It’s one of the toughest muscle groups to build. We ask 10 experts for their single best tip for building quads. Check out their answers.
What’s your single best tip for building quads?
I don’t mean to just use two plates and get a pump. The last few reps should be hell on earth or the weight isn’t heavy enough. Everything should burn, your breathing should be hard, and you should be cursing the day you read this.
If you’re brave, pause three seconds at the bottom of every squat for the first half of the set. Then follow the set with a unilateral movement like lunges, or superset with leg extensions to failure. That’ll be one hell of a quad-building session.
What people commonly miss when it comes to quad development is simply volume. It’s a muscle group that requires a lot of time under tension. It’s not that heavy lifting alone won’t make them grow, but if you want that massive “3D” look, you’ll need to suffer.
I’ve noticed a trend in the past five or so years and it’s our fault. We’ve shoved the importance of posterior chain training down everyone’s throat so much that a lot of guys have either lost the ability to use their quads to a high degree, and/or they have no quads.
Take the squat for example. Most lifters have been brainwashed into thinking they HAVE to sit back when they squat, that it HAS to be a posterior chain dominant movement.
Can we make the case that a more posterior chain dominant squat pattern (where you sit back into the hips and maintain more of a vertical shin angle) will allow someone to handle more weight? Sure. But this isn’t about lifting the most weight. It’s about building a set of quads the size of Nebraska.
How do we do that? By making the squat look like a squat. Think DOWN, not back.
Thinking “sit back and arch” is a poor choice for most non-geared lifters anyway. It champions an excessive arch in the lower back which can put you into a poor, unstable position (hence the squat suit).
Can people lift a boatload of weight this way? Yes. But their backs will hate them over the long haul. Moreover, it’s not my first choice to coach a squat if someone is looking to grow their quads. And yes, relax internet warrior guy, I understand plenty of powerlifters have big quads. That’s not the point.
Instead, for the bulk of people, the squat is a motion that should be equal parts sitting back AND knees coming forward. I often cue my athletes to break with their knees first and then to simply squat down. Breaking with the knees first is fine so long as the heels don’t come off the ground. And a funny thing happens too… the quads grow.
Before you all start droning on about how the leg press doesn’t transfer to sports performance and how it doesn’t build strength, let’s draw some distinctions here.
There’s a difference between strength and hypertrophy. There are plenty of guys who look perfectly average who can hoist enormous amounts of weight, relatively speaking. And there are also a fair share of muscular guys who have trouble opening the occasional pickle jar.
Strength is largely a manifestation of nervous system efficiency. The more muscle fibers you can recruit and how fast you can recruit them translates to the amount of stuff you can forklift off the ground.
Hypertrophy, on the other muscular hand, is largely a combination of increased muscle glycogen, protein synthesis, increased myofibril size, and hormonal milieu. Coaxing your muscles to grow involves an entirely different recipe than making them stronger.
That being said, the almighty squat is a great strength-building exercise, but it isn’t necessarily the best muscle-building exercise. True, plenty of lifters would argue that point vociferously, but most of them are short-legged Hobbit-like fellows who need a stepstool to climb onto their high horse.
Leg presses, however, are an excellent tool for making the quads grow, but again, they’re not that great for building overall strength. Leg presses are a much better muscle builder for the following reasons:
- You don’t have to stop a set prematurely because your lower back, feet, ankles, or wheezing lungs gave out before your legs did. When you stop a set of leg presses, you did it because your quads failed you.
- You can keep doing reps until you reach total exhaustion. (Hell, you’re already kind of on the ground, so there’s nowhere to fall.)
- Auto-forced reps. You can put your hands on your knees and push to give yourself some extra reps.
Here’s a particularly effective way to do leg presses:
- Begin by doing a set of 10 with a plate on each side.
- Rest and then add a 25 to each side. Do a set of 10.
- Then remove the 25s and replace them with a pair of 45s and do another set of 10. (The first few ridiculously light sets serve as a warm-up.)
- Continue doing this (adding either a pair of 25s or 45s) until you fail to hit 10 reps. (Yes, it might take a while. Big deal.) Rest briefly.
Oh yeah, at least attempt to do the eccentric or lowering part of the movement in a controlled manner. There’s a reason Olympic lifters or powerlifters often look different than bodybuilders and it’s because they don’t worry about lowering the weight; all they care about is lifting it.
