Pull your pants down and look in the mirror.
Look a little lower.
No, not at that…lower…
Do you like what you see?
I know I didn’t at one point.
After about 7 years of weightlifting…and spending at least 80% of that time on my upper body…here’s what I had to show for it:
To be fair, I didn’t look awful but I wasn’t exactly turning heads, either.
And although you can’t see my quads in this shot, my calves (yes, they’re there — look closely) tell you everything you need to know about the state of my wheels.
Let’s just say that when legs day rolled around, I usually had my training partner like this:
Well, I’ve since spent many hours in the squat rack to atone for my sins.
(Not that squats are all you need for great legs, though. More on this soon.)
My legs are still a work in progress (and my calves in particular–blow me, genetics), but I like to think they’re no longer a laughingstock:
Now, when you look at the musculature of the legs, it’s obvious why so many people focus on the quads and neglect the hamstrings:
They contribute a lot more to the overall look of your legs and, being the larger muscle group, respond faster and more noticeably to training.
Well, while the quads are bigger, stronger, and more visible than their smaller, backside brethren, ignoring the latter is a mistake that I discuss in more detail here.
That said, in this article, we’re going to talk all about building those big, strong quads.
I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, including…
- The most effective way to program your leg training.
- The best quads exercises and how to do them.
- An effective quadriceps workout that you can put to use right away.
- And more…
By the end, you’re going to know exactly what to do in your leg training and why, so let’s get started!
- The Anatomy of the Quadriceps Muscles
- The Simple Science of Effective Quadriceps Training
- The Best Quadriceps Exercises
- 1. Barbell Back Squat
- 2. Barbell Front Squat
- 3. Dumbbell and Barbell Lunge
- 4. Leg Press
- 5. Hack Squat (Machine)
- 6. Dumbbell and Barbell Step-Up
- 7. Sprints (Bonus!)
- The Ultimate Quadriceps Workout
- What About Supplements?
- The Bottom Line on the Best Quadriceps Exercises
- Want More Workouts?
Table of Contents
The quadriceps are a group of four muscles on the front of the leg:
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Medialis (which includes the coveted vastus medialis oblique, or VMO)
- Vastus Intermedius
(Interestingly, new research indicates there’s a fifth muscle involved, so maybe we should be talking about the quintraceps instead?)
Here’s how they look:
Together the quadriceps muscles work to extend the knees and flex the hips.
Thus, quadriceps exercises bring the hip from an extended to a flexed position (bending the joint) and bring the knee from a flexed to an extended position (straightening the joint).
When the quads are well developed, they form the centerpiece of the legs.
Case in point:
Quads aren’t not just for us guys, though.
If you’re a woman, whose legs would you prefer?
If you’re like most women I know, you’d choose door number two.
And getting there will require gaining a significant amount of muscle in your legs, including your quadriceps (no, this doesn’t have to make you “bulky,” either).
Let’s see how to get there.
There are a lot of opinions about how to best train your quadriceps.
- Some people say all you need to do is squat.
- Others say you need to do a lot of isolation exercises.
- Some people say high-rep training is key.
- Others say heavy lifting is more productive.
- Some people believe that you should split your leg workouts into hamstring and quadriceps workouts.
- Others maintain that you should always train your legs as a whole.
Well, I’ve tried all the above and more, and I’ve worked with thousands of people, and here’s what I’ve learned:
Front and back squats are two of the best quadriceps exercises you can do.
When done properly these exercises also heavily involve the hamstrings, but they are primarily for the quadriceps.
And they work incredibly well.
Heavy compound movements are best for adding strength and size.
High-rep sets and machine exercises can be included in your quadriceps workouts, but they can’t deliver the same results as heavy free weight movements.
One heavy quadriceps workout per week is generally enough.
A crucial part of your quads training is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the overarching rule is this:
The heavier you lift, the fewer reps you can do each week without risking overtraining.
