How To Get Big Quads (Science Backed 5 Best Exercises + Workout)

September 27, 2021

Quadzilla. Tree trunk legs. Are these names you’ve been yearning to be called? Or maybe you want to head to the store and not be able to fit any jeans unless the waist is tailored in 10 inches. Well, you’re in luck! I’m going to give you the full rundown on exactly how to get massive quads. And no, the answer isn’t just squat more. There is far more nuance to it than that.

Big quads have more than just an aesthetic benefit. In fact, older adults with weak quads have a 3x greater risk of cartilage loss in their knees [1]. While quadriceps strength was measured subjectively, it is an interesting finding nonetheless.

So, protect your knees by getting big, strong quads. Before giving you the best exercises to blow up your quads, we need to have a quick anatomy lesson as this will help us with exercise selection.

Anatomy Of The Quadriceps

The quadriceps are made up of four main muscles (hence, quad). These are the:

  • Vastus medialis (known as the VMO)
  • Vastus lateralis (outer muscle)
  • Vastus intermedius (under all of them)
  • Rectus femoris (straight through the middle)

All of the vasti muscles are single-joint muscles. Whereas the rectus femoris crosses two joints making it biarticular. This means the rectus femoris not only extends the knee but is also a hip flexor.

Anatomy Quadriceps

Why is this important to know? Turns out, you can target different quadriceps muscles (and even different regions of the same muscle) with different exercises. For example, Smith machine squats preferentially target the vastus lateralis as opposed to leg extensions targeting the rectus femoris [2].

It seems that closed chain exercises (exercises with feet on the floor) are what target the vasti muscles while open-chain exercises (e.g. leg extension) target the rectus femoris [3,4]. Therefore, you need a combination of both closed and open chain exercises to maximize quadriceps hypertrophy.

Best Exercises For Big Quads

Here are the five best exercises to maximize quad development so you can replace your jeans.

Front Squats

I’m not saying that front squats are better than back squats for quad hypertrophy. Both front squats and back squats seem to elicit similar activity of the quadriceps [5]. However, slight differences are seen as loading increases past 70% 1RM where front squats tend to display greater activation of the vastus medialis [6].

This has been replicated with front squats at 80% 1RM eliciting greater force through the quadriceps than back squats at the same absolute load [7].

That doesn’t mean you need to ditch the back squat. If performed with a high bar position (bar on your traps), you place greater stress on the quads compared to a low bar position (bar on the rear delts) [8,9].

Additionally, you can handle heavier loads back squatting than front squatting which may be better for overall leg development. However, because this article is solely focused on the quads, the front squat has been selected.

It’s important that you squat below parallel to maximize quad size. We see that activation of the quadriceps increases as you squat deeper maxing out below parallel [10]. This leads to an increase in quad size of approximately 4-7% as well as less knee stress [11,12].

When performing the front squat, you can use any grip for the rack position. Clean grip, clean grip with straps, or a cross grip. The clean grip is generally the most secure. If you struggle with this position, check out our front rack mobility article.

After unracking the bar, break and the hips and knees simultaneously while pushing the knees out. This will create space for you to sit in the hole. Your torso should remain as upright as possible. If you lean too far forward, you will lose the barbell so you’ll have immediate feedback if you forward lean too far.

In the bottom position, your knees should be far in front of your toes. This will require some ankle mobility which is often the limiting factor in squatting deep [13]. Placing small 5 lb plates under your heels or wearing Weightlifting shoes is an easy way to mitigate any ankle mobility issues while you work on improving it.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 5-8 reps.

Jump Squat

The jump squat is an odd exercise recommendation for big quads. Jumping is primarily used for developing explosive power in the legs. Not for lifters to build tree trunk legs. Well, one study had subjects perform jump squats with no load and 30% 1RM from parallel [14]. Another group performed squats to parallel between 75% and 90% 1RM. They found both exercises were effective for increasing quad size. 

The heavy squat was beneficial for mid and upper quad hypertrophy while the jump squat elicited size gains in the lower quad region which the squat did not.

The reason jump squats pack on quad size with relatively light loads comes down to simple physics. Force = mass x acceleration. Heavy squats generate high forces through heavy mass being lifted. Jump squats generate high forces through increases acceleration with lighter loads.

Not to mention the jump squat will improve your overall athleticism. So don’t sleep on this exercise. If you have trouble with jumping with loads on your back, you can either hold two dumbbells or use a trap bar. 

Recommended sets and reps: 3-7 sets of 5-8 reps.

Leg Press

The leg press is a great alternative to the squat to target the vasti muscles of the quads without the stress on the lower back. Some lifters just struggle to get deep in a squat or struggle with knee or back pain.

Further, you can do very high reps on the leg press without the full-body fatigue that you experience if you were doing high rep squats. Place your feet as far down the platform that is comfortable and that allows you to keep your feet flat when performing the leg press. It has been shown that a lower foot placement targets the quadriceps to a greater extent than a higher foot placement [15].

The same rules apply regarding depth and quadriceps size. However, you don’t want to let your lower back round at the bottom as this can potentially cause injury.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps.

Hack Squat

Just like the leg press, the hack squat reduces the stress on the trunk so you can go nuts trashing your quads without fatiguing your lower back [16]. The trick to nailing your quads on the hack squat is to use the same foot position as you would when barbell squatting and then allowing your butt to get all the way down to your calves.

Because you can place your feet slightly in front of your body, you can reduce the need for ankle mobility. Or you can wear Weightlifting shoes to raise your heels. Secondly, don't dive-bomb the lowering phase. Slow and controlled with a slight pause at the bottom will light your quads up.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps.

Lunges

I had to include a single-leg exercise as part of these quadriceps exercises. Using single-leg exercises can help with reducing any strength or size imbalances that you have between legs.

