The Glute-Quad Paradox
While there's always a need for training the posterior chain, in the past few years we've seen an explosion of glute-training programming. But when one muscle group is highlighted above all else, we lose sight of the bigger picture – the one that includes overall strength, athleticism, and symmetry.
Well, that's where quads come in. The pendulum needs to swing back toward normalcy. The quads are equally as important and can actually balance out and frame a solid pair of glutes, both aesthetically and in terms of function.
Everybody loves to make fun of guys who have huge upper bodies and stick legs. But something similar happens to women when there's an imbalance between a massive butt and legs that have gotten very little attention in the gym.
Sure, it's true that women are generally more quadriceps-dominant than men (1) and tend to have weaker hamstrings (2,3) in comparison to their quads, but that in no way means they should neglect their quads. It's important to have a well-rounded lower body strength training program.
Since the current fixation is on the booty, it's actually tougher for females to find great quad workouts. That ends here.
The Best Quad Builders
Choose your favorite type of squat and go for gold. Volume is key if you want to have the best results.
Not feeling it in your quads? Place small plates under your heels to keep your torso more upright.
Do these with a short stride and an upright torso.
The beauty of the lunge? You can manipulate the stride length and torso position to change the lower-body training stimulus. A forward lean and longer stride hits the glutes and hams more (4). So we want to do the opposite: take a shorter stride – shoulders stay over hips – with a slightly angled tibia, which emphasizes the quads (5).
The same is true for split squat variations:
Find a stance that allows you to go as deep as you can without your lower back peeling away from the seat. Make sure that your feet are placed lower on the platform to maximize quad activation, without going so low that your heels lift at the bottom of the movement.
If you're feeling it mostly in your glutes then your feet are too high up. At the bottom of each rep, your shins (tibia) angle involved should be similar to that in a standard squat.
This involves the same basic torso/knee/foot position as the split squat or lunge with an upright torso. It's simply a bilateral version of the same basic movement.
While many coaches don't like Smith machine squats because they're not a great way to improve your ability to perform free-weight squats, it's important to remember the two movements involve different mechanics.
This doesn't make Smith machine squats a bad exercise; it simply means they may not be so great for improving your ability to squat without the support offered by the Smith machine. However, when used to improve quad strength and development, Smith machine squats are a great option.
This one basically allows you to mimic a Smith machine squat without the machine.
Your feet should be about 12 to 20 inches (30-50 cm) in front of your hips, and your knees should be slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your hips. You can also do it using only body weight by allowing your hands to hang down at your sides or by interlacing your fingers behind your head.
Keeping your torso upright, bend at your knees and hips and lower your body toward the floor as much as you can without losing the natural arch in your lower back. Once you've gone as deep as you can control, reverse the motion and return to standing.
This is an advanced exercise, not for those just starting out.
You can make sissy squats significantly more difficult by just leaning back into them more, which means you may not need much weight or even to load them at all, but feel free to do so if you really want to go hard.
Unfortunately, sissy squat machines aren't always easy to find, but standing with your shins in front of a Smith machine (and having someone stand on your feet) will do the job. Bonus: You'll have someone to help pull you up if you get stuck mid rep, allowing you to work to complete failure.
This is an excellent quad exercise, and you can do it if you're unable to do sissy squats. Reverse nordics follow a similar movement pattern but because you're kneeling with your shins behind you, they're easier to control.
That makes these particularly beneficial for training slow eccentrics (negatives). As you become stronger, you could then progress to sissy squats. Research on reverse Nordics shows that eccentric training has practical implications for injury prevention (6).
The leg extension creates much higher levels of activation in the rectus femoris compared to the squat (7), which is likely why the rectus femoris seems to grow more from single-joint, machine-based knee extension training compared to the other three quadriceps (8).
Even if you're not motivated by that research, we can all agree that muscles respond (make strength adaptions) to how they're loaded, which is the principle of specificity.
To improve your strength in movements like backpedaling, deceleration of forward momentum to change direction, or to walk down stairs or downhill, you need to train such actions (9). That's what makes reverse sled pulls (coming up) and leg extensions two great options for the task.
Also, many of the arguments against using the leg extension in healthy populations (out of concern for patella femoral joint forces and ACL health) are unfounded and logically inconsistent (10).
Also, there's a multitude of studies showing better quad strength gains (even in post ACL reconstruction patients) when combining open-kinetic chain exercises, like leg extensions, along with closed-kinetic chain exercises, like squats and lunges, over using only closed-kinetic chain exercises (11).