Pulling and squatting heavy weights necessitates more recovery time than less stressful exercises like pullups or leg extensions.
When your training emphasizes lifting heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the quadriceps but to every other major muscle group as well.
In the case of the quads, though, we have to take into account the fact that they’re involved in some of the hamstring exercises you’re going to do as well.
For example, the Bulgarian Split Squat is great for training the hamstrings, but it also heavily recruits the quads.
We can adjust for this by slightly reducing the volume in your quads (and hamstring) workouts to account for this overlap.
This will ensure your body can adequately recover from both of your leg workouts that you’ll be doing every week.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best quadriceps exercises for building muscle and strength.
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One of the biggest barriers to getting healthy and fit is information overload.
You quickly realize that you’ve entered a circus of umpteen experts and “gurus” in a free-for-all melee to get your attention and money.
Well, I have good news:
Out of all the quads exercises you could do, a small handful stand head and shoulders above the rest.
If you simply focus on progressing on these superior exercises, you’ll have no trouble building fantastic quadriceps (and legs).
Before we talk exercises, though, let’s talk equipment…
Why You Should Stay Off the Smith Machine
When it comes to working out, assume the following:
The easier something is–an exercise, workout, routine, etc.–the less effective it is.
There are exceptions, of course, but this holds true more often than not.
The main reason the Smith Machine is easier than (and inferior to) free weights is the fixed, vertical path that the bar travels on.
This simplifies the movements and reduces the need for stabilizing muscles to keep the bar level and balanced.
The quadriceps workout given below is going to call for free weight squatting. If you’ve been squatting exclusively on the Smith Machine, get ready for a rude awakening.
I used to squat on the Smith Machine and worked up to a rather meager 235 pounds for a few reps. When I moved to the free weight squat, I struggled with 185 pounds.
(I’ve since worked up to something respectable: 365 pounds for 2 to 3 reps on my back squat and 275 pounds for 2 reps on my front squat.)
If you’re worried that you’ll be increasing your risk of injury by making the switch, you won’t be.
You can free weight squat just as safely with the right setup (and without a spotter).
The key piece of equipment is the Power Rack.
How to Safely Squat Solo in the Power Rack
When you’re lifting, you don’t have to go to absolute muscle failure every set.
(Generally speaking, you want to end your sets one rep short of failure, which is the point where you struggle to get a rep and aren’t sure if you can get another without help.)
This is why a squat stand doesn’t work well for solo training.
With a stand, there are going to be times where you could have squeezed out another rep or two if you knew you weren’t going to get stuck without a way out.
Well, the Power Rack is the perfect solution.
It allows you to squat (and bench press) by yourself without having to worry about whether or not you’re going to get pinned under hundreds of pounds of weight.
Here’s a high-quality (and affordable) Power Rack made by Rogue, which I highly recommend:
The key feature of the Power Rack is the safety arms, which you set to catch the weight if you fail.
Here’s how it works:
Your Barbell Matters Too
While we’re talking equipment, let’s talk barbells.
You might think a barbell is a barbell, but I recommend you pony up for a high-quality bar with sleeves that can spin independently of the bar.
That is, the plates should be able to rotate without torquing the bar, which can put a lot of strain on your wrists when you’re bench pressing.
I like Rogue’s Ohio Bar personally:
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s now go over the best quadriceps exercises.
If you’re not doing at least some form of squatting, you’re not really training your legs.
And out of all the squat variations you can do, the plain old barbell back squat is hard to beat.
It’s has earned the reputation as the single most effective exercise you can do for building strong, muscular legs, and rightfully so.
It goes further than that, really, because it’s actually a whole-body exercise that involves every major muscle group but your chest.
That is…if it’s done correctly. And as you’ll see, it’s often not.
The biggest mistake people make in their squatting is failing to achieve proper depth.
This is a problem because the shallower the squat, the less effective it is.
Here’s what I mean by proper depth:
There are several things to highlight here:
- The thighs are slightly below parallel to the ground, putting the butt slightly below the knees.
