The quadriceps (quads) are made up of four muscles – the clue is in the name!
These are Rectus Femoris, Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, and Vastus Intermedialis.
The rectus femoris originates from the ilium and inferior iliac spine. The vastus muscles all originate from the medial or lateral aspects of the femur below the acetabulum. They all insert at the patella and converge to the quadriceps tendon on the patella and tibia.
The quads extend the knee. The rectus femoris is also a hip flexor.
The quads display a mixed proportion of muscle fibre type. The vastus group have been found to have 44-64% type I. The rectus femoris tends to contain a smaller proportion of type I fibres. As a result, a wide variety of rep ranges work well to develop the quads. Typically keeping your sets between 6-20 reps will help create maximal growth in the quads.
Sometimes you have to go Bat Shit Crazy
Although the bulk of your work should focus on the 6-20 rep range you do need to challenge yourself sometimes and get a little uncomfortable by performing really high rep work. And trust me doing high rep quad work is REALLY uncomfortable. According to Charles Poliquin…
“With quads, you can go as high as 50 reps per set. There’s been some pro-bodybuilders who’ve grown on 30 reps per set.”
Build a foundation
Aim to get stronger over time on the big quad dominant lifts (squat variations) in the low-medium rep range. The squat has been shown to elicit the highest muscle activity in the quads of the big compound lifts and if you add 50kg to your squat you can be sure that your quads grew.
The quads are mechanically advantaged at the top of the lift. This means it is easier for them to move weight. All those quarter squats might be good for your ego, but they aren’t maxing out your quad development. Instead squat as deep as you can with good form. Working below parallel forces the quads to work far harder and cause much higher levels of activation than quarter squats.
Don’t limit your Gainz by only back squatting!
Back, front and split squat variations all produce high levels of muscle activity in the quads. In fact, research shows that front squatting causes muscle activation to be distributed more towards the quads. When back squatting the hamstrings contribute a reasonable amount to the lift. With the front squat the hamstrings contribution is far lower shifting the workload to the quads.
Furthermore, your stance width when squatting can impact quad activation. A closer stance tends to highly activate the quads while a wide stance cause greater levels of glute activation.
So, if you have a pre-existing back injury, front or split squats are back friendly alternatives which can stimulate quad growth.
When back squatting keep your stance relative narrow to keep the emphasis on the quads.
Lunges are particularly useful for training the vastus lateralis making them a good choice if you are trying to get more quad “sweep”.
Close to Tears
Single leg work is also great for stimulating the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), also known as the teardrop muscle. This is because the opposing leg isn’t there to help stabilize and keep you in position.
Without the aid of the opposing leg the working leg requires the VMO to kick in to aid stability, correct knee tracking and maintain alignment. As a result, you get added stimulation in the VMO.
The VMO also gets most stimulation at terminal knee flexion and extension (think very bottom and top of a squat). As a result, you should work through a full ROM to maximally stimulate the muscle.
Are you unstable?
From a practical standpoint remember that single leg work is inherently unstable. Your balance won’t be as good on one leg as two. So this isn’t a time to go super heavy. Instead go lighter and do higher reps to avoid you wobbling all over the place trying to balance the weight. If you want to grow your quads you don’t want to be wasting energy trying to stay upright.
Another trick is to set yourself up in the squat rack so that you can support yourself and simply focus on trashing your quads.
The King is Dead. Long Live the King:
Squats are often described as the king of lifts and it is true that nothing beats squats for heavy quad work…
…quad training is extremely fatiguing. As Arnie said…
“Leg workouts simply have to be brutal to be effective.”
So it makes sense from a practical standpoint to split the sessions into half heavy and half lighter pump/feeder type sessions. I have heard both John Meadows and Dr Mike Israetel say this in person and they both know a thing or two about building bigger quads!
Utilising machine based exercises such as, leg presses, hack squats and leg extensions in the pump type sessions are good choices to accumulate high levels of volume without accruing as much fatigue as would occur with high rep squatting. They also carry less risk than squats when taken to failure and don’t require a spotter.
Leg Extinctions? Think again!
The Leg extension is actually a very useful exercise for quad hypertrophy.
You can manipulate this and other machine exercises to specifically target certain areas of the quads. For example, studies have shown that turning the toes inwards on the leg extension causes more activation of the vastus laterals and medialis (outer and inner quads) while turning the toes outwards hits the vastus intermedialis and rectus femurs (mid-quads) harder.
Another advantage of the leg extension is that it causes high levels of activation in the rectus femoris. The rectus femoris flexes the hip and the knee. During squats the hip extension movement opposes the hip flexion function of the rectus femoris. In leg extension no hip extension occurs so the recuts femoris can achieve higher levels of activation.
A final variable to consider for the leg extension is the use of band tension. Using bands on the leg extension places peak activation at the top third of the lift. The highest activation actually occurs at about the 3/4 mark of the lift. This is highly novel for the quads and could act as a stimulus to help break through plateaus.
So when aiming to stimulate growth through higher rep pump style sets ignore those that say “you MUST squat” for leg growth and get nasty with the machines. I won’t tell if you don’t.
Although a tough quad session is extremely challenging the quads do have a reasonable ability to recover. As such, simply having one leg day per week won’t cut it for maximal growth.
For intermediate level lifters training 2-3 sessions a week with a slightly lower per session volume than usually works well.
Aim to perform 15-25 working sets across the 2-3 sessions split fairly evenly.
Still unsure of how to set up your training? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to help. Alternatively, check out my Online Personal Training page for details of how I can help you get hyooge and ripped.