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Building Strong Quadriceps: Exercises, Stretches + Ways to Avoid Injury
March 10, 2017
The quadriceps are considered to collectively be one of the most powerful muscles groups in the whole body. The primary role of the “quad” muscles is to bend and straighten (extend) the knees — exactly why quadriceps strength and flexibility is important for numerous movements and activities, such as walking (including brisk walking for exercise), squatting, jumping, climbing, cycling and running.
In fact, nearly every sport or movement involving the lower body, including knee strengthening exercises, relies at least partially on the health of your quads. Because of their significance, quad injuries can put you off your feet for days or even weeks.
Contusion of the quads as well as running injuries are two of the most common reasons someone might develop quad pain. Quadriceps contusions are common in younger people who play sports that involve a lot of fast movements, squatting and sometimes collisions or direct contact, such as in football and hockey. Meanwhile, older adults can experience loss of quad strength due to factors like poor posture or knee pain.
Below you’ll find recommendations for how to effectively strengthen and stretch your quads, most of which also add stability and lean muscle to other key parts of the legs as well.
What Are the Quads?
The quad muscles (quadriceps) are a group of four muscles located on the front and partially the side of the thighs. The four muscles of the quad region include the: vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis (one of the longest muscles in the body) and rectus femoris (one of the biggest and usually strongest muscles). (1)
If you were to look at an image of yourself standing straight upward, your quads would be located from about your knees up, connecting to the tibia bones in your shins/lower legs and to the femur bones in your thighs.
7 Benefits of Strong, Flexible Quadriceps
Some of the key benefits and roles that the quad muscles have include:
- Allowing the knees to extend/straighten: The knees’ stability depends on the strength of the surrounding ligaments and muscles. Quads help with knee extension, while other complimentary muscles in the upper legs help with opposing motions, such as bending. There are also certain joints and ligaments in the legs surrounding the knees that prevent too much rotation when the leg straightens, protecting from injury.
- Absorbing shock when you land on your feet: The quads are needed to stabilize the knees (patella) and keep it tracking in a straight line after impact.
- Taking pressure off of the knees, which are susceptible to injury, wear-and-tear and effects of osteoarthritis or aging
- Helping with “lift off”, or the ability to jump and push-away from the ground
- Playing a role in hip flexion and stabilization of the pelvis
- Helping with balance and coordination
- Giving you the ability to change direction quickly, such as when playing sports
Anatomy Lesson: The Quadriceps Region
According to Yoganatomy, the word quad means four, while ‘ceps’ refers to divisions or ‘heads’ of the muscle. (2)
The quadriceps anatomy includes four muscles that originate near the hipbone or pelvis (at the ilium) in the upper thigh, connecting downward to the kneecaps and shins. The quads are connected to tendons made of strong connective tissue that surround the knee bones (the patellas). It’s the pull of the quads that allow for lifting and lowering of the kneecaps via the patella tendon. They also insert to the shinbone (the tibia) and additionally play a partial role in hip flexion.
All of the quadriceps connect to the tibia through the patellar ligament, a strong tendon that can sometimes be overly used. On the top of the thighs the vastus medialis and lateralis muscles of the quads connect to the back of the femur bone via the the linea aspera. Most of the quad muscles run mostly down the leg vertically, but the rectus femoris muscle is the only part of the quad that crosses both the hip and knees, allowing for both flexion of the hip joint and extension of the knee joint.
The muscles located in the thighs are split into three sections: anterior, medial and posterior. (3) The quad muscles get their names due to where they are located on the thighs:
- Rectus femoris: a straight muscle that runs down the center of the thigh. The femoris is considered the main extensor of the knee.
- Lateralis: located on the lateral, or outside, of the thigh.
- Medialis: located on the medial, or inside, of the thigh.
- Intermedius: located between the medialis and lateralis muscles.
The muscles in the anterior compartment of the thigh, including the largest parts of the quads, are mostly innervated by the femoral nerve (L2-L4).
Common Injuries Affecting the Quads
Why might someone have weak quads or suffer from an injury that damages the quad muscles? Reasons include:
- Overusing the quadriceps, especially when skipping stretching following tough workouts. This can result from too much running, due to intense sports training, dancing, starting new activities too aggressively, etc.
