The Best Exercises for strong and muscular Quads (According to Science)

Aggiornato il: apr 7

Francesco Pavone
Source Ph: Francesco Pavone - Instagram

I made many mistakes over the years with my quad training.

I thought I had to perform many different exercises and in particular, order to build muscle and strength and keep that ‘’shredded’’ look I had as a professional swimmer.

I was wrong.

I simply was not happy about the way my legs looked and I thought there was something wrong with me.

There was nothing wrong with me and over the last 3 years I have learned many important lessons which helped me building muscle and strength in my quads.

That's why in this article I want to share them with you so that you know how to build bigger and stronger quads.

In this article I will show you:

-8 Common quads training mistakes;

-The quads anatomy and function;

-The best 5 quads exercises;

-How to train your quads effectively;

-An example of a smart quad workout.

Key takeaways:

- If your goal is maximal muscle development you should do a mix of compound and isolation exercises with a focus on compound exercises;

- Choose compound exercises from the list and stick to it as long as you can progress with it (which could be for a long time);

-Exercises are only a tool to build muscle;

-You can grow your quads with many different exercises;

-The ''best'' exercises will be dictated by how well the exercises feel for you and how well it hit the target muscle group;

- Sprinting is not going to be the best way to build muscle on your quads;

- Do 10-20 sets/week depending on your training experience;

- Train quads 1-3 times/ week;

Common quads training mistakes

Most of the people who don’t have genetically big legs struggle to build muscle in the quads.

This is generally because of subtle mistakes which, if avoided, can save you tons of time, energy and money.

Here are the most common quad training mistakes:

  1. Not enough range of motion. If your goal is maximum strength or hypertrophy, it is best to use as full of a range of motion (ROM) as possible when performing exercises. This is not to say that a limited ROM cannot have its place. For example, you might train in a limited ROM to improve a sticking point in an exercise, or doing 1.5x repetition to improve your coordination or Mind to Muscle Connection (MMC) in exercises like the Back Squat. However, what is clear is that you should not sacrifice ROM purely for using heavier weights, what you may be really sacrificing are your gains (1)

  2. Poor technique and understanding of the basic human movement patterns.

  3. Not enough consistency and/or progression. The best gains are compounded over time. You will not be able to make overnight progress so don’t hop from one program to the other without making any tangible progress.

  4. Prioritising progression on load only;

  5. Doing just isolation or just compound movements (knee extension/hip flexion);

  6. Changing the program too often;

  7. Sticking too long to a certain intensity, volume and load.

  8. Not warming up effectively. Simply doing 10minutes of cardio before your workout won’t be enough. Especially in exercises like the back squat is essential to properly take your joints to the full range of motion and activate the target muscles of the movement you will perform straight after.

Quadriceps Anatomy

The quadriceps femoris is the most voluminous muscle of the human body.

It's made of 5 muscles:

  1. The rectus femoris (RS)

  2. The vastus lateralis (VL)

  3. The vastus medialis (VM)

  4. The vastus intermedius (VI)

  5. Articularis genus muscle;

The rectus femoris can bend the hip, while its synergistic action with vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius extends the knee. (2,3)

If your goal is to maximise the size of your quads your program will have to include compound exercises such as squats, leg press or lunges and isolation exercises such as leg extension or sissy squat.

For guys more interested in general fitness rather than maximal hypertrophy, compound movements will work perfectly allowing you to train multiple muscles in one go and to save time. (4)

Ph source: Openfit

Exercise Selection - Don’t make this mistake!

I remember watching videos of Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about ‘muscle confusion’’ a few years back.

Luckily we now know that your ability to grow muscle is reduced when you’re not familiar with the movement.

When you try a new movement, it might take a few weeks before you actually make some gains, even if you’re generally able to lift more weight.

This happens because the first improvements in strength are thanks to neuromuscular adaptations (5,6).

You’re getting stronger because you’re getting better at exercise.

One of the worst mistakes people make is to change their program too frequently.

Keep reading and you’ll learn how to calibrate compound exercises with isolation exercise so you will do enough of both.

The exercises you select to build muscle in your legs will depend on your goal and your body structure.

If your goal is to compete at a Powerlifting event for example you will have to focus on the specific exercises you will perform on the day of the event.

If your goal is to have strong and athletic legs you can have more variety in your exercise selection but remember that since compound exercises will allow you to hit different muscle groups in one movement they will make the bread and butter of your training program.

Isolation exercises are great to address any muscle imbalance or any weak point that could limit your ability to get stronger in the main lifts.

Choose 1-2 compound movements and 1-3 isolation movements for quads.

Stick to the same compound exercises for at least 3 training phases (one phase is generally 4-6 weeks) isolation exercises can be rotated more often thanks to their low complexity.

Just so that you know, many lifters never change their compound exercises as long as they can progress with them.

The best 5 compound quad exercises:

As you just learned, you can build strong and athletic quads with a broad variety of exercises.

