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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
September 27, 2023
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.
Table of Contents:
One of the four muscles that comprise the quadriceps muscle group, the vastus lateralis is 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.
It is the largest muscle in the quadriceps femoris muscle that produces the most power. The vastus lateralis originates from flat, wide tendons that are attached to the femur and then are 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. It forms the lateral wall of the thigh in conjunction with the iliotibial band.
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, it also 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).
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.
It’s not exactly possible to only target and isolate the vastus lateralis muscle when doing leg exercises. However, there are tips and tricks that you can do to target it better.
To hit this quad 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 is to point your toes inwards when doing exercises like leg extensions which puts more stress on the outer thighs.
It's necessary to target the vastus lateralis muscle during leg days because often we focus too much on the other quad muscles like the rectus femoris and vastus medialis. We put together some of the best exercises for vastus lateralis that should become part of your training program.
And, keep this quick tip in mind when doing these exercises. Focus on pushing your knees inwards when doing pushing leg exercises like front squat or leg press.
Leg extensions are a staple in many gym goers' routines and for good reason! This machine does a great job of building killer quads and is an exception vastus lateralis exercise.
Interested in more exercises that work the same muscles? Check out these Best Leg Extensions Alternatives!
How to do Leg Extensions:
This is a versatile piece of gym equipment, as you can alter your leg press foot placements and immediately change the primary muscles being worked. To hit your vastus lateralis, make sure to keep your legs closer together to perform the narrow stance leg press.
Interested in an alternative to the weighted leg press? Check out the Best Leg Press Alternatives!
How to do the Close Stance Leg Press:
Note: Keep your toes off the platform the entire movement to really target the vastus lateralis.
No gym membership? No problem. As long as you have a set of dumbbells, you can easily work this lunge variation into an at-home routine.
How to do Dumbbell Lunges:
If you're lucky enough to go to a gym that has the hack squat machine, make sure to incorporate it into your leg day workout. For those of you who don't have this equipment at your gym, check out the Best Hack Squat Alternatives.
How to do the Machine Hack Squat:
Despite its name, the sissy squat is no easy exercise! A prop helps you to stabilize during the movement, but as a progression, work toward not needing one.
How to do the Sissy Squat:
We're going over the barbell variation here, but you can easily perform the front squat using dumbbells as well. Just hold the dumbbells in front of you, having them rest on the front of your shoulders while performing this move.
How to do the Front Squat:
Prepare to feel the burn with the Bulgarian split squat! Don't go overly heavy with weights, as proper form and foot placement is more important.
How to do the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat:
Strong and healthy leg muscles have numerous benefits, and 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.
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 this muscle 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 quads to tighten up. The combination of stretching and myofascial release should help to relax the muscle.
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.
To increase the difficulty of this stretch, 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.
How to do the Kneeling Quad Stretch:
Not only will this stretch your quads, but it'll also lengthen your hip flexors, which are notoriously tight for many people.
How to do the Side Lying Quad Stretch:
The hero pose is simple and effective. Make sure to hold it for at least 30 seconds to effectively lengthen your quads.
How to do the Hero Pose Stretch:
This stretch requires some balance and coordination to perform it effectively but trust us, it's well worth the effort. You'll get a deep stretch that will help stretch tight quadriceps.
How to do the Hands and Knees Quad Stretch:
Sometimes, the simplest stretches are the most effective. If you need extra balance, stand by a wall and use it for support.
How to do the Standing Quad Stretch:
Stretching the vastus lateralis muscle regularly is a great way to counteract tightness. Apart from stretching, trigger point therapy or myofascial release 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.
Looking for more great quad stretches? Check out the 10 Best Quad Stretches For Before & After Workouts!
Remaining questions about your vastus lateralis? We'll answer them here.
Leg extensions and the close stance leg press both do a great job working this muscle. In addition, squat and lunge variations are both awesome options.
Tightness 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:
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, 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:
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 best exercises for vastus lateralis 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.
Looking for more great moves to build serious quad muscles? Check out the 13 Best Quad Exercises!
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