Best Quad Exercises: Top 10 Quad Exercises of All Time

Best Quad Exercises

A lot of bodybuilders spend the majority of their training time working on their pecs, lats, delts, and arms. Out of four or five weekly workouts, they only train their legs once. Some don’t even train their legs at all!

That’s a shame because your legs make up close to 50% of your total body muscle mass, and a pair of muscular legs can look really impressive. You can hide underdeveloped legs in long pants during the winter. But when summer rolls around, and it’s time to wear shorts, everyone will see you haven’t been taking leg training seriously, and long pants in the heat of summer are not a good look.

Because leg training is so hard – there is no such thing as an easy leg workout – it makes sense to build your workouts around the best, most productive quad exercises available. After all, why waste your time and energy on anything that doesn’t produce the best possible results?

We’ll cover hamstrings in another article, so, for now, here are the best ten quad exercises.

Quadriceps Anatomy

Quadriceps, or quads for short, is the collective term for the muscles on the front of your thighs. It’s sometimes called the quadriceps femoris, which means four-headed thigh muscle. The primary function of the quadriceps is knee extension, i.e., straightening your knees. The four muscles that make up the quadriceps are (1):

Rectus femoris: This is the largest of the quad muscles. It’s also the only one that crosses both the hip and the knee joints, making it a biaxial muscle. Because of this, it not only extends the knee joint but due to its function alongside the hip flexors, it also bends the hip. 

Vastus Lateralis: Located on the outside of the thigh, this quadricep contributes to the width of your upper leg. It is a uniaxial muscle, which means it only crosses one joint. Because it does not cross your hip, its only function is knee extension.

Vastus Medialis: Vastus medialis is the teardrop-shaped muscle just above your knee. Like the other muscles, it is responsible for knee extension. It also helps make sure your patella or kneecap tracks and moves properly.

Vastus Intermedius: Located between and beneath vastus lateralis and vastus medialis, this muscle is not easy to see but, when well developed, contributes a lot to the size of your thigh.

Despite having four different origin points, the four quadriceps muscles come together to form the single quadriceps tendon and then the patellar ligament.

The anatomy of the Quads

10 Best Quad Exercises

Not sure which quad exercises to include in your leg workouts? Let us help! Here are TEN of the best quad exercises, all of which are guaranteed to put mass on your thighs.

1. Barbell front squats

Squats are arguably the best quad-building exercise around. All types of squats work your quads, but because of the upright torso and position of the bar, front squats are the most effective choice.

Barbell Front Squats

How to do it:

1. Rack and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Stand with your feet roughly hip-width apart.
2. Push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down as deeply as you can. Keep your torso upright, look straight ahead, and don’t drop your arms.
3. Stand back up and repeat.
4. Increase quad activation by putting your heels on a 1 to 2-inch block or weight plates.

Benefits:

• A compound exercise that also works your hamstrings and glutes
• Less lower back strain than barbell back squats
• Good for building muscle mass and strength
• Easier to dump the bar if you get into trouble and are unable to complete a rep

2. Hack squat machine

The hack squat machine is a very quad-centric exercise. Unlike leg presses, there is very little hamstring involvement in this exercise, especially if you adopt a narrow stance.

Hack Squats

How to do it:

1. Stand on the footplate with your feet about hip-width apart. Keep your feet low on the platform to maximize quadriceps recruitment.
2. With your shoulders under the pads, bend your knees and squat down as far as you can without lifting your heels off the footplate.
3. Stand back up and repeat.

Benefits:

• Easy to learn
• Minimal lower back stress
• Easy to adjust your foot position for greater comfort
• You can train to failure in relative safety on this exercise

3. Leg extensions

No exercise isolates your quads like leg extensions. With no movement at your hip, this exercise really hammers the three Vastus muscles, and especially Vastus Medialis, which is especially active during the last few degrees of knee extension. Do this exercise slowly and deliberately, squeezing your legs straight at the mid-point of each rep. And yes, that burning you can feel in your quads is normal!

Leg extensions

How to do it:

1. Adjust the backrest so that, when you sit on the machine, your knees line up with the lever arm pivot point. Place your feet behind the roller pad, so it’s just above your ankles.
2. Straighten your legs, making sure you achieve full knee extension. Pause for 1-2 seconds with your legs straight.
3. Bend your legs and lower the weight back down, but do not let it touch the rest of the stack. That would give you a rest between reps, making this exercise less productive.