- The head position is neutral, looking at a point on the ground about 6 to 8 feet away.
- The spine is neutral as well as opposed to arched or rounded.
- The chest is up, which forces the shoulders back.
- The knees are slightly in front of the toes.
That’s the position you want to achieve with every rep.
Here’s an in-depth discussion on how to squat properly:
Now, before we move on to the next quads exercise, let’s take a moment to talk full (“Ass to Grass”) squatting.
First, here’s what it looks like:
“ATG” squatting is kind of a “thing” these days, with some people claiming it’s the only “real” way to squat.
There are benefits to full squatting–it makes the legs and butt work harder–but there are downsides too:
- It requires quite a bit more lower body mobility than most people have.
- It requires more technical skill than parallel squats, which means your form is more likely to break down as the weights get heavier.
This is why I generally don’t recommend that people full squat unless they’re experienced weightlifters that are fairly flexible and familiar with proper form.
If that’s not you, don’t worry–the parallel squat will give your quads more than enough of a beating.
And while we’re talking lower body mobility and flexibility, I should mention the most common reasons people can’t squat properly:
- Hip inflexibility
- Hamstring tightness
- Calf and ankle tightness
Fortunately, these issues can be corrected (and prevented) with a simple squat mobility routine, like this one.
The front squat is a squat variation that emphasizes the quadriceps and core and requires less flexibility to achieve proper depth.
It also creates less compression of the spine and less torque in the knees, which makes it particularly useful for those with back or knee injuries or limitations.
Mechanically, speaking, it’s very similar to the back squat, but you hold the bar differently.
Here’s how it works:
The lunge is a simple but effective leg exercise that everyone should have in their repertoire.
It build strength, muscle, and balance, and because it’s a single-leg movement, it can help address muscular imbalances as well.
If you’re new to lunging, the dumbbell lunge is the place to start.
Here’s how to do it:
The barbell lunge is a more difficult variation but it allows you to load heavier weights:
Some people like to think that the leg press is just an inferior version of the squat.
It not only requires less technical skill (making it more newbie-friendly) and stabilizing muscles (allowing you to load heavier weights), it also is fantastic for building hip strength (due to a larger range of motion in the hips than the squat).
Here’s how to do it on an angled press (which I prefer):
And here’s a seated press:
I don’t use many exercise machines but am a big believer in the value of this one.
Like the leg press, it emphasizes the quadriceps but requires less technical skill and stabilizing muscles than a free weight squat, meaning you can safely handle heavier weights.
It’s particularly useful for sets that you plan on taking to absolute muscle failure because if you get stuck, you can sit the weight down without risk of injury.
Here’s how to do it:
Like the lunge, the step-up is a great single-leg quadriceps exercise.
In fact, it’s so great that decades ago many strength coaches in Bulgaria and the Soviet Union had their athletes do it in place of the back squat and saw even better results.
As with the lunge, the dumbbell step-up is the place to start.
Here’s how to do it:
As you get stronger and need to continue increasing the weight, you’ll graduate to the barbell step-up:
If you’re surprised to see this on the list, I’m going to assume you’ve never done all-out sprints before.
They destroy your quads. (They’re great for high-intensity interval cardio as well.)
If you’re going to sprint, you might as well learn a bit about how to do it right.
Here’s a good summary:
Remember–Progression is the Key to Muscle Growth
That’s it for the best quadriceps exercises. Those are all you need to build deep, sweeping quads.
Your goal isn’t to just do these exercises, though–it’s to progress on them.
This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscles over time and the easiest way to do that is to add weight to the bar.
This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger.
So…build strength on the exercises above and eat enough food and you will make gains.
Before we look at an actual quadriceps workout, let’s talk workout programming.
First, the obvious question:
Why bother with a hamstring/quadriceps split? Why not just do all-inclusive “leg workouts” instead?