The thing is, lowering the weight slowly or in a controlled manner, at least some of the time, is what grows muscle. And yes, this applies to the leg press, too. Lower the platform with control. Pretend you’ve got a basket of kitties on it. You wouldn’t just let the basket crash down hard and upset the kitties, would you? No, of course not. You’re not a monster.
Okay, back to our workout. You’ve gotten to a weight where you failed to hit 10-reps. Now begin your strip set. Do as many as you can with the weight on the platform. Lock the platform, drag your ass up, and quickly remove one 45-pound plate from each side. Do it within 10 seconds or so. Get back into the machine and rep out again.
Keep removing plates and repping out. Keep rest to a bare minimum. When you’ve just repped out with one 45-pound plate on each side, you’re done. Go home and grow. Make sure to feed the kitties.
To make any exercise more quad dominant, allow the knee to pass forward over the toe. The more acute the knee angle, the more work the knee extensors (the quads) will have to do to extend your leg again.
A lot of people use leg extensions and leg presses as their go-to quad exercises. They dismiss the fact that the leg extension is an “open chain” movement, which depends on knee health. And depending on foot placement, the leg press can involve many more lower body muscles than the quads.
Try pairing front squats and lunges. Making sure your knees travel over your toes encourages more quad activation and also a more vertical torso. Using a knee break to start the movement also emphasizes both of the above. Squatting with Olympic lifting shoes or some plates under your heels can help make the quads work harder. I’m 6’4’’ with a short torso. Good mobility aside, check out how a pair of Olympic lifting shoes can help me stay tall.
Finishing off the superset with some short-stride walking lunges will make the quads work even harder for the same reasons. Cutting your stride distance by about half will emphasize the front quad and turn into a great burnout to tack on to your front squats. Do 6-8 reps for the front squats and 20-24 strides for the lunges.
Looking back at bodybuilding history, you often see advice like this: “The quads need higher reps than other muscle groups, like 15-20 or more to grow.”
But somewhere this old rule I learned in 1983 got lost. Maybe it’s the “go heavy or go home” mindset, which has its place but kills the benefits of time under tension. Or maybe it’s because sport coaches write most of the training articles and books these days, and they don’t care too much about quads that split your blue jeans apart, only strength and function.
Or maybe it’s more simple than that. Maybe it’s because high-rep quad work burns more than anything else. Most lifters would much rather pile on the plates and do single-digit reps. That hurts, but it’s a different kind of pain and strain. But 20 reps of an exercise that targets the quads, taken to failure or close to it? That’s some soul-grinding, hypertrophy-inducing pain.
So try this:
- Pick an exercise that mainly hits the quads. Let’s just use a leg press as an example.
- To shift tension more onto the quads, use a closer foot width, press mainly through the toes rather than the heels, and keep your feet a bit lower on the sled.
- Shoot for 25 reps. Keep the tension constant, don’t lock out at the top. Just close your eyes and grind. If you can’t get 25, lighten the load. If you get 30, add some weight. Do two or three sets.
- After your “sissy” light work, retrieve your spleen. It may have popped out and rolled across the gym. Then add weight and knock out a few heavy sets in the normal 8-10 rep range.
Another option: Forget counting reps and grind for two minutes straight. You’ll figure out the best weight to use after a practice run or two, so put away the percentage of 1RM charts.
Now, this doesn’t mean to only do high reps. Just don’t forget about them. And it doesn’t mean you can’t eventually work up to some heavy weights for higher reps. Remember bodybuilder Tom Platz squatting 350 pounds for around 50 reps? Or when he’d put 225 on the bar and squat for 10 minutes without stopping?
Yeah, me neither, but he did it and he had the freakiest quads in bodybuilding history. Maybe he was on to something.
The muscle getting stretched the most in an exercise is the muscle getting recruited and stimulated the most. So the optimal exercise for the quads depends on your structure. Here are some general examples.
If you have long limbs and a short torso, especially if you have short tibias (lower leg bones) relative to your femurs (upper leg bones), then the back squat will mostly be a posterior chain exercise because you won’t be able to stay upright. As such, the glutes and hamstrings will be stretched more than the quads.
If you have shorter limbs, especially if you have longer tibias relative to your femurs, then the back squat will overload the quads the most because it’ll be easy to stay upright.
If you have long limbs and a short torso and tibias pretty much in balance with the femurs, the front squat will be your best choice. The leg press will be effective too.
If you have long limbs and a short torso and tibias that are shorter in relation of the femurs, then the Frankenstein squat with heels elevated will be your best bet.
