vastus lateralis exercises

12 Best Vastus Lateralis Exercises & Stretches To Build Impressive Outer Thighs

July 08, 2021

The vastus lateralis is the largest muscle of the quadriceps so it's crucial to target it when doing leg exercises. Located on the outer thigh this muscle can make your legs look wider and larger. In this article we’ll hone in on the vastus lateralis, giving you 7 of the best exercises and tips to specifically target it, as well as 5 vastus lateralis stretches that you should incorporate into your training routine.

What is the Vastus Lateralis?

One of the four muscles that comprise the quadriceps, the vastus lateralis is the muscle found on the outer thigh area. The vastus lateralis muscle gets its name from the Latin words Vastus meaning great and Lateralis meaning lateral side. The vastus lateralis muscle is the largest muscle in the quadriceps femoris that produces the most power.

The vastus lateralis muscle starts from flat, wide tendons that are attached to the femur then is affixed to the outside side of the patella. It comes together with the other quadriceps muscles in the quadriceps tendon which then stretches over the knee, connecting them to the tibia. The vastus lateralis forms the lateral wall of the thigh in conjunction with the iliotibial band.

Function of the Vastus Lateralis

The main function of the vastus lateralis is to extend the knee, moving the lower leg forward. This muscle also helps to stabilize the knee joint and is vital in enabling the body to rise up from a squatting position. Besides providing immense power to the legs the vastus lateralis aids in absorbing impact from movements like walking, running and jumping.

The vastus lateralis on the outer thigh is opposed by the vastus medialis located on the inner thigh. These two muscles work in tandem to stabilize the position of the patella in the femoral groove of the thigh bone. When these two muscles are imbalanced or out of whack knee pain can arise causing patellofemoral stress syndrome (PFSS).

What is outer quad sweep?

Outer quad sweep simply refers to the shape of the quadriceps but more specifically the vastus lateralis muscle on the outer thigh. The quad outer sweep is a highly sought-after look especially in the sport of bodybuilding where this curved and defined quad can make a big difference in the appearance of the lower body musculature.

vastus lateralis muscle exercises

Benefits of Vastus Lateralis Exercises

Strong and healthy leg muscles have numerous benefits, the vastus lateralis is no exception. We rely on our legs to carry us around day in and day out so it only makes sense that you properly exercise and stretch the largest muscle in the quads.

  • Makes your legs look wider and fuller
  • Promotes better knee stability
  • Improves joint health
  • Boosts growth hormone
  • Maintains good bone health
  • Helps to burn more calories

Can you isolate the vastus lateralis?

It’s not exactly possible to only target and isolate the vastus lateralis when doing leg exercises. However, there are tips and tricks that you can do to target the vastus lateralis muscle. To hit the vastus lateralis muscle better during various pressing exercises it’s important to keep your knees closer together and push inwards during the movement while trying to focus on not letting your knees open up. Another tip to target the vastus lateralis is point your toes inwards when doing exercises like leg extensions which puts more stress on the outer thighs.

7 Best Vastus Lateralis Exercises to Build Outer Quad Sweep

It's necessary to target the vastus lateralis muscle during leg days because often we focus to much on the other quad muscles like the rectus femoris and vastus medialis. We put together some of the best vastus lateralis exercises that should become part of your training program. Keep this quick tip in mind when doing exercises to hit the vastus lateralis.

Focus on pushing your knees inwards when doing pushing leg exercises like front squat or leg press.

1. Leg Extensions (toes-in)

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  • Sit down on the leg extension machine, positioning the pad over your ankles
  • Rotate toes inward
  • Fully extend your legs at the knees
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

2. Close Stance Leg Press

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  • Sit down on the leg press machine
  • Place your feet on the platform a little closer than hip width apart
  • Press through your heels into the platform until your legs are almost fully extended
  • Slowly return to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Note: Keep your toes off the platform the entire movement to really target the vastus lateralis.

3. Dumbbell Lunges

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  • Grab dumbbells with both hands using a neutral grip
  • Stand with feet hip width apart
  • Step forward with one leg while bending the front knee
  • Lower to a position where both knees are at 90 degrees and your back knee is just above the ground
  • Push off through your front foot’s heel to stand up to starting position
  • Switch sides
  • Repeat for desired reps

4. Machine Hack Squats

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  • Get into position on the hack squat machine with your feet hip width apart
  • Release safety handles and slowly lower by bending at the knees until they're bent at 90 degrees
  • Push through your heels until you reach starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

    5. Sissy Squat

    can you isolate vastus lateralis

    • Stand with feet shoulder width apart
    • Raise up onto your toes pointing forward and put your hands on a prop to help with stability
    • Bend at the knees then tilt your body backwards lowering into a squat as far as you can go without losing balance
    • Hold at the bottom for up to 3 seconds
    • Push yourself back up to starting position through the balls of your feet
    • Repeat for desired reps

    6. Front Squat

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    • Get under bar hold in front of you with your elbows bent grabbing the bar with palms facing away from you, resting the bar on your upper chest or with your arms folded across your chest and bar resting across the front of your shoulders
    • Stand with feet hip width apart, engage your core then lower down into squat position until your thighs are parallel with the floor
    • Push up through your heels until you reach starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    7. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

    best vastus lateralis exercises

    • Stand one step in front of a platform (chair/bench)
    • Grab dumbbells with both hands using a neutral grip
    • Reach back with your left leg placing the top of your foot on the platform behind you
    • Standing straight, slowly lower your left knee until it’s close to the ground
    • Push up through your front foot until you return to starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps then switch sides

    More Resources on Leg Exercises:

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    What causes a tight vastus lateralis?

