Explained: The Top Four Exercises For Maximal Leg Growth

A while ago, I wrote my article discussing training strategies for the hamstrings, and since then I’ve been getting a lot of questions from you guys about the most effective strategies for building your quads. Both the hamstrings and quadriceps are equally important for the development of your leg musculature. The leg muscles are the foundational base of the human body, and therefore it is essential to keep our training for these muscles proportionate to the rest of our body. For those of us that are looking to build a balanced, healthy physique with equal development of our lower and upper-body muscles, working these muscles frequently with proper training strategies will be incredibly important for your future. None of us want to be the person walking around the gym with any lagging body parts, and fortunately with the strategies I’ll outline below, you can feel confident knowing you’re going to crush your lower-body sessions in the gym! With all that being said, let’s dive right in to my discussion on training the quads, starting with a quick run-through on their overall anatomy.

Key Takeaways

  1. As far as maximal gains in strength and hypertrophy are concerned, front and back squats are your best option. Front squats elicit higher quad activation, but are less efficient in developing raw strength.

  2. Two other compound exercises that have shown to effectively target the quads are barbell lunges and the leg press machine. If you suffer from a pre-existing injury that prevents you from specifically performing squats, opt to get stronger on either one these exercises for comparable quad development.

  3. Leg extensions are not an inherently dangerous exercise, and are actually extremely effective at targeting the often underworked rectus femoris head of the quadriceps. 

Anatomy

The quadriceps are a large muscle group inserted onto the front of the thigh. The quads primarily function as knee extensors,  and consist of four different muscles with their own respective names: Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and Rectus Femoris. The rectus femoris (RF) inserts right in the middle of the thigh, and often actually covers the other three heads. The Vastus Lateralis (VL) is actually the largest part of the quads and inserts on the outside of the femur, helping to create the “wide” look desired in the thigh musculature. The Vastus Medialis (VM) is located right on the medial side of the femur, while the Vastus Intermedius (VI) lies right between the VL and VM, and typically cannot be seen in most individual’s leg musculature. Each of these muscles assist the body in knee extension (i.e. straightening the legs), with the Rectus Femoris also involved in hip flexion movement (i.e. brining legs closer to you). It is therefore advisable to train the quads through both hip flexion and knee extension, and fortunately there are several different exercises that are effective in doing just that. As you’ll see throughout this article, each of these exercises targets the quadriceps as a whole, but some are certainly more efficient than others at targeting individual heads. Whether you elect to choose one or all of them in your training program is completely up to you, but I definitely recommend becoming aware of the impact these exercises can have on your overall leg development.

human anatomy view
Basic anatomy with an overview of the four heads of the quadriceps.

Squats

Quite frankly, barbell squats are probably the king of lower-body exercises. Depending on the variation chosen, squats can be incredible for the development of the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and various smaller muscles within the leg musculature. We’ll take a look at the options you have, but I highly recommend that you incorporate at least one squatting motion into your programming, if you’re looking for an exercise that effectively builds muscle and carries over well to improvements in your daily functional activity.

Both front and back squats are incredibly effective exercises for targeting the quads through knee extension when performed to depth (Bloomquist et al 2013). While back squats are a more effective exercise for developing overall strength, front squats have actually shown greater activation in both the Vastus Medialis and Vastus Lateralis, and therefore are a more effective exercise for muscle hypertrophy (Contreras et al 2016). The issue for most people is that they find front squats more painful in other extremities of their body, and more difficult to progress on compared to the back squat. If this is the case for you, and hypertrophy is your main goal, then there’s no problem opting for the traditional back squat. I can promise you that you’re going to see your legs grow as you start to lift heavier weight.

front vs back squat
Great chart from a study that compared the effectiveness of various metrics on front vs. back squats.

