When talking about muscle groups in your body, it’s hard to ignore the quadriceps! This big and strong muscle located in the front of your thighs is in charge of your knee movement, which means that you need your quads to walk and run as well as do many other activities that require any extension of the knee joint, making it a key target for lower-body days. So it doesn’t matter if you’re just a beginner or you’re already an advanced lifter, training your quads is essential if you’re looking to grow bigger and stronger legs for your fitness goals!
Before diving headfirst into quad exercises, it’s important to know that the quadriceps is composed of four heads: the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris, and you need to work all four heads to prevent any muscle imbalances and to make sure that you’re training your lower body effectively. Just because they’re naturally big muscles doesn’t mean that they don’t need as much training as the rest, in fact, you need to work them from a variety of angles and with different movements to actually promote muscle growth, and we’ll help you with that! We’ve compiled a list of the best quad exercises that you can add to your lower-body routine so you can start making serious gains at the gym next time you work out.
Elevated heel dumbbell squat
The squat is the king quad exercise, and it’s one of the simplest yet most effective leg exercises that you can add to your quad routine! Among the countless squat variations that you can try, the elevated heel dumbbell squat will help you go deeper into the squat while keeping your torso upright, giving your quads a good burn by recruiting more muscle fibers. And it’s not exclusively for your quads! This killer compound exercise also targets your glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and your lower back and core for stability. After you've masted this exercise, you can try a more challenging variation with a barbell on your back instead of holding a dumbbell.
How to do it: First, grab a squat wedge or a weighted plate and set it in front of your feet. Grab a dumbbell by its horn and place your heels on it with your feet shoulder-width apart, so that your heels are slightly elevated but the balls of your feet are still on the ground. Begin the movement by lowering your body as deep as you can, keeping your chest up, making sure you’re maintaining your balance. When your thighs are below parallel to the ground, hold the position for a moment, then stand back up and repeat.
Barbell back squat
Starting strong with the weighted squat variations, the barbell back squat is one of the best exercises you can do on leg day, especially if you’re targeting your quads! The use of the barbell maximizes tension in your muscles, promoting muscle growth on your quads as well as your glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors thanks to the heavy weight and the up and down movement. By practicing good form, you’ll also be able to strengthen your core and improve your knee and ankle mobility.
How to do it: Stand in front of a squat rack with a barbell placed at about chest height. Take a step under the bar, placing it behind you and over your shoulders while keeping a straight back and your shoulder blades pinched together. Lift the bar and take a step away from the squat rack, placing your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outward. Begin by going down into a squat position slowly so you don’t break form or lose control of the weight. Go as far down as you can, then go back up and repeat.
Another great variation for a good quad burn is the barbell front squat, which is very similar to the barbell back squat with the difference that you’ll be placing the bar in front of your shoulders instead of behind. Grab the bar from the squat rack with an overhand grip and point your elbows forward while you keep the barbell on your shoulders. From this position you can start performing the squat movement, making sure you’re keeping your back straight and your shoulders back. This movement is less straining for your knees and lower back, and it’s still a killer quad exercise!
The leg press is another essential exercise for your leg days, imitating the squat movement with the difference that you won’t be lifting any weight with your upper body, you’ll just be pressing with your legs and resting your back, so you can take on heavier loads this way. It works your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, more specifically the gluteus maximus. You need a leg press machine for this exercise, so the movement is safer and more controlled than other leg exercises, and you can adjust the pads so you can be more comfortable in your workout! By changing the position of your feet, you can emphasize different muscles during the movement, so you can play with different positions and angles to get a complete leg workout.
How to do it: Sit on the leg press machine with your back and head comfortably against the padded support. Place your legs on the plate, making sure your thighs are forming a 90-degree angle with your torso and your feet aren’t too low or too high - just about knee level. Begin by pushing the platform with your feet in a linear manner until your legs are extended, but not locked. Make sure that your hips are resting against the backrest at all times instead of driving them up when you extend your legs. At the end of the movement, hold for a moment and then return to the starting position and repeat.
Bulgarian split squat
This compound movement is a great unilateral movement that you can add to your routine if you’re looking to grow bigger and stronger quads. Besides targeting your quadriceps, the Bulgarian split squat works your glutes, calves, hamstrings, hips, and even your abdominals. It’s a great stabilizer movement because it helps you tackle any muscle imbalances that you may have in your legs, so it requires a lot of coordination and balance to effectively train the working leg. Since you’ll be placing one foot on a bench or chair behind you, you might have some trouble going all the way down, so you can start by going halfway down on your first few tries and then practice going deeper each time.
How to do it: Stand in front of a bench, a chair, or another elevated surface where you can comfortably place your left foot behind you, keeping the right foot firmly planted on the floor. You should be at a comfortable distance from the bench so that you can perform the squat movement without losing your balance and preventing your knee from going past your toes. Begin the movement by bending your right knee, lowering your body until your right thigh is near parallel to the floor. Pause for a moment, go back up, and repeat. Finish your reps with one leg and then switch to the other one. You can also make this a weighted exercise by grabbing a dumbbell in each hand.