    Tight vastus lateralis muscles can be attributed to a number of causes but the two most common are overuse or under use. Overuse from walking or running can make the vastus lateralis tighten up especially if you’re not doing any dynamic stretching before exercise or any static stretching after exercising. On the flip side, if you’re sitting at your desk day in day out during work, this inactivity can cause your vastus lateralis to tighten up. The combination of stretching and myofascial release should help to relax the muscle.

    How to release the vastus lateralis muscle?

    Stretching the vastus lateralis muscle regularly is a great way to counteract tightness. Apart from stretching, trigger point therapy or myofascial release of the vastus lateralis can help to reduce pain. By using trigger point pressure on the tight/painful spots on the muscle you can alleviate pain and tension. This will aid in improving blood flow and circulation into the muscle tissue. A tight vastus lateralis muscle can lead to irritation of the ITB band so using trigger point therapy applying pressure to the trigger points on the outer and front outer thigh can release the muscle.

    Top 5 Vastus Lateralis Stretches

    The vastus lateralis is a bit tricky to stretch because of its location. It’s not as easy to isolate it compared with the more central rectus femoris. Don’t fret, here are a few you can do at home to stretch the vastus lateralis. Check out these stretches that will help to keep your legs feeling good.

    1. Kneeling Quad Stretch

    outer quad sweep

    • Kneel down on your left knee at 90 degrees while putting your left foot behind you
    • Grab your foot behind you then gently push the foot away from the center of your body
    • Drive your hip forward while keeping your back straight and lean forward
    • Hold for 30 seconds
    • Repeat with the other leg
    • Do this for 3-5 times on each leg

    Note: To increase difficulty tilt your pelvis back keeping your chest upright as you lean into the hip. Another variation is to twist at the the hips, reaching back to grab your opposite foot.

    2. Side Lying Quad Stretch

    what is the vastus lateralis

    • Lie on your side
    • Bend your upper leg’s knee to move your foot behind you
    • Reach back grabbing your foot
    • Pull gently towards you while pushing your hips forward
    • Hold this for 30 seconds
    • Repeat with the other leg

    3. Hero Pose Stretch

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    • Kneel on the ground with your knees together and your feet separated behind you, toes facing in
    • Sit back into the area between the feet, lean back slightly. Use your arms to brace you
    • Hold this position for 30-60 seconds
    • Slowly return to starting position

    4. Hands and Knees Quad Stretch

    vastus lateralis at home

    • Get on your hands and knees
    • Lift your leg up behind you by bending your knee
    • Reach back to grab your ankle to pull your heel towards your glutes
    • Hold for 30 seconds
    • Slowly return to starting position
    • Repeat with the other leg

    5. Standing Quad Stretch

    outer thigh exercises


    • Stand with feet hip width apart
    • Reach down behind you to grab your foot and bring it up behind your glutes
    • Pull gently and hold for 30-60 seconds
    • Repeat with the other leg

    More Resources on Leg Stretches:

    Vastus Lateralis Trigger Point Release

    • Get on hands and knees then place massage ball/foam roller on the ground above your knee
    • Lie down face first positioning the ball under your outer thigh area
    • Move your body into a side plank position to apply more pressure into the ball trying to find the painful spots
    • Slowly rock back and forth over these trigger points for 1-2 minutes
    • Repeat 2-3 times then perform some stretches from above

    Related: 12 Best Massage Ball Movements for a Full Body Massage

    Do You Have Vastus Lateralis Pain?

    Tightness in the vastus lateralis can cause knee problems by pulling the patella laterally. This can make everyday activities such as getting up from a chair or waking up the stairs very uncomfortable. The vastus lateralis can become tight because it is one of the most used muscles in the body. Everything from intense workouts to prolonged periods of time sitting can cause this muscle to tighten up.

    Another form of vastus lateralis pain can be from a muscle strain (muscle pull or tear). The most common symptoms of muscle strain are:

    • Injured area tender to the touch (usually due to direct trauma)
    • Sudden sharp and sever pain
    • Snapping or popping feeling if the muscle tears

    How do you heal the vastus lateralis?

    The quadriceps and hamstrings can be susceptible to muscle strains when the muscle is stretched past its limit or if there is direct trauma to the muscle. The vastus lateralis being the largest muscle in the quads can be a real painful if you experience a muscle strain. There are different degrees of muscle strains ranging from Grade 1 to Grade 3, with the latter being the most serious.

    To heal muscle strain of the vastus lateralis the most common protocol is the RICE (Rest Ice Compression Elevation). In general, most doctors would recommend abstaining from exercise for at least three weeks before returning to normal physical activities. As always you should consult with your doctor to follow the best course of action depending on the extent of your injury.

    A few precautions to take to reduce your risk of experiencing vastus lateralis pain include:

    • Warming up before exercising
    • Static stretching after exercise
    • Perform regular strengthening exercises
    • Improving flexibility

    vastus lateralis muscle pain

    Final Note

    If you want thick, strong thighs then you must start focusing on working the vastus lateralis muscle. The only way you can start to get the coveted outer thigh sweep look is to actively work on it by targeting the muscles in various ways. Add these vastus lateralis exercises to your leg day routine and make sure to warm up before your workout followed by a cool down so you avoid muscle strains and boost those gains.

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