"Getting huge" isn't required to get fit, but it can be a fun short-term goal. And even if you don't want huge quads, there are many reasons to make them stronger.
Recently I got a call on the Get-Fit Guy hotline from Dionne asking:
I just have to know—what is the recipe for huge quads? I know you have to eat right and do resistance training but what exactly will make my quads huge?
While I am not a bodybuilder, nor do I think we need to have huge muscles in order to be fit and healthy, I do appreciate where Dionne is coming from. We all have bucket list goals that go beyond being healthy and fit. Personally, I have done more than 50 races of varying lengths between 5k runs to Ironman triathlons knowing full well that I was going too far (literally and figuratively). So, without straying too much from my own fitness for health raison d'être, let’s look at how to build some powerful (and perhaps huge) quads.
We all have bucket list goals that go beyond being healthy and fit.
What is the quad?
The quadriceps (or quads) are the four muscles located on the front of your leg or thigh. Those four muscles contract together to either flex (lift) the hip or extend (straighten) the knee. Sounds simple right? Well, it kind of is.
The four muscles that make up the quadriceps are:
Vastus Medialis (which includes the often envied vastus medialis oblique, or VMO)
So, when we think about exercising the quadriceps, we focus on moving the hip from an extended to a flexed position by bending the joint and also moving the knee from a flexed to an extended position by straightening the joint.
Anatomically speaking, the quadriceps are the primary muscles that support your knee bone. So, if you have weakness in your quads, that can lead to knee instability. And if there is too much instability in your knees, that can lead to an increase of wear and tear within the joint. Not to mention that people who often exhibit quadriceps weakness end up also exhibiting these conditions (you runners may recognize a few of these):
Patellofemoral stress syndrome
Iliotibial band friction syndrome
Patellar tendonitis or tendinosis
Why quad strength matters
The quadriceps are involved in several important daily tasks, like standing up from a seated position and also supporting your knees while you stand or walk. So, as I said earlier, if you have weakness in your quads, that can lead to knee instability. And too much knee instability can lead to excessive wear and tear within the joint.
In a 2019 study published in The Journal of Rheumatology, researchers performed isometric strength testing on 163 people from ages 40 to 79. They then categorized the individuals as either having normal or weak quadriceps.
Over 3.3 years, 15.5 percent of the study participants experienced a loss of knee cartilage, which was measured and observed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This loss of knee cartilage occurred in 44 percent of those with quadriceps weakness, compared with 11.7 percent of those with normal quad strength. You don’t have to be a math whiz to recognize the trend—weak quads lead to an increased risk of cartilage loss.
So, if you don’t want to end up with “bad knees,” you should probably look after your quads!
In the question, Dionne used the words “get huge.” So before I get into the exercises and workouts that I suggest for building strong quads, let’s briefly talk about how you build huge muscles.
The fact that we're focusing on the legs puts us at an immediate advantage. In fact, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that one of the best ways to get bigger arms (specifically, biceps) is to train your legs. What? I know, right?
Remember that our bodies are a network of nerves, fibers, and muscles. When we train the big muscles in our legs, we encourage a large release of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones (testosterone and growth hormone) that affect the entire body.
In the study, the two leg exercises that resulted in bigger biceps were:
Heavy barbell squats with a weight that fatigues you by 8 repetitions.
Heavy walking lunges with a weight that fatigues you in 20 feet or 6 meters.
Lucky for us, both of these exercises also heavily involve the quads, so we're off to a great start in the “huge” department.
Another factor in getting huge is focusing on high-volume workouts or time under tension. Time under tension (TUT) refers to the amount of time a muscle is strained during an exercise set. The idea is that an increased TUT will force your muscles to work harder, for a higher volume, which optimizes muscular strength, endurance, and growth. These types of workouts help build muscle size in part by initiating that same release of anabolic hormones I mentioned earlier.
The next focus should be on training to failure, but not on every set. When you take your workouts to muscle failure (the point at which you can't do any more reps with good form), you initiate biological chemical responses, both within muscle cells and by stimulating anabolic hormones. A good rule of thumb is to only take your heaviest sets all the way to failure but not your light (or your warm-up) sets.
Alternatively, you can use drop-sets in your workouts. As I wrote in a previous Get-Fit Guy article, drop-sets are simply a technique where you perform a weighted resistance training set of any exercise to failure, drop some weight off the bar, and then continue the set with that reduced weight to failure, then drop more weight, and so on. The idea is that drop-sets eventually activate the more stubborn or hidden muscle fibers that are deep down inside a particular muscle group (your quads, for example). By doing that, you can cause hypertrophy (muscle growth) that isn't achieved with a standard set.
What you eat can also have a big impact on muscle building. That's not really my area of expertise, so I'll direct you to the Nutrition Diva’s article called How to Build More Muscle with Less Protein for some advice on getting enough protein without going overboard and risking putting on a bunch of body fat instead of muscle.
9 exercises to help you get huge quads
With a few simple weights and resistance bands, you can do these exercises without going to the gym.
Most quad-strengthening exercises place a significant amount of stress on your knee joint so, be sure to check in with your doctor before starting these (or any other) exercise programs. Particularly if you have experienced pain or discomfort doing these exercises in the past.
Straight Leg Raise
Lying flat on your back, engage your quadriceps and lift one of your legs a foot or two off the floor. Then lower nearly back down to the ground and repeat.
Keep your knee straight but not locked.
Hold for a second or two at the top of the movement before you start to lower the leg.
