In each muscle study, we’ll take a look at a muscle group, and examine what its purpose is in the body. Then using that information, we’ll take a look at a few ways to exercise the muscle and close with a sample workout that should effectively work the muscle. There may be some biological / technical jargon in this, but I’ll do my best to explain in plain English the terminology we’re throwing around as we go along!
The quadriceps femoris (or quads as they’re commonly known) is a group of muscles on the front part of the upper leg that serves as en extensor of the knee. It consists of 4 muscles, the rectus femoris, the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and the vastus intermedius (which sits underneath the rectus femoris). It is also the largest muscle group in the human body.
The Rectus Femoris
The rectus femoris attaches to the pelvis and extends and raises the knee. It is the only muscle that can flex your hip.
The Vastus Intermedius
This muscle lies directly underneath the rectus femoris, and covers the front and sides of the femur or thighbone. It attaches to the femur and inserts into the quadriceps tendon. It aids in extension of the knee.
The Vastus Lateralis
Located on the side of the thigh, the vastus lateralis is the largest muscle in the quadriceps femoris muscle group. It originates in the femur and attaches to the kneecap. This specific muscle in the quadriceps allows you to extend the lower leg and stand from a seated position.
The Vastus Medialis
Like all of the vastus muscles, the vastus medialis originates from the femur and attaches to the kneecap. It is the innermost muscle of the quadriceps and extends the entire length of the thigh. It extends the lower leg and helps to stabilize the kneecap
So What Does This Muscle Do?
As you may have already surmised from the above information, the primary function of the Quadriceps is knee extension, hip flexion and stabilization of the kneecap. This muscle group is critical to running and walking, jumping and rising from a seated or squatting position. Strong quads mean better acceleration when running, kicking power for martial artists and better balance for everyone.
Because this muscle group is so important to so many daily activities, strengthening and conditioning the quads is one of the most important things you can do in your fitness regimen.
So How Do We Best Work This Muscle?
Now that we understand how the quads are used, we can logically determine that to get maximum flexion of the muscle, we should focus on exercises that require us to bend our knees and / or flex the quads to return to an upright position – whether both legs are utilized together in a squat or separately in a lunge.
So let’s look at three different exercises we can do to target the muscle fully, examine why they work, and how to properly perform them to best effect.
The 3-Step Squat (body weight or weighted)
With or without additional weight, squats are one of the best ways to target not only the quadriceps, but also the hamstrings as a side benefit!
When performing the exercise, your shoulders should be back and down (pinching the shoulder blades together slightly) and square with the hips. The back should remain straight, and the chest should be “up” – no rounded shoulders allowed. When dropping your body down, a common mistake is to utilize the knee joint more than the hip joints. A good rule of thumb is that your knees should never go out past your toes. At the bottom of your squat, you should be able to lift your toes off the ground; if not, you may be in improper form, shift your weight back into the heels.
1Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart toes pointing slightly out – experiment with what works best for you for toe positioning, for most, a slight outward pointing feels more natural than parallel. Knees should not be locked but slightly bent to protect the spine. If performing with one dumbbell, or a kettle bell, hold it at chest height, in the center of your body. For two dumbbells, one should be held in each hand, at your sides. If performing a barbell squat, it should be resting across the back of your shoulders, and both hands should be holding the bar securely. Inhale prior to initiating the squat.
2Begin lowering your body by simultaneously bending the hips and knees to maintain good form as described above. Lower yourself over a slow 3 or 4 mental count until the thighs are parallel with the ground. Pause for a 1 second mental count while squeezing the muscle.
3Exhale and slowly raise your body back to standing over a mental count of 3 or 4. Initiate the rising motion by engaging your glutes (your butt) and hamstrings. Be careful to keep the knees in line – not tracking out over the toes. Rest for a mental count of 1 or 2 and repeat the movement until failure (the point at which you cannot perform another movement, or you cannot perform another movement without sacrificing form).
The 3-Step Lunge (body weight or weighted)
The Lunge is a leg muscle smorgasbord! It hits the glutes, the hamstrings, the calves, and yes, the quads. They even call into play the abs and lower back as stabilizer muscles, so I’d be remiss in not including them in my recommended quad exercises – let’s get into it!
1Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Knees should be slightly bent and ready to step. Your shoulders should be back and relaxed, and your upper body should be upright (not leaning forward or back). Look straight ahead (not down) and flex your core to keep your weight from shifting improperly. If performing with one dumbbell, or a kettle bell, hold it at chest height, in the center of your body. For two dumbbells, one should be held in each hand, at your sides. Inhale prior to initiating the lunge.
2Pick a leg and slowly step forward over a slow 3 to 4 count, while lowering your hips until both legs are bent at a 90-degree angle. You’ll need to experiment with the proper distance, but similar to the squat, you’ll want your lead knee to be inline with the toes – not extending out over it. Also similar to the squat, your weight should be in the heel of your front foot – not the toes. Don’t let the knee of your back leg touch the ground. When your knees are at a 90-degree angle, hold that position for a mental 1 second count.
3Exhale and push off of the front heel, raising the body back to the starting position. This is one exercise that I wont recommend a slow 3 to 4 count on the return trip as balance is tricky – especially if you’re performing a lunge with weight. Once at the start position, rest for a 1 to 2 second mental count before performing the movement again with the opposite leg.
The 3-Step Weighted Step Up
You’ll need a little equipment for this one, but the benefit of the weighted step up is that it works the same muscle groups as a squat, but less weight is needed. To do a weighted step up, in addition to weights (either dumbbells held at your sides, a single dumbbell or kettle bell held centrally or a barbell across your shoulders) you’ll also need a sturdy surface to step up onto. I recommend the same bench you use to perform a bench press, or if you have one, a plyo box is ideal. If you’re at a loss for either of these items, any sturdy surface that is about knee height should do the trick.
1 Similar to the lunge, start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Knees should be slightly bent and ready to step. Your shoulders should be back and relaxed, and your upper body should be upright (not leaning forward or back). Look straight ahead (not down) and flex your core to keep your weight from shifting improperly. Hold your weight as detailed above and inhale.
2Select a leg to begin and place the foot on the box/bench. The knee should be at about a 90-degree angle, and the foot firmly planted onto the surface (no wiggling – safety first!). The back should be straight, the shoulders back and relaxed, chest up. Step up onto the surface over a mental 2 or 3 count – not so slow that balance is an issue, but not rushed. Place your other foot next to the first one. Flex the core during the movement to help maintain your balance. Exhale during the step. Pause for a 1-2 second mental count.
3CAREFULLY step back down with the opposite leg, returning to the starting position. Similar to step 2, don’t rush the step back, but don’t perform it so slowly that balance is an issue. Rest for a 1-2 second mental count before repeating the movement with the opposite leg.
Stretch That Thing!
Strengthening the muscle isn’t good enough. You want a functional, strong, lean muscle that not only looks good, but that you can rely on. If you don’t stretch your muscles, you’ll begin developing range of motion issues that you don’t want. My rule of thumb – any time you work a muscle, you should also stretch the muscle. A few stretches you could perform after a quad workout might be:
Standing Quad Stretch
Kneeling Quadriceps Stretch
There are many reasons to exercise this muscle group, ranging from functionality to simply aesthetic reasons. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the complexity of this popular muscle group, and increases your knowledge of how it’s used by your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ideas how you might be able to train it to work even harder.
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