11 Best Quad Exercises For Mass

May 12, 2022

There are so many exercise options that it can be overwhelming to choose which exercises to use to get massive quads. Most general advice will tell you to squat more. Squats are a great exercise, but what kind of squats? And what do you do after squats?

So, I've detailed 11 of the best quad exercises for mass below. But before I get to those, it's essential to understand some basic quadriceps anatomy so you can train all four muscles of the quadriceps effectively.

Quadriceps Anatomy

The quadriceps are made of four main muscles:

  • Vastus lateralis (outer quad)
  • Vastus medialis (inner quad)
  • Vastus intermedius (middle quad underneath)
  • Rectus femoris (middle quad on top)
Anatomy Quadriceps

The vasti muscles cross the knee joint and extend the knee while the rectus femoris muscle crosses the knee joint and the hip joint. Making the rectus femoris biarticular acting as a knee extensor and hip flexor.

Closed chain exercises like squats primarily target the vasti muscles. In contrast, open-chain exercises like leg extensions target the rectus femoris [9,10]. This is why it is vital to perform compound and isolation exercises to maximize quad growth.

11 Best Quad Exercises For Mass

Front Squat

A front squat is an epic quad builder. Research has shown that front squats target the quads better than other squat variations mainly due to the knee traveling further forward and the torso being more upright. For example, when lifting at 70% 1RM, we see similar muscle activation of the quadriceps even though the front squat uses lighter absolute loads [1].

When using loads above 70% 1RM, we see greater vastus medialis (teardrop) activation compared to back squats [2].

However, loading is limited when front squatting due to the upper back and torso being the limiting factors. Therefore you may not maximize mechanical tension and metabolic stress, which are key mechanisms for muscle growth to the same extent as other quad exercises [3]. Here's how to do the front squat:

  • Unrack the barbell with a clean grip or cross-arm position. If you have the front rack mobility, I recommend the clean grip. Regardless, the elbows must be as high as possible.
  • Take one step back out of the rack and position your feet outside your shoulder width. Point your toes slightly out. This will allow your knees to track outwards instead of directly forward.
  • Break simultaneously at the knees and hips. You should not push the hips backward as you will lose the bar from the rack position and reduce the stress on the quads.
  • As you descend, push your knees out, so they track your middle toes. This will create space for you to sit in the hole.
  • Maintain high elbows and a big chest. Drive with your legs back to the top once you're sitting in the bottom position.

High Bar Back Squat

The high bar back squat is another great quad builder and is often used as a front squat alternative within Powerlifting. For Olympic Weightlifters, the high bar back squat is a primary accessory exercise to develop the legs for the snatch and clean and jerk.

Compared to the low bar, the high bar allows you to maintain a more upright torso similar to the front squat. This lets the knees travel further forward and place more stress on the quads.

Because the upper back does not limit you, you can load the high bar squat much heavier than the front squat. It also means you can perform more reps at a given load before you fatigue, taking advantage of maximizing mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Here's how to do it:

  • Unrack the barbell on your traps. This is the high bar position. Take one step back and position your feet slightly outside shoulder width. Your toes will point slightly out.
  • Simultaneously break at the knees and hips, pushing the knees out to create space for your descent.
  • Maintain a big chest and straight back throughout the movement. Once sitting in the hole, drive with your legs back to the top position.

Smith Machine Squats

The Smith machine is often referred to as the coat rack. Meaning it doesn't serve any purpose outside of hanging your jacket. But it turns out and makes a decent quad builder when used correctly.

While squatting in the Smith machine has empirically been shown not to be as effective as barbell squatting, you can use it to deload the back [4]. Further, placing the feet directly under the hips helps place more stress on the quads when squatting in the Smith machine [5]. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set your feet slightly in front of your hips. If you have poor ankle mobility, you may need to move your feet further forward.
  • Unrack the bar and turn the bar, so the metal catchers are away from the support pegs.
  • Descend in the squat until your bum is touching your calves. Then drive with your legs back to the top position.

Leg Press

The leg press is a staple among bodybuilders and weekend warriors. It can get a bad rap as it is often used as an easier alternative to the barbell squat. However, when used to build huge quads, the leg press has unique benefits not offered when squatting.

Mainly the ability to load the legs without involving the upper body. So, when you are performing high rep sets, your legs are the first to fatigue and the state of your back.

