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January 22, 2022
Sun's out, quads out!!! Showing your guns was so early 2000's, so if you really want to show off your physique, you had better have some impressive slabs of meat sitting on the front of your upper thigh (that's where your quadriceps sit). While kind of joking, we're really not. Back in the day, you may have been able to get away with pumping out hundreds of biceps curls and getting all the attention but that doesn't cut it anymore. There have been way too many "don't skip leg day" memes to allow you to get away with having chicken legs. Today, even the most unathletic person would probably point out the little noodles hanging out of your shorts. But have no fear; it's actually not too difficult to produce some impressive quadriceps. In fact, all you need is a set of dumbbells to build some massive quads.
In this article, we're going to break it down for you:
Get ready to grow some tree trunks.
Before you start training the quadriceps, you need to have a basic understanding of what it is you're precisely working with. Mainly because the "quadriceps" isn't exactly a muscle; it's a muscle group. To be clear, the quadriceps consists of four large muscles that sit on the upper, anterior side (front) of the thigh. They include:
The rectus femoris is the only muscle of the quadriceps to cross both the hip and knee joints. Therefore, it's involved in both the flexion of the hip joint and extension of the knee. However, this means that the rectus femoris is not as strong when the hip is flexed as the muscle is shorter and "loose".
The vastus lateralis is the largest and most powerful muscle of the quadriceps. It runs down the outside of the thigh (lateral) and ends above the knee cap. When looking at the quadriceps, you notice that there are two "bumps" above the knee. The vastus lateralis is on the outside and sits higher. The other "bump" being the vastus medialis.
The vastus medialis runs down the inside of the thigh (medial) and ends next to the knee. As mentioned, this is perhaps the most visual quadricep muscle and is also known as the "teardrop muscle". Due to its location right on the knee, it is a critical quadricep muscle as it plays a huge role in tracking the knee. In fact, weakness or fatigue of the vastus medialis is more than likely to cause knee pain.
The vastus intermedius runs down the center of the thigh between the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. It plays a unique part as it is the limiting factor of flexing the knee.
These four muscles work together to extend the knee and are antagonists to the hamstrings. The quadriceps muscles eventually merge into the quadriceps tendon and insert into the tibia through the patella.
The quadriceps are the knee's primary extensor, making it pretty obvious why you need to include some specific quadriceps training in your program. That being said, here are the top reasons you need to train your quadriceps.
Nobody likes chicken legs. Nobody. It doesn't matter how built your upper body is, as a set of twigs hanging out of your shorts will completely invalidate anything going on up top. You don't need to have against tree trunks for thighs, but there should definitely be mass and definition for great aesthetics.
Since the quadriceps make up the anterior section of your legs, they need to be developed to create that solid look. Still, quadriceps are much easier to see on a body than the hamstrings as they will protrude outwards and build that little teardrop muscle right above the knee cap. Quite simply, if you really want to have great aesthetics, you NEED to train the quadriceps.
If you are curious about where you stack up with others, check out the average thigh sizes for men and women.
Increase Lower Body Pushing Power:
You're not pushing anything with your legs without a set of quadriceps. In fact, the quadriceps are the muscle group responsible for pushing with the leg and is one of the strongest muscles in the human body. In other words; you can't call yourself strong unless you have a nice pair of quadriceps. This will also directly affect improving other lifts such as the back squat and even the deadlift.
Improve Your Athletic Performance:
In addition to improving pushing power and performance on other lifts, your quadriceps are the primary muscles responsible for various athletic movements. Studies show that the quadriceps are essential for movements like kicking, jumping, cycling, and sprinting (especially the take-off when the body is leaned over). Therefore, if you are an athlete in any sense of the word, having a stronger set of quadriceps will make you a better athlete.
Increase Your Upper Body Mass (Increased Hormones!!!):
No, that's not a typo. Studies have shown that when trainees include high-intense lower body training, they experience more significant gains in the upper body. While this relationship isn't entirely understood, it's most likely because the muscles in the lower body are so massive. Training them causes a higher release of hormones in the body which will improve muscle protein synthesis and repair. To be fair, this happens when training the lower body (glutes, hamstrings) and not just the quadriceps, but still…this might be enough to persuade you to do some of the tougher dumbbell exercises for the quadriceps (see: Bulgarian split squat)
Improve Quality Of Life:
Even if you're not a "hardcore" lifter, you'll greatly benefit from training the quadriceps as they dictate some of life's most basic functions, including standing from a chair. While this may not be an issue for you know, sit-to-stand is one of the most basic and essential human abilities to remain mobile and independent in life. Strengthening your quadriceps now is an excellent method to help mitigate any issues in the future.