Well, there are several reasons why you might want to train the hamstrings and quadriceps on different days:
1. You’re an advanced weightlifter that is having trouble adding size to your legs.
A hamstring/quads split allows you to maximally overload each muscle group both in terms of individual workouts and weekly volume.
2. Your quads or hamstrings are under- or over-developed.
A hamstring/quads split allows you to work harder on your lagging muscle group while maintaining the other.
3. You like it more than traditional leg training.
In many ways, the best workout routine is the one you can stick to.
How much you enjoy a workout program does play a role in your overall results with it.
Now, if you’re new to weightlifting or your legs aren’t imbalanced and you don’t particularly like splitting your leg workouts into two, then you don’t have a reason to do hamstring and quadriceps workouts.
You can just stick to traditional leg training and make tremendous progress. (That’s what I do personally.)
So, with that in mind, let’s look at how to get the most out of a hamstring/quadriceps split.
We recall that your quads workouts will train your hamstrings as well, and vice versa.
This is why I recommend that you do just one quadriceps and hamstring workout per week, and that you put 3 days of rest in between the workouts.
(Many people like to train one of the two on Mondays and the other on Thursdays.)
This will ensure your legs have enough time to recover before you train them again.
There’s no particular benefit to doing one or the other first in the week, so whichever you start with is up to you.
My favorite type of quadriceps workout contains at least one big, compound movement and one or two additional exercises to target the muscle group.
Furthermore, the quadriceps can benefit from higher rep work, but you have to emphasize the heavy weightlifting if you want to avoid plateaus.
The workout below is a great introduction to this training philosophy and it’s equally applicable to both men and women.
That said, you’ll see that I recommend different rep ranges for each.
This is mainly because most women haven’t done any heavy compound weightlifting before and can’t comfortably work with weights in the higher ranges of their one-rep max.
As they get stronger, though, they can and should start including heavier work in their training. (I talk more about this in my book Thinner Leaner Stronger.)
If, however, you’re a woman that’s well-acquainted with heavy weightlifting, then I recommend that you follow the heavier recommendations for men.
So, do the following workout once per 7 days for the next 8 weeks, and I think you’ll be very happy with the results.
Barbell Back Squat
Warm up and 2 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
Barbell Front Squat
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
2 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
2 sets of…
All: 8 to 10 reps
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.
For instance, if you get 6 reps with, let’s say, 235 pounds on your back squat, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 245 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can squat it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (240 pounds) and see how the next set goes.
If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.
Rest 3 minutes in between each 4-to-6-rep set and 1 minute in between 8-to-10-rep sets.
Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.
This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Make sure you’re eating enough food.
You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total caloric intake matters too.
Read this article to learn why.
This type of training is the core of my Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women) programs and I have hundreds of success stories that prove its effectiveness.
If you give this workout a go and get good results with it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here, but if you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your quad (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
Again, if you feel confused about what supplements you should take to reach your goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz to learn exactly what supplements are right for you. It’s the best way to ensure you get the most out of your supplement regimen.
You now have everything you need to build strong, muscular quads.
- Do the right exercises.
- Progressively overload your muscles.
- Don’t try to do so much every week that you wind up overtrained.
That’s it. Simple but not easy.
Work hard at the advice given in this article and stay patient and you’ll be on your way.
What’s your take on quadriceps workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent perspectives regarding the role of dietary protein for the promotion of muscle hypertrophy with resistance exercise training. In Nutrients (Vol. 10, Issue 2). MDPI AG. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020180
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 11, Issue 1, p. 20). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., Hester, G. M., Sellers, J., Nooner, J. L., Schnaiter, J. A., Bond-Williams, K. E., Carter, A. S., Ross, C. L., Just, B. L., Henselmans, M., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(7), 1805–1812. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272
- Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
- Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(10), 1058–1066. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.984240
- Slater, L. V., & Hart, J. M. (2017). Muscle Activation Patterns during Different Squat Techniques. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(3), 667–676. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001323