If you were to ask an athlete about what muscle group looks the most impressive on the body, there’s a good chance they’d say, “the quadriceps.” Few muscles exemplify power and strength more than a pair of thick, strong quads peeking through a pair of shorts or pants. A strong and muscular lower body tells the world you do more in the gym than curl some dumbbells.
Whether you’re a recreational lifter, strength athlete, or play a sport, strong quads are essential for performance and healthy movement. Building strong quads isn’t a complicated process, but it takes time, programming, and planning.
In this article, we’ll provide you with ten quad exercises we think are worth your effort plus some tips on how to program them into your routine.
Best Quad Exercises
- Heel-Elevated Back Squat
- Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
- Hack Squat
- Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
- Leg Press
- Low Cable Split Squat
- Banded Sissy Squat
- Leg Extension
- Prowler Pull
- Cyclist Squat
You’ve probably seen the back squat on plenty of exercise lists. The squat is a movement pattern that we engage in on a daily basis, such as when we squat down to pick something up or get in and out of a chair.
By training it with a heel elevation, you’re able to drive the knee further forward, placing more muscular tension on the quads. Also, leg strength has carryover to more athletic movements such as jumping and sprinting, which are two activities your quads are directly involved in.
Benefits of the Heel-Elevated Back Squat
- The heel elevation allows you to drive the knee further forward, creating more mechanical bias in the quads.
- The back squat allows for more loading compared to many other free-weight leg movements.
- Squatting is something you do every day. Practicing the move in the gym will keep you efficient at it in everyday life.
How To Do the Heel-Elevated Back Squat
Unrack a loaded barbell from a station or power rack. With the barbell fixed securely on your traps, walk backward a few steps, placing your heels on an elevated surface — this can be a heel wedge or two small plates.
Ensure that your feet are about shoulder-width apart. With your chest up, squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the floor, allowing the knees to travel forward freely. Drive back up by pushing your feet through the floor.
This squat variation isolates one quad at a time, which also allows you to target a potentially lagging quadricep on one side. The heel lift allows you to drive your working knee forward further, placing more muscular tension on the quads. Like other leg exercises, this variation can be loaded for more muscular tension.
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Benefits of the Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
- The split squat can work for every fitness level, goal, and need.
- You can load it in many different ways — on your back, in a Zercher position, with a dumbbell in each hand, or even with a safety bar.
- The unilateral (single-sided) setup helps build coordination and improves balance.
How to Do the Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, and take a step forward, placing your front leg heel onto an elevation. Keep your chest up and squat down until the knee of your back leg is about an inch above the floor. Stand back up by driving your front foot through the floor.
Originally the beloved brainchild of George Hackenschmidt, this exercise shares attributes with the back squat, reinforcing the squat movement pattern to build strength that translates into countless other lifts. As a bonus, the machine creates external stability, removing the need to balance during each rep.
Benefits of the Hack Squat
- The platform allows for a more individualized foot placement.
- The hack squat provides more stability compared to free weight squat variations.
- This movement’s predefined path safeguards against losing balance.
How to Do the Hack Squat
Your stance on the foot platform will closely mimic that of your back squat stance. Your torso should be stable with your abdominals engaged and your lower back flat on the back pad. Maintain a neutral head position as you lower your body until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the foot platform and drive through your heels to the top.
The trap bar deadlift variation is one of the most underrated exercises around. It allows you to hold the load more in line with your body and with a neutral grip, which helps keep the torso more upright and allows for more weight to be loaded. By elevating your heels, you’re placing the load more directly over your quads. Secondly, you’re able to achieve more depth, placing more tension on the quads through a larger range of motion. This is a deadly combination for building muscle and strength in the quads.
Benefits of the Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
- The elevated heel position helps the knees drive further forward, placing more of the load onto your quads.
- The neutral grip hand positioning allows you to stay more upright, so it’s a good option for beginners who want to train this movement pattern.
How to Do the Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Squat down and grasp the handles of a trap bar. Lock the shoulders down to stabilize the spine and brace the core, then perform a standard squat movement. For an added challenge, avoid resting the weight on the floor between reps.
