The Best Way to Stretch the Largest Muscle in Your Legs, According to a Physical Therapist

Photo: Getty Images/vgajic
Of the hundreds of muscles that make up your body, the quadriceps are one of the largest. They're made up of four main muscles, which share in the work of holding you up and helping you move... hence why they're often so sore. And the leader of this 4-pack? The vastus lateralis.

This muscle—which Stretch*d program director Jeff Brannigan calls "the most powerful" of the bunch—specifically works to extend the lower leg and allow the body to rise up from a squatting position. "It's an important muscle because outside of its main task, it also affects tracking and position of the knee cap," says Jaclyn Fulop, physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group. So if it's not properly stretched, she says, you could wind up feeling it in your knee.

"Vastus lateralis tightness can cause a tracking problem at the knee, pulling the patella laterally, which can cause pain and discomfort," says Fulop. Plus, she notes that you're using it all the time without realizing it, so that tightness can make activities like going up stairs or getting out of a chair uncomfortable. Brannigan says that the vastus lateralis is one of the most"overused" muscles in the body, and can get stressed in many different ways, whether through high intensity workouts or  prolonged inactivity. "Sitting for long hours will allow the hip flexors and quadriceps to become very tense and tight," he says.

When it comes to stretching, though, the vastus lateralus, can be hard to properly reach. "This muscle does not cross the hip joint, so it doesn't get isolated properly," says Fulop, adding that the most common quad stretch isn't giving that specific area enough love. "In the basic quad stretch, people tend to stretch the central muscle in the thigh called the rectus femoris," she says. So what can you do? Foam rolling, for one, which Fulop recommends for reaching that hotspot. Then there are a few other moves to add to your recovery routine to do the trick. Keep scrolling for pro-recommended vastis lateralis stretches that'll get your legs nice and loose.

How to stretch the vastus lateralis

1. Kneeling quad stretch: Kneel on your right knee and put your left foot on the floor with your left knee at a 90-degree angle, says Fulop. Grab the foot with your hand behind you and apply a medial rotation to the hip by pushing the foot away from the midline of the body. Drive your hip forward and maintain a straight back as you lean your torso forward. To gently increase the stretch, tilt your pelvis posteriorly and keep your chest upright as you lean into the hip. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat two to five times on each leg, trying to increase your stretch each time.

2. Floor front squad stretch: Grab a strap for this one. Lie on your side with your knees bent at 90-degrees, and place the foot of your bottom leg inside of the loop, grabbing the other end of the strap with that same hand. Place the other hand around the ankle of your top foot. Contract your abdominal muscles to stabilize your body, and keep your knee bent and leg parallel to the floor. Contract your hamstrings and gluteus maximus as you move that upper leg back as far as you can. Brannigan suggests using your hand to give a gentle assist at the end of the stretch.

Pros share how to stretch and foam roll your lower body for more liquid, limber legs. Then here's how to stretch your feet out, according to a ballerina. 

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