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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

The Best Muscle Building Quad Exercises

The quadriceps are one of the most impressive parts of the body when fully developed. The combination of pure mass when relaxed and eye-popping definition when flexed is unrivaled in any other muscle group. Yet training the quads for optimal muscle gain is one of the most misunderstood areas of bodybuilding. In this article, I’ll lay out the physics and the science of quad training to provide you with a common sense, bro-science free roadmap to getting massive, defined quads.

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Person performing leg extension

Quad Anatomy

Fully developed quads appear to have three parts - the outer, inner and middle (which is known as the teardrop). There are, actually, four muscles that make up the quadriceps (hence the name). The three that can be seen when the muscle is fully developed are the following:

  • Vastus Lateralis
  • Rectus Femoris
  • Vastus Medialis

Quadriceps anatomy

The fourth muscle, which is hidden behind the rectus femoris, is the Vastus Intermedius. Three of the muscles, excluding the rectus femoris, start at the top of the femur, cross the knee joint and connect to the upper part of the tibia, or lower leg bone. It is important to note that these muscles do not cross the hip joint. As a result, they do one thing and one thing only - straightening, or extending, of the knee joint. The movement that this produces is leg extension.

The rectus femoris, does cross the hip joint. It originates just on the other side of that joint and plays a role in the flexing of the hip joint, as when you raise the leg forward.

In terms of its anatomy the leg is very much like the arm. As we have just seen, the quadricep has four heads, or parts, three of which cross the knee joint and one of which crosses the hip joint. The equivalent muscle on the arm is the triceps, which has three heads, two of which cross the elbow joint and one of which crosses the shoulder joint. The biceps are also very similar to the hamstrings, which bodybuilders often refer to as the leg biceps. It stands to reason then that the way we train the triceps and the way we train the quadriceps should be similar.

The operating lever of the quadriceps is the lower leg (tibia), just as the operating lever of the triceps is the lower arm.

So, straight away we see a contradiction with the way most people train their quads. The one exercise that everyone is ‘supposed’ to do to build their quadriceps is the barbell squat. This exercise, in fact, is considered the Holy Grail of lower body training. If you’re not doing the barbell squat, you’d better be doing some variation of it, such as the hack squat, front squat or a 45° leg press.

Squat does involve some leg extension and some hip flexion, so there is some degree of fit with the anatomical function of the quadricep muscles. However, the barbell squat also involves spinal compression and loading of the erector spinae, both of which are not necessary for activating the quadriceps. The question we need to think about is the following …

Are squats the most effective way to perform leg extension and hip flexion to work the quads through their range of motion?

Efficiency in this context refers to the amount of weight you are using compared to the amount of muscle loading that occurs.

Squat

When you are in the bottom squat position, the operating lever (the lower leg), only moves 30° from the neutral, or upright, position. In terms of physics, this makes it a very inefficient lever. In practical terms, it means that the amount of weight on your back that actually is being lifted by your quadriceps is greatly reduced. A 45° lever would provide a 50% load. So, a 30° lever gives you a 33% load. In other words, the load on the quadriceps is reduced by 67%.

Of course, the more weight to put on the bar, the greater the spinal compression and load on the erector spinae.

The bottom line is that the squat is not the most effective quad exercise because it does not allow you to extend your lower leg to anywhere near a horizontal position. It will develop your legs, however.

Leg Extension

From our previous discussion, it should come as no surprise that the best exercise to work the quadriceps is the leg extension. This exercise, by its very definition, moves your quads through their full range of motion to deliver a 100% load on the quads. When performing the leg extension, you should only move through the middle 80% of the movement to avoid potential knee strain.

Cable Squat

While not as good as the leg extension, the cable squat, positions the resistance in a far more perpendicular position to the barbell squat is to gravity. When you do the cable squat, position the pulleys as low as possible and lean back slightly as you perform the movement.

Sissy Squat

The Sissy Squat was named after King Sisyphis of Greek mythology. But don’t let the name put you off - this is one of the most effective and efficient exercises you can do for the quads. That is because it allows your lower leg to be maximally active by getting almost completely perpendicular relative to the direction of resistance.

You can do sissy squats with or without extra resistance. A bodyweight version sees you typically holding into some supports like bench uprights and bring your knees as far forward as you can as you squat so that, in the bottom position, your lower legs are almost parallel to the floor.

The exercise can also be done with cables, as when doing the cable squat. This time, however, rather than driving the hips back as you descend, you drive them forward while bringing the knees as far over the toes as you can.

The Ideal Quad Workout

  • Leg Extension - 6 x 30/15/12/10/8/8/6 reps (rest between sets - 30-45 seconds)
  • Cable Squat - 5 x 15/12/10/8/6 reps (rest between sets - 30-45 seconds)
  • Sissy Squat - 4 x 10-15 reps (rest between sets - 30-45 seconds)

Here’s a workout you should try:

Summary

The primary function of the quadriceps is the leg extension. That is the movement that needs to be performed for maximum development. So, rather than using leg extensions as a supplementary exercise, build your workout around this prime quad mover. Add in other exercises, such as cable squats and sissy squats, that allow the primary lever of the quads (the lower leg) to achieve near 100% activation and you will have an awesome quad workout - without risking injury to your spine.

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