The leg press is another fantastic exercise for building strong resilient quads. Changes to foot position, adjustments to back pad angle, and built-in safety mechanisms help make the leg press a reliable, customizable option for quad training. You can also train the quads with incredibly heavy loads.
Benefits of the Leg Press
- It’s beginner-friendly since it’s inherently easier and safer, and good for veteran gym rats who want to lift heavier.
- You can play around with your foot position to find an angle that’s comfortable for you.
- Since it’s safer, due to the built-in safety bars, you’ll feel more comfortable lifting heavier loads.
How To Do the Leg Press
Place your feet on the sled of a leg press, matching your standard squat stance if possible. Press the sled out of the rack, lower the safety bars, and then lower the sled towards your chest until your thighs break 90 degrees. Press the sled back up. Do not lock out your knees fully at the top of the movement.
This cable-based squat variation is another great exercise for training one leg at a time. The directional pull from the cable not only guides your path but also acts as a natural cue to drive the knee further forward — placing more tension on the quads. These are great for beginners who need a more stationary leg exercise and for more advanced trainees who want to place targeted emphasis on the quads.
Benefits of the Low Cable Split Squat
- It’s beginner-friendly and can be a good regression from the dumbbell variation, and good for veteran gym rats who place more emphasis on their quads.
- You can play around with your foot position to find one that’s comfortable for you and leads to the most leg activation.
- The cable attachment is a great learning tool for progression towards a free-weight split squat.
How To Do the Low Cable Split Squat
Set the cable attachment on the lowest peg and grasp the handle with the hand opposite from the working leg. Take a step back and extend the non-working leg (same side leg that is holding the handle) back to position yourself into a staggered stance. Drive the knee forward as far as possible. From there, extend the knee and return to the starting position.
Whether you’re at the gym or stuck at home training in your garage, sissy squats are one of the best exercises for creating a big stretch in the quads. The banded variation keeps all the benefits of the conventional sissy squat, but adds resistance from the mid-point to the top, where this exercise typically loses most of its challenge.
Benefits of the Banded Sissy Squat
- The lack of load allows for you to solely focus on maximizing the stretch on the quads.
- It can be used as a stand-alone exercise or as a great addition to any superset to further emphasize the quads.
How to Do the Banded Sissy Squat
Anchor a band to a power rack and around your legs (behind the knees). Take two or three steps back and lean the torso forward at the hip placing your hands on the power rack in front of you. Then, drive your knees forward until they are fully flexed. You will want to allow your heels to come off the ground. From the bottom, extend the knees hard against the resistance of the band.
When performed with control and proper form, the leg extension is a stellar exercise to hone in on your quads. It’s easy to learn and execute (there’s practically no learning curve), it doesn’t load your spine in any way, it requires less weight to be effective, and it targets the rectus femoris muscle in its shortened position — a quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint and plays an important role in helping stabilize the pelvis in other strength training exercises.
Benefits of the Leg Extension
- You can directly target your quadriceps while avoiding adding more volume to other tissues.
- Is performed seated, which can be great for lifters who are recovering from injury or don’t have access to a barbell.
How to Do the Leg Extension
Adjust the back pad on the machine such that the back of your knee fits snugly against the edge of the seat. Extend the knee to move the ankle pad, until your knee is fully straightened. Lower the weight back down with control.
The prowler sled is typically used for aerobic conditioning. Pushing or pulling the loaded sled ramps up your heart rate in no time and can be used in many different ways. The driving force behind a prowler pull is your legs — specifically your quads. Loading up the sled with heavy weight adds a significant stimulus to your legs while limiting the strain on your back, so you can blast your quads while getting some conditioning work in to boot.
Benefits of the Prowler Pull
- Allows for greater focus on your quads while limiting the stress on other joints.
- Can be utilized to mesh cardio work with quad hypertrophy.
How to Do the Prowler Pull
Grasp the handles of a prowler sled this loaded up with some weight plates. Ensure you have sufficient distance to perform each set and that no debris is obstructing your path. Pull the sled under control, focusing on powerfully contracting the quads with each step.
