If you were to ask an athlete about what muscle group looks the most impressive on the body, there’s a good chance they’d say, “the quadriceps.” Few muscles exemplify power and strength more than a pair of thick, strong quads peeking through a pair of shorts or pants. A strong and muscular lower body tells the world you do more in the gym than curl some dumbbells.
Whether you’re a recreational lifter, competitive strength athlete, or play a sport that somehow doesn’t feature barbells, strong quads are essential for performance and healthy movement. Not to mention that they’re essential in maxing out your barbell squat. Building powerful quads isn’t a complicated process. But it does take time, programming, and planning.
In this article, you’ll dive into the 13 best quad exercises to integrate into your leg day. You’ll also get acquainted with how to train for strength and more pronounced teardrop muscles.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Best Quad Exercises
Heel-Elevated Back Squat
Bulgarian Split Squat
Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Low Cable Split Squat
Banded Sissy Squat
Sure, you can’t do a heavy back squat without a pair of almighty quads to fuel and support the effort. But if you’re aiming to specifically target the fronts of your thighs, the front squat has got your back.
Since you’ll be front-loading the weight, you’ll be forced to keep your torso more upright than you can in a back squat. As a result, your quads will have to work a whole lot harder. As you can load up the front squat pretty heavily, this move will be key to supporting quad strength and development.
How to Do the Front Squat
Set up a barbell in a squat rack at roughly shoulder height.
Step up to the bar, supporting it high on your front delts and potentially your upper chest. Bend your arms to tuck your fingers under the bar and keep your elbows pointing up. Maintain a tall posture and brace your core.
Keep the barbell in front-rack position and sink into your squat.
After hitting the bottom of your squat, press back up to standing through your legs. Maintain a tall torso, core brace, and high elbows throughout.
Coach’s Tip: Strong and mobile wrists and shoulders are crucial for an effective front-rack position. Before front squatting, be sure to warm up your hips, wrists, shoulders, and ankles. Drive your elbows up throughout the movement.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of four to 10 reps, depending on your goals.
Benefits of the Front Squat
An essential addition to weightlifters’ and CrossFitters’ programs, the front squat is also a useful, strength-building accessory for any strength sport athlete.
The front squat builds strength throughout your lower body, with an emphasis on your quads.
This move also promotes a strong, stable core.
You’ve probably seen the back squat on plenty of exercise lists. The squat is a movement pattern that we engage in daily, such as when we squat down to pick something up or get in and out of a chair.
By training it with a heel elevation, you’re able to drive the knee further forward, placing more muscular tension on the quads. Also, leg strength has carryover to more athletic movements such as jumping and sprinting, which are two activities your quads are directly involved in.
How to Do the Heel-Elevated Back Squat
Unrack a loaded barbell from a station or power rack.
With the barbell fixed securely on your traps, walk backward a few steps.
Place your heels on an elevated surface. This can be a heel wedge or two small plates. Ensure that your feet are about shoulder-width apart.
Squat down with your chest up until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the floor, allowing your knees to travel forward freely.
Drive back up by pushing your feet through the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Test out your weight plates or another elevated surface to get a feel for the movement before loading up the weight. Do warm-up sets with just your body weight and an empty barbell before doing anything else.
Sets and Reps: Do three to four sets of eight to 10 reps.
Benefits of the Heel-Elevated Back Squat
The heel elevation allows you to drive the knee further forward, creating more mechanical bias in the quads.
The back squat allows for more loading compared to many other free-weight leg movements.
Squatting is something you likely do every day. Practicing the move in the gym will keep you efficient at it in everyday life.
A fabulous exercise for beginners and advanced athletes alike, the goblet squat is a classic staple of leg day for a reason. You can choose between holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell. And although the weight will be front-loaded, you don’t need nearly as much wrist and shoulder mobility as you do with barbell front squats.
The goblet squat places a ton of emphasis on your quads, but that’s not all. It’s a compound movement that will involve your whole body, including your upper back and core. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck with this one, for sure.
How to Do the Goblet Squat
Lift a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands, holding it with your thumbs resting against your upper chest.
Maintain an upright posture, keeping your shoulders back and down. Brace your core.
Squat down until your thighs break parallel with the floor.
Push through your feet to return to standing.
Coach’s Tip: If possible, keep your elbows tucked close to your sides. Some flaring out can help if that feels more natural for your body, but try to avoid a dramatic “chicken wing” effect to spare your elbows and shoulders unnecessary strain.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of eight to 15 reps.
Benefits of the Goblet Squat
This movement strengthens your quads while also working your glutes and hamstrings.
You can use front-loaded weights (a kettlebell or dumbbell) without needing quite as much mobility and positional skill as you do with a barbell front squat.
The goblet squat will also tax your upper back and core, which makes it an excellent all-around exercise.
There’s a reason so many lifters dread the Bulgarian split squat: it’s tough. Still, it continues to feature in so many high-quality strength programs. This unilateral movement allows you to smooth out strength imbalances while also training your stability, core strength, and — you guessed it — your quads.
The Bulgarian split squat will strengthen your legs very effectively, as your back leg will be elevated on a weight bench or plyo box. It’ll likely also present a strong mental challenge to build the fortitude and discipline you need to power through even the trickiest of accessory exercises.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
Stand a few feet in front of a plyo box or weight bench. Adjust your position such that when you place your back foot laces down on the elevated surface, both of your knees can reach 90 degrees when bent.
Grab hold of a free weight (if you’re opting to use one) and stabilize your position. Brace your core and descend into a lunge.
Descend until your back leg reaches its full range of motion — your back knee should be pointing down at the ground.
Press hard into your front foot to rise back to standing.
Coach’s Tip: On the descent, lean slightly backward. On the ascent, focus on driving through that front leg.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
This accessory exercise has you elevate your rear foot, so you will gain full body balance and coordination here.
The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral exercise, helping you even out imbalances in muscle mass or strength between legs.
You’ll place a lot of emphasis on your working (front) leg, making this an excellent quad builder.
This squat variation isolates one quad at a time, which also allows you to target a potentially lagging quadricep on one side. The heel lift allows you to drive your working knee forward further, placing more muscular tension on the quads.
Like other leg exercises, this variation can be loaded for more muscular tension. By loading up heavily, you can increase your hypertrophy and strength potential.
How to Do the Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
Stand with a dumbbell in each hand.
Take a step forward, placing your front leg heel onto an elevation.
Keep your chest up and squat down until the knee of your back leg is about an inch above the floor.
Stand back up by driving your front foot through the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid letting your chest collapse forward, keeping your shoulders back and down. Squeeze the dumbbells to maximize full-body engagement.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of eight to 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Front-Foot-Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
The split squat can work for every fitness level, goal, and need.
You can load it in many different ways — on your back, in a Zercher position, with a dumbbell in each hand, or even with a safety bar.
The unilateral (single-sided) setup helps build coordination and improves balance.
Originally the beloved brainchild of George Hackenschmidt, this exercise shares attributes with the back squat, reinforcing the squat movement pattern to build strength that translates into countless other lifts.
As a bonus, the machine creates external stability, removing the need to balance during each rep. When you don’t have to worry about balance, you can load up the weight pretty significantly.
How to Do the Hack Squat
Your stance on the foot platform will closely mimic that of your back squat stance. As such, your torso should be stable with your abdominals engaged and your lower back flat on the back pad.
Maintain a neutral head position as you lower your body until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the foot platform.
Drive through your heels to return to the top position.
Coach’s Tip: Once you get a feel for the movement, you can load up fairly heavily because of the external balance and stability. Take advantage of this, but ensure that you have your form and prerequisite strength locked in first.
Sets and Reps: Do three to four sets of six to eight reps.
Benefits of the Hack Squat
The platform allows for more individualized foot placement.
The hack squat provides more stability compared to free-weight squat variations. This means you can use quite heavy weights.
This movement’s predefined path safeguards against losing balance.
The trap bar deadlift variation is one of the most underrated exercises around. It allows you to hold the load more in line with your body and with a neutral grip, which helps keep the torso more upright and allows for more weight to be loaded.
By elevating your heels, you’re placing the load more directly over your quads. You’re also able to achieve more depth, placing more tension on the quads through a larger range of motion. This is a deadly combination for building muscle and strength in the quads.
How to Do the Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Elevate your heels on weight plates or another stable platform.
Hinge down with generously bent knees and grasp the handles of a trap bar.
Lock your shoulders back and down to stabilize the spine and brace your core.
Perform a standard trap bar deadlift movement.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t skimp on bending your knees a lot more generously than you do with a barbell deadlift. This will help increase the activation of your quads.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of four to eight reps.
Benefits of the Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
The elevated heel position helps the knees drive further forward, placing more of the load onto your quads.
The neutral grip hand positioning allows you to stay more upright, so it’s a good option for beginners who want to train this movement pattern.
The trap bar deadlift is a much more beginner-friendly option for learning a hinge pattern than the conventional deadlift. However, it allows you to load up extra heavy, so it’s also great for advanced athletes.
The leg press is another fantastic exercise for building strong resilient quads. Changes to foot position, adjustments to back pad angle, and built-in safety mechanisms help make the leg press a reliable, customizable option for quad training.
You can also train your quads with incredibly heavy loads, as this exercise lets you load up. Make sure you’re keeping your hamstring and glute training intense, too — you don’t want to overuse this move and get disproportionate strong on only one part of your lower body.
How to Do the Leg Press
Place your feet on the sled of a leg press machine, matching your standard squat stance if possible.
Press the sled out of the rack and lower the safety bars.
Lower the sled toward your chest with control until your thighs break 90 degrees.
Press the sled back up. Do not lock out your knees fully at the top of the movement.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure your thighs are breaking parallel for maximum benefits or at least maximally pressed against your stomach or chest. If you can’t achieve that position or tension, lower the weight.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
Benefits of the Leg Press
This move is beginner-friendly since it’s externally stabilized and easy to figure out, and good for veteran gym rats who want to lift heavier.
You can play around with your foot position to find an angle that’s comfortable for you.
Since it’s safer, due to the built-in safety bars, you’ll feel more comfortable lifting heavier loads.
This cable-based squat variation is another great exercise for training one leg at a time. The directional pull from the cable not only guides your path but also acts as a natural cue to drive the knee further forward — placing more tension on the quads.
These are great for beginners who need a more stationary leg exercise and for more advanced trainees who want to place targeted emphasis on the quads.
How to Do the Low Cable Split Squat
Set the cable attachment on the lowest peg and grasp the handle with the hand opposite your working leg.
Take a step back and extend the non-working leg (the same side leg that is holding the handle) back to position yourself into a staggered stance.
Drive your knee forward as far as possible.
Extend your knee and return to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Take your time to figure out the proper positioning with the cable stack. You want to be far enough away for the cable to provide constant tension, but close enough that you’re not losing balance or overcompensating.
Sets and Reps: Perform three sets of 15 to 20 reps per side.
Benefits of the Low Cable Split Squat
This exercise is beginner-friendly and can be a good regression from the dumbbell variation, and good for veteran gym rats who place more emphasis on their quads.
You can play around with your foot position to find one that’s comfortable for you and leads to the most leg activation.
The cable attachment is a great learning tool for progression toward a free-weight split squat.
Whether you’re at the gym or stuck at home training in your garage, sissy squats are one of the best exercises for creating a big stretch in the quads.
How to Do the Banded Sissy Squat
Anchor a band to a power rack and around your legs (behind the knees).
Take two or three steps back and lean your torso forward at your hips.
Place your hands on the power rack in front of you.
Drive your knees forward until they are fully flexed. Allow your heels to come off the ground.
From the bottom, extend your knees hard against the resistance of the band.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you’re comfortable with the rigors of a regular sissy squat before adding resistance in this manner.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Benefits of the Banded Sissy Squat
The lack of load allows you to solely focus on maximizing the stretch on the quads.
It can be used as a stand-alone exercise or as a great addition to any superset to further emphasize the quads.
When performed with control and proper form, the leg extension is a stellar exercise to hone in on your quads. It’s easy to learn and execute (there’s practically no learning curve) and it doesn’t load your spine. That’s great news for lifters who want to target their legs without involving their back.
Leg extensions also require less weight to be effective, and it targets the rectus femoris muscle in its shortened position. That’s a quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint and plays an important role in helping stabilize the pelvis in other strength training exercises.
How to Do the Leg Extension
Adjust the back pad on the machine such that the backs of your knee fit snugly against the edge of the seat.
Extend your knees to move the ankle pad, until your knees are fully straightened.
Lower the weight back down with control.
Coach’s Tip: Perform single-leg leg extensions if you have any strength or muscle imbalances you want to iron out.
Sets and Reps: Perform two to three sets of 12 to 20 reps.
Benefits of the Leg Extension
You can directly target your quadriceps while avoiding adding more volume to other tissues.
The leg extension is performed seated, which can be great for lifters who are recovering from injury or don’t have access to a barbell.
