The Best Quad-Building Exercises You've Never Tried

3 No-Barbell, Back-Friendly Moves

No bar? Bad back? Don’t let that keep you from building your legs. Try these three surprisingly brutal lifts.

I recently messed up my low back. I won’t tell you how because it was embarrassing. Anyway, it caused a dormant rugby injury to flare up with a vengeance. Luckily, it hasn’t hampered my ability to crush some leg workouts.

These past few weeks, I’ve been forced to train my quads without having a bar on my back. I couldn’t even use heavy weights. But the exercises I used were so effective I didn’t even have to use high-rep sets to compensate for the lack of loading.

What you’re about to learn are some of my favorites back-friendly leg moves. Sure, they’ve helped me avoid pain while still getting in some nasty leg days, but even if you don’t have a messed-up back, these leg-builders should still be in your toolbox.

Share them with a fragile friend, or try them yourself for some humble pie.

1. The Hardest Bodyweight Split Squat

Think of these somewhat like a single-leg sissy squat. You won’t need any weights. Heck, some of you might even want to use a suspension trainer to make them even easier. Back-heel elevated (BHE) split squats might just be the hardest version you ever try.

  • The emphasis here is on the back leg, not the front leg, as with other split squats.
  • The purpose of the heel wedge is to keep you more locked in while comfortably allowing the ball of your foot to stay planted as your back knee travels further forward.
  • As you split squat downward, lean your torso back a little to keep it more in line with your rear thigh. This will stretch and load the quads of your back leg.
  • Your front-foot heel can leave the floor a little, but not so much that you lose stability.
  • Have a foam pad on the floor as a depth gauge and try to get your back knee touching it every time.
  • Focus on the sensation and tension through your back quad, and take it slow.
  • If you need more depth, move your back foot up higher on the wedge or elevate both feet.

Why It Works

If you already do standard sissy squats, you know how challenging this movement can be without much weight. And because you won’t need any equipment, you can do them almost anywhere. Even a heel wedge can be switched out for a block of wood. If you’re in the gym, a weight plate will work.

Since the rectus femoris crosses both the hip and knee joint, these split squats do a really great job at targeting this muscle in its lengthened range, which is something squats and leg extensions don’t do well.

During lunges and split squats, weight distribution largely through the lead leg (70% or so) is important. When these split squats are done right, you’ll be building both greater knee resilience and those tree trunk quads you’ve been chasing.

2. The Exercise We Have to Steal Back From Beginners

Squatting with a stability ball up against the wall and having you back up against it is a common exercise prescribed to beginners or the elderly. It’s relatively stable, and you can gain more depth than most other squat variations.

But, when stability and depth are the selling points of an exercise, shouldn’t it be for everyone? In fact, what makes this a good choice for those folks will make it an equally good exercise for anyone wanting to maximize muscle activation throughout greater active ranges of motion.

Grab some dumbbells or kettlebells to load it. You won’t need much weight if you do them right.

  • Have a stability ball against the wall and lean back against it.
  • As you squat down, the ball will travel up your back.
  • Your feet will be in front. Experiment to find what feels best. Some do even better with their feet further forward than it shows in the video.
  • As you squat upward, continually press back into the ball as if trying to crush it into the wall. (Make sure your ball is fully inflated.)
  • Use a couple of kettlebells or dumbbells if you need the weight. As with all of these exercises, chase the quadriceps sensation/tension over maxing-out on weight.

Why It Works

The direction of force applied during an exercise determines which limbs and muscles are loaded most. When you squat with a barbell on your back, you’re applying a force against the ground, so the bar travels straight upward.

During a barbell squat, your femur is perpendicular with your direction of force, while your tibia is mostly parallel with the direction of force, so there’s a strong reliance on hip extension over knee extension.

Essentially, as far as quadriceps training efficiency goes, barbell squats leave some gains on the table. That’s not to say they won’t grow your quads (they will), but just that as a “quadriceps exercise,” squats aren’t as productive. You can get even more activation from exercises that don’t require the use of as much weight.

Compare standard squats to this version, where the direction of force is more aligned in a way that places the focus on the quads. Take stability-ball hack squats as an example, and notice how, by doing them, your feet want to slide forward on the floor.

That’s because the direction of the force you’re applying – pushing the ball back into the wall as you squat upward – there’s greater reliance on knee extension. And a squat with more reliance on knee extension is a more quadriceps-focused squat.

You’ll notice the exact same thing in the next exercise where quad training efficiency is high, resulting in less of a need to throw a ton of weight on your back.

3. The Cable Squat That’s Not For Sissies

You’ll need heel wedges and a cable. Do these right and they’ll bury you!

  • Grab your heel wedges and a couple of weight plates. This will keep the balls of your feet comfortably planted.
  • There really are no rules on the height the cable should be. The idea will be that your knees always travel directly towards the resistance provided by the cable.
  • The lower you set the cable, the more your knees will angle downward.
  • Different heights will give the exercise a different feel, so feel free to experiment.
  • Unlike regular (more free-standing) sissy squats, you’re not looking for your knees to travel all the way down toward the floor. That is unless your cable is close to the floor and you’re close into it (which you might want to be).
  • Lean back as you squat. The weight of the cable stack will offer a counterbalance, keeping you from toppling over while allowing you to keep your hips as extended as possible.
  • Let your knees travel as far forward as you comfortably can and in the direction of the cable. Your heels can leave the wedges just a little, but not so much that you lose stability.
  • Focus on achieving an intense stretch of your quads at the bottom of the movement, while at the top, maintain some tension and get a good squeeze out of it.

Why It Works

These are a great option for targeting your rectus femoris in its more lengthened range, which rarely happens during most traditional quad-focused exercises. Like the stability-ball hack squats, these are an efficient way to load up your quads due to the direction of the resistance and greater focus on knee extension.

Unlike other, more free-standing sissy squat variations, you might find these a little easier on the knees at the bottom while still being able to achieve the intense quad stretch sissy squats are renowned for. You’re also less likely to lose tension at the top of the movement because of the heel wedges and cable. Some sissy squat variations let you off at the top, but with these, there’s no easy way out!