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The old school guys were pretty good at annihilating a muscle without a machine-filled gym. So let’s dust off some of their best lifts for quads and eliminate some growth plateaus in the process. You won’t even need a squat rack or a big pile of plates.
1. Reverse Nordic
You may already know of the Nordic hamstring curl, but I bet you haven’t considered trying it in reverse.
This is an advanced exercise which will stretch the fascia of the quads and hip flexors. It brings constant tension into the equation and can be an awesome finisher for the quads, especially when used in a superset.
Added weight won’t be necessary if you’ve never done these before, but you can progress by holding a weight against your chest when you’re ready. If you’re feeling brave, add a resistance band to pull you back the further you travel forward.
How to Do It
- Position yourself on a mat or soft surface in a tall kneeling position with either the backs of your feet flat or pressing on the tips of your toes.
- Press your hips forward, squeeze your glutes, and lock yourself into a position where your torso and thighs are perfectly in line.
- Drop back into a lying quad stretch moving as far back as comfortable, either until you can no longer maintain full hip extension or just shy of your lower back taking any unnecessary load.
- Maintaining hip extension, press your feet into the floor and engage the quads throughout the ascent.
- Aim for as much range of motion as possible with crisp form. While in most cases a larger ROM is more beneficial, we’re looking for quality over quantity.
It won’t take long to hit failure if you’re executing it with optimal form. You’ll know when you’re doing it right!
2. Bodyweight Sissy Squat
It’s a “love it or hate it” exercise. Critics dislike the knee-over-toe positions, but when done correctly it makes a massive difference on leg day. It’ll set your quads on fire and it doesn’t require any equipment, just something to hang on to for balance.
This is what I often use as the grand finale for my lower body workouts because of its convenience and large range of motion.
How to Do It
- Stand next to a stable object like a power rack, wall, or piece of gym equipment and get on your tip-toes.
- Lock your hips forward into extension like you would during the reverse Nordic exercise. This creates a straight line with your thighs and torso. Squeeze your glutes and engage your core.
- Push forward and lower your knees down while maintaining hip extension. Allow your knees to travel past your toes toward the floor.
- Stop when you feel you’ve reached a point of a maximal loaded stretch without too much pressure around the knee or ankle areas.
- Move back up pressing the toes down into the ground and completing the rep with the same execution. Maintain as much hip extension as possible.
- Fully extend the knees at the top for a good peak contraction on the quads at the completion of every rep.
Want a progression? Attach a band to an object in front of you and loop it around your knees. This will force you to get a greater peak contraction.
3. Machine Sissy Squat
This actually couldn’t be more different than the bodyweight version when it comes to execution.
The contraption you use to lock yourself into position will hold your weight when leaning backwards and keep you from falling. This type of sissy squat places maximal tension at the point of peak contraction. But the bodyweight variation emphasizes the bottom of the movement, promoting a great loaded stretch on the quads.
(Don’t have one of these contraptions? They’re pretty inexpensive. Check out this one.)
How to Do It
- Stand in the machine leaving a gap in front of your ankle if the shin pad is adjustable.
- Slide your feet under the pad and place as much pressure into the front pad before leaning back, allowing your calves to rest on the rear pad to clamp yourself in. Act as if you’re constantly pushing the soles of your feet forward and into the floor to remain clamped without feeling like you’ll fall back.
- Let your hips drop back and down in a squatting motion, keeping a relatively upright torso until you reach comfortable depth.
- To complete the rep, press your shins against the pads during the ascent. Extend the hips fully at the top to finish in a slightly leaned-back position.
4. Dumbbell Leg Extension
This requires minimal equipment and provides an awesome peak contraction due to leverage. And if you have the right bench and setup you can get more range of movement than many machine leg extensions.
Your body can be manipulated more freely during execution to achieve both a great loaded stretch on the quads along with a high peak contraction. While back support is great when it comes to isolation for most exercises, allowing the torso free movement during this one can benefit it even more.
How to Do It
- Set a bench at a low incline and position yourself on the end of it. Get your knees over the edge in the same fashion as a machine extension.
- Clamp a single dumbbell between the arches of your feet, lean back slightly, and grab both sides of the bench with your hands for stability.
- Extend the knees until they’re straight and engage the adductors (inner thigh muscles) to keep the dumbbell in position until you’ve fully extended your legs.
For a larger peak contraction, lean forward at the top of the movement as you extend the knees fully. Then on the descent, lean back into a state of near extension of the hips. Squeeze your glutes until the dumbbell reaches the bottom. This will give you a great loaded stretch.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat on Decline Bench
You’ve seen the rear-foot elevated split squat, but this setup will make it even more brutal.
How to Do It
- Find an adjustable bench and set it on a slight decline.
- Step forward with a shorter foot position for this variation. Stand with the toes and heel of your rear foot up on the bench.
- As your start each rep, lock your hips forward into extension and proceed to drop the rear knee down toward the ground. Continue to press the hips forward until you reach the floor.
- Maintain an upright torso from start to finish. Press through the front leg and the toes of your back foot aiming to equally distribute the load through both feet as much as possible.
- Add resistance either with dumbbells by your sides or use a goblet position to keep your posture upright.
What Good Quad Exercises Have in Common
You may have noticed a trend with all these variations: full hip extension. During most quad-dominant exercises, it’s key to get a full range of motion and an increased loaded stretch. These are two important factors involved in creating a good stimulus.
To get the best bang for your buck, your technique should be of utmost importance if you’re wanting to build muscle. And if it’s good, extra resistance in most cases won’t be necessary.