A slight adjustment of moving your feet further down the platform will target your quads, whereas your feet higher on the platform target your glutes [6]. Here’s how to do it:

  • Place your feet near the bottom of the platform. How low you place your feet will be dictated by your ankle mobility.
  • Unhook the platform from the safeties and slowly lower the platform towards you. Only descend until your lower back starts to round off the pad.
  • Pulling yourself into the seat using your arms will engage your full body. In my experience, it makes the leg press feel more comfortable, reduces the strain on the knees, and allows you to get deeper without your back coming off the seat.
  • Once in the bottom position, drive through your entire foot back to the top.

Hack Squat

If you suffer from any lower back discomfort or want to remove the upper body from the equation, the hack squat is your go-to quad exercise. It has been shown to reduce trunk activation to focus on building the legs [7].

Also, if you have ankle mobility issues, you can work around it by putting the feet further up the platform. Here's how to perfect the hack squat:

  • Set your feet slightly in front of your hips, slightly outside shoulder-width apart, and with your toes pointing slightly out.
  • Unrack the hack squat, and descend to the bottom position. Once there, drive with the legs back to the top.
  • Set your feet slightly in front of your hips, slightly outside shoulder-width apart, and with your toes pointing slightly out.
  • Unrack the hack squat, and descend to the bottom position. Once there, drive with the legs back to the top.

Bulgarian Split Squat

It's a love-hate relationship with the Bulgarian split squat. Love it because of the mad quad gains. Hate it because it hurts so much. If you have bad knees, keeping a vertical shin during the Bulgarian split squat can minimize the pain [8].

However, if you have healthy knees, you want to have the new travel forward, so your shin is not quite vertical. This way, you place more significant stress on the quads. Here's how to do it:

  • Stand in front of a bench and place one foot on the bench with your shoelaces down. I prefer a bench over a box as the box can be uncomfortable, and the edge can dig into your ankle. Further, your foot should not be directly behind you like a tightrope. Instead, move it away from your body.
  • The easiest way to find your correct front foot position is to get into the bottom of the Bulgarian split squat and see if you need to make any adjustments forward or back. Your shin should be close to vertical; it does not have to be vertical.
  • Once in position, slowly descend until your back knee is close to the floor or lightly touches it.
  • Drive with the front leg back to the top position.

Walking Lunge

What I love about the walking lunge for quads is the ability to do ultra-high reps for an insane quad pump. Because you alternate steps, your quad gets a small break between reps, letting the occluded blood leave the muscle. Therefore, it takes longer for fatigue to set in, maximizing the volume you can perform.

A minor adjustment of taking smaller steps is one way to emphasize the quads when doing the walking lunge. Another slight adjustment is to maintain an upright torso. Here's how to do it:

  • From a standing position, step forward with your right leg full stop as your foot hits the floor and descend your hips vertically. It should be one smooth motion.
  • Once your back knee touches the floor or is close to it, drive forward and up with the front leg bringing the left leg next to it. Continue the same movement with the left leg.

Leg Extension

Unfortunately, the leg extension has been demonized for the past decade as a knee shredder. This is far from the case. To maximize your quadriceps development, you need to perform open chain knee extension exercise.

If you recall from the brief anatomy lesson above, the leg extension targets the rectus femoris muscle more so than squatting-based exercises. Here's how to do it:

  • Set the leg extension, so the pad forces your feet under the seat. This will provide maximum stretch on the quads.
  • Extend your legs until your knees are straight at the top and pause for 1 second.
  • Slowly control the descent back to the bottom position.

Sissy Squat

The sissy squat has recently come into favor as an exercise to alleviate knee pain and build the quadriceps. It is not an easy exercise by any means. Some may find it unbearable, depending on your history of knee pain. However, if you build into this slowly, it can be a great asset for building your quads. Here's how to do it:

  • Start by holding something sturdy with one hand to support you—for example, the end of a glute-ham raise.
  • Push your knees forward towards the floor as you lean back. Your heels will come off the floor.
  • Only go as low as you can tolerate once in this position. Push your legs back to the starting position.

Reverse Sled Drag

While the reverse sled drag is a concentric-only exercise, it's a great way to pump blood into your quads. It's also a great exercise to tack to the end of your training session. It's like doing hundreds of mini leg extensions. The quad pump is undeniable.