As far as compound movements go, lunges are among the best for your lower-body days. Walking lunges, in particular, incorporate the added challenge of taking a step forward every time you go down into a lunge position, requiring you to keep your balance and shift your weight as you advance. It’s a great quad exercise that also targets your glutes, calves, and hamstrings for the walking part, as well as your abs and lower back for stability. You can do it with your body weight or you can implement a pair of dumbbells to make it more challenging, and it’s an exercise that you can do either at home or the gym, you choose!
How to do it: To get into the starting position, stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Begin by stepping forward with your right leg, flexing both knees to get down in a controlled movement until your left knee almost touches the ground. Keep your right shin perpendicular to the floor as you go down, without letting your knee go past your foot. Make sure your torso is upright and your back isn’t curved. Hold the position, then push through the right heel to stand up. While you do this, take a step forward with your left foot and perform the same lunge movement forward.
The leg extension isolates the quadriceps for a more localized workout, and it’s perfect for those looking to train this specific muscle group while resting the rest, which is particularly useful when recovering from an injury. This is a tough exercise and it will make you feel the burn in your quads, and by isolating them you’ll be able to focus entirely on your quad motion since you don’t need to recruit other muscles for the movement. This exercise is more commonly performed on a leg extension machine, but it can also be done with a cable machine for a tougher challenge, it’s up to you!
How to do it: Sit on the leg extension machine, making sure that the backrest is well adjusted to fit your body comfortably. Place your feet against the edge of the seat and under the weighted pad, and grab the handles on each side of your body with your hands. Begin the movement by extending your knees so that your legs are lifting the weight, using your quads as the sole movers. Make sure to keep your back against the backrest at all times, keeping a tight grip on the handles so you don’t move out of place. At the top part of the extension, hold for a moment, then go back down slowly and repeat.
This is the last squat variation to make the list, and it’s definitely a killer one that you shouldn’t overlook! The goblet squat is a fat-burning movement that uses a kettlebell in front of your body to make it more difficult, not just because of the extra weight being added, but also because it challenges your balance by allowing you to drop into your natural center of gravity instead of fighting it. This compound lower-body exercise mainly works your quads as well as your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core, with the help of your forearm muscles to keep the weight in place. It’s definitely one of the best kettlebell exercises that you can try for a more effective workout.
How to do it: First, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and grab a kettlebell by the handle with both hands. Keeping your back straight and your shoulder blades together, hold the kettlebell in front of your chest with your elbows close to your body. Begin the movement by descending into a squat position, and go as deep as you can without losing your balance or curving your torso. Hold the position for a moment, then go back up to the starting position, and repeat.
Step-ups are a highly effective leg exercise that particularly works both your inner and outer quadriceps for a more complete quad workout, and weighted variations such as the dumbbell step-up are the best way to get the most out of this killer movement! Aside from your quads, step-ups also work your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, and they challenge and improve your stability and coordination by using one leg at a time, requiring you to keep your balance while moving up and down. For a more quad-focused workout, make sure that the surface you’re stepping on is not too high because the higher it is the more you’ll be recruiting the muscles of your posterior chain.
How to do it: Stand straight facing a stool or plyo box that is below knee height with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. You can hold the dumbbells on each side of your body or in front of your shoulders with a neutral grip. Firmly place your right foot on the box, keeping the left foot on the floor. Begin the movement by extending your right knee, lifting yourself until your left foot reaches the box and you’re standing on top of it. Make sure that you keep your balance during the movement, keeping the weights in place. Step down with your left foot, and then place your right foot on the floor. Repeat with the opposing foot, alternating throughout the exercise.
These are just a few of the best quad exercises, but there are so many more that you can try! Quads are one of the biggest muscle groups in your body, and having strong quads is key to performing many lower-body exercises adequately and with good form, meaning that if you want to focus on growing bigger and stronger legs, you can’t neglect your quads.
So, how can you effectively train quads during leg days?
The best way to make sure you’re working them out properly is by adding compound movements to your workouts that include your quads as well as your other lower-body muscles, like your glutes and hamstrings. Exercises such as squats, leg presses, step-ups, and lunges are perfect to start your leg workout because they recruit several muscle groups to do the work, not just the quads. The leg extension, on the other hand, is an isolated movement that targets only your quads, so it’s perfect for the end of your workout when you’re already getting tired to finish giving them a good burn. Your quads are big, so they can take on heavier weights than other muscles, but you still need to make sure the weight isn’t too heavy for your current fitness level. Focus on mastering classic movements first before trying out weighted variations and more complex exercises, so you can practice proper form and make progress without risking any injuries.
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