Knee-Friendly Quad Builders
As much as a beastly set of quads can really set you apart from the chest and arms crowd, training the quads hard and heavy can be problematic. Many of the best quad exercises put a lot of stress on the knees, hence their "knee dominant" classification.
That's not necessarily a bad thing if you've got healthy knees, but if you don't, well, your quest to build tree trunks for quads will be an uphill battle.
You essentially have three choices:
Option 1: Ignore your knee pain and train through it. Better yet, just get some knee wraps and wrap em' up as tight as possible. Buy your ibuprofen in bulk from Costco. You won't feel a thing. Woot!
I'm kidding. Having gone this route many times before, I can tell you it's a losing proposition. Never train through pain. It may seem cool at the time, and some of your lifting buddies might say you're "hardcore," but when you're hobbling around and struggling to go up and down stairs, it's not so cool.
Option 2: Stop training your quads altogether and resign yourself to a lifetime of sweatpants and chicken legs. I mean, let's be honest, by the time someone of the opposite sex sees your quads, you should have already sealed the deal.
Again, I'm kidding.
Option 3: Get creative and find ways to blast your quads without hurting your knees.
That sounds best to me, so let's roll with that. Here are some exercises to help.
1. Landmine Reverse Lunges
Landmine reverse lunges are a great knee-friendly alternative to regular lunges, or even regular reverse lunges.
Start by putting one end of a barbell in the landmine unit and holding the other end in your left hand, 1-2 inches in front of your thigh. Keeping your chest up, take a big step back with your left leg while simultaneously reaching your left arm slightly forward.
In the bottom position, your left hand should be approximately in line with your right shin. From there, push through the heel of the right foot and return to the start position.
Repeat with your other leg.
It should look like this:
The barbell functions as a counterbalance, allowing you to take a much bigger step back than what would normally be possible with traditional loading methods, thereby encouraging you to maintain a completely vertical tibia, which in turn helps take stress off the knee joint.
If you try keeping a vertical shin in a standard lunge or reverse lunge using standard loading methods, it's extremely difficult to execute. Using the landmine, it's no problem at all.
Moreover, this variation provides offset contralateral loading, which increases glute recruitment and helps to build hip, core, and pelvic stability while also developing grip strength (since you're forced to hold the thick part of the barbell).
I don't recommend loading the bar up with too much weight because it can be tricky to handle heavy loads so far out in front of your body, and you don't want to risk a lower back injury. This is a tough exercise to begin with so you probably won't need a lot of external resistance anyway, but if you do, try adding a weighted vest.
Note: If you don't have a specialized landmine unit, just place a towel around one end of the barbell and carefully position it in a corner with a heavy dumbbell over the tip so it won't slip out of place.
2. Valslide Landmine Reverse Lunges
To make landmine reverse lunges even more knee-friendly, try adding in Valslides or a slideboard for the reverse lunges.
Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the working leg as you slide back as far as you can go, all without losing your balance or having your chest collapse forward.
When you reach the bottom position, think about pulling through the glute of the front leg rather than pushing with the quad. Don't worry, your quads will still get plenty of work.
Here's what it looks like in action:
If you watch the video, you'll notice that the shin of the front leg hardly moves at all during the set and the tibia stays completely vertical throughout. Being that our goal is to deload the knee, that's a good thing.
If you continue watching, you'll also notice that I'm able to slide way back; much farther back than you can step in a regular reverse lunge and even a little farther back than you can go in a landmine reverse lunge without the slide pad.
Along with making for one hell of a hip flexor stretch, this encourages a posterior weight shift to take pressure off the knee of the front working leg. Better still, it also limits knee flexion in the rear leg, which again is great for folks suffering from knee pain – sometimes the rear leg experiences pain during lunges when forced to bend excessively and absorb the impact of stepping backwards.
3. Rear Foot (Slightly) Elevated Split Squats
Rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS), a.k.a. Bulgarian split squats, are one of my absolute favorite exercises for building the quads. That said, they aren't always tolerated well by those suffering from knee pain.
Sometimes the pain is in the front leg, which can usually be cleared up by taking a longer stride and focusing on keeping as much of a vertical tibia as possible.
Interestingly enough, most complaints of knee pain during this exercise are usually related to pain in the rear leg. If that's the case, the issue can often be ameliorated simply by not elevating the rear leg quite so high.
Most of the time you'll see RFESS done using a standard weight bench, which depending on the manufacturer is typically somewhere between 17-19 inches. While that height is fine for most people, those experiencing knee pain in the rear leg should try using a 9-12 inch box instead and see if that helps.
Make sure to plantarflex the rear ankle and set up "laces down" on the box to avoid pushing through your toes. Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the front foot, like so:
With the shorter box you can clearly see that knee flexion of the rear leg is dramatically reduced as compared to doing them on a full-sized bench. In that regard, it's very similar to doing a regular split squat with the back leg on the floor.
I like split squats too as a teaching tool, but I don't like loading them heavy because there's a strong tendency to cheat and use the back leg too much as the weights get heavier.
I'd much prefer to progress to a RFESS with laces down and just limit the height of the box if need be, focusing on keeping the majority of the weight on the front leg.
Make sure you're stretching and foam rolling your quads and hip flexors too, as that should also help a lot. In time you should be able to go back to using a full size bench, but until you can do so completely pain-free, don't push it.
4. Eccentric One-Leg Squats
I'd always thought of eccentric single-leg squats as an effective learning progression to work towards full single-leg squats (which it is), but I learned from Mike Boyle that it can also be a fantastic alternative exercise for individuals dealing with knee pain. After trying it out extensively, I think it works well in both scenarios.