So which one should you choose from the list?

You should choose exercises that feel natural, that you can manage in full safety and that allows you to add load every week.

I selected the ones that in my experience have the best stimulus:fatigue ratio and are relatively easy to learn.

Also, they are the ones I use in my training.

Remember: Exercises are a tool through which you can apply tension to the target muscle.

Your goal is not only to perform these exercises. Your goal is to progress on them!

1) Barbell Squat

Choose the feet stance you feel stronger with and with which you can hit the greater range of motion.

Note: An interesting case is The Box Squat, (highly underrated by the way!) which I love, especially for beginners or for when you go back to squatting after a long break from the gym.

It gives you a proxy for each rep eliminating the inconsistency problem of the traditional back squat of performing every rep slightly differently.

2) Hack Squat

3) Leg press

4) Split Squat.

I have never met anyone who can do a good set of split squat and saying:'' That was easy''.

It might be the exercises set up but I always had tremendous results using this exercise.

P.S. A good strength level is when you can comfortably do 10 reps on each side with a total load on the bar equal to half your bodyweight.

5) Front Squat.

Let's also have a look at the best isolation exercises for quads:

1)Sissy squat

It's a great exercise because it allows working the quads with the hip in an extended position.

The downside is that is difficult to progress unless you have a sissy squat machine and load it with a weighted plate, like in the video below.

2)Leg extension, probably the easier and most effective option for isolating the quads

Since many of you asked for this I also listed the most commonly underrated and overrated exercises for quads.

Overrated quads exercises:

  1. Walking lunges

  2. Unstable surface training;

  3. Smith Machine Squat.

  4. Half Squat;

  5. Box Jump;

Underrated quads exercises:

  1. Banded Hack Squat;

  2. Box Squat;

  3. Short Stance Upright Lunges;

  4. Sprinting.

What about sprinting?

Usain Bolt
Source Ph:

‘’If Usain Bolt has those quads simply by sprinting, I can have too!’’

The hypothesis is very weak since sprint athletes (particularly Olympic champions) also follow a heavy strength training program and they perform intense and frequent high intensity sprinting sessions over a normal week of training.

They also take proper care of their sleep, diet, recovery, mobility sessions, and have a level of focus and intention that for most people is very difficult to achieve.

Put simply, there’s a broad variety of factors that impact how sprinters look.

How sure are you that Bolt has those quads simply because of sprinting and not because of other lifestyle factors?

Also sprinting alone can be difficult to track and therefore used to control your hypertrophy progress.

This doesn’t mean you cannot build muscle at all with sprinting.

Let’s say you haven’t been doing any sort of physical activity in your life and you decide to start sprinting 2-3 times a week for 15-20 minutes.

My bet is that you will see your body fat going down and your legs muscles getting bigger and more defined.

This is because, at that point, any sort of anaerobic activity (such as sprinting) would have given you a similar effect. (Apart from simply staring at a dumbbell ;P)

Therefore it’s unlikely that simply sprinting will be your best shot to build muscle and size in your quads but if you enjoy it, feel free to do it far from your legs resistance training session as cardio or fun activity.

How many times a week should you train legs?

Research shows how we can get the best gains with a training frequency of 2-3 times a week.

Usually smaller lifters can train quads 3 times a week, but more muscular and with a bigger frame lifters can barely do more than 1 a week.

The quadriceps is a big and strong muscle and can generate a lot of force, which is a great thing! But this comes to a cost.

If you worked honestly with the full range of motion and appropriate volume and intensity it’s not uncommon to feel dizzy or unable to walk down the stairs after a good quad session.

And if you’re so sore that you can’t even think about squatting again when you planned to, then you need to recover more and wait until you train your quads again.

For most of the people training the quads 1-2 times a week will give the best results.

How many sets per week should you do?

The number of training sets you will perform every week will depend on your level of experience.

Most of us will need to do 10-20 sets per week to achieve the best hypertrophy response.

Keep in mind these are not fixed but can be adapted to your training phase.

If you’re new to training for example you might want to start from 10 sets/ week and divide your quad work over 2 sessions.

If you’re more experienced you might need to do 15 sets/week, with your quad work spread over 3 sessions.

What if you have long legs and a relatively short torso?

In an exercise like the Back Squat, people with longer legs will have to lean forward more than their friends with shorter legs to keep the balance during the exercise.

This will put more stress on the posterior chain (glutes, hamstring and back) rather than on the quads.

If this is you a front squat or leg press will allow you to hit the quads more efficiently.

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1 - Impact of range of motion during ecologically valid resistance training protocols on muscle size, subcutaneous fat, and strength

2 - Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Quadriceps Muscle

3 - A newly discovered muscle: The tensor of the vastus intermedius


5-Nonuniform Response of Skeletal Muscle to Heavy Resistance Training: Can Bodybuilders Induce Regional Muscle Hypertrophy?

6-The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training

7- The 6 Absolute Best Quads Exercises You Can Do

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