This is like a standing and moving leg extension. You'll need a weight sled with strap handles.
Stand with the sled about two yards in front of you while holding the handles with your arms straight at hip height. Assume a partial to mid-squat position so your thighs are at roughly a 45-degree to a 90-degree angle to the floor.
Step backward one leg after the other. Don't round your upper back at any time; keep your torso and arms straight throughout. Use a load that's neither light enough to run with nor heavy enough that you have to lean your body backward at a 45-degree angle. Find a load you can move in a smooth, deliberate manner.
It's a quad-killer, a great conditioning method, and it's also perfect if you don't have access to a weight sled.
Place a heavy weight plate – at least 35-45 pounds – on top of a towel so that it glides on the floor or a turf surface. For more of a challenge, put a set of dumbbells on top of the weight plate. This allows you to get into a neutral-grip push-up position with your hands on top of the plate.
Push the plate across the floor by driving with your legs and bringing your knees up toward your chest. Push the plate quickly across the floor, up and back, for a total of 40 to 50 yards.
Be sure to keep your elbows straight and your arms at roughly a 45-degree angle above your head. Take long strides and don't let your hips drift higher than your shoulders.
So you've got bad knees and can't do most of the other quad-focused lifts? You're not excused from leg day! One of the best knee-friendly quad-builders is cycling.
If you have access to an Airdyne or other fan bike, even better! These aren't just good for lung-burning interval work. They can give your quads every bit of the work you'd get from a traditional leg workout.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being as heavy as you can move the pedals, crank the resistance up to a level pace that puts you around a 7. Pedal your feet and drive your arms as hard and as fast as you can for 15 to 45 seconds. Rest fully for 45 seconds to 3 minutes between intervals.
It's okay to lean forward during the intense portions of each interval. During the rest position you can stay seated or get off the bike and stand or pace around a bit before beginning your next work interval.
Here are two different quad-centric workouts involving some of the movements above. Six to eight weeks of these workouts will have your quads popping.
|A||Leg Extension||3||10-15||90 sec.|
|Do a light warm-up.|
|B||Barbell Back Squat||10||10||2 min.s|
|This is a German Volume Training (GVT) approach.|
|C1||Hack Squat||3||10||20 sec.|
|Use constant tension.|
|C2||Sissy Squat or Reverse Nordic||3||Max||2 min.|
|Use bodyweight only.|
|A||Stability Wall Ball Squat||3||10-15||90 sec.|
|Do light warm-up with bodyweight.|
|B||Dumbbell Split Squat||4||10/leg||2 min.|
|Keep an upright torso, short stance.|
|C1||Smith Machine Squat||4||15||20 sec.|
|Keep an upright torso.|
|C2||Lying Leg Press||4||Max||2 min.|
|Use low stance.|
|D||Airdyne/Watt Bike Sprint||8||30 sec.||2 min.|
|Turn resistance to 70% max.|
- Youdas JW et al. Comparison of hamstring and quadriceps femoris electromyographic activity between men and women during a single-limb squat on both a stable and labile surface. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):105-11. PubMed.
- Kannus P et al. Peak torque occurrence in the range of motion during isokinetic extension and flexion of the knee. Int J Sports Med. Nov 1993;14(8):422-426.
- Anderson AF et al. Correlation of anthropometric measurements, strength, anterior cruciate ligament size, and intercondylar notch characteristics to sex differences in anterior cruciate ligament tear rates. Am J Sports Med. Jan-Feb 2001;29(1):58-66. PubMed.
- Farrokhi S et al. Trunk position influences the kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activity of the lead lower extremity during the forward lunge exercise. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2008 Jul;38(7):403-9. PubMed.
- Schütz P et al. Joint angles of the ankle, knee, and hip and loading conditions during split squats. J Appl Biomech. 20143 Dec;30(3):373-80.
- Alonso-Fernandez D et al. Changes in rectus femoris architecture induced by the reverse nordic hamstring exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019 Apr;59(4):640-647. PubMed.
- Askling C et al. Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2003 Aug;13(4):244-50. PubMed.
- Hyght C. Five Exercises You Should Stop Doing… Forever!. T-Nation LLC, 2010.
- McKean MR et al. Overhead shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head? Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2015 Sep;4(3):250-257.
- Shinkle J et al. Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):373-80. PubMed.
- Longo S et al. Ultrasound evaluation of the subacromial space in healthy subjects performing three different positions of shoulder abduction in both loaded and unloaded conditions. Phys Ther Sport. 2017 Jan;23:105-112. PubMed.