If you ask serious athletes about what muscle group looks the most impressive on the body, there’s a good chance they tell you the quadriceps or quads. Few muscles exemplify power and strength more than a pair of thick, strong quads peaking through a pair of shorts or pants. Also, big legs usually help you hit a big one-rep max.
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 adequate time, programming, and planning. In this article, we’ll provide you with five quad exercises we think are worth your effort plus some tips on how to program them.
The Best Quad Exercises
You’ve probably seen the back squat on a couple of our lists (including the best leg exercises overall). For one, the squat is a movement pattern that we engage 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 regularly, you’ll become more efficient at this essential movement. Also, squatting with a barbell recruits muscles in your legs — mainly your quads, which is why it’s on this list — like your glutes, hamstrings, but also your core and back. Lastly, leg strength has carryover to more athletic movements such as jumping and sprinting, which are two moves your quads are directly involved in.
Benefits of the Back Squat
- In addition to recruiting the glutes and the quads, the back squat also engages your abs.
- You’ll develop more powerful, explosive legs as you perform this functional movement pattern while loaded with weight.
- Squatting is something you do every day, whether you realize it or not. So, practicing the move will keep you efficient at doing this movement.
How To Do the Back Squat
Get under a loaded barbell, set to about shoulder height in a squat rack, so that the bar is resting across your upper traps. Place each of your hands on the barbell and tuck your elbows in and under your body. Lift the bar off of the rack, and walk backward a few steps. Ensure that your feet are about shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider. Press your feet into the ground and actively drive your feet outwards (without actually turning your feet). You should feel your knees, quads, and glutes all fire at once. Take a deep breath in, expanding your stomach to tighten your core, and then squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Now, drive through your heels to stand back up.
This squat variation isolates one quad at a time, which also allows a weaker leg the ability to catch up in terms of size and strength. Like other leg exercises, this variation can be loaded for more muscular tension. Another big plus is all of the subtle variations you can employ to tax your quads from different angles or find a more comfortable split squat. Oh, and we know this is a quad list, but the rear-foot elevated split squat works your hamstrings better than squats or single-leg squats. (1)
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Benefits of the Split Squat
- The split squat has variations that can work for every fitness level, goal, and need. Different variations can help target different musculature and promote different adaptations.
- You can load it in many different ways — on your back, in a Zercher position (see the video below), with a dumbbell in each hand, or even with a safety bar.
- You’ll activate your hamstrings better, too, compared to most other leg exercises.
[Related: 3 Split Squat Variations for Stronger Quads]
How to Do the Split Squat
There are a few popular variations of the split squat — the front-foot elevated split squat and the rear-foot elevated split squat to name two. But for this how-to, we’ll stick with the traditional split squat. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, and take a step forward, about one foot. Keep your chest up and squat down until the knee of your back leg is about an inch above the floor. Stand back up.
The lunge is similar to the split squat in the sense that it’s a great exercise for targeting the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. That said, there’s a key difference between the two moves: The split squat is stationary and the lunge is not. With a lunge, you start standing, and then actively take a step forward to squat down, continuing this movement for each rep. This (literal) added step may sound like a small detail, but the lunge better recruits your core muscles and activates smaller stabilizing muscles around your hips, ankles, and knees. Like the split squat, you can also load this move in a variety of ways and perform multiple variations.
Benefits of the Lunge
- You’ll work one leg at a time to build up strength on that specific side.
- The lunge recruits more of your core and smaller stabilizing muscles due to the movement.
- You can perform variations, such as the reverse lunge, lateral lunge, and walking lunge.
How to Do the Lunge
Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell on your back. Take a step forward, plant your front foot, and squat down until both of your legs are bent at about 90 degrees. Then, push through your heels to come back to the starting position.
The goblet squat has you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell with two hands under your chin and squat. By holding the weight in front of you, you’re achieving two things: First, you’re placing the load more directly over your quads, activating more muscle in that particular area. Secondly, the front-loaded position allows the lifter to maintain a more neutral spine, which is both safer and more efficient. That optimal positioning is also what makes the goblet squat a beginner-friendly movement.
Benefits of the Goblet Squat
- The front-loaded positioning places more of the load onto your quads for optimal muscle recruitment.
- You’ll also be able to stay upright, so it’s a good option for beginners who need help learning the squat movement.