- The Runner’s World website reports that many runners develop quad pains, heaviness in the legs, setbacks in terms of their running abilities, and cramping during runs due to factors like muscle overuse and dehydration, which causes small but sometimes serious injury to the muscle tissues. These common running injuries can become even more severe when running in high heat or for extended periods of time. (4)
- Overworking other parts of the legs but neglecting exercises that target the quads. This leads to weakness and muscular compensations that can result in injury.
- Having weak ankles or knees, which can contribute to poor form when lifting weights or exercising, rolling the ankles and buckling the knees.
Side effects of these quadricep injuries can include:
- Knee injuries or knee pains: Inflammation, overuse, loss of cartilage and arthritis often affect the knees and cause pain for various reasons. Some knee injuries are due to dislocations, torn cartilage and lateral displacement of the knee bone due to weakness in muscles surrounding the knees.
- Patellofemoral joint syndrome: This is one type of knee pain that usually results from weak quads and affects the front or back of the knee cap (where the patella comes into contact with the femur). Pain is usually worse when exercising, squatting down, climbing stairs and going down stairs. (5)
- Poor posture and form when exercising: If the glutes (the large muscles behind the legs) can become very strong due to performing high reps of exercises like weighted squats for example, but without incorporating other movements that target the quads, such as lunges, distribution of strength in the legs can be thrown off.
- Rolling, twisting or spraining the ankles
- Contusions: A contusion occurs when one or more of the quadriceps muscles are hit directly with enough force to cause damage, such as during sports. This usually leads to sharp pain, swelling, reduced range of motion, soreness and tightness. (6)
Precautions to Take If You’ve Injured the Quads:
What should you do if you develop signs of one of these quad injuries?
Experts suggest being patient and taking some time off to rest, as a quad injury can take several weeks or even 1–2 months to properly recover. Another option is to try slowing down when running or running downhill, which for some can help reduce quad pain once the legs adapt to the eccentric overload.
Those with quadriceps injuries should also avoid other types of activities that cause any pain, including resistance exercises or sports that add pressure and lots of weight to the legs.
However, performing strength training for the upper body or back, along with stretching and swimming should not cause pain and can be sustained. (7) Additionally, be sure you are staying well-hydrated and getting plenty of nutrients and rest/sleep to allow for tissue repair. Ease back into exercise when the legs feel lighter, no longer painful and your flexibility is improved.
Remember that while it’s important to have strong quadriceps for overall lower stability, it’s equally crucial to work on strengthening other muscle groups in the legs as well — especially the hamstrings, hips and glutes and even ankles. If the quads become dominant over other parts of the legs, what occurs is called “knee dominance” by fitness experts. Knee dominance results in poor form due to a tendency for the knees to drive excessively forward when you’re squatting, lunging or jumping. Of course, the opposite can also occur if the leg muscles are not equally developed.
Best Workout Exercises & Stretches for the Quads
Quadricep Workout Tips:
Start your quadriceps workout with brief dynamic stretching for about 3–5 minutes. You can incorporate at least several of the quad exercises described above into a full-body strength-training routine that you perform about 2–3 times per week. A good example of a quad workout would be performing squats, lunges and step-ups within the same workout.
It’s important to accompany any “quad workout” with some hamstring work so you don’t develop any strength imbalance. Leg curls and stiff-legged deadlifts are two excellent hamstring exercises.
Give yourself a full 1–2 days of rest between tough leg workouts in order to allow time for the muscles to repair themselves and grow back stronger. And of course, as mentioned above, be sure to also strengthen your core (including your back) and other muscle groups in the legs at least 1–2 times per week in order to avoid “dominance” of any particular body part.
For best results, perform about 8–12 reps of each exercise, completing about 2 to 3 sets in total. Work on keeping proper form, rather than aiming to perform a higher number of reps. And keep in mind that as you add more weight or resistance to exercises, you’ll be doing lower reps but still gaining strength. Always remember to stretch afterward, holding for about 15–30 seconds in each stretch.
- Dynamic stretching for 3–5 minutes
- Choose 2–3 of the exercises below
- Accompany your “quad work” with 1–2 hamstrings exercises
- Perform 2–3 times per week
- Do 8–12 reps and 2–3 sets of each exercise
- For cardio, choose one of the quad-friendly cardio options below
- Do 2–3 of the quad stretches afterward
QUAD-FRIENDLY STRENGTH TRAINING
Squats (All Versions)
Squats are a great exercise for strengthening the knees, core and almost the whole leg. There are tons of different ways to perform squats, including: loaded or unloaded squats (also called weighted squats which include barbell front or back squats, squats using dumbbells, etc.), squats with your arms overhead, modified versions using a chair or wall for support behind you, holding yoga moves like “chair pose” and many more.
