The Top 5 Best Legs Exercises for Your Quads

Arnold Loved SquattingSerious fitness enthusiasts and athletes want to be bigger, stronger, and leaner. The number one way to make that happen? Train your legs with complex free weight exercises.

Your legs are the largest group of muscle in your body. They are the foundation of your strength and power. Never will you be able to bench press 315 if you can’t squat 315 first.

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
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

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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  5. Sprints
    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.

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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.

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59 Responses to “The Top 5 Best Legs Exercises for Your Quads”

  1. Michael says:

    Good stuff here. It’s been a long time since I busted squats. However, I am training for an olympic triathlon and thing it will do me some good to incorporate squats.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the great article! I was glad to see that the people in each video maintained good form and fluid motions rather than the usual jerking, injury prone methods that most people promote. Nothing gets the endorphins flowing like some quad work.

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks guys. I’m actually taking my own advice and incorporating some additional leg work into my workouts. Varying it up from lunges to step-ups and definitely squats. Soon I will have to write a post about the top 5 best hamstring exercises.

    Furthermore, until I can get my own video production resources, I will only choose videos of people using correct form. You shouldn’t ever seen any newbies or complete tools on my website.

  4. Jordans says:

    On a back squat I have heard a lot of back and forth on the concept of performing a full squat (butt almost touching floor) to a half squat. I do full squats but ppl tell me that its not good for your knees. True?

  5. Steve says:

    Jordans:
    I actually had a poll on this at one point: proper squat depth.

    The results are divided 50/50. I personally think squatting below parallel but not all the way to the floor, is the way to go. I squat down only until I am comfortable, which is definitely below parallel, but not quite ass-to-ankles.

  6. Jordans says:

    Yea I don’t touch but I go pretty low. Thanks for the help =). Also read the comment the guy said about 45 +48 doesn’t equal 100 lol but you put him in his place lol

  7. Zach says:

    Thanks Steve. I’ve been torn between lifting 3 Day Full Body and 4 Day splits. Sounds to me like you favor the full body. I’m going to write up a full body workout with your “Top 5″ exercises and see how that works.

  8. [...] to work our quads. Squats are #1 on the list of the 5 best leg exercises for the [...]

  9. Alan says:

    Got any advice for those of us with really bad knees and lighter frames? or is it just a matter of wrapping the leg well and icing it well after a session?

  10. Steve says:

    Zach:
    Let me know how that works for you man.

    Alan:
    Your best bet, if you have ‘really bad knees’ is to get on a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement; warm up really good before training; go ahead and wrap if it makes you feel better; and definitely ice after training. Squatting will not be as bad for you as something like leg extensions, and you should definitely make sure you strengthen your hamstrings, glutes, and hips. Using those muscles properly while squatting will help you save your knees.

  11. Alan says:

    Hey Thanks!
    One of the orthopedic gurus i ran into also said to really stretch out the illio tibial band and that it will likely take care of “runners knee” issues. thanks for the supplement advice i’ll get started on that!

  12. Alan says:

    what is Hyaluronic Acid, and is it good to have mixed in to my glucosamine/chondroitin supplemen? or is this really a none issue? just dont want to put bad stuff into my system!!!

  13. Lynn says:

    Right now I am working back/shoulders/triceps, chest/biceps, and legs on three different days. What would I need to do to incorporate legs into all my workouts? Is there a workout you can suggest for me? My goal is to build muscle in my legs as I am tall and lean (ok skinny) and lost all my leg mass after I finished playing University volleyball. Thanks!

  14. Steve says:

    Lynn: I would probably recommend trying a generic full body workout routine. Once you get used to training legs every workout, maybe after 4-6 weeks, you could choose to take it easy on upper body and add some extra leg volume for 4 weeks to shock some growth into them.

  15. Josh T. says:

    Alright Steve, i read in an article on here about training your body to grow, and it said to the effect of you have to train your back to grow your bi’s. Train your chest to grow your tri’s, train your legs to grow your upper body and train your abs to grow your legs. Let me put it into shorter words instead of writing a novel, lmao!….We need a Top 5 Best Stomach(Abs) Exercises!!!

  16. Steve says:

    Hey Josh you might LYAO, but it’s all true and you know it. A 5 best abs exercises article is in the works. Someone also requested a 5 best lower back exercises, so I’ll have to get to that one too. Thanks for the comments.

  17. Yamamoto says:

    Hey Steve, I’m only 5’4” will doing heavy squats compress my spine and make me shorter?

    Thanks.

    • Steve says:

      Doing heavy squats will not compress your spine and make you shorter. However you might lose an inch over your lifetime. When I was 18, I was 5’7. Now I am 31 and measure about 5’6 1/2.

  18. jim says:

    Funny no one mentioned the leg press , which Dorian Yates switched to after years of squatting and some injuries , and says he got much better results as far as building muscle in his legs than he ever did from squatting. He switched because his bone structure wasn’t conducive to heavhy squatting. If you can put the same or more intensity into leg pressing , they will develop mass in your legs, and your lower back wo’nt give out before your legs do.

