By training your legs hard, you will be setting yourself up to gain the most progress compared to every other muscle group.
Arnold loved squatting, and look what happened to him. If you want to be Mr. Olympia, a famous Hollywood actor, and the governor of Alaska, you need to squat!
By training your legs, you will:
- Lift the most weight of all muscle groups.
- Burn the most calories of all muscle groups.
- Form the foundation of your body’s strength chain.
- Stimulate the highest growth hormone release through training.
Anatomy of the Thigh
The quadriceps, or quads, are a group of four main muscles that sit on the anterior, or front, of the thigh. These are the prominent muscles that you can see clearly in people with lean physiques. As you can see by the image below, there are hundreds of other smaller muscles that are used in conjunction with the big boys.
The 4 main quad muscles are made up of the Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, Vastus Lateralis and Rectus Femoris.
The quads attach to the front of the tibia and originate at the top of the femur, with the exception of the Rectus Femoris, which actually crosses the hip joint and originates on the pelvis.
Of related interest are the adductors and abductors, which sit on the inside and outside of the thigh respectably.
Anterior Thigh Anatomy
Functions of the Thigh
The function of the quadriceps as a whole is to extend, or straighten, the knee.
The Rectus Femoris functions to extend the knee but also acts as a hip flexor because it crosses the hip joint.
Adductors function to pull the leg towards the body, while abductors pull the leg away from the body. I find this confusing, so the secret I use to remember this, is that the ABductors pull the legs AWAY from the ABs.
Top 5 Best Quad Specific Leg Exercises
- Barbell Back Squats
Barbell back squats are the primary, fundamental exercise for all serious weight training programs. Squats work 100% of your legs and they require functional stability from 95% of the rest of the muscles on your body. Using proper form, barbell back squats will help you get stronger, gain more muscle, and burn more calories than any other single exercise.
To set up: the barbell rests on your upper back (traps) and shoulders (deltoids). It should not be sitting on your neck or spine. Bodybuilders tend to place the bar higher, while powerlifters usually hold the bar lower. The powerlifting style is my preference, and I recommend it because it allows you to keep your head and chest higher throughout the exercise, placing less stress on the lower back and neck.
To squat: you are not just bending down to pick up a pencil. Rather, you are pushing your butt back as if to sit in a chair. This is the #1 most common mistake of people that have never been taught to squat. Always keep your abs tight, head up, and chest puffed out. Keep your knees behind your toes. At the bottom of the squat, your thighs should be parallel to the floor or lower, otherwise you are not executing a full squat. Check your ego at the door, use less weight, and employ a full range of motion.
To come up out of the hole, your primary objective is to push your head back, chest up, and drive with your hips. A proper squat will almost feel like you are humping the air in front of you, doggy-style. Pardon my French, but if you are driving properly with your hips, you will be humping. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no need to exaggerate the thrust and make yourself look like a fool, but the general principle of the hip drive, is a thrust.
- Barbell Front Squats
Front squats are the same as back squats except the bar is placed across the front of your shoulders (anterior deltoids).
While this does require strong shoulders, there are two positions you can choose to make this exercise easiest for your body type.
Front Squat Position #1:
The first position is to place the bar on your shoulders from within a squat rack, extend your arms out straight with palms down, now bend at the elbows and grasp the bar with each hand at the opposite shoulder. At this point your elbows will be pointing straight out in front of you, slightly elevated so as to keep the bar in position against your upper chest/neck/deltoid area.
This position requires strong shoulders.
Front Squat Position #2:
The second position (olympic style) is basically the finished position of a clean, sometimes called a ‘high hang’. While the bar should still be sitting on your upper chest and delts, your fingers will now be underneath the bar acting sort of as a hook. Your hands will not be on the opposite shoulder for this position. Elbows should be pointing up and away from you.
This position requires strong fingers and hands, and very flexible wrists. You should stretch your wrists a bit before trying it. Most people who are unfamiliar with olympic style front squats will complain about wrist pain for a couple workouts before adaptations in strength and flexibility really set in.
- Barbell Lunges
Lunges are definitely the third most effective exercise for your legs behind squats and deadlifts. Most women will do lunges with light dumbbells or just with bodyweight in an attempt to ‘tone’. But if you are a woman and you want to get serious about conditioning on body sculpting, you should consider at least throwing in some sets of barbell lunges, although heavy dumbbell lunges are great for both your legs and your grip. Men… you have no excuse not to lunge with barbells unless an injury prevents it, so get going!
