This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
This week, we’re focusing on thighs – or quads – and giving our view on the top 5 best quad exercises.
The thigh muscles are commonly referred to as the quads, short for quadriceps. There are four main muscles in the thigh – vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris. They are responsible for extending the knee joint and the rectus femoris, because it crosses the hip, is also a hip flexor.
Functionally the quads are involved in anything standing, anything to do with gait such as walking, running and lunging, as well as squatting, jumping and so on. They may also be involved in some seated positions, such as when pushing pedals when driving. Aesthetically they look best when they are well developed with a good shape – that means well-proportioned with the shape of the individual muscles discernible. So, for example, if you can see a teardrop shape formed from the vastus medialis and a bit of an outer ‘sweep’ from the vastus lateralis then that’s going to look better than a flatter appearance.
Although the quads’ main function is to extend the knee joint, the best quad exercises are those that extend the knee as part of a bigger multi-joint exercise such as squatting (standing bilateral), lunging (standing unilateral) and pushing in a seated position (seated bilateral, aka pressing). There is a huge variety of exercises involving these types of movements but the big tried and tested moves are generally the best for most people. Because space is limited in a ‘top 5’, I have only included one movement from each of those three categories. I have also included two excellent single joint movements for reasons which I explain below.
When it comes to targeting particular areas of the thigh, it’s not so much the choice of movement that makes the difference but more leg spacing, foot orientation, range of movement and so on. For most people it’s sufficient, and the best approach, to adopt a standard medium leg spacing and as full a range of movement as possible without risking injury.
So, with the intro done, on to our 5 best quad exercises…
1. Safety bar squat
The first of our best quad exercises is the safety bar squat. I know what you’re thinking, why is the back squat not the go-to choice for the squat selection? After all, if you search, you’ll see countless articles on why the back squat is the best exercise for the quads and why everyone should include it in their routine. And I agree, it’s a fabulous exercise. However…
I don’t have any clients who can perform the back squat with good form. Despite all the usual cues for correctness I get heels raising, chests collapsing, lower backs rounding, asymmetrical hips, knees buckling and so on. Sure, I can work on their mobility, flexibility, corrective drills, their mind muscle connection and gradually get them squatting, but most clients don’t have a goal that is to squat well and build up to decent weight. Their goals are different – feel strong, build mass, be steadier on their feet, train for a sport and so on. They don’t want to spend their time and money working on being able to squat well. There are plenty of other exercises that will help meet their goals.
The other reason I haven’t put the back squat in is because it’s more a whole-body movement than some other squat choices. It works the glutes, hamstrings, core and back muscles as well as the thighs, so it’s really an excellent whole-body exercise which can elicit a supreme hormonal response and training adaptation. If you can do it safely then you should include it in your routine for its overall impact on your physique.
I’ve chosen a different squat. The safety bar squat works well for a lot of our clients because, being a little older on average, they have more mobility challenges. For me, it’s a better choice for two reasons. First, because the bar puts the load at the front of the body like a front squat, it’s possible to stay more upright throughout the movement and get lower before the pelvis tucks under. In fact, in lifting shoes, it’s possible for many people to descend right to the bottom without compromising safety. Also, because the torso is more upright, it puts less torque through the lower back. Second, because it has handles, it makes front squat-like loading accessible to those who cannot get their hands under the bar in a normal front squat. But let’s be clear, even though it’s easier to squat with this bar, it still requires reasonable mobility. Not all our clients are able to squat even with the safety bar, at least not with weights that would lead to development of the quads.
The safety bar squat, like the front squat, has a heavier emphasis on the thighs compared to the back squat. By that I mean the glutes, hamstrings and back muscles are less involved. That means the weights used for the safety bar squat will be a good deal lower than those used for the back squat, typically two thirds of the back squat weight.
Another interesting quality of the safety bar squat is that it requires an intense effort from the abdominals to retain good form. If I come back to front or safety bar squatting after a layoff, I find my abs are sore the next day. This exercise is going to build your abs, it’s going to thicken them, so if you’re worried about getting a thicker waist then you might want to steer clear of this exercise. But if you’re looking to develop the quads, this exercise is up there with the best of them.
2. Leg extensions
The second of our best quad exercises is leg extensions. If you’re after a functional movement that translates well into everyday or sporting movements, then the leg extension isn’t it! Rarely do you extend the knee without also involving the hip and ankle joints. The reasons for performing the leg extension are much more about strengthening and building the thigh muscles in isolation. That’s ok for us, because we’re concerned with aesthetics.
I really like the leg extension for lots of reasons, mainly because you can introduce a lot of variety into what is simply an extension of the knee joint. For example:
– Hold and squeeze full extension to really make the individual muscles pop out
– As a finisher, do slow 3 inch ‘pulses’ at the bottom position to create a fabulous lactic acid burn
– At full extension, point the toes in to emphasise the outer quads and point them out to emphasise the teardrop.
– Extend the set by doing drop sets – fail once, drop the pin then fail again.
– Pre-fatigue the quads on leg extensions before executing a set of a bigger compound exercise. Try leg extensions to failure followed by squats – but go light on the squats if you want to come up from the first rep!
