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May 24, 2022
Is there anything more rewarding and aesthetically-pleasing than achieving quadricep separation? It’s the ultimate gym-goer’s goal to look down and see the chiseled lines of each quadriceps muscle. While not an impossible task, it does take some serious work and the right quadricep moves. And that is where we come in! We’ve compiled the 13 best quad exercises to help you make massive gains.
In addition to highlighting the best moves for ultra-defined quads, this article will also cover the following:
Read on: Quad separation may soon be yours.
The quadriceps family contains four muscles in the front of the thigh: vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris.
Strong quadriceps are essential for:
You can target the quadriceps, but total isolation isn’t possible - or quite frankly, necessary. With lower body movements, the glutes and hamstrings are still somewhat activated. But the exercises in this article place most of the work on the quadriceps, making the front thigh muscles the primary movers. Emphasizing them in this way will make them bigger and stronger.
The best quadriceps exercises are the ones that enable you to position your body in a way that emphasizes the front thigh muscles, such as squats, lunges, leg press machines, and step-ups. Simply adjusting your foot and leg positioning emphasizes the quads. For example, moving your legs higher up on a leg press machine's footplate emphasizes your glutes. Lower the feet toward the bottom of the plate, and your quads will do the brunt of the work. Apply the same strategy to lunges and squats: Lean forward slightly to keep the work out of the hamstrings and on the quads.
There are several key variables to keep in mind when targeting the quadriceps, including load position, body position, stability levels, and equipment options.
Here are the all-time best exercises to build big, strong quads.
This move emphasizes 3 of the four quadriceps muscles, the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. This how-to explains how to do a high bar back squat, but another option is the low bar back squat. In the low-bar squat, the bar lies across the shoulder blades. While research has found minimal differences between quad activity in the two bar positions, a study did find the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and vastus medialis were activated more in the eccentric part of the low-bar squat1. Switching the bar position up is a great way to get the rectus femoris more involved with this exercise.
Rep range: 3-5 sets of 8 to 12 reps per set
The front squats form is similar to the back squats but with one main difference. The bar is in front of the chest rather than behind the neck. The bar adjustment further emphasizes the quadricep muscles, of which all four are activated. Research comparing the back and front squats found that the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis are more activated when holding the bar in front2.
Rep range: 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps per set
The hack squat is a machine exercise great for beginner lifters, those looking to target the quads, and those with back issues. The machine helps to stabilize the back during movement. While this exercise activates all of the quad muscles, the vastus medialis works particularly hard. Hello, teardrop definition.
Rep range: 3 sets of 10-12 reps per set
If you don't have access to a hack squat machine, here are some good alternatives to the hack squat that work the same muscles.
You can use bodyweight, dumbbells, or a barbell for the split squat. There are different ways to place your body in this exercise to target different lower body muscles. To emphasize the quadriceps, keep the torso and shin upright in the movement or keep the torso upright and the shin forward.
Rep range: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on each leg
The Bulgarian split squat uses the same form as the split squat, except you'll elevate the back foot. This change is a great progression from the split squat as it puts your balance and stability to the test. You can use your body weight, one or two dumbbells, or a barbell. The vastus medialis and rectus femoris activity are very high in this movement, with moderate activation from the vastus lateralis3.
Reps: 3 sets of 8-12 reps per leg
The rectus femoris is the primary quadricep mover of the forward lunge; however, research shows that the vastus laterals and vastus medialis also put in significant work4.
Reps: 3 sets of 8-12 reps per side
Have knee pain? Check out these lunge alternatives for bad knees.
Warning: This quad-isolating exercise’s name is extremely misleading. The sissy squat does an exceptional job hitting every quad muscle and can target the rectus femoris, something not all lower-body movements can do. Unless you’re an advanced lifter familiar with the sissy squat, you don't need to add weights. Just your body weight will be more than enough.
Reps: 3 sets of 6 reps each
A narrow stance on the leg press will put the outer thighs to work, meaning the vastus lateralis is highly activated. By altering your foot positioning, you can emphasize certain muscles of the lower body. Keeping your feet shoulder-width apart will target the entire lower body, while a wide stance will hit the inner thighs. High foot placement targets the glutes and hamstrings, and lowering the feet will target the entire quad group. And if you're concerned the leg press isn't as effective as other moves, we can assure you it is! Compare the leg press vs. squat, and you'll see it offers plenty of great workout value.
Reps: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
This version of the leg press also does a great job targeting the outer thigh, meaning your vastus lateralis will be strongly activated. Use this quad exercise to observe whether muscle imbalances exist between the two legs.
Reps: 2-3 reps of 8-12 sets per leg
Leg extensions can do no wrong. It develops the rectus femoris and the vastus intermedius and manages to hit the other two vastus leg muscles. Now, imagine doing this and then finishing your quad workout with some stair climbing (the benefits of the stair climber are endless). Talk about a killer quad workout!
You can also do these unilaterally. Working your left leg first, then your right leg.
Reps: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
No leg extension machine? Here are the best leg extension alternatives.
If you need a slightly easier variation of this exercise, ditch the dumbbell and use your body weight. If you want to make it harder, only use one dumbbell, placing it in your hand opposite the leg doing the work. All of the quadriceps muscles are activated in this movement, but research shows this exercise emphasizes the vastus lateralis the most5.
Reps: 3 sets of 8-12 reps on each leg
The goblet squat is your go-to if you’re struggling with squat form, bad posture, or inflexibility. Because you hold the weight in front, the hips open more than in other squats to enable you to lower between the legs. No quad muscle will go ignored with this move, but the vastus medialis gets the most attention.
Reps: 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps
If the box jump is new to you, start with a shorter box, working your way up to a taller one as you perfect the move. Due to the high energy required for this exercise, place it at the beginning of your routine when your legs are nice and fresh. Every quad muscle must work to make this plyo move possible, with a special emphasis on the rectus femoris.
Reps: 3-4 sets of 5 jumps
Research advocates for most lifters to train each muscle group twice a week for optimal strength and muscle gains6-7. The ideal setup following this format is two upper-body days and two lower-body days. If your goal is quadriceps growth, both lower-body days should incorporate quad exercises. Aim for 10 sets of quadricep exercises weekly, and don’t train them on back-to-back days. Split it up, hitting the quads once earlier in the week and toward the end of the week.
Following these quad exercises will set you on a path for thick, muscular quads. Here are a few parting tips that will further assist in your strength training goals.
If you need more volume in your quad training, use these dumbbell quad exercises for even greater quad growth.
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