Proving that age is no barrier to getting into great shape, 56-year old Chris Zaremba has qualified as a Personal Trainer and won his age group in the Miami Pro 2012 Fitness Model UK Championships

But he wasn’t always into fitness – six years ago he was overweight and very unfit. In this series, Chris talks about his favourite exercises for each body part, ones that have helped him make the transformation from fat to fit. This issue, Chris describes Six of the Best Quads exercises.

There are two main muscle groups in the upper leg, which run alongside the femur bone between the hip and the knee. To the rear of the leg are the hamstrings (which will look at later in the series) and to the front are the quadriceps. The knee is a hinge-type joint and this enables us to open and close the joint angle. Opening the angle is the job of our quads – a movement known technically as extension (and closing the job of the hamstrings).

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The quadriceps has four separate sections, or heads. The three Vastus sections – all originate at the femur bone but at different points. The Vastus Lateralis section starts at the outer edge of the femur and runs down the outside of the thigh, the Vastus Medialis is the equivalent on the inside and the Vastus Intermedius lies between them and is located down the front of the thigh.

The fourth head is the Rectus Femoris section, which lies on top of the Vastus Intermedius. Its origin point is higher than those of the Vastus trio, being located on the ilium or pelvic bone. Because of this the Rectus Femoris also have a role to play in hip-joint flexion – as happens when the knee moves toward the chest (other hip flexor muscles exist and contribute to various aspects of this movement also).

All four quad sections join together and insert at a common point into the tibia bone, just below the knee. Many quad exercises, such as squats also target the hamstrings. A squat therefore isn’t just a movement at the knee – there’s also hip flexion and extension going on, which recruits the hip flexor and extensor muscles too. As a result there aren’t many exercises that isolate the quads and don’t involve these other glute and thigh-region muscles but we start our Six of the Best with one that does just this.

1 Leg Extension Machine

As noted this is one of the few exercises that really isolates the quadriceps. The knee is the only place where movement takes place when the lower leg is lifted.

How to perform: 

Adjust the backrest so that the whole of your thigh is on the seat and you can reach the side handles without leaning forward. Position the roller so that it’s located in the angle between your front lower leg and upper part of your foot (just nearer to you than touching your laces). Your lower legs should be vertical with toes pointing forward either parallel or slightly toes-inwards (the toes-inwards position specifically emphasises the Vastus Medialis, the inner head of the muscle). Hold onto the handles with your hands and slowly, without kicking lift the roller until your legs are straight. Hold the contraction at that point for a second, then lower more slowly to return the weights to the start position. Don’t go right to the point that would remove tension from the quads before starting the next rep.

“Six rules for the Six:

These guidelines apply within each set for all these exercises:
1. Do the exercise correctly, don’t sacrifice good form to reach the numbers
2. Only move those parts of the body that are meant to move in the exercise
3. Lower Slower – the weight can go up quickly, but should come down slowly – resist gravity
4. ExOnEx – Exhale on Exertion – breathe out as you push up
5. Keep the weights moving, don’t stop at any point
6. Don’t totally lock out – doing so takes the effort away from the muscles”

2 Lunges

Lunges are a great exercise to develo p symmetrical (or at least near to) strength between legs and they also develop balance.

How to perform:

Take a large step forward, so that both knees are bent to 90-degrees. Ensure that your front knee is no further forward than being directly over that foot’s toes. From this position, perform what I call the exercise’s ‘power stroke’ and this is to forcibly push back with the front leg to return to the starting position in one smooth movement. Keep your head up and back straight throughout. Swap legs after each rep.

This is generally an easier machine to use than the fixed-seat variant and has a greater range of seat position settings and safety features. It’s also easier to select weights especially for incremental resistance changes. Unlike the sled and cradle machines, the variable-seat machine starts at the maximum range of motion – this key variable therefore is not a factor during the exercise and needs no mental focus. Finally, there is no need for a handle movement to release and relock the weights as found on the cradle and sled version.