Competitive cyclists are known for their monstrous quads, and it’s no wonder why — their sport involves thousands of reps of knee extension. The cyclist squat adjusts the leverages of a standard squat to mimic the posture you’d take on a bicycle, while providing an unmatched level of stimulus to the knee extensors.
Benefits of the Cyclist Squat
- High heel elevation simulates excess range of motion in the ankles for better quad activation.
- Allows for a high degree of stimulus to the quadriceps without the need for large amounts of external loading.
How to Do the Cyclist Squat
With a barbell on your back or a pair of dumbbells in each hand, place your feet very close together while your heels are significantly elevated — up to two inches. Brace your core and slowly squat down, allowing your knees to travel well beyond your toes, until your hamstrings make contact with your calves. Return to the starting position by contracting the quads only, maintaining a still posture in your torso and hips.
Anatomy of the Quadriceps
The quadriceps are made up of four distinct muscles — namely the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These muscles make up the bulk of the front of the thigh, help stabilize the knee, and play a vital role in hip stability as well.
The quadriceps all perform the same primary function of knee extension, although the rectus femoris specifically does have some role in auxiliary stabilization. In movements like a farmer’s carry, the quadriceps work double-time to help stabilize the hips. (1)
The Benefits of Training Your Quads
The benefits of training your legs are well-established. Leg training helps burn a lot of calories, builds muscle and strength on your lower body, reduces the risk of injury, and helps you move around better overall.
Training your quads specifically not only helps build more functional strength — aiding in exercises like the squat and deadlift — but packs on size to your legs in a big way. If you’re looking to size up your khakis, kicking your quad training up a notch is a sure fire way to be bursting at the seams.
You’ll Improve Your Bigger Lifts
Building up muscle and strength in the front of your legs leads to an increase in performance across the board. Stronger quads can lead to increased performance on your squat, deadlift, lunges, sled variations, and more. Alongside noticeable gains in strength, training the quads more directly will pack on noticeable size to your legs — commanding respect and turning heads.
You’ll Be Less Prone To Injury
Your quads play a vital role in helping stabilize the knee during many motions, including squats, deadlifts, power cleans, walking, sprinting, and jumping. Since the knee joint is one of the largest and most active in the human body, it deserves every ounce of attention we can give it.
The four heads of the quads extend down from the hip and attach nicely to the patellar tendon. These muscles work together alongside the hamstrings and calves to protect the knee and allow you to lift, move, and remain independent across your entire lifespan.
Quad Training Can Keep You Moving
Your walking speed is a vital metric in healthy aging. A large body of scientific literature points us to the relationship between gait speed, our ability to get up out of a chair, and preventing falls or other age-related accidents. (2)
If you think the only time you squat is in the gym, rest assured that that’s not the case. Any time you get up and down from a chair, you’re squatting. Walking down up or down the stairs is essentially a lunge. Building strong and resilient quads can help you engage in daily life while also keeping you more independent as you age.
How to Train Your Quads
The quad muscles give strength and structure to the lower body and help protect the knee and hip. As such, you’ll either want to train quads with your legs as a whole, or pair them with a couple of your upper body workouts.
Here are three benchmarks for quad training — it’s up to you to decide how to integrate them into your routine.
Sets and Reps
There’s no magic number of sets and reps — it depends on your ultimate goal. That said, a good rule of thumb is to stick with between 10-14 sets per week for your quads. The quads can take a beating due to their large surface area, but be sure to monitor your total training volume and how you respond to it.
Lower reps (between three to six) will help you build strength. Moderate reps, in the eight to 12 range are better for adding muscle, and higher reps (15 or more) will help condition your muscles for endurance. It’s never a bad idea to have a variety of rep ranges in your workout.
To avoid size and strength plateaus, you want to progressively overload the quads. This entails selecting a certain number of sets and reps to perform an exercise for — say, three sets of 10 reps. Each workout you’ll add one rep to each set of the movement. After a few weeks, start again with 10 reps but increase the load you’re lifting by about five to 10 pounds.
