How to Get Big Quads: The Intermediate’s Guide
For the long-legged lifter who struggles with adding beef to their quads, lower body training in general is a tall order (pun intended). The taller you are the tougher it is to get stronger since you have so much distance to travel when squatting and pressing.
Or maybe you’re the type who is of average height but just plain hates training quads. You feel that they require endless sets of excruciating pain and discomfort coupled with lengthy recovery and an unbearable amount of soreness.
Related: The Quest for God-Like Muscular Legs
It doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, you may have unfortunately been categorized as a “hardgainer” but that doesn’t mean you can’t optimize the talents and potential you have and finally put some substantial beef on those lower limbs.
Powerlifter Rob Merriweather discusses squats for tall people.
The argument for bigger quads
So why do you even want to build bigger quads in the first place? Why go through all of the pain and frustration in hopes to put on that extra inch of mass? Wouldn’t it just be easier to blow through a few light sets of leg presses and leg extensions and leave it at that?
Of course the fact that once you build appreciable lower body mass you will have brought balance to your physique. Building proportion will silence the naysayers and give you confidence at the beach and pools-side. No longer will you have to walk around like candy apple with a nice, well-developed upper body and a scrawny, pathetic lower body.
Additionally, training your quads properly will transfer strength to your upper body as well. This carryover translates to total body growth. Think about how much natural hormone release you get from an exercise such as squats which will only benefit your bench press and deadlift numbers.
The bottom line is that you really have no excuse when it comes to training quads. But let’s come up with a tried and true plan with know-how and thoughtful execution to get you growing again.
The real story behind bigger quads
Let me guess, you start a typical quad session with squats, move on to leg presses and then finish up with leg extensions. You may even swap out squats with another machine type movement like the V-squat or seated leg press. Has it proven effective? Has it garnered the type of results you’re after?
This is the exact moment so many just throw up their hands and give up. They think, why even try? I’m not cut-out for bigger, stronger legs. My genetics don’t hold up. Others go the complete opposite way.
They load the squat bar up with even more weight and begin down the path of too much, too soon. Additionally, they start performing half reps and quarter reps with atrocious form resembling an old man getting up from a rocking chair wanting soup.
Each example needs help and will improve with a few shifts in mindset. Muscle size is increased through fatigue. If you’re the type who regularly does low rep squats with massive amounts of weight for a few half reps you are not doing anything to improve your situation. Muscle requires that you break down the muscle tissue, recruit more and more fibers and do it all with a moderate amount of weight and rep range.
So the first shift in your thinking has to involve telling your ego to take a hike and focus on form, fatigue and full ranges of motion. With that said, let’s look at a few categories of quad exercises so we can start to build a brand new, effective program.
Your quad arsenal
The following is a short list of categories of the different types of quad exercises. Although this isn’t an exhaustive list it does break down the types and their subsequent movement variations.
Squats: The squat has been the staple and foundation of most quad (or lower body for that matter) programs. As one of the most versatile and diverse exercises around, it provides serious hormone surges throughout the body helping you grow larger and/or stronger.
The options are seemingly endless: Back squats, front squats, sumo-style, high-rep, low-rep, narrow stance, goblet squats, dumbbell squats, one-and-a-half rep squats, pause squats, powerlifting style low bar squats, etc.
Leg presses: The leg press is the go-to for many who simply don’t like to squat. With the belief that it saves your back from undue stress is a bit of a misconception. Done incorrectly, the leg press can place stress on your lumbar as you roll your pelvis up while lowering the sled. But done correctly and with the proper range of motion it can have the potential to supplement a leg program. The most common is the 45-degree angled leg press sled found in most gyms.
Unilateral exercises: With unilateral (single limb) exercises balance, coordination and strength all come into play. Lunges of all types, single leg squats, Bulgarian split squats, step-ups and pistol squats fit in this category. These are excellent exercises to include into your program for several reasons.
One, they will instantly let you know which leg is weaker. Second, for those who find double legged (bilateral) exercises a bit difficult such as back squats, unilateral work requires less weight but more coordination. Finally, unilateral work is easier to perform in most gyms due to the fact that you can do them pretty much anywhere.
Other machines: There are plenty of other leg machines to choose from that target the quads such as leg extensions, hack squats, different types of leg presses, V-squats and Hammer Strength machine leg presses. These act as great additions or replacements for your quad routines. Many gyms will have different versions of the same machines so you’ll have to experiment and find out which ones are best for your goals.
Plyometric and power exercises: Lastly, plyometric and power leg exercises round-out the last category. As most of these exercises work more than just the quads they are worth mentioning due to their uniqueness and how they bring a new element of training to the table. Box jumps, bounds, depth jumps, jump squats, jump split squats and plyo step-ups are just a few at your disposal. These are also great to finish-out your total thigh program.
Angles of attack
With this new attitude towards quad training let’s look at another aspect of organizing your routine in such a way as to take full advantage of angles to optimally work your legs. Let’s look at your quads from three different points of view.
Traditional mass builders: These are the big boys on the block. Think squats and leg presses and all of their options. They let you lift the maximum amount of weight without over stretching or peak contracting your quads. You’ll just be moving big weight with multi-joint exercises to work the most amount of muscle.
Stretch angles: Getting a good stretch for the quads is a tough order. Normally, sissy squats would fit nicely here but the fact that they place an enormous amount of what’s called sheer force on the knees is cause for pause. If you find that sissy squats place too much stress on your knees you can always perform some intense quads stretches between sets to get that stretch effect.
Contraction angles: Finally, the peak contraction point, such as those achieved through leg extensions, are those exercises that provide an intense squeeze at the top of the movement.
Go high rep
Another common practice when it comes to the big, compound, multi-joint exercises, namely the squat, is the fact that too much load is applied. So many gym-goers pack the bar with too much weight while sacrificing form and range of motion.
If high weight and low reps don’t work you may need to reverse your thinking. Sure, lifting in the low-rep ranges will boost strength but if you’re after muscle mass then higher rep ranges will become your new normal. Experiment with rep ranges of 10, 15 and even 20. If you apply this to squats you’ll definitely have to lighten your load and it will seem quite daunting to gut out a set of 20 reps but if you want muscle and haven’t had success in the past, this is the next logical step.
Another great technique to put into practice is pre-exhaustion. Simply performing an isolation move prior to a multi-joint exercise will instantly target your quads more effectively. For example, sets of leg extensions prior to sets of squats will ensure your quads are getting their due.
This technique is especially effective for quads since so many factors come into play during big moves like squats and leg presses. Not only do the quads contract during these lifts but also glutes, hamstrings, calves and other supportive muscle.
The quad building workouts
Below are three uniquely different quad routines built for any training situation. One for the traditional gym-goer, one for the home trainer and the last is for bodyweight only enthusiasts. Use one, two or all three for each quad session and get ready for new growth in your thighs.
Perform three to four sets of 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. Rest 60 to 120 seconds between sets.
Gym quad workout
- Leg extension
- Back, front or V-squat
- Leg press (with 30 second quad stretches in-between sets)
- Leg extension (lighter weight and squeeze at the top)
Home gym quad workout
- Bulgarian split squat
- Front squat
- Sissy squat or lunge
- Goblet squat with 3-second contraction hold
Bodyweight quad workout
- Box jump
- Jump split squat
- Bulgarian split squat
- Reverse lunge