To do them, simply lower down to a parallel box on one leg and come back up on two legs:
The key here is to control the eccentric portion of the rep and not just free-fall down to the box. If you're unable to control it, raise the height of the box until you can and then slowly increase the depth over time.
If you're new to single-leg squats and just can't seem to get the hang of them, try doing these to a standard bench using 5-pound dumbbells in your hands to serve as a counterbalance.
Once you can do five reps with 4-5 second eccentrics, you should be all set to do full single-leg squats.
If you're more advanced and can already do single-leg squats but find they irritate your knees, the eccentric-only version may allow you to do them pain-free. Using a box allows you to sit back farther and keep a more vertical tibia than doing them without the box.
I'm using a front squat grip in the video above because I've done these for a long time and have progressed quite a bit in weight, but I recommend starting by holding 5-10 pound dumbbells in your hands and raising them straight-out to shoulder level as you descend. Having your arms out in front helps tremendously with balance so do it that way first until you're completely comfortable and need to add more load.
You know those people that say a deadlift is just a squat with the weight in your hands and cue you to get your butt way down low before you pull? As someone who loves to deadlift – and deadlift heavy – that advice always used to annoy me because it's clearly not the best way to pull heavy weights.
I also think it can be dangerous to pull in this manner because almost every time I see someone set up for a near-maximal deadlift with their hips too low, they almost invariably shoot up before the bar breaks the floor and the person ends up rounding his lower back something awful.
So if your goal is to move as much weight as possible, a low hip position isn't the best way to go.
But this article isn't about the best way to deadlift as much weight as possible. We're talking about working the quads here, and if that's the goal, a lower hip position deadlift where you try to visualize squatting the weight up can be a pretty damn good exercise that's much more knee-friendly than squatting.
Start by getting your butt down and your chest up with your weight on your heels. As you break the bar off the floor, it's imperative that the hips and shoulders stay in sync in order to protect your back and keep the stress on your legs.
You're going to have to drop the weights significantly to do this correctly. I'd even start with 30-40% of what you think you can deadlift normally as you adjust to the new technique. It's important to be strict with these, both for the health of your back, and to make sure the stress stays on the quads.
I know that seems extremely light, but if you're doing it right, your quads will feel it. You don't have to stay super light forever and your numbers should climb quickly, but don't add weight at the expense of form. The devil is in the details with these.
From time to time I also like to do them from a slight deficit to increase the range of motion. If doing so causes you knee pain, or you don't have the requisite mobility to get that low with a flat back, avoid pulling from a deficit and just pull from the floor.
My favorite stance is what I'd call "semi-sumo" with my feet slightly wider than shoulder width. If you remove the bar from the equation and just look at the movement, this really looks more like a parallel squat.
You can also pull conventional, but I think the low hip conventional deadlift can be a bit riskier on the lower back, and I don't feel it quite as much in my quads. Interestingly, I actually pull weight more conventional style than I do sumo, but sumo just feels better. If you choose to pull conventional, be extra careful not to let the hips shoot up as you initiate the pull.
If you're lucky enough to have a trap bar at your gym, that's another option too. I like the trap bar a lot, but I find that when my knees are bothering me it can be problematic, so keep that in mind.
Experiment with all the different variations and find what you like best.
6. Reverse Sled Drags
Reverse sled drags have been my biggest staple quad exercise for the past eight months and I've managed to add some muscle to my legs, despite not doing a ton of other heavy "quad" work. I'm certainly not advocating ditching all heavy lifting in favor of sled drags, but I do think it's a great way to finish your lower body workouts, or even as a standalone on days when your knees just aren't up for the task.
I'm not talking about taking a leisurely stroll at the end of the workout, though. In order for the sled drags to be a viable way to build muscle, you've got to push them (or pull them, rather) hard, just like you would any strength exercise. If you aren't hating life while you're pulling, you ain't doing it right.
I'm hesitant to give specific recommendations on how to implement sled work because so much of it depends on the surface you're pulling on and the space you have available.
As a point of reference, I've pulled up to 1,100 pounds on one indoor turf surface I use. On another outdoor turf surface, I top out around 650 pounds, and when I pull on rubber I struggle with 300 pounds. Don't worry about the amount of weight you use – just worry about increasing that number over time.
Distance will vary depending on your space limitations. If possible, start with heavy drags of about 25-30 yards each. Start with four trips and gradually work up to 6-8 trips.
If that's not specific enough for you, here's a good general rule: go as heavy as you think you can go – plus a little bit – for as far as you think you can go (plus a little bit).
I'm not saying to get reckless, and you obviously need to exercise a certain degree of caution, but too many people wuss out at the slightest sign of a quad burn. Sorry, there's no way to get around that – but the cool thing about sleds is that while they burn like hell while you're doing them, they won't leave you too sore the next day, so remind yourself of that while you're pulling.
You need to push past your comfort zone to get results, but that goes for just about anything worth doing in life.
If knee pain has kept you from training your quads like you know you should, or the current exercises you're doing are making your knees bark at the moon, give some of this stuff a shot and see how it goes.
And it should go without saying, but if any exercise hurts, stop doing it. Don't try to be a hero.
Lastly, these exercises aren't just for those of us with bad knees, nor do you have to wait until you have bad knees to start doing knee-friendly training. Even if your knees are feeling good at the moment, it might still be wise to sprinkle some of these exercises into your program to give your knees a little break so they stay healthy for the long haul.
It may require a little bit of imagination to find exercises that don't hurt, but one way or another, almost anyone can build a set of wheels they can be proud of if you're willing to put in the work.
Remember, friends don't let friends skip leg day.
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Ben Bruno graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University. He currently trains athletes at Mike Boyle Strength and Condition in North Andover, Massachusetts and publishes a blog at www.benbruno.com.