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, keeping your knees parallel (be sure they don’t cave in) and your pelvis slightly tucked. Placing all weight into the heels, squat down as if you are going to sit in a chair behind you, sticking your butt way back. Keep your upper body as upright as possible with your back straight. Do 10–20 repetitions, working on getting the thighs close to parallel with the ground.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, leaving plenty of room in front of you to move forward. Step forward with your right foot and lunge down. Try to make sure that your knee does not extend beyond your ankle and keep your weight in your heel to maximize the benefits to the working muscles. Then push off with your heel back to starting position. Repeat on the other side, completing about 10–20 reps.
Make sure to keep your upper body erect with good posture. To add resistance, you can also hold dumbbells in your hands, lift your hands overhead, or change things up with twisting and back-stepping lunges.
Leg presses use a weight machine to add resistance while you “press away” with the legs. Start by holding the weighted platform in place with your feet (your torso and the legs should make a perfect 90-degree angle) with your legs bent. Press until your legs are fully extended in front of you, being sure not to lock your knees. Return to starting position, repeating about 6–10 times.
The burpee, also known as a squat thrust, is a full body exercise that incorporates four steps. Start in a standing position, come into a squat position with your hands on the ground, kick your feet back placing your body into a plank position while keeping your arms extended. Jump your feet back into the squat position, then jump up from the squat position to reach overhead. Repeat about 10 times, or more if you’re advanced.
Step-Ups or Box Jumps
Make sure that whatever you step on (such as a plyo box), it is going to be able to hold your weight and remain sturdy. Start standing with your feet hip-distance apart. With your right foot, step up onto the bench or step and follow with the left foot so they meet. Step back down with the right foot to your starting position. Alternate your feet so the next one will start with the left foot, and so forth. Do 10–20 reps, adding weights in your hands for extra resistance.
Sprints and HIIT Workouts
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, which can include sprints and other “explosive” movements, work the entire legs while also providing cardiovascular benefits. You can perform a HIIT workout on a treadmill, elliptical, outside on a track or field, or even while doing resistance training. The goal is to get your heart rate up to about 80 percent or more of your max for a short period of time, followed by a brief rest period. You repeat this cycle 5–10 times in order to build muscle fast.
Backward Walking (such as on a treadmill)
Either walking backward flat on the ground or using a treadmill specifically targets the quads. To add strength and potentially some muscle mass to both the quads and glutes, try to do both types of treadmill exercises.
Cycling is low impact and one of the best ways to strengthen the quads, especially if you practice interval training and adding in hill climbs.
Use a foam roller on the ground while you lay down on top of the with your quads on the roller. Rock and forth slowly as you hold spots that are tender for 30–90 seconds. If you’ve recently been injured or feel lots of pain after doing this for several days, check with your doctor to make sure foam rolling is okay.
Standing One-legged Stretch
Stand up straight and bend one leg back behind you to grab your foot. Pull your foot gently toward your back to stretch the quad, holding for about 15–30 seconds.
Kneeling Lunge Stretch
Kneel down on one knee (you may want a pad underneath if you are on a hard surfaced floor), with the front leg forward at a 90-degree angle. Tuck your pelvis and gently lunge forward. Continue to lean into the stretch slowly ensuring that there is no unusual pain, using your hands on your front knee for support if you’d like. To add a little stretching to the core, raise your arms overhead and lean the hips forward and down another inch or two. Hold the lunge for 30 seconds, completing 3 repetitions on each side.
Final Thoughts on the Quad Muscles
- The four quadriceps muscles are some of the most powerful muscles groups in the whole body, responsible for extending the knees and helping with running, climbing, cycling, squatting and pushing off the floor.
- Reasons for quad injuries can include muscle weakness, overuse, dehydration, failing to stretch the legs, heat exhaustion, and muscular compensations due to poor posture/form.
- Stretching and strengthening the quadriceps can help protect you from problems like knee pain, practicing workouts with poor form, and experiencing running injuries.
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