The legs are the pillars of performance in the gym. From sled pushes to sprints, box jumps to bench pressing, everything you do in training demands strong legs in some way. Therefore, training your quads can have a huge impact on your physique and physical capabilities — but those gains don’t come without a cost.
Even a simple set of leg extensions can be a reminder of how much work goes into building larger, stronger, more athletic quads. Here are five workouts that bring the pain and help you earn your wheels.
Best Quad Workouts
Note: You can integrate any of these quad workouts into your regular lower-body workouts if desired, or perform them on their own. Make sure you aren’t skipping out on exercises targeting the hamstrings, glutes, or calves as well.
The quadriceps are an integral element of any good leg day. This means that variations of split squats, full squats, and isolation machines are at your disposal to customize your lower body training to suit your needs. Beginners in particular benefit from challenging their stability or endurance, and need to spend time with the barbell to build long-term training tolerance.
Training unilaterally and with reasonable loads to perfect technique is the best way to succeed when training the quads as a beginner. This means choosing variations of exercises that challenge your motor control in a safe way.
Developing solid bodily control can help with your performance of more skill-heavy movements down the line, so there’s no reason to skimp out on the basics.
- Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat — 2 x 10
- Goblet Squat — 2 x 10
- Reverse Lunge — 2 x 12 – 15
- Leg Extension — 2 x 12
Training the quads for hypertrophy is about choosing exercises that allow us to load the muscle as much as possible. By adjusting your posture, technique, or movement selection to bias the quadriceps with more mechanical load, you can pack on more muscle over time.
To maximize hypertrophy, you should prioritize as much tension on the quads as possible without risking loss of position or potential injury. In practical terms, this can mean swapping out complex exercises like the full barbell squat for something like the leg press. Muscle growth also demands more total volume by jacking up your sets and reps and selecting weights that are properly challenging.
- Leg Press — 4 x 8 – 12
- Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat — 4 x 10 – 12
- Leg Extension — 4 x 10 – 12
Any competitive powerlifter can tell you how important strong quads are — for more than just squatting heavy. To strengthen your quads, you’ll need to select movements that allow them to express their full potential via functional, multi-joint movements.
The high bar squat should allow for a greater range of motion at the knee while being less hip and back reliant than a low bar squat.
The leg press is also a viable accessory, since you can load your legs up heavily even if your core or back is fatigued. A bit of single-leg and machine work serves as a good finisher to keep the knees strong and stable.
- High Bar Squat — 3 x 5
- Leg Press — 3 x 6 – 8
- Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat — 2 x 8 – 10
- Leg Extension — 2 x 10 – 12
Believe it or not, you can still get a good leg workout in without access to a barbell or even a home gym. When an external load is out of the question, looking towards explosiveness and extended ranges of motion can help induce growth and cook the quads — without loading up on plates.
Start with explosive, unilateral exercises as they are the most technically challenging and demand the most coordination. After that, peppering in exercises that challenge the quads with extra repetitions, longer time spent under tension, and a punishing burn can make for a highly effective training session.
- Bodyweight Jump Squat — 5 x 5
- Elevated Split Squat* — 3 x 12
- Heels Elevated 1 & 1/4 Squat — 3 x 8 – 12
- Cyclist Squat — 2 sets to failure
Note: Perform this split squat with elevation under both the front and back feet to allow the knee to dip further down, increasing the range of motion.
People tend to associate “hard” training with heavy weights or skin-tearing intensity techniques, but going the distance with your leg training can challenge your metabolic conditioning to provide a novel exercise stimulus. Systemic fatigue and extreme cardiovascular demands can be a rude awakening if you’re slacked off on your conditioning work.
To test and train endurance, selecting movements that let you safely push your limits is the name of the game. Machine work, cranking up the reps, and reducing rest periods are all high priorities here.