The prowler sled is typically used for aerobic conditioning. Pushing or pulling the loaded sled ramps up your heart rate in no time and can be used in many different ways. The driving force behind a prowler pull is your legs — specifically your quads.
How to Do the Prowler Pull
Ensure you have sufficient distance to perform each set and that no debris is obstructing your path.
Grasp the handles of a prowler sled that’s been loaded up with some weight plates.
Pull the sled under control, focusing on powerfully contracting the quads with each step.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you’re breathing throughout your set. Try to breathe deep into your core instead of gasping for air.
Sets and Reps: Do three to five rounds of 15 to 45-second pulls.
Benefits of the Prowler Pull
The prowler pull allows for greater focus on your quads while limiting the stress on other joints.
This move can be utilized to mesh cardio work with quad hypertrophy.
Competitive cyclists are known for their monstrous quads, and it’s no wonder why — their sport involves thousands of reps of knee extension.
The cyclist squat adjusts the leverages of a standard squat to mimic the posture you’d take on a bicycle while providing an unmatched stimulus level to the knee extensors.
How to Do the Cyclist Squat
With a barbell on your back or a pair of dumbbells in each hand, place your feet very close together while your heels are significantly elevated — up to two inches.
Brace your core and slowly squat down, allowing your knees to travel well beyond your toes until your hamstrings make contact with your calves.
Return to the starting position by contracting the quads only, maintaining a still posture in your torso and hips.
Coach’s Tip: Master the atypical movement pattern here before loading up the weights.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
Benefits of the Cyclist Squat
High heel elevation simulates an excess range of motion in the ankles for better quad activation.
This move allows for a high degree of stimulus to the quadriceps without the need for large amounts of external loading.
A proper warm-up can help raise your core body temperature, activate your nervous system, and increase your readiness and mental state heading into that day’s session.
An effective warm-up for any muscle group is also going to incorporate the exercises you are performing in that day’s training session. For example, if you’re performing heel-elevated back squats, you can warm up by performing light reps and increasing the intensity as you proceed toward your working sets.
This ensures that the appropriate muscles and joints are being primed, reducing the risk of injury and improving your overall training performance.
Work the following moves into your full-body warm-up when leg day rolls around. Your lifts will be glad you did.
Walking Quad Stretch: 1 x 15 per side
Bulgarian Split Squat Pulse: 1 x 15 per side
Exercise-Specific Ramp-Up Set: 1-3 x 4-6
How to Train Your Quads
The quad muscles give strength and structure to the lower body and help protect the knee and hip. As such, you’ll either want to train quads with your legs as a whole or pair them with a couple of your upper body workouts.
Here are three benchmarks for quad training — it’s up to you to decide how to integrate them into your routine.
The exercises you choose play a significant role in the muscles being worked. Muscles of the leg work in synchronicity to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. Therefore, different muscles will be biased more depending on the actions being performed.
When selecting an exercise for quad-focused training, the main priority should be the amount of knee flexion in the range of motion. However, there are secondary considerations. When choosing exercises to perform, you want to pick ones that:
Give sufficient load to the muscle without excessive stress on the surrounding joints.
Line up the resistance with the muscle(s) you want to train.
Work around pre-existing injuries or limitations.
Can be performed with the equipment in your gym space.
When it comes to training the legs, there are a lot of great options for exercises and tools to get the job done — including cables, machines, free weights, and body weight.
Sets and Reps
There’s no magic number of sets and reps — it depends on your ultimate goal. That said, a good rule of thumb is to stick with between 10-14 sets per week for your quads. The quads can take a beating due to their large surface area, but monitor your total training volume and how you respond to it.
For Strength: Do three to four sets of three to six reps, usually with compound movements.
For Muscle: Perform three to four sets of eight to 15 reps, either with single-joint or compound movements.
For Endurance: Do three to four sets of 15 or more reps, usually with single-joint movements.
To avoid size and strength plateaus, you want to progressively overload the quads. This entails selecting a certain number of sets and reps to perform an exercise for — say, three sets of 10 reps. For each workout, you’ll add one rep to each set of the movement. After a few weeks, start again with 10 reps but increase the load you’re lifting by about five to 10 pounds.
Remember, there is a limit to how much you can do per workout while still being productive. If you notice your performance dropping off, it may help to split up some of the training volume to a day later in the week. A training frequency of two to three sessions a week has been recommended to help maximize muscle growth. (1)
It’s not only about what you do and how you do it, it matters when. Placing compound exercises first in your workout is preferred, especially for beginners. This is because the more fatigued you get, the worse your technique will become, potentially increasing the risk of injury later in the workout.
