Tell me this. When it’s time to put some shorts on either for the gym, beach, or pool party, how long are those bad boys? Do they go down below the knees, effectively obscuring your thighs from view? Or do you own shorts that are cut higher and put your quads proudly on display? Granted, some of you may be the modest type, but many of us have an exhibitionistic streak. We live by the motto “if you got it, flaunt it.” Nine times out of 10 when a man constantly wears baggy pants or shorts it’s because he feels ashamed or insecure about his poor leg development. We are here to help. There’s no need to go on living life with chicken legs if you’re willing to put in work on leg days. With 35 years of leg training under my belt, I’ve learned a lot about the most effective exercises and how to get the most out of them for quadriceps growth. Let’s run those down now.
No single leg movement could ever possibly challenge the barbell squat for its well-earned title, “The King of Lower Body Exercises,” even today when we have so many effective machines to choose from on leg day. That being said, body mechanics and technique will impact which areas of your lower body are targeted more or less. For the purposes of making the quads do a larger percentage of the work, the foot stance shouldn’t be too far beyond shoulder width and the forward torso lean should be minimal. A wider stance will bring the glutes and leg adductors further into play, and leaning forward from the waist involves more of the lower back. This is fantastic if your primary goal is merely to squat a heavier weight, but it will rob your quads of the required stimulation for optimal growth. As far as depth, it’s a controversial topic. I always squatted ass to grass, but many have claimed there is no need to descend below the point where your femur bones are parallel to the ground. Try both styles and go with what feels right for you. Not everyone has the mechanics and ankle flexibility to squat below parallel. For those with lower back issues, you may find a Smith machine is a friendlier alternative.
Front squats are a far more difficult variation for most people to perform, yet they also guarantee better quad stimulation. Because the bar is in front of you across your clavicles, you have no choice but to maintain an upright torso lest the bar rolls right off you. They take a while for most people to figure out proper form on, so be patient and don’t give up if they feel incredibly awkward at first. Also, you won’t be able to handle as much weight as in a standard back squat, but don’t let that discourage you either. It’s because you don’t have as much help from the glutes and lower back, and the quads are taking more of the load. This is a good thing for our purposes. For most guys who can squat 315 for 10 good reps, 225 for 10 is about right on the front squat. Another option to front squats is the safety bar squat, in which the bar features a yoke that goes around and across your shoulders, removing the need to keep the bar pinned tightly across your clavicles in front of you.
I actually rank hack squats as a better movement for the quadriceps than the leg press, for many of the same reasons the front squat hits the quads better than the back squat. The body position of the hack squat machine in which you are upright yet tilted back at an angle makes it much easier for most people to feel their quads doing the work more so than their glutes. Hacks have gotten a bad rap over the years as being dangerous to the knees, but that’s only the case if you fail to adjust your foot stance and the machine itself to better fit your body mechanics. Most platforms can be adjusted for the angle relative to the ground. I recommend setting the feet closer than shoulder width and lower on the platform to focus more on the vastus lateralis/outer thigh for more “sweep,” but I am also fully aware that this foot position will cause knee pain and eventual tendinitis for certain people. If that’s you, try a more traditional shoulder-width stance smack-dab in the middle of the platform, or keep tweaking your feet until you find that sweet spot that lets you blast the quads but doesn’t kill your knees. The great Golden Eagle, Tom Platz, had a unique style of hack squats in which his feet were so low down on the platform that it looked like he was doing sissy squats. I’ve done them and they seriously torch the quads with almost zero glute activation. You certainly would not go as heavy in that style.
