Have you ever noticed how everything we do is in front of our bodies?
The anterior muscles like the pecs, front deltoids, abdominals, hip flexors, and quads all get tight from overuse. This causes weakness to the posterior muscles like the upper back, glutes, hamstrings and rear deltoids.
This is all made worse when we look at how most guys prioritize training when they’re in the gym: The muscles they can see.
Chest and shoulder workouts are commonplace in most commercial gyms, with the accompanied biceps curls for added measure.
In truth, creating balance means emphasizing the posterior muscles in the gym.
More pull exercises should be practiced to offset the tightness of the culprit muscles listed earlier. This will put the body in a better position for all round strength and development.
Want the real truth? Everything you read above is the problem.
While I give you time to let that sink in, allow me to clarify. Nothing written above is wrong or something I don’t personally believe in as a coach. The issue comes in the fact that most reading will misapply it. Whenever something is taken to any extreme and certain muscle groups are excoriated in the name of balance and good training.
Commercial gym staff will constantly hammer home the term “quad dominant” as though it should really be any other way. Has anyone really ever met a hamstring or glute-dominant person? What would they look like? How would they move?
This sort of misled thinking goes beyond understanding muscular balance. It proposes the idea that you should neglect training the tight side in favor of the weak side. It excuses the possibility that the tight side could be a weak side also. And in the case of the quads, it normally is.
Do you notice your hips shooting up when you perform heavy squats or deadlifts? Some of that is unavoidable, but some of it can be due to a strength deficiency. Not only in the glutes and spinal erectors, but also in the quads since they’re unable to hold position and transfer load.
Needless to say, from a strength perspective, it’s a good idea to make sure they get hit hard. Strong quads will help improve mechanics and performance of lower body movements.
Related: Three Things You've Been Doing Wrong with your Squat
To zero in on strength, it would be smart to still think about compound movements when possible – ideally the squat. Rather than focusing on conventional squat methods though, modifying the rep scheme or setup can do wonders to target the quads more effectively.
1. VMO Squats
VMO squats involve a 1.5 rep style that allows the knees to have to extend twice for every one rep. This pumps up the quads (and VMO muscle) as they have to perform double the workload.
Control the negative portion of the repetition, and try to freeze for a full second at the halfway point before performing your second descent of the rep.
It won’t take as much weight as usual to get blasted by this exercise, so lower your load to around 75% of your typical rep range max.
Lessons from a Lifter: In order to add to the efficacy, perform these wearing lifting shoes. The elevated heel will create more quad emphasis through the lift.
2. Heels Elevated, Narrow Stance Front Squats
The difference between lifting shoes and a 2 by 4 (or 45lb plate) is the fact that the heel elevation will be much more aggressive, since a 2x4 or plate will be thicker than most Olympic lift shoes’ soles. Incorporating a narrow stance into the equation will help keep the hips closed and disallow glute activity from entering the picture.
Related: Front Squats vs Back Squats for Bigger Quads
Remember, our goal is to tap into quad potential, so we need to use the training hacks that do just that. Using front squats rather than back squats for this exercise will help keep the torso vertical and allow for further forward knee tracking over the toes. That means a greater degree of knee extension, and – you guessed it – more quad activation.
Lessons from a Lifter: If you’ve got preexisting knee issues, this exercise may be a touch stressful. Try it without heel lifts first, and make small progressions, if you’re going to dabble with it at all.
3. Leg Press
The leg press gets censured by the masses because it’s “not the squat”. The only reason this thinking came to the forefront in the first place was to counter the people who were trying to use this exercise as a substitute for the squat.
That’s not you. You’re smarter than that, and can apply the right tool at the right time.
Using the leg press for higher volume is a great way to make the quads work hard, and increase not only their strength, but their muscular endurance to fully exhaust them and promote hypertrophy. Using a duck stance (feet close, and heels close with toes out) can amplify quadriceps involvement.
Lessons from a Lifter: If you’re advanced, you can apply a “rule breaking” tactic that involves carefully emphasizing a push though the balls of the feet more than the heels. This subtle change will disengage the posterior muscles from becoming involved and provide more work for the quads to do.
4. Trap Bar Deadlift
This movement flies under the radar in most training programs. Being a deadlift variation, most people think it’s a posterior chain booster.
Though not untrue, it’s worth mentioning that the changes in geometry (a lower hip position and forward knee tracking) create massive increases in knee extensor involvement.
If you’re looking for a way to really challenge the strength of the quads through lower rep ranges, heavy trap bar deadlifts for sets of 5 or less are a good way to go.
Lessons from a Lifter: Deadlift patterns still create a knee angle above 90 degrees. To challenge the quads through greater ranges using this exercise, simply add a deficit by standing on plates or a low platform. Check out my friend Ben Bruno demonstrating these:
There are other movements that require an honorable mention, but weren’t included in detail due to the length of this article.
- Forward deficit stationary lunges: lunge forward off a low box to the floor, and return to the box.
- Walking short-stride lunges: take a shorter than usual walking stride to emphasize quads
- Leg extensions: use a toes-out foot position and give it all you’ve got. High reps work well.
- Hack Squats
You Gotta Learn to Grow
Remember – these are simply tools for your toolbox, don’t get married to one approach.
Sometimes the source of the problem for our weakness is right under our noses, and truthfully our programs should never “neglect” any muscle groups. Everything should have the chance to be trained in some capacity.
If you’ve been at a plateau for a while now, it may be a good idea to look at your quad strength. You’ll probably be glad you did.