There are many variations of lunges, too many for me to post here. I will have to post a separate article just to cover lunges. The two we will cover here are stepping lunges and stationary lunges.
To set up: get in the same position as a squat with the barbell resting on your upper back, or hold dumbbells.
To lunge: the primary objective of a lunge is to have one foot forward and one foot back, both knees should be bent with the forward thigh parallel to the floor, and the rear knee pointing down or nearly touching the floor.
For stepping lunges you can either step forward with one foot, drop down into the lunge, then step back; or you can step forward with one foot, drop down into the lunge, then step forward again with the other foot. This then becomes a walking lunge if you continue to step forward.
You can also step backward from the standing position, drop down into the lunge, then step forward again; or you can step backward, drop down into the lunge, then step backward again with the other foot.
For stationary lunges there is no stepping. You start the exercise with a split stance and lunge away. If you have your rear foot elevated on a bench or box, the movement becomes a Bulgarian split squat; if your front foot is elevated it becomes a split squat. Split squats are great because it becomes more of a unilateral squat than a lunge, and allows you to focus more on the quads and leg stability.
Always keep your body upright like a squat. Head up, chest puffed out, no lateral (side-to-side) movement.
- Barbell Step-Ups
Similar to the lunge, step-ups are one of the best leg exercises because they are a functional exercise. We say this because the step-up mimic activities that you might encounter in daily life, involving the stabilization of your entire body in multiple plains of motion.
To set up: once again start like a squat with the bar on your upper back. You will want to step up onto a box or a bench. Two items to consider are the height of the box and the strength of the box. Try to start with a shorter box until you get use to the exercise, as you can increase step height over time. Always make sure the box or bench can support your weight.
You can also use dumbbells, which will work your grip. Usually less weight must be used in a dumbbell step up versus a barbell step up.
To step up: step forward like a lunge, but also step up so that your heel rests on the box. Use this leg to propel your body up, bringing the back foot up and forward onto the box. Now step down with the second leg, keeping most of the tension on the leg that you stepped up with initially.
I also recommend driving the second leg through the range of motion and, instead of stepping on the box, bring that thigh and knee as high as you can in front of you almost as if you were about to step on the next stair in a staircase. This is also known as a high knee kick, or could be known as just ‘high knees’ in sprinting circles.
Women can add additional exercises to a step-up, sometimes in the form of dumbbell curls, shoulder press, or shoulder raises.
I almost chose the leg press for the #5 exercise, simply because you can load up the weight and use various foot positions to target each muscle group. However, the reality is that leg presses are not functional. I don’t see how leg presses should be used by anyone other than bodybuilders who are trying to etch out each individual quad muscle by using a slow press with a close stance.
Instead, I choose sprints because they are both aerobic and anaerobic. Sprints are even more functional than any other exercise on this list, and they will condition your cardiovascular system in addition to building some serious quad size.
I would even recommend sprints as part of a strict powerlifting routine, as the speed training will help build the force production within the legs, and the neurological pathways will be trained due to the explosive contractions and coordination requirements of perfecting a maximal effort sprint.
To set up: I prefer to sprint in the grass, in the woods, on a track, anywhere but on a hard surface. You can also choose stair sprints or even bicycle sprints for a change of pace.
To sprint: use your arms and legs to drive your performance. Pump your arms from front to back to gain momentum. The knees should be lifted up high on each step, bringing the quads parallel to the ground similar to squats and lunges. Please wear safe, stable sneakers when sprinting. Tie your laces you lazy bum!
When interval sprinting, try repeating a cycle of sprinting for 30 seconds and walking for a minute.
Honorable mentions: sled dragging, truck pulling, truck pushing, jump squats, unilateral squats.
To use the exercise list optimally, you will want to choose some of the top 4 exercises to work into each workout. For full body workouts, choose only one exercise each day. In a 3 day split you would choose one squat, one lunge, and one step-up for each day of that split.
If you use the outdated method of splitting up your body parts each day, choose 1 squat and either a lunge or a step-up for leg day. You will also have 1-2 hamstring exercises to complete the leg day, so we can’t focus 100% of our efforts strictly on quads.
If you must work sprints into your workout, you would be better off sprinting either at the beginning or the end of a workout, not in the middle. Instead though, I recommend taking your sprint workout outside on either a day off, or in the morning if you lift at night or in the evening if you lift in the morning. An interval sprint workout should be a solid 20-30 minute training session independent of your regular weight training routine.