Once you're comfortable doing this movement, you can add an ankle weight or a resistance band to make it more challenging.
Short Arc Quads
The short arc quad exercise is a great way to focus on contracting your quads. Again, start by lying flat on your back and put a soccer ball or basketball under your knee to prop it up.
Slowly straighten your bent knee until it is all the way straight.
Engage your quad with your toes dorsal flexed up toward the ceiling.
Hold it tight for five or ten seconds.
Slowly lower your leg down and relax.
Again, once you're comfortable, you can add more reps and some weight or resistance.
Bulgarian Split Squat
To set yourself up for a split squat, stand normally and take a long step forward like you would if you were about to do a lunge. Allow the heel of your back foot to come off the ground.
Keeping your trunk nice and upright and your front shin perpendicular to the floor, lower yourself until your back knee almost touches the floor,
Pause for a second and then push your body back up to the starting position.
To make this squat "Bulgarian," raise your back foot onto a bench or chair.
If you have trouble balancing, you can hold onto a chair or the wall until you feel more stable. Safety first!
Wall Slides and Sits
The wall slide exercise works multiple muscle groups, including your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Start standing with your back against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart and your heels about thigh distance from the wall.
Slowly bend your knees and start sliding your back down the wall for a count of five.
Pause when your knees are bent at a 45-degree angle.
Hold this position for five or ten seconds.
Slowly straighten your knees while sliding back up the wall until you are upright with your knees straight.
I have a video on my YouTube channel that shows all the different ways you can use a wall sit.
Stop if you feel any increased pain or difficulty with this exercise.
Side-Lying Leg Raise
Start this one lying on your side, with your hips, knees, and feet stacked directly on top of one another. Rest your top arm in front of you, and use your hand to maintain your balance. Keeping the top leg straight:
Lift it up to hip height and hold it there for a count of two to three seconds.
Slowly lower your leg.
Again, add more reps or weight when this movement starts to feel too easy.
Once you are very good at this movement, you will want to change to a standing position and use a cable machine to add more and more resistance.
Terminal Knee Extension
Terminal knee extension (TKE) is a simple and effective quad strengthener that you do in a standing position.
You'll need a resistance band for this exercise. Tie it around a stable object so it's anchored around knee height.
Step the targeted leg into the loop so the resistance band is looped around your slightly bent knee.
Slowly straighten your knee, creating tension on the band.
Once your knee is straight and the band has maximum tension on it, hold the position for three to five seconds.
Slowly allow your knee to bend.
Take a second before you do the next rep to make sure the band hasn’t moved.
The actual main target muscle of the Hip Bridge is the erector spinae which runs from your neck to your tailbone. But doing this exercise stretches and engages your hip abductors, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings. On the other end of the movement, it hits the rectus abdominis, obliques, and our current hero, the quadriceps.
Start on your back with your knees bent and your arms by your hips
Feet about hip-width apart with your heels as close to your buttocks as you are comfortable with
Push up through your heels and lift your hips off the ground while contracting your glutes
At the top of the movement, you want to create one straight diagonal line from your shoulders all the way up to your knees.
Pause in that diagonal position and lower back down—slowly. Don't rush this one.
When this body weigh movement gets too easy, you can add weight by placing a barbell across your hips.
Check out my Bridge Variations video for more help and instruction.
Dumbbell and Barbell Step-Up
Stand in front of a step, stair, or box of appropriate height (lower for beginners and closer to knee-height for pros).
Hold onto dumbbells or put a barbell across your shoulders.
Step up onto the box or platform with the right foot, pressing through the heel to straighten your right leg.
Bring the left foot to meet your right foot and tap your toe on the step.
Bend your right knee and step down with the left foot.
Bring the right foot down so you have both feet on the ground.
Check out my Workout of the Week video for more info on this movement.
Don’t push off with your lower leg. The work should be focused on the leading leg. If you push off the ground you will reduce the load on the upper leg and the exercise will not be as effective.
Avoiding tight quads
Once all these exercises are done, don’t forget to maintain your mobility and gain some amount of flexibility in the quad as well.
Tight quads are common in athletes and even more common when your focus is on developing more quad strength. If you aren’t diligent about stretching your quads after a workout like this, you might find that you start to get some upper-leg tightness.
As Abi Carver from Yoga15 says:
Additionally, there is the issue of muscular imbalance. When the hamstrings and glutes are weak, the quadriceps have to remain partially contracted (hypertonic) in order to stabilize the hips and knees. And unfortunately, this discrepancy in strength increases with the repetition of movement. The quads get tighter, the glutes and hamstrings become weaker, and this, in due course, can lead to pain, injury, and reduced performance.
Abi has a great series of quad stretches you can do if you are so inclined. But if nothing else, try this:
Quad Stretch or Low Lunge
Standing normally, feet hip-width apart, step your right foot forward into a lunge. Then drop your left knee and release your back foot, so the top of your foot is resting on the ground. Check that your front knee is directly above your ankle.
Tilt your pelvis up until you feel the stretch in the front of your left thigh.
Stay in the pose for 5-10 deep breaths.
Don’t force yourself into a deeper lunge, let your breath relax you into it.
When you are done with that side, tuck your back toes and step back into a kneeling position. Take a moment to breathe before you move on to the left side.
Working to keep your quadriceps strong can help you achieve your maximum mobility and can even help decrease your risk of injury in sports and as you age. But if you experience any pain during or after any of these exercises, check in with a physiotherapist or sports doc to make sure there isn’t a bigger issue at play.