Firm or flaccid, big or small, strong or weak, we all have muscles. Like most people, you probably only notice them when they are working hard and pumped full of lactic acid or feeling tight and painful! In this series, Patrick Dale strips away the skin to give you a whistle-stop tour of your major muscles, their function and how to keep them in tip-top shape. This issue it’s all about your quadriceps.
“Ironically, when it comes to quad training, too many people simply hop on a leg extension machine in the vain hope of strengthening this essential muscle”
Whether you want to jump higher, run faster, kick harder or just look good in shorts, your quadriceps, or ‘quads’ for short, is a very important muscle group. Far more than just your main thigh muscle, your quads are important for knee and hip health as well as athletic performance and aesthetics.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
Ironically, when it comes to quad training, too many people simply hop on a leg extension machine in the vain hope of strengthening this essential muscle, but doing leg extensions for quad development is not unlike running on the spot in an effort to increase your marathon time – it seems like it should work but actually isn’t really. Knowing a little about your quads will help you get more benefit from your thigh training.
As you no doubt know, your quads are located on the front of your thigh and make up the majority of your frontal leg mass. This is in part due to the fact that your quads are actually four muscles bundled together – hence their collective name (quad meaning four).
Working from the outside of your thigh in toward the middle, your four quadriceps muscles are the: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedialis and vastus medialis. The four quadriceps come together at your quadriceps tendon, just above your patella or kneecap but start at different places on your upper femur (thigh bone) and in the case of rectus femoris, on the front of your pelvis, specifically the ilium.
As anyone who has ever done leg extensions knows, your quadriceps are responsible for extending your knees. This helps to explain the popularity of this particular exercise. However, in nature this is not really how the quads work hence the earlier comments comparing leg extensions to running on the spot.
The seated position in which leg extensions are performed places the rectus femoris in a relaxed position which means it is not able to contribute very much to knee extension. This results in the majority of the work being done by the vastus trio: lateralis, intermedialis and medialis.
Another concern with leg extensions is the shearing force placed on the knee joint. As you straighten your leg, the back of your thigh is supported and this places a tremendous sliding force on the knee joint. This may cause ligament problems for some exercisers. If you find leg extensions uncomfortable then don’t do them. As you’ll see later, there are lots of better ways to strengthen your quads.
The Rectus femoris also crosses the hip as well as the knee and works best when there is movement at the knee and hip simultaneously or, at the very least the hip is extended. As well as being a knee extender, the rectus femoris is also a strong hip flexor and works alongside the iliopsoas in lifting your thigh forward.
Activities involving your quadriceps
“In addition to extending your knees, your quads also resist knee flexion and act like shock absorbers when you walk or run down hill or land after a jump.”
Just about every lower body activity uses your quads. Sitting down and standing back up again, climbing a flight of stairs, running, walking, cycling and swimming are very quad-dominant activities. In fact, it’s quite hard to think of any lower body activities that do not use your quads!In addition to extending your knees, your quads also resist knee flexion and act like shock absorbers when you walk or run down hill or land after a jump.
Interestingly, it is this ‘lengthening under tension’, properly called an eccentric contraction, which is responsible for the majority of the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that is commonly associated with a sudden increase in exercise intensity or volume. Walking and running down hill are very challenging activities for your quads which is one of the reasons why skiers often these activities in their off-piste training.
Problems associated with your quadriceps
Weak quads can cause significant problems, especially for the knee. All four quads need to be similarly strong otherwise the patella can be pulled out of alignment resulting in a condition called chondromalacia patella – an excessive wear and tear of the internal articular surface of the knee cap.
Other knee problems linked to the quadriceps/quadriceps tendon include jumper’s knee, OsgoodSchlatter’s disease, inflammation of the quadriceps tendon caused by overuse and of course, the usual pulls and strains that can occur in every other muscle. Overly tight quadriceps can be as problematic as weak and over-used quads. Tight quads can also detrimentally affect knee function but a tight rectus femoris can also affect your hip.
