When it comes to building well-developed quads, most people stumble at the first hurdle: they do the wrong quad exercises.

Many people are led astray by articles touting the “best quad exercises,” which often involve doing lengthy circuits of a zillion different quad machine exercises and bodyweight exercises, like leg extensions, air squats, and so forth. 

While these exercises are better than nothing, you’re better off taking a “less is more” approach to training the quads. 

That is, you’ll gain muscle and strength faster (and probably enjoy your workouts more) by putting your energy into a handful of top-flight quad exercises once or twice per week.

And in this article, you’re going to learn what those exercises are and how to do them with proper form.

You’ll learn everything you need to know about building well-developed quads, including quad anatomy, tips to get the most out of your quad training, and a list of the 10 most effective quad-focused exercises for strengthening and defining your thighs.

The Anatomy of the Quadriceps Muscles

The quadriceps femoris—more commonly referred to as the “quadriceps” or “quads”—are a group of four muscles on the front of the leg:

  1. Rectus femoris
  2. Vastus lateralis
  3. Vastus medialis (which includes the vastus medialis oblique, or VMO)
  4. Vastus intermedius

Here’s published scientist, natural bodybuilder, and member of Legion’s Scientific Review Board, Chris Barakat, exhibiting them nicely: 

Chris Barakat's Quad anatomy

Together the quadriceps muscles work to extend (straighten) the knees and flex the hips (bring your thighs toward your abdomen).

Thus, the best quad exercises involve straightening the knees and bending forward at the hips.

The quads are the most voluminous muscle in the human body. As such, when the quads are well developed they form the centerpiece of the legs.

Here’s another shot of Chris demonstrating this point: 

Chris Barakat's Quads

Quads aren’t just for guys, though.

Here’s fitness coach and Legion athlete, Sue Bush, showing what a shapely set of quads does to a woman’s lower-body aesthetics.

Sue Bush's quads

(And in case you’re wondering, the best quad exercises for women are the same as the best quad exercises for men, so the advice in this article goes for everyone.)

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The Simple Science of Effective Quadriceps Training

Despite what many people say, the science behind effective quadriceps training is quite simple.

It mostly comes down to . . .

  1. Doing the right compound, quad-focused exercises
  2. Trying to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout
  3. Training your quads with 10-to-20 sets per week

Let’s discuss each now:

1. Do the right compound, quad-focused exercises.

The “secret” to building big quads is to get as strong as possible on compound exercises that train your quads, not puttering around with machines.

This means you should spend the majority of your time in the gym doing exercises like the squat, leg press, lunge, and step-up, and leave exercises like the leg extension and sissy squat until the end of your workout. 

A good rule of thumb is that 80% of your time and energy should go into compound exercises for your quads, and the remaining 20% you can give to quad isolation exercises and machines.

2. Try to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout.

If you stop getting stronger, your quads will eventually stop getting bigger (this applies to every major muscle group in the body, by the way).

The best way to get strong is to ditch the high-rep “pump” training and lift heavy.

By “heavy,” I mean doing the majority of your leg exercises with weights in the range of 75-to-85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8-to-10 (~75%) to 4-to-6 (~85%) reps.

But that’s not all—you should also strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s one of the best ways to maximize the muscle-building effects of weightlifting. 

3. Train your quads with 10-to-20 sets per week.

If you want to develop any major muscle group, including your quads, it’s normally best to train it with a total of 10-to-20 weekly sets. 

People who’ve been following a proper strength training program for less than two years should aim for 10-to-15 weekly sets, whereas those who’ve been training properly for more than two years should aim for 15-to-20 weekly sets (if you want to maximize growth, that is).

Doing 10-to-15 sets in a single workout should be tough, but not too tough.

If you’re doing upward of 15 weekly sets, though, you’ll probably find that the quality of your sets begins to suffer as you get deeper into your workout. This is why it’s normally better for more advanced weightlifters to divide these sets (training volume) over at least two workouts per week.

The 10 Best Quad Exercises for Mass and Hypertrophy

1. Barbell Back Squat

Barbell Back Squat before and after

The barbell back squat is hands down the most effective exercise you can do for building quad size and strength. It also allows you to use very heavy weights, which maximizes tension on your muscle fibers and thus muscle growth over time.

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your nipples. 
  2. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar directly above the bony ridges on the bottom of your shoulder blades. 
  3. Lift the bar out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward. 
  4. Sit down and remember to keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. 
  5. Stand up and return to the starting position.

2. Barbell Front Squat

Barbell Front Squat before and after

Research shows that the front squat trains the quads just as effectively as the back squat, even when you use up to 20% less weight. What’s more, research also shows that the front squat places considerably less compressive forces on your knees and lower back, which make it a particularly good quad exercise for bad knees.

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your breast bone (usually an inch or two higher than you would for the barbell squat). 
  2. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. 
  3. Step closer to the bar so that it presses against the top of your breast bone and push your elbows up and out in front of the bar. 
  4. With the bar resting on the front of your shoulders and held in place by your hands, lift it out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  5. Sit down and remember to keep your back straight, elbows up, and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. 
  6. Stand up and return to the starting position.

3. Dumbbell Lunge

Dumbbell Lunge before and after

Research shows that the dumbbell lunge is one of the best quad exercises with dumbbells there is. It also requires greater balance and coordination than most other leg exercises, and this engages many smaller stabilizer muscles throughout your entire body.

How to:

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand up straight with both feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Take a long step forward with your right foot—about two to three feet. With most of your weight on your front foot, kneel down until your left knee touches the floor. 
  3. Reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your front foot and leaning slightly backward, allowing your legs to straighten.
  4. Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position. 