Further, if you suffer from knee pain, the reverse sled drag is one way to reduce this pain before a workout. Here's how to do it:

  • Load your sled with a moderately heavy weight. Either hold straps and your hand or use a waist belt as a harness.
  • Walk backward your prescribed distance. I like to use 20 to 40 m.

High Resistance Sprint Cycling

There's a reason sprint cyclists have huge legs. One is the sheer amount of tin they can lift, the other is intense sprint cycling. You can take advantage of this by performing high-resistance sprints on the stationary or spin bike to give a massive quad pump at the end of your workout. You also get some bonus cardio done.

Set the stationary bike or spin bike to near-maximal resistance full stop sprint as hard as you can for 10 to 15 seconds.

Best Quad Workout For Mass

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Front Squat

3 x 8

7-8 RPE

B1) High Bar Back Squat

1 x 15-20

8 RPE

C1) Leg Press

4 x 12-15

9 RPE

D1) Leg Extension

3 x 15-20

9-10 RPE

D2) Walking Lunge

3 x 10/leg

BW

How Do I Bulk Up My Quads?

Bulking up your quads requires an intelligent training routine. But it also requires discipline outside of the gym. Has how to bulk up your quads.

Lift With Enough Volume

Volume is the key driver of muscular hypertrophy. You want to get approximately 10-25 sets per week targeted directly at the quads. For example, you might perform four sets of squats, 3 sets of leg press, and three sets of leg extensions to make up 10 total sets in that session for that week.

You may add an extra day to train the quads and get more volume as you progress through training cycles.

Lift With Enough Intensity

Intensity is another driving factor for muscle growth. But not in the traditional definition of intensity which is the percentage of 1RM. Instead, intensity regarding muscle growth refers to the effort.

A high muscular effort for compound exercises would be finishing a set 2-3 short of failure. For isolation exercises, 0-1 short of failure.

Use Compound & Isolation Exercises

To maximize quadriceps development, you need to use compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises like squats generally target the vasti muscles, whereas isolation exercises like leg extensions typically target the rectus femoris.

Eat More Calories

To build muscle, you need to eat more. A caloric surplus is essential for gaining weight and building new muscle mass. Aim for a 200-300 caloric surplus initially and track your weight.

How Long Does It Take To Get Big Quads?

How Do I Bulk Up My Quads

Building muscle is a long slow process. You cannot speak this process up without exogenous help. If you decide to dirty bulk and add weight quickly, a lot of this will be body fat. It is recommended to add 0.5 to 1.5% Increase in body weight per month.

This is a prolonged rate of gain but will minimize fat gain and maximize muscular development. So to truly get big quads, it will take at least two years of consistent progress.

How Do I Make My Outer Quads Bigger?

Targeting the outer quads involves emphasizing the vasti muscles. Closed chain exercises like squats and leg presses will maximize the development of the outer quads. Squat deep and heavy and follow that with accessory quadricep movements like the leg press or hack squat, and you've got an excellent recipe for big outer quads.

Summary

These are the best quad exercises for mass. While some may be boring or repetitive, this type of training will get you the results you want. If you dedicate your training effort to these few select exercises, you will see tremendous gains in quad size.

References

1. Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284-292.

2. Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of sports sciences, 33(10), 1058-1066.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

4. Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. D., & Binsted, G. (2009). A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2588-2591.

5. Abelbeck, K. G. (2002). Biomechanical model and evaluation of a linear motion squat type exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4), 516-524.

6. Da Silva, E. M., Brentano, M. A., Cadore, E. L., De Almeida, A. P. V., & Kruel, L. F. M. (2008). Analysis of muscle activation during different leg press exercises at submaximum effort levels. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(4), 1059-1065.

7. Clark, D. R., Lambert, M. I., & Hunter, A. M. (2019). Trunk muscle activation in the back and hack squat at the same relative loads. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 33, S60-S69.

8. Mackey, E. R., & Riemann, B. L. (2021). Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. International Journal of Exercise Science, 14(1), 533.

9. Zabaleta-Korta, A., Fernández-Peña, E., Torres-Unda, J., Garbisu-Hualde, A., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2021). The role of exercise selection in regional Muscle Hypertrophy: A randomized controlled trial.

10. Mangine, G. T., Redd, M. J., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., ... & Hoffman, J. R. (2018). Resistance training does not induce uniform adaptations to quadriceps. PLoS One, 13(8), e0198304.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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