Benefits:

• No strain on your lower back
• The only way to completely isolate your quads
• Can be done one leg at a time to fix left-to-right strength imbalances
• Very good for muscle growth and endurance

4. Trap bar deadlifts from a deficit

Deadlifts are usually thought of as a posterior chain exercise that works your glutes, hamstrings, and back. While that is true of regular barbell deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts are much more quad-focused. Adding a deficit makes them even better for your quadriceps.

Trap Bar Deadlift

How to do it:

1. Stand on a 3 to 6-inch platform inside your trap bar. You can use a 45-pound bumper plate, an aerobics step, or any other sturdy platform.
2. Squat down and grab the handles of the trap bar. Drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your abs, and straighten your arms. Look straight ahead.
3. Drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not lean back at the top as doing so puts a lot of strain on your lower back.
4. Bend your legs and lower the weight back to the floor, reset your start position, and then repeat.

Benefits:

• No need to use a squat rack
• A great grip exercise
• Builds core strength
• Can be used to build muscle size and strength

5. 1 ½ rep prisoner squats

While most of the best quad exercises involve equipment, some bodyweight exercises can be just as effective. This simple but tough exercise will leave your quads burning, but, conveniently, you don’t need to go to the gym to do them.

How to do it:

1. Stand with your feet between shoulder and hip-width apart. Clasp your hands behind your head and push your elbows back to open your chest.
2. Push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
3. Stand up, but only rise halfway.
4. Descend all the way back down and then stand fully upright. That’s one rep – keep going!
5. Raise your heels 2-4 inches to increase quad activation.

Benefits:

• Do this exercise anywhere – even at home
• Ideal for beginners
• Easy to learn
• Very little lower back strain

6. Barbell hack squat

The barbell hack squat is named after old-school bodybuilder and wrestler George Hackenschmidt, who was famed for his quad development. This golden-era exercise is not easy to master, but it will give your quads a unique workout.

George Hackenschmidt

How to do it:

1. Stand with your back to a loaded barbell. Your feet should be roughly shoulder to hip-width apart. Squat down and grab the barbell, so your palms are facing backward. Straighten your arms and brace your abs. Do not round your lower back.
2. Extend your legs and stand up straight.
3. Bend your legs and lower the weight back to the floor.
4. Raise your heels to make this exercise even more quad-centric.

Benefits:

• No squat rack required
• Suitable for home exercisers
• Builds grip strength
• You can train to failure in relative safety on this exercise

7. Bulgarian split squats

Most leg exercises work both legs at the same time. This makes a certain amount of sense because that allows you to lift more weight, and that’s important for building maximum muscle strength and size. However, always doing two-legged exercises can lead to left-to-right straight and muscle size imbalances. This quad exercise works one leg at a time so you can avoid or fix this problem.

Bulgarian Split Squat Jumps

How to do it:

1. Stand with your back to a knee-high bench. Bend one leg and place the top of your foot on the bench behind. Hop forward and into a split stance.
2. Bend your legs and lower your rearmost knee to within 1-2 inches of the floor. Keep your body upright.
3. Stand back up and repeat.
4. Hold dumbbells in your hands to make this exercise harder.

Benefits:

• Good for hip mobility
• Helps improve balance
• A good exercise for improved sports performance

8. Leg presses

Leg presses allow you to work your legs to failure in relative safety. The back support protects your back, and you can just flip the safety catchers across to take the weight if you can’t complete a rep. This is an ideal exercise for going hard and heavy – even if you train on your own.

Leg Presses

How to do it:

1. Sit on the leg press machine and place your feet on the footrest, roughly hip-width apart. Move your feet down the footrest to emphasize your quads. A narrower stance will help too.
2. Driving through your heels, press the weight up until your knees are straight.
3. Lower the weight as far as you can without rounding your lower back and repeat.

Benefits:

• Easy to learn
• No need for spotters
• Suitable for building muscle size and strength
• A good quad exercise for beginners

9. Goblet squats

While barbell front squats are one of the best quad builders you can do, they are also hard to master. The front rack position takes practice, and a lot of exercisers find it really uncomfortable. Goblet squats provide a similar quad workout but are much easier to learn. They’re more comfortable too!

How to do it:

1. Hold a kettlebell by the vertical handles, so it’s touching your chest. Tuck your elbows into your sides. Stand with your feet between shoulder and hip-width apart. Brace your abs.
2. Bend your legs and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
3. Stand back up and repeat.
4. Raise your heels on weight plates or blocks to increase quad activation.

Benefits:

• No squat rack required
• You can train to failure in relative safety on this exercise
• A good core and posture exercise

10. Forward lunges

Lunges are a hugely underappreciated exercise. That’s a shame because they are an excellent quad builder, as well as being good for your glutes and hamstrings too. You can do them with just bodyweight, or with dumbbells or a barbell. Like Bulgarian split squats, they are useful for preventing and fixing left to right size and strength imbalances.

How to do it:

1. Stand with your feet together, hands by your sides.
2. Take a large step forward, bend your legs, and lower your rearmost knee to within 1-2 inches of the floor. Keep your torso upright.
3. Push forcefully off your front leg to return to the starting position.
4. Do all your reps on one leg before resting and then swapping sides.
5. Experiment with the length of your lunge to get the best effect on your quads. For most people, a shorter step means more quads activation.

Benefits:

  • Very low risk of back strain
  • Suitable for building muscle mass and endurance
  • Easy to learn
  • Can be done almost anywhere
  • Good for developing balance

Important Quad Training Tips

Get the most from your quad-building workouts with these useful hacks and tips.

1. Always warm-up before your workout

A good workout starts with a proper warm-up. This is especially important for quad training because all of the best exercises heavily involve your knees, and sore knees are a common problem for bodybuilders.

Start your quad workout with a few minutes of light cardio, followed with some dynamic lower body stretches. Finally, do a couple of light sets of the exercises in your workout to fully prepare your muscles and joints and also practice the techniques you are about to use.

2. Raise your heels with caution

A lot of leg exercises are more quad-centric if you raise your heels, either putting them on weight plates or wooden blocks. However, while this is an effective muscle-building strategy, it also increases the stress on your knees. Raising your heels tends to shift your weight onto your toes and pushes your shins forward of vertical. This does increase quad activation, but it increases knee wear and tear too. Keep your heels flat on the floor if you have a history of knee pain.

Raised Heel Squats Block Under Heels Squat Weight Lifting Shoes

3. Keep your joints warm with neoprene knee sleeves

Even healthy knees can ache during quad training. Neoprene knee sleeves provide support and warmth to keep your knees feeling comfortable, stable, and free from pain. Elasticated knee wraps, which are often used by powerlifters, are not recommended. They provide extra bounce out of the bottom of things like squats and leg presses. They allow you to lift more weight, but only by doing some of the work for you. Knee wraps are useful for powerlifters but are much less so for bodybuilders.

4. Use a variety of quad building exercises

Out of all the exercises we’ve listed, some are probably already your favorites, while there are others you may not have done before. To keep your workouts fresh and interesting, you mustn’t just do the exercises you like. It’s been proven that variety is a crucial favor for developing strength and muscle mass, as well as boosting training motivation (2). Make sure you do some of the lesser-known exercises as well as the ones that you are more familiar with.

Tom Platz

5. Adjust your reps and weight to match your training goals

Get the most from your quad-building workouts by following these weight and rep guidelines.

  • For strength: 1-5 reps with 85-100% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM)
  • For muscle hypertrophy: 6-12 reps with 67-85% of your 1RM
  • For muscular endurance: 13-20+ reps with 50-67% of your 1RM

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions? We’ve got the answers! If you can’t find the answer you want below, drop us a line in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

The Wrap-up

Big quads will really set you apart from other gym-goers. While you may never build thighs like Tom Platz, who had arguably the best quads in the history of bodybuilding, you should still be able to develop legs you can be proud of. It won’t be easy, and you’ll have to pay your dues in sweat and even tears in the gym.

But, if you commit to using the best quad exercises, you too can build head-turning, show-stopping, awe-inspiring legs.

References:

1. Encyclopedia Britannica: Quadriceps Femoris Muscle https://www.britannica.com 

2. PubMed: Baz-Valle, Eneko; Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Torres-Unda, Jon; Santos-Concejero, Jordan; Balsalobre-Fern├índez, Carlos (2019). “The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men”. PloS One. 14 (12): e0226989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0226989. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 6934277. PMID 31881066. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov 

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