- Leg Press — 3 x 15 – 20
- 1 & 1/4 Goblet Squat — 3 x 12
- Walking Lunge — 3 x 15 repetitions per leg
- Leg Extension — 3 x 15 repetitions per leg
Anatomy of the Quads
They’re one of the few muscles on the body that can both walk the walk and talk the talk. While you can’t say that about every other tissue, the quadriceps make a statement visually and also do a lot of the literal heavy lifting in the gym.
The quadriceps are composed of four distinct muscular compartments that all perform the primary function of knee extension. The vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris produce force in unison on the knee joint, although the rectus femoris does have other distinct functions.
The rectus femoris is the most superficial quadriceps muscle, meaning it rests closer to the skin. It is a primary knee extensor, but is also the only quadriceps muscle to cross the hip joint, meaning that the rectus femoris does have some role in hip flexion as well.
The vastis medialis is the innermost quadriceps muscle, closest to the midline of the body. It is more commonly referred to as the “tear-drop” muscle and helps with knee extension exercises.
The vastus lateralis is the largest, outermost quadriceps muscle. It runs along the outer side of the thigh and assists with knee extension.
The vastus intermedius rests underneath the rectus femoris, running up and down the middle of the thigh. It also helps to produce knee extension.
Benefits of Quad Training
Training the quadriceps has benefits that suit almost any goal. The quadriceps play a critical role in explosiveness and athletic movements, they contribute huge strength output to squats and deadlifts, and help to round out a balanced physique.
Explosiveness and Athleticism
Force production for sprinting, jumping, and other athletic pursuits are often improved by training the quadriceps. Many quadriceps exercises tend to mimic sprinting or jumping mechanics.
For example, the split squat can be selected or modified to emphasize certain phases of the human gait cycle, creating a relevant training effect for any given sport that involves working on one leg at a time.
Lower Body Strength
Powerlifting is a great example of a strength sport that benefits from training the quadriceps. In both squats and deadlifts, the quadriceps serve as prime movers to produce the force necessary to lift the barbell. A stronger set of quads therefore will improve the likelihood of a bigger total on competition day.
Training the quads is a no-brainer for bodybuilders. A big set of legs is a point of pride for many lifters because they can only be achieved via the toughest, most painful workouts.
Further, underdeveloped quadriceps can make the glutes and hamstrings look awkward or disproportionate by comparison, which can ruin the flow of a physique overall.
How to Program Quad Workouts
Training the quadriceps properly requires a “mixed bag” approach. Since the quads are so large and can be attacked from so many different angles, to optimize your training you should adhere to some consistent guidelines.
Train Big to Small
The compound lifts tend to be the biggest bang for your buck in the gym. Squats, lunges, and leg pressing, while great for the quads, also induce full-body fatigue if you go heavy enough. Therefore, they should be prioritized first in the workout so that you can apply enough effort without compromising technique or safety.
Skill Before Simplicity
In a similar vein, skill or balance-based exercises should be completed before you move onto machine or cable work. Split squats and lunges demand a lot of bodily coordination, which can be hard to muster at the end of your workout. Once your main movement is out of the way, hit the split-stance stuff right after.
As you grow in size and gain strength, your major movements will take up more time in your session. To avoid spending too much time in the gym, you can reduce volume on smaller accessory exercises like leg extensions to accommodate your newfound power in the squat or leg press. Managing volume is an important part of training long-term.
How to Warm Up for Quad Workouts
Even though the knee is a simple hinge joint, quad-focused exercises often involve secondary joints and muscles that require extra attention before you start your workout.
With that in mind, you should aim to mobilize or engage the musculature around the knee in addition to the quadriceps themselves. Single-leg RDLs, hip airplanes, or split squat variations with modest load are great ways to prime the lower body for real work.
Some athletes train legs for fun — others as part of their professional calling. What any gymgoer, recreational or otherwise, can tell you is that quad work is devilishly painful. Fortunately, the gains that come as a result are more than worth it.
Selecting the right exercises, calibrating your set and rep scheme, and accurately determining the right loads can set your leg day apart from the average Joe’s. Embrace the burn and reap the benefits.
Featured Image: Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock