“You’re quad dominant.” How many times have you heard a commercial gym trainer or fitness consultant use this hackneyed phrase to make you feel like your body is a mess and depend on their services? In truth, quads should be dominant. There are four quads muscles in each leg, and that bests the three hamstrings muscles on the opposite side. With all things equal, you can count on the quads to be the stronger group. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s important to understand that their ‘dominance’ is not always to blame if you’ve got a dysfunctional squat, knee pain, or hip pain.
Tight and Weak: The Quads Muscles Conundrum
When a muscle isn’t doing its job like the rest of the bunch, it isn’t only a weak link; chances are it can end up having poor tissue quality too, contributing to tightness, immobile joints, and dysfunctional movement patterns. Oftentimes, what appears to be an issue that requires a whole bunch of stretching and flexibility work, turns out to be a dire need for more strength and activation work.
This can undoubtedly be the case for the quads. Instead of neglecting them or relegating them to nothing but stretching drills, we should probably be training them just as much as the other links in the chain.
As mentioned, the quads are a group of four muscles, and their primary role is to extend the knee (making a “kicking” pattern). However, one quad muscle also serves a secondary role: flexing the hip. And it’s usually the link that’s holding your gains back.
The Lost Quad Muscle
The rectus femoris is a unique muscle in that it affects the action at both the knee and hip joints. Having more stability in a deep squat, being able to combat knee pain, or finally finding the key to faster sprinting with higher knee drive is largely dependent on this muscle’s strength and proper function. It can be a harder muscle to target, but these movements will prove both humbling and very much needed.
Sit with a kettlebell (or any object) by the inside of your right foot. Place your hands on the floor straddling this working leg. Keep your legs outstretched and apart from one another, knees completely locked out, then engage your hip flexor and quad to lift your foot up and over the kettlebell. Complete all reps on one side, then switch.
Focus on 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per leg.
2. Free Leg Extensions
The reason why standing with no weight to do a leg extension is so much different than sitting on a machine to do them is because you’ve forced your rectus femoris to activate through the entire set – you’ll be relying on this muscle to flex the hip and keep the leg up. Adding a controlled knee extension to this pattern creates a serious burn right up the centre of the thigh – your target muscle. It doesn’t take much more than bodyweight to feel this movement hit hard, but for even more difficulty, add an ankle weight or a very light band anchored around a sturdy object behind you and strapped around the ankle. It’s okay to lightly hold onto a wall or post for balance. Focus on sets of 12-15 reps per leg. If you like to run, this is a premier choice.
3. Reverse Nordics
The Nordic curl is known as a hamstrings exercise, but flipping things around to do reverse Nordics can be a fantastic way to hammer the quads, and train the rectus femoris from a stretched position (which is hard to find exercises to do). To do them, find a mat to assume a tall kneeling stance on, with the knees about hip width apart, and the shoelaces planted down. Squeeze the glutes and remain tall (don’t lean back or forward from the waist), and allow the body to descend backward toward the floor in one complete line, as a unit. Press the feet hard into the mat to brace the quads as you do this. At the threshold point of your discretion, return to your starting position, and squeeze the glutes and quads to keep the body tight. If you’re a bigger guy or need some assistance, feel free to add a band around a post to add some help as seen in the video. Alternatively, if bodyweight proves to be too easy, feel free to hug a light plate across the chest as you perform them. Focus on 3 to 4 sets of 10-12 reps.
4. Narrow Stance Heels Elevated Front Squats
This roundup wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the front squat as a king choice for quads development. They also allow most lifters to get deeper than back squats will, meaning deeper hip and knee flexion, and more activity from the quads. To up the ante, wear Olympic lifting shoes or elevate the heels by a few inches by standing on thick plates. The heels elevated variation here using a slant board shows that using this movement for higher reps can prove to be a quad burner. Front squats’ rep ranges depend on intensity and rest interval – so these can be performed for anywhere between sets of 5 and 12 reps.
Bonus Exercise: 1.5-Rep Squat
The 1.5 rep method doubles up on the activity in the quads (and rectus femoris) since the knee joint has to go through two deep flexions for every one rep. To do these, perform a front squat by lowering yourself slowly to the bottom position, and raising yourself up only halfway. Create a distinct pause at the midpoint, and hold for 1 full second count before descending once more to the bottom. Then ascend all the way to the top. That’s one rep. Perform 4 sets of 3-6 reps. Avoid high reps, as you’ll be spending quite a bit of time under tension with each rep.