If you’re like most gym goers, you’ve spent a lot of your training devoted to sculpting toned arms, round shoulders, and firm glutes. And, while you think you might be building the total body package with your workouts, there’s probably one area you’re not giving its due -- the quads.
The quadriceps are located on the front of your upper legs between your knees and hips, and they’re main function is knee flexion and hip extension. Basically, anything that involves walking, running, or jumping relies on the quads and if you want to look and perform your best you want to build a set of well-sculpted quads.
To help you get the strong, lean lower body you want, we’ve got a list of five of our favorite quad-building exercises.
Top 5 Quad Exercises for Strong, Toned Legs
Hi-Bar Barbell Back Squats
Simply put, if you’re not doing some type of squat, you’re not doing everything you can to build better quads.
The back squat is often considered the “gold standard” of barbell exercises and is regarded by many as the “king” of all exercises. The reason for this is that many a top physique athlete have relied on a steady diet of high volume, heavy back squats to build their quads.
Everyone’s setup for the squat will be slightly different due to inter-individual difference in biomechanics. Find a stance and hand position on the bar that fits your size, mobility and stability and get to squatting.
Not every lifter has the mobility to squat ass-to-grass (ATG), but so long as when you’re in the bottom of the squat, your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle and your thighs are parallel to the ground, you’ve performed a complete range of motion.
For those who might not feel comfortable performing back squats for any number of reasons, the front squat is a compound free weight exercise that allows you to thoroughly work the quads while avoiding the unnecessary spinal loading of back squats.
As an added bonus, f squats also allow you to stay more upright, which forces your quads to work more.
Front squats can be performed with kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, or even a landmine apparatus, and due to the front-loaded position they also help reinforce a strong upper back and tight core, which is essential to proper squat technique.
For an extra challenge, and increased time under tension, pause at the bottom of each rep. Doing so eliminates the stretch reflex which makes the quads have to work that much harder to drive you out of the hole.
Bulgarian Split Squats
When you’re on the go, you may not always have access to a fully stocked gym, which means no squat rack, leg press, or leg extension machine. Does that mean you can’t get in a high quality quad workout when you’re on the road.
Enter the Bulgarian or rear foot-elevated split squat.
It’s a great exercises for those with a history of injury, lack of equipment, or those wanting to reduce strain placed on the low back.
Not only is the bulgarian split squat a great exercise for building and shaping the quads, it’s one of the best exercises you can do for your legs, period.
In fact, some research has shown that split squats lead to greater activation of the muscles of the legs than even the back squat, the supposed “king” of exercises.
When setting up for the Bulgarian split squat, use a shorter stride than you’ve probably seen used by others. Using the shorter stride makes the exercise more quad dominant, as does keeping an upright torso. Using a longer stride and hinging forward more with the torso shifts more of the tension to the glutes and hamstrings and less onto the quads.
Don’t be fooled by the name, sissy squats definitely are no cake walk. In fact, rep for rep, they can be just as torturous as bulgarians when it comes to taxing your legs and your lungs.
Unlike front squats, back squats, goblet squats, or bodyweight squats, sissy squats are the one kind of squat that can isolate the quads by eliminating recruitment of the glutes.
Sissy squats have been around for decades, and were one of the top quad building exercises during the “golden era” of bodybuilding, but, if you’ve never performed them before, they are essential the bodyweight equivalent of a leg extension.
To perform the sissy squat, stand next to a power rack with feet shoulder-width apart and hold onto the side. Brace your core, and begin to bend your knees forward. Lower your torso backward as your knees bend, descending as far as you are able without losing your balance. Pause at the bottom position and then squeeze your quads to pull yourself back to the starting position.
Sissy squats can be performed with just bodyweight or loaded by holding a weight plate, dumbbell, kettlebell, or wearing a weight vest.
Weight lifting purists will scoff at the thought of a machine exercise for sculpting the legs, but when it comes to pure isolation of the quadriceps, few exercises can match the leg extension for targeting the muscles on the top of the upper thigh.
Leg extensions can serves as a great warm-up exercise to build a strong mind-muscle connection ahead of heavier compound quad exercises like the front squat or back squat. They can also help pre-exhaust the quads, which would allow you to use lighter weight on the heavier compound lifts if you have a history of knee or low back pain. Finally, leg extensions can serve as a great finisher at the end of your workout to really burn out the quads and force as much blood to them as possible.