When targeting the quads, simple walking lunges are great. If you modify them by taking shorter steps, getting your knees in front of your toes, and keeping your trunk upright, you will turn them into a quad destroyer.

To help with your balance when walking, don’t just step forward. Step slightly out to the side. That will widen your base of support so you aren’t fighting to keep your feet. Secondly, use dumbbells instead of a barbell if balance is an issue. The barbell on your back raises your center of mass making it a little harder to keep your balance whereas dumbbells keep your center of mass lower improving your balance.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps per leg.

Leg Extension

Last but not least, we can’t forget about the leg extension. The leg extension is often shunned by the “functional strength” crowd. But for those who are lifting weights to get huge, a leg extension is a must.

All of the above-listed exercises will absolutely blow up your vasti muscles thickening the inside and outside of your quads. But the rectus femoris, the muscle that runs straight down the middle of your quads doesn't get stimulated to a great extent.

As mentioned in the anatomy section, the rectus femoris is mainly activated through knee extension exercises. This is likely because the muscle is put under the greatest stretch in this position. Interestingly, using techniques such as drop sets far outperform traditional sets for rectus femoris size [17].

To get the most out of the leg extension, set the machine up so you can get the greatest stretch at the bottom of the exercise. Your legs should be under the seat. At the top, flex hard.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets of 10-20 reps per leg.

Best Quad Workout For Mass

The best quad workout for mass needs to cover a span of multiple different rep ranges as well as use a mixture of squatting-based exercises and knee extension-based exercises. Further, from my experience, the quads LOVE volume. That is why Super Squats (aka the 20-rep squat program) has been so successful.

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Pause Front Squat

4 x 8

8 RPE

B1) Leg Press

4 x 10-15

9 RPE

C1) Walking Lunge

3 x 10-12/leg

8 RPE

D1) Leg Extension Drop Set

1 x 10/8-10/6-10/5-10 (Work up to heavy 10 then triple drop set)

10 RPE

Can You Get Big Quads Without Squats?

You do not need to squat to get big quads. Let me repeat that. You don’t need to squat to get big quads. There are plenty of alternatives you can use that will let you load the quads in a similar movement. Hack squats and leg presses are obvious alternatives.

But you can also throw in other single-leg exercises like the Bulgarian split squat and regular split squat. These can also be loaded relatively heavy like the squat.

Can You Get Big Quads From Cycling?

Can You Get Big Quads Without Squats

You may have seen the massive quads that sprint cyclists possess. But there are a couple of things you need to be aware of:

  • Cyclists don’t just cycle. They lift heavy and often to build tremendous strength and power in their legs.
  • Cycling is devoid of eccentric contractions which are known to produce the greatest muscle-building response [18].

While cycling may provide you with a lot of volume, the load is generally low so mechanical tension is low not creating much of a muscle growth response. However, cranking the bike resistance up to the max and doing heavy and hard sprints can be a great accessory exercise to add to the end of your quad workout.

High forces from the resistance on the bike combined with the acceleration of getting the pedaling up to speed when sprinting can be a potent quad stimulus to pump your quads full of blood. Sets of 20-30 second sprints will have you gasping for air while limping to the water fountain.

Are Big Quads Genetic?

Genetics will always play a role in your ability to grow muscle or the shape of your muscles. However, you can build big quads regardless of your genetics. You just may need more volume and time. Others may need less. Work hard and you will get there.

References

1. Chin, C., Sayre, E. C., Guermazi, A., Nicolaou, S., Esdaile, J. M., Kopec, J., ... & Cibere, J. (2019). Quadriceps weakness and risk of knee cartilage loss seen on magnetic resonance imaging in a population-based cohort with knee pain. The Journal of rheumatology, 46(2), 198-203.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Ema, R., Sakaguchi, M., Akagi, R., & Kawakami, Y. (2016). Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single-and multi-joint exercises. European journal of applied physiology, 116(5), 1031-1041.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Krzyszkowski, J., & Kipp, K. (2020). Load-dependent mechanical demands of the lower extremity during the back and front squat. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(17), 2005-2012.

8. Glassbrook, D. J., Brown, S. R., Helms, E. R., Duncan, S., & Storey, A. G. (2019). The high-bar and low-bar back-squats: A biomechanical analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 33, S1-S18.

9. Glassbrook, D. J., Helms, E. R., Brown, S. R., & Storey, A. G. (2017). A review of the biomechanical differences between the high-bar and low-bar back-squat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(9), 2618-2634.

10. Wretenberg, P., Feng, Y., Lindberg, F., & Arboreilus, U. P. (1993). Joint moments of force and quadriceps muscle activity during squatting exercise. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 3(4), 244-250.

11. Bloomquist, K., Langberg, H., Karlsen, S., Madsgaard, S., Boesen, M., & Raastad, T. (2013). Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. European journal of applied physiology, 113(8), 2133-2142.

12. Hartmann, H., Wirth, K., & Klusemann, M. (2013). Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports medicine, 43(10), 993-1008.

13. Kim, S. H., Kwon, O. Y., Park, K. N., Jeon, I. C., & Weon, J. H. (2015). Lower extremity strength and the range of motion in relation to squat depth. Journal of human kinetics, 45, 59.

14. Earp, J. E., Newton, R. U., Cormie, P., & Blazevich, A. J. (2015). Inhomogeneous quadriceps femoris hypertrophy in response to strength and power training. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 47(11), 2389-2397.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. Varović, D., Žganjer, K., Vuk, S., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Drop-Set Training Elicits Differential Increases in Non-Uniform Hypertrophy of the Quadriceps in Leg Extension Exercise. Sports, 9(9), 119.

18. 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.

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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