Further, if you have found yourself (or a loved one) who is starting to enter a stage of life where this is an issue, strength and conditioning can be effective on people of all ages. Therefore, use these exercises (or modified versions) to help turn back the hands of time.
So let's get into it. We know that developing the quadriceps is crucial for aesthetics, pushing power, and athletic performance, but how do we train them? We're now going to go over the very best exercises to build up these powerful extensor muscles. All of these quad exercises will be great for your leg workouts.
The goblet squat is a classic squat variation that utilizes a ton of knee flexion, making it a perfect choice to workout the quadriceps. It gets its name because you hold a dumbbell as it looks like a goblet.
To perform the goblet squat, you're going to hold a dumbbell and hold it to your chest. Flip a dumbbell to stand vertically and pick it up by one end. One standing, you're going to place your palms together under the dumbbell as if you're making a cup that will resemble a large goblet. One end of the dumbbell will sit in between your palms, resting on your hands. Further, be sure to have your elbows tucked in and pointing down.
When performing the goblet squat, it's vital to understand this squat variation is performed with an upright torso, much like a front squat. The torso will be vertical with a minimal bend in the waist. The shins will remain as vertical as possible as the hips are pushed back with flexion in the knees.
Get in a stance with feet about hip-width apart and toes pointing out slightly. You will first begin the descent by pushing your hips backward. Continue pushing your hips while maintaining an upright torso. Again, similar to the front squat, the goblet squat requires some mobility in the hips and thoracic spine.
As you go down, keep your torso and shins vertical as most flexion occurs at the knees. Continue going down until your thighs break parallel with the ground.
Remember! During the entire movement, keep the dumbbell close to the body. From the top of the movement to the bottom, the dumbbell should be pressed up against the chest.
Once you hit parallel, you will press down into the ground to propel yourself up.
As you come up, your hips and shoulders should rise simultaneously. One of the biggest errors in squats is the hips rising before the shoulders. This results in a weird kind of good morning as your hips first rise up, followed by pulling your shoulders up. Therefore, you want to think about "driving your shoulders up" when you rise.
The dumbbell sumo deadlift is an excellent exercise to use with dumbbells to really help isolate the quads. However, don't confuse this with a traditional deadlift that focuses more on the anterior muscles. In fact, the sumo deadlift vs. conventional deadlift are actually quite different in their biomechanics and primary muscles activated.
To perform the dumbbell sumo deadlift, you will hold two dumbbells in front of your body with an overhand grip. These dumbbells should hang naturally, shoulder-width apart.
Next, spread your legs so that they're at about 1.5-2.0 x that of your normal deadlift stance. This means your legs are out wide and your toes are turned outward. The feet are turned outward because you want your knees to track your toes as you bend down. Therefore, your hips will be externally rotated in line with your toes to allow a straight path for your knees to follow.
Once your feet are turned outward, you will push your hips out and down, allowing them to sink. Remember to keep your knees in line with your knees so your thigh runs parallel with your toes. Keep going down until you come close to parallel and come up. Ideally, you will get the dumbbells to a similar depth as if using a barbell. This is at placement somewhere in the lower half of the shin. This is the starting position. You will then raise up and then come back down slowly. Be sure to pause at the bottom of every rep!
It's best to think of these as a strength exercise so try to use a pair of dumbbells that won't allow any more than 8 reps.
Plie squat is extremely similar to the sumo deadlift, except you start from the top position like a typical squat. Other than that, literally, everything else is the same.
You will then go down from the starting position at the top until you reach the lowest spot you can go. Again, your goal is to keep your torso upright with a minimal hip bend during the entire movement. The more you bend at the hip means more involvement from the posterior muscles, which is not what we want.
These, along with the sumo deadlift, are also great exercises to train the inner thigh.
