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 that demonstrate the good morning squat fault indicating stronger hips relative to the quads
- Athletes rehabbing knee injuries or wanting to further strengthen their legs 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 exercises 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 then 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. 30 seconds rest before 20 with a moderate weight. Then another 30-second rest before finishing with just your body weight.
The set up up of this exercise produces a killer quadriceps strength stimulus, while not being very stressful on the hip joint or knee pain.
The Roman Chair is an old school piece of strength equipment that used to be featured in many commercial gyms. This DIY set up 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.
DIY Hack Squats
Hack squat machines are also popular in commercial gyms. But a foam roller, heavy resistance band, and kettlebell will do the trick. For a little added quad hypertrophy spice, slightly elevate your heels on 10lb. plates.
Sissy Squats Bodyweight
These look intense, and they are! Even though these are typically only performed with body weight, build up slowly with these over the course of several weeks. Not only do these build strong quads, but they have the added benefit of being a great mobility exercise.
KB Leg Extensions
Leg extensions get hated on a lot. Sure, they aren’t as great for overall strength as a barbell squat. But as a quadricep isolation finisher, they can be a great movement. I really like this kettlebell variation but you can also set up resistance bands as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.