– Try a 3-stage rep to develop the outer sweep: pulse the bottom, then full rep, then pulse the top with toes in.
– Try 21s: 7 half reps from bottom to middle; 7 from middle to top; 7 full reps.
As well as this ability to add variety, there are some other advantages of leg extensions. First, because you are not supporting and stabilizing yourself, the core does get too engaged, so they will not thicken your waist like squats. Second, it’s often the case that the limiting factor on the big multi-joint exercises is not the quads, it’s the core or the back muscles or whatever. The quads may never get to be the failing muscle and so may not develop to their full potential on those bigger movements. When you fail on leg extensions, your quads are failing. No question.
If you’re doing the big movements but your quads are lagging the rest of your physique then leg extensions are a must.
3. Bulgarian split squat
The third on our list of best quad exercises is the Bulgarian split squat. This is my choice for the unilateral thigh exercise. It has similarities to the lunge but, for me, the lunge has some drawbacks. With the lunge you can assist the working leg with the other leg by pushing off with the calf, so if you have a dominant leg the lunge won’t even it up as much as it might, unless you are very conscious of your form and keep it super strict. The lunge also allows a little rest between steps, which most people tend to do when they start to tire. You have to grit your teeth and resist the temptation to rest in the middle. One other thing about the lunge is that it’s almost always done alternating the legs, so each leg gets a rest while the other leg does some work.
The Bulgarian split squat is more intense for several reasons. First, you do all the reps for one leg and then change legs, so the working leg tires quickly. Second, the working leg never gets to lock out, so the quads are under tension for the entire set. Third, the leg on the bench is not able to assist nearly as much as with the lunge, so the working leg gets pretty much all the work during the set. Finally, because balance is more of a challenge with the Bulgarian split squat, you get a lot more stimulation of the adductor for better overall leg development. That said, be under no illusion that the Bulgarian split squat is anything other than an intense quad exercise which produces a supreme burn.
In fact, I find the Bulgarian split squat, when it comes to oxygen debt, is right up there with heavy sled pushes, deadlifts and front squats. It’ll have you puffing for a while afterwards. That gives you an idea of the intensity.
4. Leg press
The penultimate of our best quad exercises is the leg press. Whilst the standing compound quad exercises are undoubtedly effective and give rise to a supreme hormonal response, sometimes you just want to push a lot of weight and not have to worry about balancing yourself. That’s where the leg press comes in. Balanced and anchored into the seat, all you have to worry about is pushing the weigh back up. That means you can load it up and put a lot of tension through the quads. The glutes and hamstrings get a good roasting too.
The good thing about the leg press is that, because you do not have to balance, you can vary the technique to emphasise different muscles. For example, high and wide will tend to emphasise the glutes, hamstrings and vastus medialis. Lower and narrower will emphasise the quads, particularly the vastus lateralis. Or try using a ‘duck stance’ for the vastus lateralis to develop that quad sweep. Why not try doing a pulse in the bottom position on each rep to target the outer sweep and glutes. Or try leg presses single legged – you’ll find the adductors get heavily stimulated when your press unilaterally. So, you see that being stabilized in a seat affords variety that allows you to fine tune your quad development.
5. Sissy squat
The final of our best quad exercises, and another single joint isolation exercise, is sissy squats. If ever there was a misnomer, sissy squat is it. It’s tough and it’s brutal on the thighs.
It might appear from the video that this is a multi-joint exercise, because the hips are flexing and extending. But in fact, the glutes and hamstrings are not firing. You can see this in the more hardcore version of the sissy squat where the hips stay relatively straight.
The quads do all the work. The degree of hip flexion simply alters the amount of torque applied to the quads. If you want to try the hardcore version then you’ll need to build up a good deal of strength before you attempt it, and make sure your quads are warm as the rectus femoris is put under a lot of tension and can pull if it’s not properly warmed up.
When performing the standard version always keep the calves pressed up against the support and try and keep the torso as upright as possible.
The more you roll over the apparatus, the easier it will be and the less effective it will become. I like to raise the front so that the finish position is still at an angle and a good deal of tension is kept on the quads. I’ll go as deep as I can and then squeeze the quads hard at the top before descending again. Sometimes I’ll do a partial rep coming up to the half way point, descend again, then do a full rep. I feel the outer quads more by emphasising the lower portion of the movement like this. I find if I stay strict on sissy squats then there’s no need to hold a weight, particularly if I’ve angled the device.
If your gym doesn’t have a sissy squat device like the one shown, then you can do sissy squats without any equipment. It’s not the easiest exercise to explain – it’s easier simply to watch the final part of the video so you can see how it’s done.
I use sissy squats in the same way I use leg extensions – as a focused quad thrasher or as a pre-fatigue before the bigger compound lifts. I’d say it’s not as good as a finisher because, if you’ve done a decent job on your quads, you’ll struggle to get many reps on the sissy at the end of a workout.
So, there you have it, my top 5 best quad exercises. When designing your workout for thighs, include both isolation and compound movements, both bilateral and unilateral and one that requires little balance. Use intensity techniques and variations in stance and foot placement to add variety, intensity and targeting of specific muscles. Quad training is the most intense training you’ll do all week. Be brave, work hard, keep it varied and reap the rewards.