Impressive quads aren't easy to build. Going through the motions with a handful of machines won't cut it. But if you're willing to pull out all the stops, you can build them.
That's where high-bar squats comes in. High-bar squats will hit all the critical components for muscle growth, including mechanical tension, training intensity, and metabolic stress. We'll cover those, and more, in the workout below.
Remember, big quads are rare because few people are willing to do the terrible things necessary to earn them. You'll do this four-exercise workout twice per week.
Here are the lifts that'll score you an impressive pair of quads:
These are your big-ticket move for this workout. It's important to get them right to really emphasize the quads.
- Place a barbell on your upper traps while squeezing your upper back muscles together to form a shelf. If you aren't used to a bar on your upper traps it can feel uncomfortable at first. Get used to it. Just make sure the bar isn't sitting on the bony ridges of your spine or your neck.
- Find your best foot position, allowing maximum hip mobility at the bottom of the squat and preventing rounding of your spine or knee discomfort. Start with heels around hip width and toes angled outward. Then adjust and use what feels best. We're often taught to use a narrow stance for better quad recruitment. This may produce more quad tension but isn't essential. If you can't set up narrow you'll still get excellent quad recruitment with good range of motion, loading, and reps.
- Form a strong arch by squeezing the ball of your foot toward your heel. Externally rotate your hips to get your knees vertically stacked with your toes. The stress and tension of the load should be directed through stacked bones, joints, and muscles.
- Protect your lower back by flexing the abs and locking your sternum down into your pelvis. Though the high-bar position keeps your torso more upright than the mechanics of low-bar squatting, this doesn't mean your torso must be perpendicular to the ground. Too often, lifters create a vertical position by aggressively arching their lower backs. This can lead to potential injury.
Maintain a neutral lumbar spine (natural arch) to protect your lower back. With abs locked down, elevate your chest and extend at the thoracic spine to maintain a slight but not excessive upright posture. If you're tall with long femurs, no amount of exaggerated arch will allow you to sit vertically in a squat.
Exaggerating a vertical torso also pushes the knees forward to maintain center of gravity – producing even more stress in the knee and possibly causing patella-femoral pain. This usually restricts the ability to squat deeper, which can lead to overloading a shorter range of motion squat and further aggravating joint stress. Most lifters subsequently abandon squats and knee-wrap their leg press because "they hurt my knees."
High-bar squats are more upright and quad dominant than low-bar squats. More emphasis on quads, and therefore knees, doesn't mean your knees can't handle the stress. Our joints aren't fragile structures ready to explode if loaded.
Creating strong muscles around your knees by using correct form will encase the knee with muscle to protect and stabilize it, while applying controlled stress to strengthen your connective tissue and bones over time.
Just don't be careless. Loading through the ball of the foot can cause knee pain. This may happen when your knees dive too far forward past your toes at the bottom of the squat. Your knees can and should go past your toes on a good squat.
Often lifters let their heels rise at the bottom of a squat as the focus is in the front of the foot. Maintain your weight evenly through the entire foot and push firmly through your heel as you squat. If you can't squat deeply without your heels rising, this means you have poor ankle mobility. So restrict your depth while working to improve your ankle dorsiflexion. Healthy, mobile ankles are crucial for good squatting.
Sets and Reps
Warm up with an empty bar or bodyweight set to mobilize hips, knees, and ankles and to sense any major joint discomfort early. Do 2-3 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps before moving up to working weight.
Then, use 3-4 working sets of 8-12 reps. Adjust the weight so that you get within two reps of failure to optimize muscle growth. This will produce enough mechanical tension and metabolic stress to trigger a growth response. Occasionally jumping to 15-20 reps to near failure is an unpleasant yet effective way to break plateaus.
High-bar squats are tough. Even sets of 8-12 will leave you winded while taxing your central nervous system. The goal is to do enough training volume to grow. Focus on developing the stamina to do more reps, sets, and weight.