Placing exercises like deadlifts and other barbell variations — that demand more from your body — toward the start of your workout will increase the effectiveness of your training. Here’s an example of how you may order the exercises in your next leg workout:
Heel-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
The heavier, more challenging compound lifts are performed first while you’re nice and fresh, tapering down to targeted isolation work towards the end.
Quad Training Tips
There aren’t many hard rules in hypertrophy training, but there are plenty of good guidelines to follow. Adhering to these principles can help you get more out of your leg day every time you set foot in the gym.
More range of motion has been shown to lead to greater outcomes in hypertrophy. (2) While more of everything isn’t always better, when it comes to growing your quads, getting deep and maximizing knee flexion is a big deal.
The more depth you achieve, the more tension is placed on the quads through a larger range of motion. The ability to create significant tension will determine the overall success of your strength training, no matter the goal.
Choosing the Right Exercise for the Job
Knowing that depth matters is only half the battle. Choosing the right exercise for the job comes down to understanding what the exercise demands, alongside your skill level, structure, and mechanics.
These movements help drive the knee forward, placing more tension and bias on your quads compared to their traditional counterparts.
Push the Intensity
Building a noteworthy set of legs takes work. It takes planning, sets close to failure (and maybe one or two past), and proper recovery. Pushing the intensity of your sets close to, or past failure is crucial to level up your quads.
Knowing when and where to do this is also important — rather than pushing the intensity too far in exercises like the squat, go all-out in exercises like the hack squat, press, or leg extension. These movements naturally help protect the spine and deter accidents due to the fixed path and safety mechanisms.
Benefits of Training Your Quads
The benefits of training your legs are well-established. Leg training helps burn a lot of calories, builds muscle and strength in your lower body, reduces the risk of injury, and helps you move around better overall.
Training your quads specifically not only helps build more functional strength — aiding in exercises like the squat and deadlift — but packs on size to your legs in a big way. If you’re looking to size up your khakis, kicking your quad training up a notch is a surefire way to be bursting at the seams.
You’ll Improve Your Bigger Lifts
Building up muscle and strength in the front of your legs leads to an increase in performance across the board. Stronger quads can lead to increased performance on your squat, deadlift, lunges, sled variations, and more. Alongside noticeable gains in strength, training the quads more directly will pack on noticeable size to your legs — commanding respect and turning heads.
You’ll Be Less Prone to Injury
Your quads play a vital role in helping stabilize the knee during many motions, including squats, deadlifts, power cleans, walking, sprinting, and jumping. Since the knee joint is one of the largest and most active in the human body, it deserves every ounce of attention we can give it.
The four heads of the quads extend down from the hip and attach nicely to the patellar tendon. These muscles work together alongside the hamstrings and calves to protect the knee and allow you to lift, move, and remain independent across your entire lifespan.
Quad Training Can Keep You Moving
Your walking speed is a vital metric in healthy aging. A large body of scientific literature points us to the relationship between gait speed, our ability to get up out of a chair, and preventing falls or other age-related accidents. (3)
If you think the only time you squat is in the gym, rest assured that that’s not the case. Any time you get up and down from a chair, you’re squatting. Walking up or down the stairs is essentially a lunge. Building strong and resilient quads can help you engage in daily life while also keeping you more independent as you age.
Anatomy of the Quadriceps
The quadriceps are made up of four distinct muscles — namely the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These muscles make up the bulk of the front of the thigh, help stabilize the knee, and play a vital role in hip stability as well.
The quadriceps all perform the same primary function of knee extension, although the rectus femoris specifically does have some role in auxiliary stabilization. In movements like a farmer’s carry, the quadriceps work double-time to help stabilize the hips. (4)
More on Quad Training
Understanding the mechanics of your muscles can help you get more value out of your training as well as enrich your time spent in the gym. Now that you have learned about building your quads, here are some other resources to help you expand your leg-day encyclopedia.
Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(11), 1689–1697.
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE open medicine, 8, 2050312120901559.
Stephan, Y., Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2015). “Feeling younger, walking faster”: subjective age and walking speed in older adults. Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 37(5), 86.
Bordoni B, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Quadriceps Muscle. [Updated 2021 Feb 7]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
Featured Image: Sjale / Shutterstock
The post The 10 Best Quad Exercises for Serious Strength and Size appeared first on BarBend.