Here's what you need to know...
• Squats and lunges are great quad builders but can ravage the knees. Using knee-friendly exercises, especially as finishers, is a wise move.
• Some awesome quad builders look like conditioning exercises. But any conditioning exercise can be a muscle builder if you go heavy and hard.
Heavy squat and lunge variations should form the cornerstone of a good quad-building program, but if all you did was heavy squats and heavy lunges, it wouldn't be long before your knees started hating you. Quads can take a brutal beating, but knees aren't so resilient.
With that in mind, here are some ways to nail your quads while sparing your knees.
These are best done after you've completed your heavier strength work. For those with knee issues though, you may be better served using the exercises below as replacements to anything that causes you pain.
1. Heavy Reverse Sled Drag
Those who consider sled drags to be just for conditioning aren't going heavy enough. While light sled drags are more of a conditioning tool than a muscle builder, heavy sled drags can build muscle, and lots of it.
That's the case with any exercise though. Any exercise can be a muscle builder if you treat it as such, and that means going heavy and hard. Sleds are no different.
The trouble with sleds is that they don't always jive well with the anal types who like to analyze and overthink every imaginable variable.
Sleds are one of the rare exercises where your form actually gets better as the load increases, so rather than worry about if you're doing it right, just pile on the plates and pull it or push as hard you can. Your form will take care of itself as your struggle to move it.
I like reverse sled drags best for targeting the quads, but you can certainly push the sled if you prefer.
For reverse sled drags, attach a belt to one end of the sled and some straps to the other end. Start by walking down with the belt, like so:
And then walk back holding the straps:
Both movements fall in the 30-45 second time under tension (TUT) range, which many claim is the ideal TUT for hypertrophy. More than likely your available space will dictate how far you go, unless you're outside, in which case 20-40 yards is a good starting point.
The weight will be dictated by what you've done earlier in the workout. When I first started doing heavy sled work I tried to figure out an exact way to quantify progression, but I quickly found that it works much better to just keep adding plates until you can't and then call it a day.
2. "1.5" Trap Bar Deadlift
Trap bar deadlifts are a squat/deadlift hybrid exercise that can be turned into more of a squat or more of a deadlift depending on how you perform the exercise.
Since we're after big quads, you'll want to think about it more like a squat, focusing on getting your hips down at the start of the pull and keeping the torso as upright as possible. This will require reducing the weight from what you'd otherwise be able to deadlift with high hips, so ditch the ego and focus on doing it correctly.
To fry the quads even more, try "1.5" reps where you do one rep, come halfway back up, go back down to the floor, and finally come all the way back up. That's one rep. Do the reps continuously without pausing at the top or bottom to keep the stress on the legs.
The lighter loads make these a lot easier on the lower back, which makes them a good option when you're looking to blast your legs but your lower back isn't feeling up to snuff.
I'll sometimes do these after my heavier work as I'm unloading the bar. I absolutely abhor loading and unloading weights, so if I'm going to go through the effort, I might as well get my money's worth. It's a good way to end the workout because after a few sets your legs won't have much left for anything else.
3. Duck-Stance Trap Bar Deadlift
Stand with your heels close together and your toes angled out to the sides and stop just short of locking out at the top to keep the stress on the quads. Try to control the weight on the eccentric by focusing on tapping the weight down as quietly as possible.
Smaller trap bars may not allow you to duck your feet out too drastically, and some lifters may find that it bothers their knees when they angle their toes out too much, so in either of those cases, just don't point the toes out so much.
4. Deficit Trap Bar Deadlift with Chains
Increasing the range of motion on trap bar deadlifts by pulling from a deficit is a great way to blast the quads.
If you're not careful though, it's also a great way to get hurt. To get the benefits of pulling from a deficit with less risk, try adding chains to lighten the load at the bottom where the lower back and knees are most vulnerable.
An inch or two deficit is more than sufficient. While it may not seem like a lot, it'll drastically decrease how much weight you can handle – provided you keep the hips down and use good form – so don't get overzealous with the weight.
5. Skater Front Squat
When first learning skater squats, I normally recommend doing them with small dumbbells in your hands to serve as a counterbalance. But once you're comfortable with the movement, try holding a barbell with a front squat grip to force you to keep a more upright stance, which in turns puts a great emphasis on the quads.
Here's what it looks like in action:
For an added challenge, or just a different variation, try them starting "bottoms up" from the pins in a power rack, like this:
The key with both variations is to make sure that you aren't pushing off the floor with your back foot.
For those that struggle to hold the front rack position, I've found that using a "hands free" grip where you just extend your arms straight out in front of you works well. You'd think that it would be a problem as far as just holding the bar, but it actually works because the load isn't too heavy.
This also makes for a great way to up the ante when you don't have a weighted vest.
6. Airdyne Bike Sprint
I'd like to punch whomever invented the Airdyne bike.
It's so simple and looks so innocuous, yet it never fails to humble me and bring me to my knees. I've done 20 rep squats, 50 rep squats, 100 rep squats, drop-set leg presses, hack squat widowmakers, high-rep leg extensions, walking lunges until I fall over – you name it, I've tried it – and the quad pump I get from an all-out Airdyne bike sprint is more intense than any of those things.
Now I'm not going to say that I think bike sprints are better than the aforementioned exercises for leg growth, but they definitely work the quads a lot if you really put your all into it. Just look at sprint cyclists. Their quads are huge, even compared to regular cyclists.
To be fair, that's a somewhat misleading example because sprint cyclists train with an extremely high frequency and volume with power outputs that would bury most average guys. If all you did were a few hard bike sprints a couple times a week, you'd still have chicken legs.
Still, for the average lifter, bike sprints can certainly augment your weight training and make for one hell of a pump at the end of your workout, which will assist in muscle growth.
There are endless ways to implement bike sprints, so feel free to get creative and use your imagination. Just make sure you're busting your ass.
Some people like to do their sprints based on time, while others prefer to go by distance. Both are fine, but I'd start with a distance that puts you in the 15-30 second range for each sprint, doing 3-4 intervals per workout and working up from there, either increasing the distance of the sprints, increasing the total intervals, or both.
If you're the type that likes to watch others suffer, here's me doing the dreaded Tabata workout: 8 rounds of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. I've only done this a couple times because, well, it absolutely sucks.
If you don't have an Airdyne bike, a spin bike or regular exercise bike will suffice. Just keep the tension high enough that it feels challenging for the legs but low enough that you can still keep the RPMs reasonably high and it feels more like a sprint than a slow grind.
Honest, Brutal Effort
Give some of these exercises a try in conjunction with your other heavy strength work. Just remember that giving them a try constitutes giving them an honest, brutal effort.