Here's what you need to know...
• Elevating the heels is a simple way to increase depth and hit the quads harder.
• Target the stubborn VMO with single-leg movements such as the Peterson step-up.
• Do more higher-rep work and more volume in general to force the quads into growth.
There are few things more impressive on a physique than a set of massive quads. However, many strength coaches say that the typical lifter's quads are "overtrained" and that the posterior chain should be the focus.
Fair enough, but what if someone is seriously lacking quad size? Should they just do squats and leg extensions?
You need a smarter approach if you want to maximize your quad-building potential, starting with these three effective tips.
Tip 1: Make Your Squats More Quad Dominant
This one's easy. To make your quads do more when squatting, start by elevating your heels.
Case in point: If you've ever watched a woman wearing high heels crouch down to pick something up, it likely resembled a rock-bottom squat.
Using a heel lift when squatting allows for deeper depth through a change in knee tracking. The knees will be forced to travel farther forward over the toes.
There's nothing wrong with this provided you have no pre-existing knee issues, and it results in a tighter knee angle at the bottom of the squat and much more quad extension. A heel lift is even better for front squats because you can minimize the unwanted forces on the low back through a more vertical torso position.
Many lifters will elevate the heels when flexibility is the limiting factor in achieving proper depth. So adding a heel lift for this reason serves a dual purpose – increasing depth while hitting the quads like a freight train.
Tip 2: To Hit the VMO, Think Single-Leg and Knee Tracking
The vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) is the teardrop muscle located on the inside of the knee. Many lifters have difficulty developing this muscle and it turns into the lagging link of the quad group.
Unfortunately, there aren't many ways to make the VMO more active, and there certainly isn't a way to isolate it directly.
One of the primary roles of the VMO is to stabilize the knee. To exploit that, step one would be to go for single-leg movements.
Remember, the more forward the knee tracks over the toe, the greater the emphasis placed on the quads, so adding this element to the mix would be another suitable step.
So what exercises or practices incorporate single-leg training with knee tracking?
Though typically performed with just bodyweight, don't underestimate this exercise, especially as a primer for other quad exercises.
The Peterson step-up encourages forward tracking of the knee over the toe, along with a ball-of-the-foot contact point of the working leg, both of which encourage quad activation, with emphasis closer to the distal (knee) end of the thigh.
Avoid pushing off the ground with the non-working leg. Let the working leg carry the entire load. Be sure to stand up tall at the finish position.
Remember, the quads are knee extensors. To get the VMO to do the most work, squeeze the knee tight at the top.
Once the reps become easy, increase the range of motion with a higher step rather than add weight, but be vigilant about your knee tracking. A good rep should show no compensatory action, such as the knee falling inwards towards the midline of the body. The knee should point where the toe points at all times.
Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
The lower the box, the greater the stress placed on the knee. Adjust the box height according to your ability. It won't take much weight to feel your quads (especially the VMO) working overtime.
Rear Leg Elevated Split Squats
This is among my favorite lower body movements and a great way to target the VMO. With this variation, be sure to lean forward, which puts more emphasis on the lead leg and changes the body's geometry so that the knee tracks forward over the toe, hitting more VMO.
Rolling the VMO
For many, VMO activation can be inhibited because the muscles around it are stronger and much tighter. They end up taking on a greater percentage of the load. Looking at the quality of your muscle tissue is an important step to regain or maintain balance in this area.
Invest in a dense foam roller and work on the soft tissue on the front of the thigh and especially the side of the thigh, towards the IT band. Doing so can affect lateral knee tracking and loosen up muscle fascia so that each muscle gets a chance to pull its own weight.
If you don't foam roll regularly, this will likely feel uncomfortable at first, and your muscles will feel tender. This will change over time, and once it feels "easy," it's time for a denser roller!
Tip 3: Time Under Tension, Volume, and Rep Ranges Matter
What's the best rep range to use for optimal leg development?
Well, we know that heavy lifting is a great way to stimulate the nervous system, especially when using big movements. Stimulating the CNS helps trigger more activation of high threshold motor units, fast twitch muscle fibers, and also releases more HGH and Testosterone to help muscles grow.
This is all well and good, and I agree with it. A number of coaches, though, are coming on board with the idea of a higher lactate, less anaerobic approach to training the quadriceps to trigger growth.
From a skeletal perspective, walking, standing, and doing basically anything on the feet requires the quads to be relatively active all day. The muscles are geared towards endurance-based work, and it's safe to say they have a higher distribution of slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Furthermore, in the athletic world, speed skaters, skiers, and cyclists – or athletes in sports where the legs use prolonged efforts instead of short bursts – often have proportionally massive quad size. What's going on here?
It's safe to infer that increased time spent under tension, higher reps, higher lactate, and even an aerobic angle to leg workouts can all drive quadriceps growth, so think of using higher-rep sets on leg day.
For example, breathing squats are grueling sets using your 10-12 rep max for up to 20 reps. The energy expenditure is high, but the payoff is fulfilling. Use them with the squat or leg press.
If that's too tough, try adding more reps to the mix by using ladder sets. These allow a lifter to perform 20 reps with their 10 RM with brief breaks of 10 to 15 seconds, enough rest to restore a bit of ATP. Check out the video below to see my anguish.
As an empirical example, look at the bodybuilder whose leg development set the standard by which all others would be judged: Tom Platz. His wheels were one of a kind, and his training frequently used very high rep ranges for the big lower body movements, such as 225-pound squats for 10 straight minutes. That's not a misprint!
Take a page out of his book and add more sets, higher volume, and more time spent under tension to make the quads grow.
It doesn't have to be too complicated. The answer to the quad hypertrophy question boils down to just training them hard. They're one of the largest muscle groups in the body and need to be assaulted to trigger growth.
Take care of the little things, like tissue quality and body geometry, and then go to town.