Hitting absolute failure is fine for curls and cable rows, but it increases the chance of getting hurt on heavy compounds and accumulates fatigue more rapidly than training effect.
Excess fatigue cuts into training volume of subsequent sets and later exercises. As you progress through weeks of training, apply progressive overload with added weight, reps, and carefully timed sets.
Rest as long as needed to recover to start the next set with excellent form for the 8-12 reps. Taking only 60 seconds of rest means you aren't lifting heavy enough or giving yourself enough time to recover. Working quickly doesn't burn more body fat. Instead it cuts into training volume and overall results. Taking 2-3 minutes of rest between your working sets should be adequate.
Now let's get to the other exercises you'll need in your quad-building arsenal.
Barbell Walking Lunge
Lunges add total quad demolition and single-leg work. Grabbing a couple dumbbells will work, but barbell lunges avoid grip and posture fatigue while allowing greater loading.
You don't have to have an upright torso for these despite what many personal trainers still say. Instead, use a torso angle that best allows you to keep a neutral spine and engaged core while maximizing range of motion and avoiding knee discomfort. Too often, staying upright can only be done at the expense of an aggressive lumbar arch.
Lunges can be done with a vertical shin for more glute emphasis or with a forward knee for more quad focus, though all forms of lunges hammer quads. Emphasize the quad-dominant version by allowing your knee to travel as far past the toe as your ankle mobility will allow and your knee will tolerate (free of discomfort).
Maintain firm heel contact with the ground on each stride. Pissing off your knees will shut down your quad training, so use the form combining the best quad emphasis with knee happiness. Stop touching your back knee to the ground. The extra little range of motion isn't worth the impact on your kneecap.
Alternate forward strides across a room or lunge in place if you don't have the space to lunge across a floor. Do 3-4 sets to failure at about 10-15 reps per leg.
Take each stride forward instead of crossing your feet over as if walking a tightrope. This only makes balance harder with no training benefit. Don't have the space to do these at your gym? Swap them for Bulgarian split squats.
After finishing the work requiring balance and axial loading we further annihilate quads with the leg press. By using machines you can add direct quad training volume without accumulating a lot of systemic fatigue.
Foot placement matters for muscle activation but not at the cost of joint pain or lost range of motion. Knee-dominant exercises will always be quad dominant so any foot position used for this will train your quads effectively.
Start by placing your feet narrow and lower on the press platform, but work higher and or wider if this allows better range of motion or eliminates joint pain.
Like squats, maintain a strong foot arch while externally rotating the hips to keep your knees from collapsing inward. Keep your core flexed and rigid. Descend to the fullest range of motion available without allowing your hips to lift from the seat and causing your back to round.
Don't ego-lift and micro-rep like a jackass. Avoid a hard lockout at the top to avoid injury. Use a load which allows 12-15 reps to hit failure. This brings intensity, volume, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress into play. Drop set the last set 1-3 times for added destruction.
If your leg press is occupied, swap it out for the hack squat machine. Same principles apply.
Burn out with low impact sets of leg extensions and crawl away with torched quads.
Sit firmly back in the seat while holding the handles. Don't allow your hips to rise to generate power and momentum. Lift the bar with your shins by extending your knees and quads with controlled movement.
Decelerate to a controlled lockout while avoiding explosive momentum. Keep your abs flexed and your torso still and upright in the seat. Use a weight to get 12-15 reps. Drop set the last set 2-3 times to add intensity and go past failure.
- High Bar Squats: Warm-up with 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps. Then do 3-4 working sets of 8-12 within 2 reps of failure. Occasionally crank the reps up to 15-20 to near failure.
- Barbell Lunges: Do 3-4 sets of 10-15 strides per leg.
- Leg Press: Do 4 sets of 12-15 reps to near failure. Drop set the last set 2-3 times.
- Leg Extensions: Do 4 sets of 15 reps. Drop set the last set 2-3 times.
Building enviable wheels means showing up every week for intense training. It means training legs twice per week, sucking wind, and barely walking away from the workout.