The leg press is by far the most commonly used piece of equipment around the world for the lower body. It’s both more comfortable and safer in some aspects than squats. You’re lying down with solid back support and there is no balancing of a bar required. It’s also a nice ego boost because anyone can pile on more plates on a leg press than they could ever dream of squatting with a bar. The most common form error we witness on the leg press is a shortened range of motion, nearly always the result of using more weight than one is capable of doing full reps with. It sure does look cool to put every plate the machine holds on it, but wouldn’t it be cooler to get bigger thighs from your efforts? Setting your feet lower and closer together on the platform, as with the hacks, will effectively target the quads better if your knees are OK with it. If not, center platform and shoulder width foot stance is fine too. Just avoid shifting your feet wider and higher up as this will work more glutes and hams than quads. As a side note, there are some who will go the other way and use an exaggerated range of motion where their tailbone curls up as they lower too far back. This can be lead to injury over time, so stop short if you feel that happening.
The pendulum squat, also known as the swing squat, is a fairly new type of machine in the leg-training toolbox. It’s essentially a shoulder yoke and back support similar to a hack squat attached to a lever, in which you squat down on a platform set at roughly a 45-degree angle to the ground. Pendulum squats feel different from either hacks or leg presses, and many feel they are comparable to barbell squats. They certainly have a different feel from other types of squat machines.
To my knowledge, the first commercially produced belt squat machine was made by John Parrillo from Cincinnati in the mid-‘90s, and it was an enormous contraption that usually required at least one if not two spotters to use correctly. That belt squat was a platform with a “trench” in the middle where the plates that hung from a belt around your waist would travel. Since then, there have been numerous evolutions of this piece to make them smoother and more user-friendly. The Pit Shark is probably the gold standard at present. The main benefit of belt squats is that there is absolutely no spinal compression since the weight isn’t across your back or shoulders but is distributed around your waist. For anyone with lower back pain or injuries, this and the leg press are often the only viable options for a compound movement on leg day.
There are also a wide variety of squat machines available today, with a plethora of designs to choose from. Some look like perfectly vertical hack squats, while others are lower to the ground. All attempt to simulate the motion of squats, and it’s debatable if they succeed in this aspect. Still, I urge everyone to try all the leg machines in their gym. Some won’t feel right, while you are bound to find at least one that feels perfectly suited to your structure and body mechanics, allowing you to work your quads hard and heavy with only the right type of pain, the agony of momentary muscular failure.
Millions of fit men have used walking lunges to build up their thighs. They are not easy, particularly if you challenge yourself with resistance and keep moving rather than pause after each step. If putting a bar on your back doesn’t work for you, you can alternatively hold a pair of dumbbells. Slightly shorter steps will ensure the quads don’t get eclipsed by the glutes in terms of muscle activation.
Finally, we come to the only “pure” quadriceps movement, the leg extension. This is the only exercise that isolates the quads, as any compound pressing movement inevitably involves the hams, glutes and even the calves to some extent. In my younger years I found I was exceptionally strong on leg extensions and would routinely pin extra plates on to the weight stack to add resistance. Looking back, I now realize this was a big mistake. Extensions are a single-joint movement, and our knees are not designed to move extremely heavy loads in that movement pattern. Over time the patellar tendon will become chronically inflamed, and can eventually snap, resulting in a full quadriceps tear. I usually advocate either using extensions as a warm-up to get blood flowing in the muscle and around the knees, or going a bit heavier later on in the workout when your strength should be somewhat diminished.
The following routines are focused on quadriceps, and thus do not include work for the hamstrings or calves. I strongly suggest hitting those areas in a different workout as these routines are meant to produce rapid results in quadriceps growth and are quite demanding. All three routines should be preceded with a 10-minute cardio warm-up to increase core temperature and blood flow in the lower body. Do not skip this critical step in preparing your legs for battle!