“Tight quads can also detrimentally affect knee function but a tight rectus femoris can also affect your hip.”
As knee pain can be complex and potentially serious, always get recurrent or severe problems properly diagnosed by a medical professional as muscular issues can result in internal joint problems which are not always treatable with quadriceps stretching and strengthening exercises.
Stretch and strengthen your quadriceps
There are lots of exercises you can use to get your quads in great shape but here are a few of my favourite stretches and strengtheners that I keep on coming back to whenever I need a quads fitness fix.
“Squats work every muscle in your lower body and are an especially effective quads exercise.”
Prone quadriceps stretch
The most common quadriceps stretch is the standing stretch where you bend your leg, hold your foot and pull it up toward your butt. This is an okay stretch but is often performed badly. Many people mistakenly let their knee drift forward which places the rectus femoris in a relaxed position which means this bi-articular (crossing two joints) muscle doesn’t get stretched.
If you choose to do the standing quad stretch, make sure you point your knee down at the floor and push your hips slightly forward. Alternatively, perform your quad stretch lying on your front. This prevents your knee from moving forward and ensures that the rectus femoris is not left out of the picture.
If you have been stretching your quads with your knee forward, you may find that you are unable to pull your foot as close to your butt as normal when you lie on your front. Stick with it – your rectus femoris will soon catch up with the other quads.
Kneeling quadriceps stretch
Rectus femoris can become short and tight as a result of sitting down too much. If you feel this the quadriceps muscle needs some extra attention – try this advanced quads stretch. Step out into a lunge and then bend your knees so your rear knee is resting on the floor.
With your hip in extension, bend your leg and pull your foot up into your butt. Do not twist your hips or shoulders or force the stretch. You will feel an intense stretch in all four of your quadriceps. Adjust the degree of hip extension to increase or reduce the difficulty of this stretch.
Squats are arguably the most functional leg exercise you can perform. Sitting down and standing back up? Squats! Getting into your car? Squats with a twist! Climbing a flight of stairs? One-legged squats! Squats work every muscle in your lower body and are an especially effective quad exercise. Bodyweight squats, barbell back squats, dumbbell squats, front squats – all versions of squats work your quads.
To get the most out of any squat variation, remember to keep your heels pressed firmly into the floor, initiate your descent by pushing your hips back first, do not round your lower back and keep your chest up. Ideally you should lower until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor but let your flexibility and knee health dictate your personal squatting depth.
However, it’s worth noting that deeper squats are actually better for your knees for reasons too complex to discuss in this short article. If you really don’t want to squat, leg presses are okay and infinitely better than leg extensions in the majority of cases.
Lunges are essentially a single-legged squat which means they are also great for your quads. Lunges work one leg at a time so are an ideal way to spot and subsequently correct left to right leg strength imbalances. You can do your lunges forward, backward, to the side, using a walking action, with weights in your hands or on your shoulders or as a simple bodyweight exercise – all lunge variations are effective quads exercises.
There are two main things to consider when doing lunges; 1) keep your front shin vertical and never let your knee drift forward of your foot and 2) keep your torso uptight. By adhering to these ‘rules’ you ensure that your lunges will be as safe and effective as possible.
“To get the most out of any squat variation, remember to keep your heels pressed firmly into the floor, initiate your descent by pushing your hips back first, do not round your lower back and keep your chest up.”
Like lunges, step-ups allow you to work one leg at a time. In addition, the humble step-up also allows you to easily adjust the range of movement through which your knee and hip must move and therefore the difficulty of the exercise. The higher the step, the greater the range of movement and therefore the harder the exercise becomes.
To get the most from step-ups, use at least a knee-high platform and perform all your reps on one leg before changing sides. Alternating sides simply provides each leg with a mini-break which may be great for ensuring you don’t get too tired too quickly but limits local muscular overload.
If you want stronger quads, it’s overload that you need! Try to ensure that the majority of the work is done by your leading leg and not by pushing off the floor with your trail leg. One way to do this is to keep your trail leg straight.