4. Barbell Lunge

Barbell Lunge before and after

The barbell lunge trains the lower body in the same way as the dumbbell lunge. The only major differences are the barbell variation is slightly more difficult to set up, but it allows you to lift heavier weights since you aren’t limited by how much you can hold in your hands.

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your nipples. 
  2. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar across your upper trapezius muscles.
  3. Lift the bar out of the rack, take three or four steps backward so that you’re clear of the rack, and place your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  4. Take a long step forward with your right foot—about two to three feet. With most of your weight on your front foot, kneel down until your left knee touches the floor. 
  5. Reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your right foot and leaning slightly backward, allowing your legs to straighten. 
  6. Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position.

5. Bulgarian Split Squat

Bulgarian Split Squat form

Research shows that the Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for training the quads. Because the Bulgarian split squat trains just one leg at a time, it’s particularly useful for identifying and evening out any muscle or strength imbalances you might have, too.

How to:

  1. While holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand about two-to-three feet in front of a bench with your back to the bench. 
  2. With your right foot (and heel in particular) firmly planted, place the top of your left foot on the bench behind you. 
  3. Look at a spot on the floor six-to-ten feet in front of you and lower your butt toward the floor by bending at your right knee. Keep lowering yourself until your right thigh is roughly parallel with the floor. 
  4. Stand up and return to the starting position.

6. Leg Press

Leg Press form

The leg press doesn’t involve balancing or supporting weight with your upper body, so you can use heavier loads than with other exercises like the barbell squat. The leg press is also far less fatiguing than free weight exercises, so you can do it more often without burning out. While it’s not as effective as the king of lower-body exercises—the barbell back squat—it’s an outstanding quad-building exercise. 

How to:

  1. Load a leg press with plates and adjust the seat to its lowest position (with the backrest closest to the floor, at about a 30-degree angle).
  2. Sit in the leg press seat, and wedge your butt down into the base of the seat. 
  3. Place your feet halfway up the footplate a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward. 
  4. Bend your knees slightly and use the safety handles to release the weight. 
  5. Lower the footplate toward your chest until your thighs are about 12-to-18 inches from your chest while keeping your butt firmly planted in the seat and without rounding your back.
  6. Push the footplate upward until your legs are almost but not completely straight (knees slightly bent).

7. Machine Hack Squat

Machine Hack Squat form

The machine hack squat doesn’t involve balancing or supporting weight with your upper body, so it places less stress on your spine than barbell squatting, and it allows you to lift heavier weights than you can with free-weight exercises. 

How to:

  1. Load the hack squat machine with plates, then position your body so that your feet are shoulder-width apart on the footplate with your toes pointing slightly outward, and your shoulders and back are against the pads.
  2. Straighten your legs and use the safety handles to release the weight.
  3. While keeping your back pressed against the pad, sit down and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes. 
  4. Stand up and return to the starting position.

8. Dumbbell Step-Up

Dumbbell Step-Up form

Although some people think that the dumbbell step-up is a particularly good “inner-quad exercise”research shows the dumbbell step-up is a highly effective inner-quad and outer-quad exercise, training both portions of your thighs simultaneously.

How to:

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, place your right foot on a box, stool, or other surface about knee-height off the floor. 
  2. Keeping your weight on your right foot, fully straighten your right leg. 
  3. Lower your left foot toward the floor, and return to the starting position.

9. Goblet Squat

Goblet Squat form

Research shows that the goblet squat is a good addition to any workout routine aimed at developing the quads. Because you hold the weight in your hands rather than across your shoulders, it’s also easier on your back than other quad-dominant exercises.

How to:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands. 
  2. Place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, point your toes out to the side at about a 45-degree angle, raise your chest, and sit down. 
  3. Remember to keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep.
  4. Stand up and return to the starting position.

10. Pistol Squat

Pistol Squat form

The pistol squat is the king of ​​bodyweight quad exercises because it improves balance, coordination, performance, and strength in each leg independently without the need for equipment.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outward.
  2. While keeping your right leg straight, lift your right foot 12-to-18 inches off the floor.
  3. Raise your arms so that they’re straight out in front of your chest.
  4. Brace your core, “grip” the floor with the toes on your right foot, and keep your chest up, then sit down, allowing your right knee to move forward over your right foot.
  5. Stand up and return to the starting position.

11. Banded Single-Leg Squat

Banded Single-Leg Squat form

The banded single-leg squat reigns supreme among banded quad exercises because it’s easy to set up, can be done anywhere, requires minimal equipment, and allows you to train each leg independently, which is ideal for making sure one leg doesn’t get bigger or stronger than the other.

How to:

  1. Place your right foot on an exercise band so that it lies under the middle of your foot.
  2. Bend over, grab the loose end of the exercise band, and pull it over your shoulders (you may need to bend over if it’s a strong resistance band), holding it in place with your hands.
  3. Take a big step back with your left foot so that the ball of your foot is resting on the floor. Lower yourself until your right thigh is roughly parallel with the floor.
  4. Stand up and return to the starting position.

12. Bodyweight Squat

Bodyweight Squat form

Bodyweight squats are a good quad-strengthening exercise for people who are new to training or working around an injury, or for those who don’t have a home gym but want to do quad exercises at home.

How to:

  1. Place your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, point your toes out to the side at about a 45-degree angle, take a deep breath into your chest, and sit down. 
  2. Keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. (You can either clasp your hands together in a “prayer” position, cross your arms in front of your chest, or push them straight out in front of you—whatever feels most comfortable.)
  3. Stand up and return to the starting position.

+ Scientific References