If you have shorter limbs and a longer torso, the high-bar back squat will be your best exercise for quads. The front squat works too, but it won’t activate the quads that much more, and you can load a lot more on the back squat. If you have short limbs and long tibias you actually don’t need to do the front squat at all.
If you have short limbs and tibias equal or shorter than the femurs then you might want to do one front squat workout for every two back squat workouts. The hack squat machine will work too, but the leg press won’t be that effective.
People with longer limbs will need more exercise variety. Those with shorter limbs can stick to only the back and front squat and get maximum results.
Hammering knee-dominant movements with the goal of hypertrophy is kind of like playing Russian roulette. Sure, going to town on compound work like squats, lunges, and leg presses and topping it off with isolated work like leg extensions will skyrocket your training volume and emphasize the target muscles.
But remember, the four synergistic muscles that compound to create the quadriceps group all insert onto the same structural point on the knee: the patella. And altering the kinematics, stability patterns, and general movement patterns of the patella in coordination with the rest of the body can be a recipe for some pissed-off knees and maybe even injury.
The knee joint is quite simple. It’s a hinge-type joint which moves into two degrees of motion: flexion and extension. While these biomechanical movement restrictions create more inherent stability at the knee, they also make it susceptible to chronic flare-ups, especially when volume is programmed haphazardly.
To avoid this, move slowly, keep constant tension on the quads, and extend the sets to at least 30 seconds to grow. Though any single leg or bilateral movement will work, the rear-foot elevated split squat is a killer variation for this constant tension execution.
If we’re talking about compound lifts like squats, hacks, front squats, etc. then this comes down to physics. Make sure the moment/lever arm from the knee joint is longer than the moment arm from the hip joint (against the applying resistance). For compound movements, it’s as simple as that.
When I was competing in powerlifting, my quads weren’t that developed, despite being strong enough to do pause squats with 605 for reps. My squatting style was far more hip dominant and low bar, so my quads received very little tension in the movement compared to how Olympic lifters squat – high bar, less hinging at the hips, and greater knee flexion during the eccentric (lowering).
So if you plan on using squats for quad development, then you actually need to allow your knees to travel forwards and ignore the advice that your shins need to be mostly vertical the whole time.
Your mechanics are going to dictate what muscles end up having to do the brunt of the work. Simply doing squats and expecting them build big quads will leave you awfully frustrated if you don’t know how to do them to put most of the tension on the quads.
Each machine removes the required stabilization associated with barbell squats. The possibility of losing your balance is gone, so you’re free to focus all your energy on quad contraction.
Yes, I believe instability techniques can activate more muscle fibers, but I’ve seen the most growth when I can harness the mind-muscle connection with heavy weight.
Some favor lighter weight and high reps for quad development, while others opt for max effort low-rep schemes. I do believe in the metabolic hormone cascade which follows a very high rep (20-30) set of hacks or presses on occasion, but exclusively high rep sets failed to bring me the greatest gains.
Low reps (5-8) have always given me the best results, but the risk of injury increases substantially when moving maximum pounds. Thankfully, I’ve got a solution which harnesses the benefits of both high and low reps. Most serious lifters are familiar with drop sets, but few of them do ascending sets. Here’s an example for the leg press:
- Set 1 – 12 reps with 2 plates per side
- Set 2 – 12 reps with 3 plates per side
- Set 3 – 12 reps with 4 plates per side
- Set 4 – 12 reps with 5 plates per side
Now that you’re warmed up, it gets “fun.”
- Set 5 – 5 reps with 6 plates per side
Then, without rest, add just one plate to one side and do 5 more reps.
Again with rest, add one more plate for another 5 reps.
Repeat the one-plate addition two more times. You’ll end up with 8 plates per side. In the end you’ll have done 25 total reps via 5 reps bouts with brief pauses while a training partner adds plates.
You get the pump and the hormonal cascade as you would with a high rep, low weight set, but your last bout of 5 reps is likely a little less weight than a max effort, low rep set due to the accumulated fatigue which mitigates safety concerns.
If you’re really adventurous, you can actually do both ascending and descending in one set, like this hack squat workout:
Note: To achieve overall leg development (not just quads) nothing beats the conventional barbell squat with a medium foot placement.
In a recent study Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues examined 3 sets of 3 rep squats versus 3 sets of 10 rep squats and found that moderate loads were better for building quad mass, but heavy loads were better for building max strength.