The 10 Best Quad Exercises and Workouts for Building Muscle

·10-min read
Photo credit: chrisgraphics - Getty Images
Photo credit: chrisgraphics - Getty Images

What are you hoping to achieve at the gym? Novice lifters may answer this question by saying something like a bulging chest or undulating biceps, but real lifters know that quad exercises are what really separate the men from the boys.

Think about it, if you really want people to know that you have power and strength then there's no better way to show it than with a pair of thick, muscular quads peeking through your gym shorts. A well-developed lower body also tells the world you're doing more in the gym than benching and curling.

Not that quad exercises are only good for aesthetics. A study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that patients with knee osteoarthritis were able to soothe knee pain and move more freely if they had stronger quads.

Most people work their quads via squats, but there are so many more quad exercises to explore and enjoy. Below, our fitness editor Andrew Tracey takes us through 10 of the best, as well as a quad-dominant workout to get the best out of them. Time to join the quad squad.

Your Quad Muscles

Unsurprisingly, your quadriceps, or quads, consist of four muscles. They are:

  • Rectus Femoris: This muscle runs straight down your thigh and helps with knee and hip flexion.

  • Vastus Lateralis: The largest of the four quad muscles, it connects your thighbone to your kneecap.

  • Vastus Medialis: This muscle's function is to extend your knee joint and help stabilise your kneecap.

  • Vastus Intermedius: Along with other muscles in your knee, the vastus intermedius facilitates knee extension.

The Benefits of Training Quads

For most people the primary benefit of training your quads is it's going to make the movements you make everyday – like walking, bending and sitting – easier. But that's not to say training your quads won't also benefit you beyond those simple movements. Training quads will also improve the stability of your kneecap and protect your knee joint from injury. A study published in The Journal of Rheumatology also found that quad exercises can lower your risk of developing knee osteoarthritis and help prevent degenerative wear and tear.

The 10 Best Quad Exercises for Building Muscle

You know why you should be training quads, but what exercises should you be in your programme? Here are 10 of the best.

  1. Front Squats

  2. Heels Elevated Goblet Squats

  3. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

  4. Seated Dumbbell Leg Extensions

  5. Sissy Squat

  6. Banded Spanish Squats

  7. Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunges

  8. Laying Leg Extensions

  9. Dumbbell Hack Squat with a Foam Roller

  10. Pistol Squats

Front Squats

Why: Back squats get all the press, but by shifting the weight onto the front of our bodies (with either a bar or dumbbells), we can put a greater emphasis on the quadriceps. Switching from back to front is the quickest change you can make to your training to start seeing quad growth.

How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a barbell across your upper chest. You can either support the weight on your fingers, with wrists extended, or cross your arms to support the weight. Taking care to not arch your back, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up to the start position.

Heels Elevated Goblet Squats

Why: Elevating your heels during a squat is a shortcut to getting more range of motion, especially if you struggle with tight calf muscles. Heels elevated goblet squats, also known as cyclist squats, allow you to get DEEP, recruiting more muscle fibres in your quads and specifically targeting the vastus medialis, the 'tear drop' muscles on the inside of your thighs.

How: Stand tall on a large weight plate or block, around 3-4 inches tall, and make sure your heels are elevated with the balls of your feet on the floor. Grab a kettlebell and keeping your torso upright and feet close together, squat down until the crease of your hip passes below your knee, and your knees pass over your toes. Stand back up explosively and repeat.

Front Foot Elevated Split Squats

Why: By lifting one leg onto a bench, not only do we open up a massive range of motion, but working one leg at a time means we require significantly less weight for the same effect. In fact, high rep sets of front foot elevated split squats often require just a light set of dumbbells, and can even be performed with just your body weight. You’ll also increase your stability and improve your knee health.

How: Stand tall on a large weight plate or block and hold dumbbells with straight arms by your sides. Keeping your chest up at all times, take a step backward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground. Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg.

Seated Dumbbell Leg Extensions

Why: Isolating the muscles of the quads can be difficult without specific machinery, but by simply holding a dumbbell between your feet whilst siting on a box or a bench you’re able to work solely on ‘knee extension’, the primary function of the quadriceps. High rep sets are a great finisher after squats and lunges for maximum growth.

How: Sit on a box or bench, with your back straight and a dumbbell between your feet. With your knees at a 90 degree angle, extend your legs so that they're straight and parallel with the ground. Ensure that the rest of the body remains stationary. Pause for a second before slowly lowering the weight back to the original position, ensuring that you do not go past the 90-degree angle limit.

Sissy Squat

Why: A challenging bodyweight movement that builds powerful quads whilst building core strength and improving balance. This one takes some mastery, but requiring no kit it’s a movement that can easily be practiced at home. Work your way towards getting your knees all of the way to the ground, then back up again, under control and reap the benefits.

How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, heels raised on a plate (or simply lift them from the floor) putting your weight through the balls of your feet. Place your hands on your hips or use a rack or wall to support you. Bend at the knees and lean backwards, creating a strong, rigid line from your knees to your head. Continue bending at the knees, maintaining your backwards lean, lowering your knees as close to the ground as possible before standing back up explosively. Repeat.

Banded Spanish Squats

Why: Spanish squats are a great low load alternative if you suffer from knee pain during heavy lifts. The band helps to keep you balanced whilst your shins remain vertical- this puts a huge emphasis on the quads, and is another good option for really isolating the quads in the absence of a leg extension machine.

How: Loop a resistance band around a rack, or set of heavy dumbbells. Step into the band so that it rests around the back of your knees. Take a few steps backwards until you feel strong tension on the band. With your feet in a narrow stance, push your hips back and drop into a deep squat, pause at the bottom before standing back up explosively against the resistance of the band. Repeat.

Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunges

Why: Lunges are an excellent option for building all round leg mass. Just like split squats, by using one leg we’re able to half the amount of weight we need to use for the same stimulus, saving you on wear and tear through the rest of your body. By elevating your front foot with a plate or block, you’ll hugely increase the depth of your lunge. More range equals more muscle.

How: Stand on a small box, or stack of plates around three-to-four inches from the ground. Take a long step backwards with one foot until your toes make contact with the ground. Maintaining an upright torso bend at the front knee, slowly lowering until your back knee lightly touches the floor. Drive your weight through your front foot, standing back up explosively. Complete desired reps with one leg, before matching with the other side.

Lying Leg Extensions

Why: More accessible than the sissy squat, the laying leg extension builds strength through a huge range of motion, but also has enormous mobility benefits. Work on explosively bringing your torso upright but lowering back to the ground under a three-to-four second count.

How: Kneel on the ground, with your bum on your heels. Lean backwards and slowly lower your head towards the ground, use a rack to support your descent if necessary. When you feel a stretch through your quads, or begin to lose balance, explosively raise yourself back upright, ensuring you maintain a straight line from your knees to your head throughout. Repeat. Aim to progressively increase the depth you reach.

Dumbbell Hack Squat with a Foam Roller

Why: If you struggle with balance and mobility during squats, simply placing a foam roller behind your back on a wall and using it to guide you up and down whilst holding a pair of dumbbells is a great way to target the quads (without worrying about your coordination or flexibility), this makes them the perfect finisher to a heavy leg workout.

How: Stand around 12 inches away from a wall, with a foam roller pinched between your lower back and the wall. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. With your feet around shoulder width apart, slowly lower yourself towards the floor, 'rolling down' the foam roller, until you reach a deep squat. Stand back up explosively, repeat.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Pistol Squats

Why: The ultimate test of your lower body strength and mobility. Squatting as low as possible, on one leg, whilst keeping the other leg stretched out in front of your body will challenge your core, hip flexors, balance and, of course, quadriceps. Start by learning to get up from a box or bench single legged, before progressing to performing reps supporting yourself on a rack, until you’re ready for the full challenge.

How: Stand with your feet in a narrow stance and lift one leg off the floor. Bend your standing knee to squat down as low as you can while keeping your back straight. Push back up to the start position through your heel, then switch legs and repeat. That's one rep.

The Quad Dominant Workout

This workout utilises a ‘mechanical dropset’ working from the most difficult exercise, through to the least, raising the reps as you go, allowing you to push past the point of failure and fire up as many muscle fibres as possible in your quest for a set of enviable pins.

Work your way through five rounds of this triple pronged attack. Making sure to rest for two minutes between each round.

10 x Dumbbell/Kettlebell Front Squat

Clean a pair of moderate weight dumbbells or kettlebells up onto your shoulders and stand tall (A). From here, take a deep breath and drop into a front squat, until the crease of your hip passes below your knee (B), before driving back up. Lower yourself under control but ensure you’re standing back up explosively to get the most bang for your buck.

20 x Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge

Stand tall on a large weight plate or block, around 3-4 inches tall, hold your dumbbells with straight arms by your sides (A). Keeping your chest up at all times, take a step backward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground (B). Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg.

30 x Heels Elevated Goblet Squats

Turn around onto the edge of your plate so that your heels are elevated with the balls of your feet on the floor. If necessary drop one or both of your dumbbells and continue with just your bodyweight (A) Keeping your torso upright and feet close together, squat down until the crease of your hip passes below your knee, and your knees pass over your toes (B) Stand back up explosively and repeat.

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