Remember, there is a limit to how much you can do per workout while still being productive. If you notice your performance dropping off, it may help to split up some of the training volume to a day later in the week. A training frequency of two to three sessions a week has been recommended to help maximize muscle growth. (3)
The exercises you choose play a significant role in the muscles being worked. Muscles of the leg work in synchronicity to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. Therefore, different muscles will be biased more depending on the actions being performed.
When selecting an exercise for quad-focused training, the main priority should be the amount of knee flexion in the range motion. However, there are secondary considerations. When choosing exercises to perform, you want to pick ones that:
- Give sufficient load to the muscle without excessive stress on the surrounding joints.
- Line up the resistance with the muscle(s) you want to train.
- Work around pre-existing injuries or limitations.
- Can be performed with the equipment in your gym space.
When it comes to training the legs, there are a lot of great options for exercises and tools to get the job done — including cables, machines, free weights, and bodyweight.
It’s not only about what you do and how you do it, it matters when. Placing compound exercises first in your workout is preferred, especially for beginners. This is because the more fatigued you get, the worse your technique will become, potentially increasing the risk of injury later in the workout.
Placing exercises like deadlifts and other barbell variations — that demand more from your body — toward the start of your workout will increase the effectiveness of your training. Here’s an example of how you may order the exercises in your next leg workout:
- Back Squat
- Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
- Leg Extension
- Prowler Pull
The heavier, more challenging compound lifts are performed first while you’re nice and fresh, tapering down to targeted isolation work towards the end.
How to Warm Up Before Training Quads
A proper warm-up can help raise your core body temperature, activate your nervous system, and increase your readiness and mental state heading into that day’s session.
An effective warm-up for any muscle group is going to incorporate the exercises you are performing in that day’s training session. For example, if you’re performing heel-elevated back squats, you can warm up by performing light reps and increase intensity as you proceed towards your working sets. This ensures that the appropriate muscles and joints are being primed, reducing the risk of injury and improving your overall training performance.
Training Rules for Quads
There aren’t many hard rules in hypertrophy training, but there are plenty of good guidelines to follow. Adhering to these principles can help you get more out of your leg day every time you set foot in the gym.
Rule 1 — Depth Matters
More range of motion has been shown to lead to greater outcomes in hypertrophy. (4) More of everything isn’t always better, but when it comes to growing your quads, getting deep and maximizing knee flexion is a big deal.
The more depth you achieve, the more tension is placed on the quads through a larger range of motion. The ability to create significant tension will determine the overall success of your strength training, no matter the goal.
Rule 2 — Choosing The Right Exercise For The Job
Knowing that depth matters is only half the battle. Choosing the right exercise for the job comes down to understanding what the exercise demands, alongside your skill level, structure, and mechanics.
There are a lot of different ways to train your quads. If you haven’t had personal success in the past with the traditional back squat, try out the heels-elevated back squat or trap bar deadlift. These movements help drive the knee more forward, placing more tension and bias on your quads compared to their traditional counterparts.
Rule 3 — Push The Intensity
Building a noteworthy set of legs takes work. It takes planning, sets close to failure (and maybe one or two past), and proper recovery. Pushing the intensity of your sets close to, or past failure is crucial to level up your quads.
Knowing when and where to do this is also important — rather than pushing the intensity too far in exercises like the squat, go all-out in exercises like the hack squat, press, or leg extension. These movements naturally help protect the spine and deter accidents due to the fixed path and safety mechanisms.
More Quad Training Tips
Understanding the mechanics of your muscles can help you get more value out of your training as well as enrich your time spent in the gym. Now that you have learned about building your quads, here are some other resources to help you expand your leg-day encyclopedia:
- 3 Leg Workouts You Can Do At Home With Dumbbells
- 5 Exercises Weightlifters Can Do to Improve Leg and Squat Strength
1. Bordoni B, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Quadriceps Muscle. [Updated 2021 Feb 7]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
2. Stephan, Y., Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2015). “Feeling younger, walking faster”: subjective age and walking speed in older adults. Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 37(5), 86.
3. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(11), 1689–1697.
4. Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE open medicine, 8, 2050312120901559.
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