Lunges are one of the best exercises you can perform for total lower body strength and balance. The lunge works so many muscles, and really kills the quads.
Because the lifter uses the quads to lower themself on the eccentric portion, the forward lunges will theoretically cause more damage to the quads. This is in contrast to its counterpart, the reverse lunge, which uses the hamstrings to control the eccentric.
Plus, lunges are going to also increase your balance. Stepping forward and dropping to a knee takes a lot more coordination than one might think. Comparing split squats vs lunges, the lunge requires far more stability and balance. This is why lunges are one of the best dumbbell leg exercises.
When performing a dumbbell forward lunge, you will start neutral. Next, you're going to take one giant step forward, otherwise known as a lunge. The best way to know how far to step is to start backward, in the down position. Your feet should be spread apart so that when you come down to the ground, your front shin is perpendicular (vertical) to the ground, and your knee is flexed at a 90-degree angle. The back knee should be on the basis (lightly) also have 90-degree flexion in the knee. Also, the back thigh should be perpendicular (vertical) to the ground.
So now that you know where to step, go back to the starting stance. You're then going to take a step forward so that your front foot lands in the correct spot. Once the foot lands, you will let your body move straight down, creating an eccentric muscle contraction. This eccentric portion should occur continuously with the step, as there should be no pause between the step and eccentric portion. Go down until your knee grazes the ground, and then push yourself back up with the front leg to send you back to the original starting position.
Important!!! Control the descent when you come down, so your knee lightly touches the ground. Don't bang it in the ground unless you want to mess up your knees.
One of the issues with lunges has always been loading. Due to the nature of the lift, holding a barbell on the back can be cumbersome and dangerous simply because the lunge requires a decent amount of movement. Using a pair of dumbbells basically eliminates this whole problem making it a great choice to add a load. Choose an appropriate weight for dumbbells and let them hang down to the side in a natural position.
This is precisely the same as the forward lunge, except now, you take a step forward instead of pushing yourself back. This creates a slightly different stimulus as you're now pulling yourself forward with the front leg rather than pushing. These tend to be best done with lightweight and high reps (distance).
Along with other lunges, these make great quadricep exercises to perform at home.
Another dumbbell lunge variation. This one is known as a dumbbell split squat. The primary difference between a dumbbell split squat, and a lunge is that the legs remain stationary in a split squat. To be clear, instead of starting with your feet together and then stepping out as in a lunge, you perform a split squat starting with your legs spread out at the same distance as a lunge.
You will just perform the split squat from this position by lowering yourself and then coming back up. Repeat this for your prescribed amount of reps and then switch sides.
To easily make this movement more difficult, all you need is an object to place your front foot on. Something simple like a weight plate would work great.
Ouch. That's one word to describe Bulgarian split squats. Bulgarian split squats are performed in the same manner as a split squat, except somewhere along the way, Bulgarians got involved and somehow made this movement even more brutal.
To perform the Bulgarian split squat, you're going to need to add a bench or chair to the mix. Set up the bench behind you facing a long way and stand at a distance to where you can place your back foot on top. Then yes, you're going to place your back foot on top of the bench. When you do this, you're going to put the top of your foot on the bench so that it will allow your ankle to extend.
Maneuver your front foot to be out in front of the bench, and your back leg is relatively stretched out. You will need to play around with foot positioning at first, but you allow your body to come down all the way until your knee is flexed at a 90-degree angle. To know if you have proper foot placement, your front shin should be vertical while the top of your thigh runs parallel to the ground in this position.
Like all other lunge and split squat variations, you have to make sure that your movement is directed straight downwards rather than forward.
While reading the difference of resting your foot on the bench, you may think that doesn't sound too crazy. Trust us, the Bulgarian split squat is on a whole other level than other variations. Because your rear foot is elevated and resting on the top of your foot, you have effectively taken it out of the exercise. This means that you are lifting a significantly more significant portion of your weight with just the quadricep of the forward leg.
A word of advice. When you first start training the Bulgarian squat, keep the dumbbells on the ground at first and only use your body weight. There are a couple reasons why.
Therefore, spend a couple sessions just using your body. Once your muscles have adjusted to the exercise, then go ahead and start loading the movement.
