In the lower body, the glutes tend to get all the love. From strength coaches to the medical world, we all focus on improving glute strength for performance and rehab. But the quads are also vitally important to your athletic performance and the health of your knee joints. When your legs need some extra work, the following exercises are my favorite quad strength & hypertrophy exercises.
First, who needs extra quadriceps muscle work?
- Athletes training with physique goals
- Athletes wanting to squat more weight
- Especially athletes wanting to increase their squat but who demonstrate the good morning squat fault, indicating stronger hips relative to the quads
- Athletes rehabbing knee injuries or wanting to strengthen their legs further to protect against future flare-ups after getting through an injury
- Athletes with a hip shift during squats from unilateral quad weakness
Before I share the following exercises, I will say that I believe front & back squats are by far the best quad exercises. But I’m not including them below for three reasons. First, to share variations for athletes needing quad-specific loading if they tend to only feel squats in their hips. Second, for athletes already pushing lunges, front & back squats hard but needing some less fatiguing exercises than large compound exercises to add training volume to their quads. Finally, all of these exercises place a significant amount of mechanical tension on the quad muscles, which is an important variable in hypertrophy training.
Since most of my followers are functional fitness / CrossFit athletes, these leg exercise variations will focus on ones performed with the typical equipment available to them. Those in commercial gyms can often find other equipment options for these movements.
Quad Strength & Hypertrophy Exercises
The Spanish Squat is probably my most commonly prescribed quad strength & hypertrophy exercise. Give it a try, and you will quickly see why.
Wrap a heavy resistance band around a rig and put one end behind each knee. Squat down, and as you come back up, focus on driving your knees into the resistance band. At the starting position, maintain a slight lean back into the band. This technique will keep constant tension on the quads and set them on fire! My preferred loading scheme is 20 reps with a heavy weight. Thirty seconds rest before 20 with a moderate weight. Then, you should have another 30-second rest before finishing with just your body weight.
The setup of this exercise produces a killer quadriceps strength stimulus while not being very stressful on the hip joint or knee pain.
Cyclist squats are front squats with your heels elevated. Lifting your heels will help you keep a more upright torso and push your knees further forward. This will reduce back & hip work to keep the emphasis on your quads.
Heels Elevated Goblet 1.5s
By performing Goblet Squats for one and a half reps we will increase the time under tension for the quads. I usually load these with heavy KBs but this can easily also be done with your barbell squat variations. Elevate your heels for a little extra quad fire.
Belt squats are great for quad strength & hypertrophy as they completely unload the low back and keep all of the load on the legs. There are several ways to set up Belt Squats as shown in the following video. The best by far though, is the Squat Max MD (see our review of this awesome machine here).
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The Roman Chair is an old-school piece of strength equipment that used to be featured in many commercial gyms. This DIY setup gets the job done, too. Put heavy plates in front of your toes with a barbell on a rack just below your knee. Sit back into the squat, and as you stand, focus on driving your knees bar into the barbell.
Skater Squats can be easily progressed to harder variations for strengthening weak quads. Shown in this video are two variations. Feel free to throw a weight vest on or grab kettlebells to increase the challenge.
Slantboard Step Downs Against a Band
This one doesn’t look like much, but when you find the right combination of band tension, weight, and box height, it will burn your quads up! Keep an upright torso as you push your knee forward. Barely touch the opposite heel to the ground, and don’t use that leg to assist with the return to standing.
Band Sissy Squats
These look intense, and they are! I usually program these as a quad finisher, hitting sets of 15-30 reps.
Bear Knee Extensions
If you’re low on equipment but need some quad hypertrophy and isolation the bear knee extension is a great exercise. It looks funny and doesn’t appear to be that hard. But don’t let that fool you! These are similar to terminal knee extensions but harder.
For athletes wanting to improve their overall knee health and work towards reducing the risk of future knee injuries, check out our 4-week program Bulletproof Knees inside of Performance Plus programming.