Without a doubt, for leg exercises working the quads for muscle growth is the most misunderstood area of training in the gym. The quads exercise that has attained mythical status as the best thigh builders on the planet is nowhere near that. In this article we’ll use empirical science to get the truth about what really works when it comes to developing the quadriceps.
The information that follows will turn the conventional bro-science of legs workouts on its head. As a result, your long cherished ideas may well be challenged. However, my assertions will be backed up by biomechanical science. Read them with an open mind and you may just discover a better way to train your lower body.
Quads are like Triceps
The key to understanding what makes a good quad exercise is to appreciate that your quadriceps operate in exactly the same way as your triceps. Conversely, your hamstrings do the same job as your biceps (some people actually call the hammies the leg biceps). When you put them side by side, anatomically they look identical.
Both the quads and the triceps have more than one origin but one insertion. What’s more they are both hinge joints that move in only one direction and have the sole job of straightening the limb. Just the same as you cannot selectively work one of the three triceps heads, neither can you isolate any of the four quadriceps heads.
Ok, with that understanding, let’s start rating some quad exercises so you know which is the best when you are training your quads. . .
Squats: Rating – 4
When you are in the start position of a squat, with the weight on your shoulders, your lower leg is neutral, being parallel to gravity. As a result, there is no load on your quads. When you begin to descend by bedding your knee you will begin to load the quads. The more acute the angle of the lower leg, the greater the load on the quads. However, even if you were to do a full ‘ass to the grass’ squat, your lower leg would not even get to a 45 degree angle. In fact, you are lucky if it bends to 30 degrees.
So, what? Well, your lower leg is the operating lever on the quads. So, if it only achieves a 30 degree angle, you are only getting 30 percent of the weight on your back on your quads. So if you are squatting with 300 pounds, your quads are only benefiting from 90 pounds, while the full 300 pounds is compressing down on your spine!
There is another factor that makes the squat an inefficient exercise. It is the law of reciprocal innervation. Our skeletal muscles are arranged in antagonistic pairs, such as the biceps and triceps and the hip flexor and glutes. When you activate a muscle, its antagonist is automatically deactivated. Now, when you activate the glutes on squats, you are weakening or deactivating the hip flexors. One of the hip flexor muscles is the rectus femoris, which is also one of the primary quadricep muscles. So, when you are squatting, or doing any other compound leg movement, one quarter of your quads are effectively shut down!
Finally, when you squat, you are stretching the hamstrings. This activates them, which is, in line with the law of reciprocal innervation, detrimental to the action of their antagonists – the other three quad muscles!
When you consider the cost / benefit ratio of doing squats, you have to conclude that it is an extraordinarily poor choice.
Hack Squats: Rating – 5
Hacks squats were originally done by holding a barbell behind you in order to take the pressure off the spine. This was a cumbersome exercise, however, which led to the invention of the hack squat machine. The hack squat also avoids the leaning forward that often occurs with the back squat.
The big problem with the hack squat (or the leg press and most other versions of the squat including goblet squats, the bulgarian split squat), is that the lower leg still does not bend to more than 30 degrees. As a result, your quads are only getting a 30 percent load. There is no doubt that hack squats are hard work. Unfortunately, if your goal is to build quad muscle, 70 percent of that effort is being wasted.
Leg Extension: Rating – 10
Most people consider the leg extension to be an add-on ‘isolation’ exercise to be thrown in for a couple of sets after the main work of squatting is done. The truth is that the leg extension is the single best exercise that you can do to build muscle in your quadriceps and build strong quad strength.
Remember how we compared the quads to the triceps at the outset. Now, when it comes to the triceps, the lying triceps extension, otherwise known as skull crushers, is regarded by all as a primary mass builder of the triceps. Well, the leg extension is the exact same movement for the quadriceps. The fact that the skull crusher is not a compound movement does not cause it to be dismissed as a lesser exercise. So, why should we think that way about the leg extension?
The leg extension does exactly what the quadriceps are designed to do – it extends the lower leg. Whereas, as we’ve seen, the squat does this to, at best, 30 degrees, the leg extension does it to 90 degrees. Furthermore, the leg extension does not activate the glutes or the hamstrings, so there is no reciprocal innervation to shut down any of the working muscles.
The leg extension is the only exercise you need to do in order to develop your quads. By performing as many as thirteen sets through a complete rep range you will be able to maximally stimulate your quadriceps without wasting any effort and without compromising the integrity of your spine.
Here is the leg extension set and rep range that I recommend:
Set One: 50 reps
Set Two: 30 reps
Set Three: 20 reps
Set Four: 15 reps
Set Five: 10 reps
Set Six: 10 reps
Set Seven: 8 reps
Set Eight: 8 reps
Set Nine: 6 reps
Set Ten: 6 reps
Set Eleven: 4 reps
Set Twelve: 4 reps
Set Thirteen: 50 reps
Perform this workout every 5 days, increasing your weight on every rep increase, and you will experience your quads firing like nothing you have ever known!
We have given you a great leg training workout to build bigger stronger quads from a qualified personal trainer. Undertake this exercise with proper form and you should see the benefits of doing your workouts in a smarter way.
SmartFitnessResults has workout tips from qualified professionals, and a YouTube channel, for you to further your fitness goals. This includes how to articles (for example how to do a reverse lunge or walking lunge, how to use resistance bands, how to do a front squat); and the most effective exercises (for example best shoulder exercises, best chest workouts, best arm workouts, best exercises to build strength or muscle).
These will help you to meet your fitness objectives be it losing fat in general, targeted fat (for example belly fat), strength or stamina. These also apply to those that do workouts in their home gym. We all have an active lifestyle so it’s important to train smarter and we will help you do that.