Sets: 3 x 25 (light)
Warm-ups: 2 x 20, 15
Sets: 4 x 12, 12, 10, 10
Sets: 4 x 20, 15, 15, 12
Leg Extensions: 3 x 12
Walking Lunges: 3 x 15 steps, each leg
Warm-ups: 3 x 20, 15, 12
Sets: 4 x 10-12
Belt Squats or Squat Machine
Warm-up: 1 x 20
Sets: 4 x 15
Sets: 4 x 10 + 10
(First 10 reps from stretch to halfway up, second 10 reps from halfway up to full contraction)
Sets: 3 x 20
(Use a very slow negative, then burst out of the bottom of the rep)
Leg Press (warm-up): 2 x 20
Leg Extensions: 4 x 20, 15, 15, 12
Leg Press: 4 x 15, 15, 12, 10
Warm-up: 1 x 20
Sets: 3 x 12, 2 x 15*
*Come to a complete stop at the bottom of each rep, then burst up.
Walking Lunges: 3 x 20 steps, each leg
(You probably won’t need extra weight here)
6 TIPS FOR BIGGER, STRONGER LEGS
By Ron Harris
1. Wear Flat-soled Shoes. When it comes to leg training in general, you never want to train in shoes with an elevated heel or with air pockets in the heels. This rules out most basketball and running shoes. Those shoes are designed to absorb the shock from running and jumping and limit your ability to generate force from the floor, or the platform of any type of leg press or squat machine. Basketball shoes are also a poor choice because the ankle support in their design can limit your range of motion as well. The best choices are flat-soled footwear like wrestling shoes, Converse All Stars, Otomix bodybuilding shoes, and the shoes marketed toward CrossFit and functional training, like Reebok Nanos and the Nike Metcon. And of course, it doesn’t get any flatter than squatting or pressing in bare feet or socks, for those who don’t want to pick up a fungus off the gym floor.
2. Pay Attention to Your Knees. Maintaining healthy knee joints and connective tissues around them is key to long-term productive quad training. Ask any older lifter with chronic knee pain and they will gladly bend your ear with woeful tales of how much bigger and stronger their legs once were. Always be in tune with how your knees feel with various angles of your feet and toes in relation to your knees. If you feel pain with toes angled out more, don’t continue with that foot position! You will eventually arrive at the mechanically correct foot position that allows you to squat or press heavy and with a full range of motion painlessly. Any slight pain in your knees is a direct sign from your body to switch things up, as that pain and the damage being incurred to your tendons and ligaments around the knee is only going to worsen over time.
3. Hit Hams on a Different Day. While the focus here is on building your best quadriceps, you must not neglect your hamstrings in all this. Since the listed routines are quite intense and demanding, I would prefer that most of you not attempt to work your hamstrings afterward, as you won’t have the requisite energy and focus to give them proper attention. Instead, work them on a different day, perhaps paired with back as many bodybuilders have done.
4. Always Fuel Up. I always recommend having at least one substantial, nutritious meal about 90 minutes before weight training, but especially in the case of a serious quadriceps session. These are big, powerful muscles that thrive on volume and intensity, and as such you should never train them on an empty stomach. You may have heard that training on an empty stomach boosts natural growth hormone release. I can assure you that any benefits this may offer are greatly outweighed by the diminished energy and work capacity you will experience hitting quads on an empty tank.
5. Never Skip Leg Day! It’s funny how this phrase has bled over into the mainstream lexicon, yet so many people still manage to skip leg days. You never see those guys skipping chest or arm days, do you? Any muscle group will grow over time if you continue to train it with intensity and good form, gradually moving up in the resistance. It’s also important that you use sufficient volume to produce results in this large, powerful muscle complex. A couple of light sets of leg extensions followed up by a couple of moderate effort sets of leg presses is far from optimal. Try the routines laid out here instead and I promise you will soon see a difference in your quads.
6. Never Lock Out Your Knees! Your body is always seeking the path of least resistance when it comes to any physical activity. When it comes to compound leg movements like the leg press or any variety of squat, the natural tendency once the muscles become extremely fatigued is to take the tension off them and allow them a very quick “break” by locking out your knees at the top of the rep. Don’t do this, as it takes the stress completely off the quads and puts it all on the knee joints and surrounding tissues. Over time this can contribute to tendinitis and even arthritis. As someone with both, trust me when I say you don’t want them!