Back squats and front squats are both excellent movements. However, if you are trying to isolate the quadriceps more, go ahead and use the front squat. As mentioned above, this is simply implied due to the more upright torso required to execute the movement. This causes less flexion in the hips and more flexion in the knees.
To perform a front squat with dumbbells, stand in a neutral stance holding a set of dumbbells to your side. Next, lift the dumbbells up to what's known as the "racked position". Lift your elbows up high in front of you and bend your hands back towards the shoulders. This creates a shelf or "rack" with your anterior deltoids where a barbell can rest. However, since you're using dumbbells, you will simply place one side of the dumbbell on your shoulders and keep your elbows high.
Sissy squats look a little crazy but are excellent exercises for the quadriceps. This is due to the high amount of knee flexion and minimal hip flexion. While you can perform these with bodyweight only, machines (as pictured above) are becoming more common in gyms and make them easier to perform.
Sissy squat machines are built to perform these while keeping your shins vertical. You will slide your feet into a brace with back support for your legs to keep them stationary. You will then sit back until your knees reach a 90-degree angle. Your hips will also have flexion of 90-degrees so that your torso is vertical.
These are best done with lightweight and high reps for hypertrophy.
If you don't have access to a sissy squat machine, then perform the exercise as follows: Stand with a neutral stance, then push your knees forward as you bend your torso back. The key here is to keep the hips straight as you go downwards so that flexion is only occurring in the knees. At the bottom of the movement, your toes will travel well in front of your toes while your back leans back as if you're doing the limbo. From there, press up through your quads and balls of your feet back to a standing position. Below is an illustration to see how it looks.
Skater squats are a type of one-legged squat, with the other popular version being a pistol squat. When looking at the movement pattern of these movements, you will find that pistol squats are a tad bit more posterior-oriented due to the greater hip flexion involved. However, when looking at a skater squat, we see that it's basically a lunge with the back foot completely off the ground.
Before jumping to a full skater squat, we can first use a slider. Stand with your feet together and place your foot on top of a slider. This foot will be the foot that travels backward.
The next portion will look a bit similar to a reverse lunge as you will then push the sliding leg back behind you. During this portion, it will be up to you to control how much weight you put on the back leg with more weight resembling a reverse lunge more. However, you want to use that foot primarily for balance as it travels backward and your body drops. The majority of the weight should be on the front leg.
Now for the return. Instead of pushing off that leg like in a reverse lunge, you're going to simply try and pull it forward by using your front leg to extend the hips. Remember, the ultimate goal would be to do a skater without that foot touching at all, so really be intentional about not pushing off.
Concerning the dumbbells, they will play a slightly different role in the skater squat than in other dumbbell movements. Choose two relatively light dumbbells that you can hold out in front of you and hold, as in a Frankenstein. Once your arms are out straight, you can then perform the skater squat, and the dumbbells out in front of the body will actually be working as a counterbalance. Well, at least until you get to the point where you can use dumbbells to load the movement!
Related: 7 Best Dumbbell Squat Variations
For a more in-depth guide to training for hypertrophy and strength, check out this article. But for now, we'll go over the basics. Strength training improves your neuromuscular system to make your existing muscle function better together, thus making it stronger. Training to grow our quadriceps with hypertrophy involves actually causing architectural changes to the muscle itself to become bigger. In general, these are what appropriate rep schemes for each look like;
In addition, you need to pick the right exercise for the job. You need to choose an exercise that allows a heavy load for strength training. For hypertrophy training, use an exercise that can be performed multiple times with lightweight.
Therefore, include both strength and hypertrophy training in your program and train the quadriceps twice a week.
Dumbbells are fantastic gym equipment and tend to work well with quadriceps exercises. However, there are some other great exercises for your quad workouts. For example, when comparing the leg press vs. squat, leg presses are able to help you build muscle mass just as effectively.
Other quad exercises to include in your leg workouts:
Get Your Quads Out!!!
If you've been embarrassed about wearing short shorts in the past, it's time to start using these dumbbell exercises to build a set of quads you're proud of. If you’re new to training legs, it can be frustrating at first (and painful!) but stick with it. When your pant legs start getting tighter, you’ll thank us.
More Dumbbell Exercise Content:
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