Lunges

The barbell lunge has consistently shown high levels of quad and glute activity, with the lunge actually showing HIGHER Vastus Lateralis recruitment than a barbell squat, making it a very viable exercise in your leg routine (Ebben et al 2009). Lunges often get a bad reputation, but they can certainly be utilized as one of the compound leg movements in your routine. Just like front squats, the limitation for them is the overall comfort and difficulty to progress in your strength over the course of a long period of time, especially considering the variation you end up choosing. If overall strength is your primary goal, I’d recommend sticking to standard barbell work and progressing in small increments of weight over time. If your goals are more tailored towards hypertrophy, and you’re looking for a good leg “finisher”, walking lunges are probably going to be a better  option (though your legs may not thank you later) Another underrated benefit of the barbell lunge is that it’s actually shown to be just as effective as the squat for athletic benefits, with one study showing unilateral movements such as lunges with similar benefits in both strength and agility (Scott and Shaul 2016). Particularly if you’re an athlete looking to find an exercise that translates well to the work that you do in your respective sport, you’re certainly not required to stick to your standard barbell squat. Ultimately, the squat and lunge are both great exercises, so feel free to experiment with each variation and choose what you truly love doing in the gym.

barbell lunge.jpg
Barbell lunges, especially when loaded heavy, can be a very effective exercise for quad development and overall athletic performance.

Leg Extensions

Interestingly, while this machine often gets a bad rep, leg extensions have shown to elicit extremely high levels of Rectus Femoris recruitment (Signorile et al 2014), making it a very effective exercise following a compound movement such as the barbell squat. Though the Rectus Femoris is involved in the squat, it gets minimal activation due to the combination of both hip and knee flexion, making it advisable to add an extension exercise for maximal recruitment of the muscle. If you’re too tired to perform heavy leg presses or lunges after doing squats, my advice would be to add a few sets of leg extensions at the end of your workout to effectively target each head of the quad. Some people have concerns about the safety of the exercise, but realistically research is heavily conflicting on the potential dangers this may have on your individual bones and ligaments. The reality is that no exercise is inherently dangerous, but they should all be performed with appropriate form to reduce the risk for injury and maximize the benefits of the exercise. Unless you have a pre-existing knee injury in your medical history, you certainly should not have any imminent concerns that the movement will cause you any further harm.

leg extension
The leg extension machine is neither a necessary nor inherently dangerous exercise for your knee joints and thigh musculature.

Leg Presses

Finally, I have to mention the leg press as another viable option for maximal quad development. While heavy squats and lunges are a better option for those with strength and performance-oriented goals, the leg press has shown to heavily recruit all four heads of the quadriceps (Machado et al 2017). The key point to remember with this exercise is the impact foot placement can have on overall muscle activation. A wide stance with the feet placed high on the leg press platform will result in much higher activation of the biceps femoris (hamstrings) and gluteus maximus (glutes), while a narrow stance with your feet placed lower on the platform will much more effective at targeting the quadriceps muscles (Cadore et al 2008). And if you’re really looking to build your legs, remember to utilize a full range of motion on this machine. Far too many people load up the leg press with far too much weight and put themselves at risk for injury when performing the exercise with poor form. Just like any other exercise in the gym, don’t be afraid to start light and use proper form before moving up more in weight. The good thing about this machine is that it is relatively easier to progress on than a lot of exercises in the gym, meaning over time you’ll really be able to move heavy weight and apply a proper overload stimulus needed for leg growth.

leg press variations
Cool graphic that overviews the effect of foot placement on the muscles targeted during a leg press.

Conclusion

Training your quads may not always be so much fun, but it is necessary in order to create a more balanced physique and supper proper function of the muscles involved. Just like every muscle group, a compound exercise (front or back squat) should be made the priority of your routine, however additional isolation exercises may elicit additional recruitment of an individual muscle and can be an effective strategy to maximize hypertrophy. Keep your volume and frequency high, don’t be afraid to eat, and watch the leg gains come!

Hope you guys enjoyed this post! Based on the way things are going now, I think I’m going to take a quick break from this series, and start writing more about something other topics in training and nutrition that have been on my mind recently. Until then, I wish you guys well, and I’ll be back soon with more content!

Studies Referenced:

  1. https://journals.lww.com/nscajscr/Citation/2017/02000/Myoeletric_Activity_of_the_Quadriceps_During_Leg.18.aspx
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5310489_Analysis_of_Muscle_Activation_During_Different_Leg_Press_Exercises_at_Submaximum_Effort_Levels
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19002072
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23604798
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26252837
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18975260
  7. http://mtntactical.com/research/better-building-strength-power-agility-squats-lunges/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25148303
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