I have an issue with quad training.
It’s not done enough. Thanks to fitness pundits of this generation, and generic box gym chain “fitness assessments” that come with buying a membership, a misconception has run rampant in the industry:
People everywhere think they’re “quad dominant”.
It’s a term that, despite there being some truth to it, has been blown way out of proportion until most have missed the actual meaning of the statement. The result is the directive to forego any quad-specific exercises since they just make the imbalance worse.
Here’s my thing – the quadriceps are made up of 4 muscles (recent research actually reveals the discovery of a fifth!) – hence the name.
When comparing the group to the hamstrings on the back of the leg, which are only made of 3 muscles, it’s no question that the stronger relative group should be the quads.
The term “quad dominant” is misleading, since I’ve never met anyone who’s hamstring or glute-dominant. Using logic, it would be virtually impossible to actualize.
Now, I digress: If someone has poor development and activity of the hamstrings and glutes, then the relative balance between the quads and the posterior leg muscles could indeed be askew. But fixing this issue technically wouldn’t change the fact that we’d all still be “quad dominant” as humans, and rightfully so.
The result of all of this is neglect for quad training and weak thighs to go along with it. Often times, a weak compound lower body movement can be brought up simply by doing more work with the quads through modification or isolation.
Luckily, I’ve got the moves to help you get there. I’ve touched on quad training before, but the list would have to become a bit more general when it comes to my final do-or-die cuts for quad development.
Exercise 1: Front Squat
No list would be complete without the good old standard front squat. Especially if the lifter wears weightlifting shoes or elevates the heels, the change in load position causes a lifter to allow the knees to migrate further forward over the toes to maintain a vertical torso position.
This encourages a deeper knee flexion, lower depth, and much greater quad activity. Beyond that, the front squat is an easy go-to in a home gym that doesn't have much outside of a squat cage. To progress the movement, add some pauses and tempos to the mix before risking a sacrifice to form through added weight.
Exercise 2: Hack Squat
There aren’t many exercises that allow for such a deep knee flexion as the hack squat. The difference between using it and a Smith Machine squat or barbell squat is the fact that the back is located in a fixed position and the machine is typically placed on a slant. This can lower pressure on the hips and knees and force ideal technique to be used.
For people after size, however, it’s worth mentioning that “breaking some rules” can actually come in handy when done safely and structured to your goal. Since we’ve learned that knees travelling further over the toe can create excellent quad activation, it’s best to exploit this by setting the feet up in a position that emphasizes this.
Adding a ball-of-the-foot pressure point and a slightly duck-footed position can all of a sudden change the game for quad activity. Here’s pro bodybuilder and Mr. Olympia competitor John Meadows performing a set of hack squats in this fashion with legend Tom Platz.
It’s worthwhile to note: A modification like this demands healthy knee and hip joints. If you have previous issues, it’s not a smart move to jump to this directive.
Exercise 3: Deficit Trap Bar Deadlifts
As far as functionality goes, the trap bar deadlift is a smart way to hit the quads with a measure of real-world application. The quad involvement of the trap bar deadlift also doesn’t neglect the posterior chain, since it is a vertical pull all the same.
Many lifters have issues with the high handle position and limited amount of knee flexion the trap bar can give, but it’s easy to up the ante in two simple moves: use the low handle attachments, and add a deficit.
Shorter lifters and long-armed lifters alike will especially benefit from this move, and everyone will notice the increase in quad activity compared to its conventional deadlift counterpart. To illustrate, here’s Ben Bruno cracking out a heavy set.
Bonus: Short Step Lunges
There’s no rule that says you shouldn’t cut your stride when doing lunges if you’re after more quad activity – that is, unless you’re reading a course manual full of blanket cues for an entry-level training certification.
Modifying your typical lunge by taking a shorter stride will cause forward tracking of the shin and a deeper knee flexion per stride. Keep your front heel on the ground and use it as an additional move to one of the big moves listed above for higher reps.
I know What you’re Thinking: What about Leg Extensions?
It’s probably the first thing anyone would default to thinking about when the topic of “quad training” is addressed. IF you noticed with the above movements, I place them in priority partially because they also follow a common theme:
They’re closed chain compound lifts. They encourage a co-contraction of the hamstrings, glutes, and even calves in addition to the quads which can help stabilize the knee joint and create a modicum of balance amongst the muscle groups.
This is eliminated when examining a seated leg extension. The quads are only left to contract during this exercise, making for some great isolation, but coming with a by-product of plenty of shear forces on the knee. For many people I’ve worked with (including myself), one look at the leg extension equals joint discomfort after the fact, so it’s an exercise I prescribe on a case-by-case basis.
The movements don’t need to be cutting-edge, new-wave, scientifically proven gems in order to get the job done.
There’s a reason lifters back in the 70’s and 80’s were still able to develop great physiques, despite a lack of deeply sophisticated knowledge. The reason is because the basics still work!