    • Steve says:

      Jim, I do see two problems that would tell me it’s OK to use the leg press:
      1) If you have leg injuries that prevent you from squatting, the leg press is your savior.
      2) If you are a bodybuilder, the leg press will help you target certain muscle groups more efficiently than squatting. You can use this to bring up weak areas.
      Dorian had both of these problems (leg injuries and being a bodybuilder), so the leg press worked for him.

      For most people though, I can’t rank it in the top 5.

    • Mod says:

      I totally agree with you Jim. When I was rowing, we used leg press non-stop, and I’ve developed huge legs, especially thighs. Heavy leg presses are the way to go if you train consistently because every other day of heavy squatting could be too taxing and would eventually lead to overtrain. I’m not saying that squats aren’t good, they are, and they are the best excercise for whole body, I’m just saying that leg presses can be great way of substituing squats if they’re too taxing which they are If you do it 3x per week.

  19. Christos Segounas says:

    This is a very good article.
    I’m already doing squats but I always like to be reminded of the benefits and this article does a fine job in this department.
    I had not considered sprints before as part of my leg workout but now I do, sounds like a great idea.
    And barbell step ups, so simple and a good variation to hit them from a different angle for a change.
    Thanks.

  20. Sputnik says:

    When you refer to outdated training splits do you include 2 on 1 off 2 on 2 off splits where as on 1 day I do chest,tri’s &abs next day is Legs & calves a day off then Shoulders,traps & abs,then finish last day with Back & bi’s.

    • Steve says:

      Sputnik: no training splits are really outdated. It is just that there has been more of a focus on full body training lately. A 2 on, 1 off, 2on, 2 off split should work perfectly fine. You should experiment to see what works best for you, then change it up when you hit a plateau.

  21. Toby ( Aged 14 ) says:

    Hi steve, im going to start working on my quads and hams now. Aged 14 years, height = 5’3 (1.52m) Weight = 8.3 Stone (117 Ibs). Do you think its achievable to reach a 3 rep. max of double my bodyweight for the smith squat and deadlift? And what stance when squatting is the best to target the Vastus Medialis In the Quadricep muscle ?

    • Steve says:

      Toby: A 3 rep max for double bodyweight on squats is tough, but achievable, as long as you work hard and give yourself enough time to progress. For deadlifts you should be able to accomplish that no problem, given a little time. If you want to target your quads while squatting, use a narrow stance and/or front squat.

  22. Toby ( Aged 14 ) says:

    Oh and ive been bodybuilding for almost a year now and im serious about my training so the only weakness i have when deadlifting is my hams not back.

  23. Toby ( Aged 14 ) says:

    Thanks Steve much appreciated.

  24. Toby says:

    Hi Steve, Do you know if hack squats put more emphasis on the Vastus Medialis muscle than when in a normal squat because i need to target that muscle for the “Tear Drop” effect. I know ive asked this before but a lot of new exercises have come to mind. Do you know any exercises which can fully fatigue the muscle after say, heavy barbell back squats? A fast reply would be much appreciated.

    • Steve says:

      Toby: Sorry about the ‘fast reply’. I’ve been buried under increasing workloads. You can try deep narrow stance squats, lunges, step ups, leg presses with the toes pointing out, narrow stance leg presses. Some people also recommend the leg extension machine, but I hate it. Also consider sissy squats and hack squats with a narrow stance.

  25. Gil says:

    Screw barbell lunges. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing balance while using the barbell so I go with dumbell lunges.

    • Steve says:

      Gil: It sounds like you are not that great at barbell lunges. I think you need to work on your leg and core strength, probably with unilateral movements to improve strength and balance on both legs. Dumbbell lunges are good, but barbell lunges are great! You gotta do what you gotta do.

  26. Jon says:

    steve – great article, super helpful. do you have any tips for a guy with skinny legs to build some mass on my quads/legs. i’m recovering from a patella dislocation and need to build muscle to prevent from doing it again. thanks man.

  27. PolyisTCOandbanned says:

    I have gymnast flexibility and good strength, but a bad patella cartilage. Full squats hit this bad and lunges worse. Find that Smith, leg press, standing squat machine all allow me to do motions that still get a lot of exercise but dont bother my knee. It would be impossible to put my feet in some of these positons (feet forward, close together) when free squating.

    • Steve says:

      That stinks. You should not do anything that isn’t good for you. I personally feel extreme discomfort when I squat in the smith machine, but barbell squats don’t cause me any pain. I was once told I had chondromalcia, but I worked through it and my knees have now been healthy for over 7 years. Still, you should definitely not do anything to injure yourself.

  28. John says:

    I’m working on my back squat technique. I went up in weight today, and I wasn’t sure if I was going down far enough. In your description you say that the thighs should be parallel with the floor. If that’s the case then I think I’m alright. In that picture above where Arnold is watching the other guy squat, is that going too low. I don’t think I could go that low using the weight that I’m on now.

    • John says:

      I just re-read the paragraph, it says parallel or lower. So, if I can’t go as low as the guy in the picture, should I lower my weight?

      • John says:

        LOL. OK. Nevermind. I read some of the previous questions, and your answer to Jordan helped. Thanks. Great website.

    • Steve says:

      Dave Draper (the guy Arnold is watching) is not squatting ‘too low’ by most standards. Some people disagree with squatting ass-to-grass (below parallel), so they would say Draper is squatting ‘too low’, however I think squatting with a full range of motion is perfectly fine. Like you said though, when you squat lower you do have to use less weight.

  29. Omni says:

    Hi Steve
    I find with the front squat that I cannot get my elbow very high. I understand that this maybe due to tight trap, forearms and wrists. Do you have any tips to enable me to front squat as I’d like to get into Olympic style lifting.

    In addition, I am a novice (i have had long layoffs from gym), so I’d like to see a novice -> intermediate -> advanced guide to Olympic lifting. Maybe you could try writing a guide at some point.

  30. Srinivas says:

    is ass-to-grass the way to go or a half squat the way to go?

    • Steve says:

      Ass-to-grass is the way to go if you have healthy knees. A half squat is never the way to go, but it is OK if you stop when your knees are parallel with the top of your thighs; this is not considered a half squat.

  31. FitMarker says:

    The Top 5 Best Quad Specific Legs Exercises…

    Leg training is key to full body development, everyone knows that. So which quad-specific leg exercises are best? Squats are obviously #1, but here’s the rest of the list….

  32. curiozitati says:

    actually, arnold didn’t have such great legs… how about tom platz? or kevin levrone? or even ronnie coleman? those are guys that should be taken as examples for leg training.. even lee priest was pretty good:D

    • Steve says:

      Lee Priest, Tom Platz, and Ronnie Coleman had the sickest legs. Of course they were grown with a high concentration of steroids, with the exception of maybe Tom Platz, although he definitely used something. That being said, all 3 of those guys trained legs with extremely high intensity, especially Tom Platz.

  33. Alan says:

    Love the site Steve.

    Had a quick legs-related question I was hoping you could add some insight too:

    I’ve been lifting seriously for about three and have had some nice legs gains. However, with squats, I am having some issues. I feel that my legs can handle the wait fine, but the rest of my body cannot. For referance, I get 4 reps at 335 squat-wise. (I am too afraid to do a true max). My bench max is right around 200 and the rest of my upper body lifts are about in line with that.

    Is it possible that my squat will continue to falter until my upper body gains some strength?

    Thanks!

    • Steve says:

      Sounds like you need to put some serious work into core training. Are you deadlifting? Do you train abs regularly and with added weight? Are you putting enough time into training your back? Consider doing some sets of 20 rep breathing squats – pick a weight you can do for 10 reps and then stand and take a few breaths between reps until you hit the 20 rep mark, don’t rack the weight until you hit 20. This way you won’t fail because your core can’t handle the weight, but the time under tension for a 20 rep set of squats will force all of your muscles to adapt to the stress.

  34. Hausboot says:

    nice the first picture… but for those that don’t know:D the one that’s squatting isn’t arnold.. I think it’s tom platz… right? it sure looks like him… great legs, blonde…

  35. Full body Leg says:

    im doing a full body workout and for legs i do monday 4 sets at 10 reps squats with 3 set and 10 rep seated calves raises…on wednesday i do 4 sets barbell deadlifts with standing calves raises and friday i do barbell lunges with donkey calves raises….my question is this a acceptable workout for my legs? also tuesday, thursday, and saturday i run 1.5-2 miles with sunday as a full rest day.

    • Steve says:

      You can probably stick with that routine for a while, though I’d like to at least see some rep variation. You could make it a 4 week progression like this:
      Week 1: 3 or 4 sets of 10 reps
      Week 2: 4 sets of 8 reps
      Week 3: 5 sets of 5 reps
      Week 4: max effort – 5 reps, 2 reps, then as many sets of 1 rep as it takes you to reach a max effort
      Week 5: repeat
      I’d also like to see you throw in some stiff leg deadlifts or good mornings on Friday either before or after your lunges. Just 2 or 3 sets of 8-12 reps would be fine.

      • Full body Leg says:

        Wonderful…thank you so much. if you walk into to gym to ask a question like that to a trainer they will blow it off 11 times out of 10…thank you for your reply and absolutely a great website…..

  36. Wow, talk about a killer post. I’ve been easing back on my legwork lately as my legs tend to build way quicker than my upper body. But this is the most detailed leg workout post I’ve ever seen and will definitely bookmark it.

  37. I’ve been using the barbell split squat for years. It’s one of my all time favorite quad exercises.

  38. Juice Fast says:

    I actually started weight training to gain strength for a triathlon. Squats have improved my swim times dramatically and I was concerned that my legs would really bulk up and I am glad that they have not. I need to stay lean and not be really buffed out for these type of events

  39. alex says:

    these exercises(truck pushing,truck pulling,sled dragging)how can be in gym because is little dificult?

  40. Gorkem says:

    Do squats work calves also? (for strength and power)

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