How to Do the Goblet Squat
Hold a dumbbell or a kettlebell with both hands underneath your chin. Assume a standard squat position and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Push your knees out slightly to activate your glutes and hips, and then squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Drive yourself back up to stand up.
The leg press is another fantastic exercise for building strong resilient quads. You can load your quads with heavier weight with limited stress to the spine, as your back is against a pad. It’s a great move for beginners who need a more inherently safer leg exercise and for more advanced trainees who want to load up their legs with more weight. Most leg press sleds are wide, so you can position your feet in different ways, finding a position that’s ideal and comfortable for you. Also, since there are built-in safety bars, you can perform more reps with a heavier load than you’d (probably) feel comfortable trying with squats.
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 Leg Press
Sit in the leg press seat, and place your feet on the sled, about shoulder-width apart. 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. don’t lockout your knees.
How to Train Your Quads Based on Goal
“I’ll just train them on leg day,” you think to yourself as you read the title above. Ok, sure, but that may not be the best option for your goals. And what about sets and reps? Before you head to the gym for sets of squats, read up on how you should approach building bigger quads.
Bodybuilder, powerlifters, and general gym-goers may approach their leg days differently. If you’re a bodybuilder, then a single leg day may not be your best option if you’re in need of bigger quads. Some lifters actually split their leg training sessions up to be quad and hamstring focused. So, on one day, you’d perform all of your pushing leg movements, and on the next, you’d complete your pulling exercises for legs. Another option is to have one leg day, and then add a few sets of two to three quad exercises to a random upper-body workout. This way, you’ll accumulate more quad work without fatiguing your other muscles.
Most powerlifters will follow a training split that revolves around the bench press, deadlift, and squat. (Also known as a push, pull, legs split.) If that’s the case for you, simply tack on an extra move or two from this list to your next leg (or squat) day to help bring the quads up to par. You’re also most likely already training your quads since they’re a main player in the squat (hence the move being on the top of our list). So, you may not need to change how you structure your workouts, just the exercises you’re doing.
How a more general lifter trains their quads depends on the split they’re following. If you’re newer to training, we suggest working out your entire lower body at once since all of the muscles work in unison. Pick three moves on this list, and stick with them for a while — until they feel natural and you’re lifting more weight. Then, sub one or two of them out to vary your exercise selection.
The Best Sets and Reps for Quad training
There’s no magic number of sets and reps, and it depends on your ultimate goal. That said, the quads are a bigger muscle so you perform more sets and reps compared to if you were training arms. A good rule of thumb is to stick with between 10-14 sets for your quads. Put another way, if you were to do three quad exercises for four sets each you’d do 12 total sets for your quads. That’s plenty.
Lowers 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-plus) will help condition your muscles for endurance. It’s never a bad idea to have a variety of rep ranges in your workout. You could start your training session with a squat for three sets of four reps. Then, move onto three sets of the leg press of 10 reps, and then finish your workout with three sets of split squats for 15 to 20 reps (per leg).
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 four weeks, start again with 10 reps but increase the load you’re lifting by about five to 10 pounds. Keep repeating this method.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here we answer some questions you may have about your quad muscles and the best way to approach training them.
What muscles make up the quads?
The quads are made up of four muscles including the:
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Lateralis
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Intermedius
What's the best exercise for the quads?
For many athletes and coaches, the best exercise for the quads is said to be the squat. However, the truly best exercise is the exercise that you can perform with proper volume, technique, and loading to facilitate growth per your goals and needs.
Do you need to squat to build strong quads?
No! In fact, if you can’t squat or have no desire to, then employing unilateral leg exercises and things like leg press will suffice just fine for building strong quads. Growth will vary from exercise to exercise and athlete to athlete, however, the squat is not needed to build strong quads.
More Quad Training Tips
Now that you have learned about building your quads, here are some other resources to help you expand your leg-day knowledge.
- 3 Leg Workouts You Can Do At Home With Dumbbells
- 5 Exercises Weightlifters Can Do To Improve Leg And Squat Strength
Mausehund L, Skard AE, Krosshaug T. Muscle Activation in Unilateral Barbell Exercises: Implications for Strength Training and Rehabilitation. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S85-S94. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002617. PMID: 29870422.
Feature image courtesy of Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock