The quads are not tricky to target with your legs workouts. They’re the main muscles used to squat, perhaps the most popular exercise of all, so anyone who trains is likely to be working the quads regularly.
However, in a strange way that can actually mean you end up neglecting the quads to an extent, because they form a large muscle group with four heads and require more than squatting to target fully. Ideally you want to use a range of quad exercises to work the muscles from different angles using both isolation and compound moves with a variety of rep ranges.
This four-move workout is all about the quads, and if you’re used to only working your thighs through squats, trust us when we tell you that you’ll wake up the day after this session with DOMS in parts of your quads you’ve never noticed before.
Sets 4 Reps 6-8 Rest 2min
Take a “clean” grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Position the bar on your collarbone and drive your elbows upwards. Un-rack the bar, and take two steps back. Check your stance is even with feet just outside shoulder width. Take a deep breath, brace your core and lower under control into a full squat. Think “sitting between your heels”, rather than “sitting back”. Throughout the movement keep your elbows up and in to maintain the “shelf” for the barbell. Once you hit the bottom position, drive back up through the mid-foot until you reach the start.
Sets 3 Reps 8-10 Rest 90sec
Position yourself in a staggered stance with your rear foot elevated on a step or bench. Lower by bending at the knee and hip while keeping your torso upright. When you reach the bottom drive back up, extending your knee and hip to return to the start position.
Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Rest 90sec
Position yourself on the leg press machine and place your feet on the platform shoulder-width apart. Slowly lower until your knees are bent at least at a 90° angle. Keeping your whole foot in contact with the platform, engage your quads to press the weight back up. Don’t lock out your knees at the top.
Sets 2 Reps 12-15 Rest 60sec
Sit up straight on the leg extension machine and imagine you have a seat belt around your waist pulling your hips down into the seat. Use your quads to initiate the movement and avoid “kicking” the weight up. Extend your legs fully and pause for one second at the top, then lower under control.
Workout Tips To Build Big Quads
All those quarter squats might be good for your ego, but they aren’t maxing out your quad development. The quads are mechanically advantaged at the top of the lift, which means it’s easier for them to move weight. So squat as deep as you can with good form. Working below parallel forces the quads to work far harder and causes much higher levels of activation than quarter squats.
“Single-leg work is great for stimulating the vastus medialis oblique or VMO, the teardrop-shaped muscle on the inside of the thigh,” says body composition expert Tom MacCormick. “This is because the opposing leg isn’t there to help stabilise and keep you in position. Without the aid of the opposing leg the working leg requires the VMO to kick in to aid stability, correct knee tracking and maintain alignment.”
Extend and flex
“Don’t ignore the leg extension if quad growth is your goal,” says MacCormick. “It causes high levels of activation in the rectus femoris, which flexes the hip and the knee. During squats the hip extension movement opposes the hip flexion function of the rectus femoris and limits its activation. But in the leg extension no hip extension occurs, so the rectus femoris can achieve higher levels of activation.”
From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.
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