Your quad muscles, or quadriceps, are by far the largest muscle groups in your body. They’re the prize of your legs, making up the front of your thigh. And, if you’ve been training them diligently: they’re the muscles bulging out under your pants or shorts.
Since your leg muscles are so important for sports, and your quadriceps are the largest muscles in your legs, they are one of the most important muscle groups you can train for greater athleticism.
In this article, you will learn how to train your quads effectively. From quad muscle anatomy, to the most efficient exercises for building bigger quad muscles and power. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective quad workout.
Quad Muscle Anatomy
Your quadriceps muscles are located on the front of your thigh, and consists of vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and rectus femoris.
- The three vastus muscles originate high on your femur (thigh bone), come together into the quadriceps tendon that passes over your patella, and inserts in your tibia. Their primary function is to extend your knee.
- Vastus lateralis is the largest quadriceps muscle, located laterally (on the outside) of the thigh.
- Vastus medialis is located on the medial side (inside) of your thigh and is the teardrop-shaped muscle on the inside, just above, your knee.
- Vastus intermedius lies deep between the two muscles above and is also covered by the rectus femoris.
- Rectus femoris is the most superficial of the quad muscles, covering the vastus intermedius. It originates on the front of your iliac bone (your pelvis), crosses over your hip joint, and then joins the quadriceps tendon with the other three muscles and inserts in your tibia. The rectus femoris crosses over two joints (hip and knee), which makes it both a knee extensor and a hip flexor.
Quad Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Quadriceps
In this section, we’ll take a look at four quad exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that also complement each other in terms of which of the quad muscles they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great quad workout.
1. The Squat
The squat can require some practice to learn, and you benefit from experimenting with bar and foot position, as well as shoes with or without a raised heel. When you finally get the technique down pat, however, you have one of the most effective quad exercises in your toolbox. It provides load in a long range of motion, and the force peaks when the quadriceps is at a long muscle length, which is likely a good recipe for building muscle.
In terms of growing your quads, a study from 2016 showed that deep squats, despite demanding that you use much lighter weights, leads to muscle growth in a larger portion of your quads than half squats do.1
You can read a lot more about squat training in our massive guide: How to Squat: Technique, Training, and Gaining.
Looking to increase your squat strength? Check out our training program Squat Samba, in our app StrengthLog.
2. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is another great leg exercise, that will train your quadriceps, glutes, and adductors excellently. However, in contrast to the squat, the Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral (single-sided) exercise.
The single side work means that 1) you will have the opportunity to identify and even out any potential side-to-side imbalances between your quads, and 2) you will train the muscles that stabilize your pelvis and leg when standing on one knee, such as your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Besides, many movements (both everyday and athletic) are performed on one leg, and this exercise will train you for it.
3. Leg Press
Another staple of leg training, the leg press deserves a spot among the best quad exercises. Just like the previous two exercises, the leg press consists of hip and knee extension, which means that it too trains your quadriceps, glutes, and adductors. However, by using a machine, you don’t have to worry as much about balance, which means that you can focus more on muscle contact.
Don’t go overboard with weight on the leg press just because it’s possible. Instead, try to use the minimum weight needed with which you can still get a squeezing muscle pump in your quads.
Experiment with different foot placements (wide or narrow, high or low) to find what feels best for your body. While the technique is pretty straight-forward in the leg press, make sure to always keep your lumbar spine straight and in contact with the backrest.
- Hack Squat
- Belt Squat
4. Leg Extension
The leg extension is an isolation exercise for your quads, which, in contrast to the previous three exercises, will work all four muscles of the quadriceps.
See, while the squat, leg press, and Bulgarian split squat are great quad exercises, they do not train the rectus femoris muscle very well. The rectus femoris is the only quad muscle that passes over two joints (the hip and the knee), and thus it isn’t very active in squat-like exercises where you extend your hip and knee simultaneously. 2 3 4 5
In the leg extension, however, your hip is fixed while your knee extends, meaning that the rectus femoris can join in on the work and get a good training effect. One study saw a 19% increase in rectus femoris muscle thickness after 12 weeks of leg extension training.6
Another study compared squat vs leg extension training for five weeks and found leg extensions to be superior for rectus femoris growth.7
What’s more, the leg extension is a great quad exercise in its own right, allowing you to give your quads your complete focus.
Quad Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective quad workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target all four quadriceps muscles, at slightly different muscle lengths or positions, which means a majority of their different muscle fibers will be targeted.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from low-ish reps with heavy weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Quad Workout
- Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 10 reps/side
- Leg Press: 3 sets x 15 reps
- Leg Extension: 3 sets x 20 reps
This quad workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
This quad workout begins with three working sets of squats. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your quad training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”
If you hit three sets of five reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 5.
You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 5, 4, 4 instead of 5, 4, 3 last time) until you get all 3 x 5. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.
After the squats, you’ll move on to some single-leg work with the Bulgarian split squat. It will provide your quads with additional training, help you identify and address strength differences between your right and left leg, and train your stabilizing muscles.
After these two exercises, you’ll leave the free weights and move on to more stable machine exercises. Their stability will help you focus even more on muscle contact since you no longer have to worry about balance.
The leg press will provide additional work for both quads and hip extensors, while the leg extensions will isolate your quad muscles. Besides, the leg extension will train all four of your quadriceps muscles, including the rectus femoris that haven’t received as much training as the other quadricep heads up to this point.
How often can you train this same quad workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 1–2 times per week is probably enough. Once a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it every 4–5 days.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your quad muscle anatomy, what some effective quad exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome quad workout.
Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains.
Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Aug;113(8):2133-42. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 May;116(5):1031-41. Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.
- Am J Physiol. 1995 Sep;269(3 Pt 2):R536-43. Resistance exercise-induced fluid shifts: change in active muscle size and plasma volume.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Jun 22. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04181-y. Epub 2019 Jun 22. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Nov;113(11):2691-703. Inhomogeneous architectural changes of the quadriceps femoris induced by resistance training.
- J Sports Sci. 2021 Oct;39(20):2298-2304. The role of exercise selection in regional Muscle Hypertrophy: A randomized controlled trial.