What are the best quad building/shaping exercises?
Matt: The most valuable quad building exercises in my opinion are front squats, leg press with the feet positioned as low as they can be placed, hack squats with the feet low on the platform and leg extensions. All of these options put the majority of the stress on the quads.
I prefer front to back squats for this reason. Back squats use a lot of glute and low back strength. The further the forward lean, which means the further down you go as you should, then the more the glutes and low back take over. The upright upper body positioning of the front squat allows for more quad muscle recruitment due to the lesser involvement of these two muscle groups.
I chose the other exercises for the same reason. I find them all to be better at isolating the quadriceps muscle. Exercises like lunges, step up and split squats of every variety emphasize glute and hamstring activity heavily. They are great leg exercises and the back squat is a great mass builder in general but the question was specific to quads.
Lastly, I want to add that when you are training a big muscle like the quadriceps and there is a tendency for large and powerful muscles like the glutes and low back to assist in the heavy lifting then it is imperative to use pre exhausting regularly. Several sets of leg extensions to failure as your first exercise or as a superset with squats or leg press will work wonders. If your lift numbers suffer as a result then that means you did it right. I personally save squats or leg presses until the last exercise. I want my quads to be well worked and tired before I call on the assistance muscles to get the most out of the exercise.
Dara: I like leg press with the feet low on the platform and leg extensions. I find that due to my anatomy I just can’t get enough weight on a front squat to really be able to feel it in my quads without my lower back hurting. I also like to pre and/or post exhaust on the leg extension and do drop sets here as well.
Matt: You find back squats work better for you? I wrote about the anatomy factor in my Squats Vs Leg Press post. Back squats work really well for a lot of people. With my height I can’t get enough weight on a back squat without jeopardizing my back. That’s where front squats really work well for me.
Dara: Back squats are great for me for glutes and hamstrings, I can get low and really feel it. To target the quads I’m better off with low leg press or leg extensions.
Matt: I’m with you on that Dara. I think leg extensions are seriously underrated as a quad builder. Probably because most feel a machine is inferior at building muscle but your muscles have no idea whether you’re using a machine or free weights.
Dara: I agree, as long as you use it right!
Colin: I agree that leg extensions are underrated and I think a large part of it is the perception that they are bad for your knees, which when performed correctly is not the case. What I’m going to disagree with is not including the back squat as one of the best quad builders. I get the question is specific to quads and nothing else and that back squats are an overall mass builder, but I think they are the foundation to big, strong quads. I think using back squats as your prime move and then using great assistance exercises for quads like hack squats, front squats, leg press and leg extensions is how you build really big, strong quads.
The reason for this is because the back squats will build up your quads well on its own, but it will also help build all the other muscles needed to move a lot of weight. The more weight you can move for the same amount of reps, the more likely you are to build more muscle. A strong back squat will give you a stronger hack squat, leg press, etc. Heck it will help almost all lifts. I don’t think you’re going to find a person squatting 600 lbs without big quads (as well as most everything else.)
A lot of people feel they have limited form on back squats and that’s why they don’t do them. I think most of the time it’s because people have other issues such as flexibility issues or muscle imbalances that need to be worked on or they haven’t found the form that works for them yet. Sometimes you need to suck it up, drop the weight, and figure your form out. As much as people think there is, there is not one correct way to do it. Everyone’s body is designed different. My buddy I lift with regularly has always struggled to get any depth on the back squat until just a couple of weeks ago when I gave him some advice I heard from someone else. It’s a weird one, but when you think about it, it makes total sense. Without any weight on your back squat down like you are going to take a dump in the woods. That’s likely the position you need to be in to be able to get good depth on your squat. It may mean a wider stance than most or toes pointing out or many other things, but it’s a good starting point.
Anyway back to my main point that I delivered in a very long-winded sort of way, while back squats may not target your quads alone to the extent of some other exercises, they are still very important in building up your quads.
Dara: So would it be fair to say that depending on your anatomy, you should focus on the squat that lets you get the deepest? For both overall muscle gain and quad activation?
Colin: Yes that’s exactly what I’m saying. Deep squats at or below parallel will produce a greater knee extensor moment which will give more quad focus. It will activate quads better on the eccentric portion of the lift and your glutes more during the concentric portion. You are better off doing a weight you can handle and doing it right. Now there are some people who just can’t do it, I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but often times there are other factors at play. It needs to be safe, and for it to be safe it has to be controlled. That’s not all strength, the shape of your hips and pelvis come into play as well. I just don’t like everyone to assume because they struggle to get low on a squat it’s automatically because of their body’s structure. Either way safety is key.
Matt: No question they are a great exercise to build your legs and quads are part of that equation. You make good points about the strength of the assistance muscles allowing for more weight to be used and that translating into more quad mass.
If your squats are truly hitting that depth then I think you’re getting enough of a stretch to activate a lot of quad. What I see 99.9% of the time is squats that are barely to parallel if that. I myself can go much deeper, to rock bottom in fact, on front squats but I can’t hit the same depth on back squats.
Colin: Take a dump in the woods Matt, a dump in the woods. Ha! Absolutely most people don’t get low enough on back squats to make them effective. I myself was there for a long time. I even thought I was low, until I finally took video of it one day and was horrified. I knocked the weight off and started over, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in the gym. In fact I once tried to stop partway down on squats just to see the difference and I couldn’t. The motor learning that took place with squats made it so I am almost forced to get to parallel. And you are absolutely right, it’s much easier to get low on front squats and it’s a great quad building exercise.
Matt: If you want to get into studies and ‘evidence’, there are studies such as this one that show back squats to cause more compressive and sheering forces at the knee. That to me says front squats are safer than the back squat. No argument that back squats work, I just feel that front squats work better.
Colin: Interesting study. Something that makes me think is when they say “Presumably the increased knee extensor moment required during the back squat is attributable to the additional load lifted during the back squat.” When reading the study results show almost the same quad activation between front and back squats, with just a slight edge to back squats. In fact it looks like it is the same or greater activation for back squat in all muscles except the erector spinae (figure 5.) If this is all true, since quad activation is similar and actually slightly greater, but you can move more weight with back squats, it would make sense that back squats would build more muscle than front squats. However as you mentioned it’s possible the back squat is harder on the knees so if you have knee problems front squats may be a better option.
Also sorry I don’t think I read Dara’s question about using whichever one will get you lower right. To answer that I say maybe. If you can’t get anywhere near parallel with back squats but can with front squats (and it’s because of anatomy and not other issues you can fix) I’d agree. If you can get to parallel with back squats and slightly lower with front squats, I think back squats still win thanks to the extra load. All of that aside, I think they are both great exercises to use for quad development and I definitely use them both.
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