When people reference the quads, they're really talking about a group of four muscles. "Your quadriceps are a group of four muscles on the anterior upper leg: the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and vastus lateralis," says Yusuf Jeffers, head coach at Tone House. "Running, standing, squatting, kicking, and jumping all don't happen without your quads." In other words: These muscles are major.
So, given how important quads are, the benefits of training your quad muscles are many including helping us with activities of daily living, improving our balance, strengthening and lengthening the ligaments and tendons that surround the joints, as well as stabilizing the knees and decreasing the chance of injury, says Natasha Funderburk, a NASM-certified personal trainer.
Keep scrolling to learn more about your quads' role in your overall body strength and the best quad exercises to help strengthen them.
Why quad exercises are important
If you think of your body as a building, your legs are the foundation on which everything stands upright. So not only are they essential in your day-to-day movements, but your quadriceps especially are important from a longevity standpoint. "It's important to do quad exercises because this is a majority of your leg strength," says Devan Kline, co-founder and CEO of Burn Boot Camp.
Having strong quads will also help to boost your performance in all of the workouts that you do. "Training to have strong quads will help with performance," says Jeffers. And training your quadriceps muscles properly will boost the training of your lower body as a whole. "Quads don't work in isolation, and most lower body exercises require co-activation of hamstrings and glutes, which will help inform how exercises are performed," he adds. It's all connected.
Not only will strong upper leg muscles help with all of your movements, but training your quads boosts your joint health on top of your muscular strength. "Quad strength is crucial to build over time because it provides stability to your knees and hip flexors," says Kline. That's because those two muscles and surrounding joints are intertwined with every quad movement that you make, and moving your joints means that you're lubricating them (another perk from a longevity standpoint).
How to train your quads
SSince your quads are involved in endless movements that you do in your everyday life, it would seem that you're technically working them every day. Despite this, Kline recommends focusing on one muscle group once or twice a week for your best strength results. Jeffers echoes this, pointing to two to three times a week as a good guideline for adding in quad exercises, though it really depends on your fitness goals. "A runner and weightlifter might be on different ends of the spectrum, but for general gains in strength, a couple of times a week should be enough," he says.
Regardless of how often you're performing the best quad exercises, having proper form is crucial in order to reap the benefits. "Proper form is required not only for proper activation of the correct muscles, but also to prevent placing stressor forces on the surrounding joints such as knees, hips, and lower back," says Jeffers. So, for instance, if you're working through a bunch of squat reps and your form is off, you could wind up with pain in a nearby muscle group or joint afterward.
This pain can also come from overcompensation. "Proper form when doing quad strength movements is vital because if, over time, you aren't focusing on those muscles, other parts of your body are going to try to compensate for that, which could cause you lower back issues or even joint issues down the road," says Kline. In other words, let your all-powerful quad muscles work.
The best quad exercises to add to your workouts
Jeffers is a big fan of the classic squat. "It's a pretty fundamental movement that carries over to all sorts of sports and everyday life," he says. With your feet a little more than hip-width apart, bend down as you stick your glutes out while keeping your torso upright. Press back up against your heels and squeeze your glutes as you stand back up.
2. Front Squat
If you want to take the classic squat up a notch (and have access to a barbell), Funderburk points to a front squat as one of the best quad exercises. Traditional barbell squats with the barbell on your back work the back side of the body, she says, but by moving the barbell to the front, you’re redistributing the weight, which allows the quads to do most of the work.
Here’s how to do it according to Funderburk: Start with the barbell on the rack at armpit height. Your feet are hip-width apart as you position your hands in a front rack position and tighten your grip. Lift the bar from the rack keeping your elbows up, core braced, and your back tight and straight. Take a step or two back away from the rack, positioning your feet slightly wider than hip-width. Keep your toes pointed out and sink down into a squat. Drive through the heels and squeeze your glutes at the top.
Another that does the trick for your quads? The lunge. "Lunges help improve unilateral strength, which similarly mimics our normal movement patterns," says Jeffers. "Strength gains here will improve stability at your hips and knees."
Put one foot in front of the other and drop your torso down as your front knee and back knees bend. Your front knee should not extend past your toes, and your back knee should hover just above the floor before pushing back up to standing.
4. Jump squats
Kline turns to jump squats, which are a cardio variation of the classic squat, for a quick, effective quad burn.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down until your quads are parallel, and power yourself back up by jumping off of the floor ever so slightly. Do this as fast as you can for a minute.
5. Split squats
Another squat variation that strengthens your quads is the split squat. "Split squats will help you focus on your form because the movement is slower and more targeted," he says.
Stand with your left foot forward, right foot back, and slowly bend both knees until your right knee slightly touches the ground. Then, use your quad muscles in your left leg to push yourself back up.
6. Bulgarian split squats
If you’re really up for a challenge on leg day, Funderburk recommends trying out the Bulgarian split squat. It is similar to a traditional split squat only you add in a bench, and a barbell on your back or dumbbells if you want added weight.
Start by extending one leg behind you and resting your foot on the top of the bench. Keep your back straight, your core tight, and your front leg slightly out to the side for extra balance. From there, slowly lower your front knee toward the floor so it creates a 90 degree angle ensuring it doesn’t extend past your toes. Push up to a standing position and then switch legs.
7. Jump lunges
For another exercise that challenges your quads, the jump lunge will do the trick. Heather C. White, CEO of Trillfit, loves the plyometric exercise because the jumping causes you to double down on the core work to keep your body stabilized. "The jump also turns this into a cardio movement, so you're targeting your lower body and sweating a ton at the same time."
Get into a standard lunge position, sink low into a deep lunge, and jump upward, using your core muscles to stabilize yourself. As you jump in the air, switch your legs to reverse and land with the other foot forward. Make sure to keep your knees stacked over your ankle in the lunge, your chest tall, and land as softly as you can.
8. Spiderman push-up
Though this feels like an arm workout, White loves the Spiderman push-up because it also secretly works your quads and your hip flexors.
Get into a standard push-up position. As you lower down, connect your knee to your elbow. After making contact, extend back into a push-up position.
9. Social justice squats
White recommends social justice squats as a really hard but really effective exercise that targets your quads, glutes, and hamstrings all at once.
Bring your hands behind your head and keep your chest tall as you bring your legs hips-width distance apart. Sink down into a squat with your hands still behind your head. While holding low and keeping your chest tall, slowly lower one knee down to the ground, then the other. Inhale, exhale, then step one leg back up into your squat position, followed by the other leg. That's one rep.
10. Bear crawl
"You're balancing throughout the entire exercise," says White of the bear crawl. So it requires core stability, and the movement hits all of your muscles.
Start in a tabletop position. Stack your shoulders over your wrists and hips over your knees. Lift your knees off of the floor so that they're hovering. Move your opposite hand with your opposite foot to crawl forward. You can also incorporate moving sideways or backward. Keep the weight in your hands and toes as you move, and keep your back flat, hips tucked.
11. Breakdancer kickthrough
Another quad exercise that tests your balancing skills: the breakdancer kickthrough. "This is super challenging, but it's a great way to work your core, hips, and full body," says White.
From a bear crawl position, lift your right arm and left leg, pivot your body, and kick your left leg through so that your body is elevated off of the ground and you're in a hovering seated position. Repeat on the other side.
12. Tuck jumps
"Explosive movements like this work the whole body and are very challenging," says White of the tuck jump, which really hits your quads, glutes, and hamstrings hard.
Begin by standing with your feet hip-width distance apart. Extend your arms in front of you. Sink into a slight squat and jump up into the air, pulling your knees into your chest while keeping your arms extended. Land as softly as you can.
13. Step ups
Step ups do double duty by working on your quads and your glutes, so you get more bang for your workout. You can do them with just your bodyweight or make them more challenging by holding dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand, Funderburk says.
You’ll need a box or bench tall enough that when you put your foot flat on top of it, it creates a 90 degree angle with your knee positioning your thigh parallel to the floor. “With one foot planted firmly on the ground, step up onto the surface with your other foot and bring the other foot up to meet together on the bench, standing up tall,” Funderburk says. “Return the ‘planted’ foot down slowly to the ground.” Slow and steady is the name of the game here. It’s important to not rush through each step.
5 tips and tricks for doing the best quad exercises, according to a personal trainer
1. Pay attention to your knees. While you’re getting your quad exercises on, Funderburk says it’s important to stay tuned into how your knees feel. “None of these [quad exercises] should cause extreme pressure and if you're feeling pain, it may be a sign to go lighter in your weights or stop the movement,” she says.
2. Take your time. “Leg day has its own meme for a reason—it can be brutal,” Funderburk says, which is why she strongly advises not rushing through your quad exercises. “Go slow and steady. Yes it will burn, but your muscles will thank you for it.”
3. Perfect your form first. While it may be tempting to up the weights during your quad exercises, Funderburk notes that it's very important that you prioritize form first. Increasing your weight too soon can compromise your form, which increases your risk of injury. Instead, focus on perfecting your form first.
4. Focus on progressive overload. Once you’ve got form down pat, then you can start upping the weights during quad exercises gradually. “For true strength building, focus on progressive overload,” Funderburk says, which basically means going heavier each week. But again, only do that once you’ve perfected the form.
5. Don’t do legs two days in a row. Like with any exercise targeted at one particular body part, it’s very important that you incorporate rest to avoid overworking the area. Funderburk recommends giving your legs at least one days rest in between your lower body workouts for best results.
The quadriceps are major muscles in the lower body that play a key role in our day-to-day activities such as walking, standing, and running. So, incorporating some of the best quad exercises into your fitness routine is not just important but vital for the overall health of your lower body. Thankfully, there are many different quad exercises to keep things spicy and interesting on leg days. Just be sure you follow the pro tips to avoid injury and create the best results.
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