For all these reasons, I therefore recommend this leg press machine variant for beginners. How to perform: Select the seat position that gives a starting position of a 90-degree angle at the knee. Position your feet in the centre of the footplate and hold onto the side handles and push up with pressure equally on the forefoot and heel of your feet. Terminate the push just short of maximum lockout as shown, then lower slower back to the starting position for the next rep. The lower back should remain firmly planted in the seat.

There are a couple of machine designs for this exercise – one has the footplate on a parallel pair of straight runners (the ‘sled’ machine) and the second has a hinged cradle (both are pictured). I haven’t noticed a difference in my progress with either machine. The sled variant has a maximum range of movement stop that can be set in advance, which is a good safety feature. However, there’s no safety stop to prevent an excessive range of motion with the cradle variant, so start with a weight well within your maximum if using this machine.

As with other squat-type exercises, the hamstring and gluteal muscles contribute to the effort as I’ve indicated. How to perform: Start with feet shoulder-width apart half way down the footplate and with your hands near the lock control. Push the plate away from you to extend your legs and then control the weights back. The push should be equal through the feet and specifically not through the heels alone. In both directions, ensure that the legs don’t bow outwards – the knees should remain pointing upward and the same distance apart. Keep your head up and upper body position unmoved throughout. At the end of the set, reset the lock with your hands when the weight is at its furthest extent.

3 Fixed-Seat Leg Press

 There are a couple of machine designs for this exercise – one has the footplate on a parallel pair of straight runners (the ‘sled’ machine) and the second has a hinged cradle (both are pictured).

I haven’t noticed a difference in my progress with either machine. The sled variant has a maximum range of movement stop that can be set in advance, which is a good safety feature.

However, there’s no safety stop to prevent an excessive range of motion with the cradle variant, so start with a weight well within your maximum if using this machine. As with other squat-type exercises, the hamstring and gluteal muscles contribute to the effort as I’ve indicated.

How to perform:

Start with feet shoulder-width apart half way down the footplate and with your hands near the lock control. Push the plate away from you to extend your legs and then control the weights back. The push should be equal through the feet and specifically not through the heels alone. In both directions, ensure that the legs don’t bow outwards – the knees should remain pointing upward and the same distance apart. Keep your head up and upper body position unmoved throughout. At the end of the set, reset the lock with your hands when the weight is at its furthest extent.

4 Variable-Seat Leg Press

This is generally an easier machine to use than the fixed-seat variant and has a greater range of seat position settings and safety features.

It’s also easier to select weights especially for incremental resistance changes. Unlike the sled and cradle machines, the variable-seat machine starts at the maximum range of motion – this key variable therefore is not a factor during the exercise and needs no mental focus.Finally, there is no need for a handle movement to release and relock the weights as found on the cradle and sled version. For all these reasons, I therefore recommend this leg press machine variant for beginners.

How to perform: Select the seat position that gives a starting position of a 90-degree angle at the knee. Position your feet in the centre of the footplate and hold onto the side handles and push up with pressure equally on the forefoot and heel of your feet. Terminate the push just short of maximum lockout as shown, then lower slower back to the starting position for the next rep. The lower back should remain firmly planted in the seat.

5 Back Squat

This is one of the classic compound (multi-joint) exercises and is seen as mandatory by many weight trainers. Movement is both at the knee and hip joints and all heads of the quad are worked and your glutes join in with their hip flexion and extension role.

As this is a free weights exercise there are substantial fixating contributions from other muscles, for example, from the abs, obliques and the lower back section of the erector spine muscle. Balance and control are vital for this exercise and strength in the core area is also important.

How to perform:

With the bar positioned in a rack slightly below shoulder-height, duck under the bar and grip it in a wide position, palms facing forward and the same distance from the ends. Transfer the weight of the bar from the rests onto the fleshy parts of your shoulders, definitely not balanced on any part of the backbone. If this is painful on the shoulders, some gyms have a foam roll that can be attached to the bar as a cushion. With knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width, stand up to release the bar from the stand, then take a small step away from the rack. Your feet should remain shoulder-width apart, pointing straight or slightly outward. You can raise your heels slightly prior to starting the exercise by standing with them on weight discs (after you have stepped forward).

This option is particularly useful for those with less flexibility in the Achillies tendons – it also marginally shifts the exercise’s focus toward the quads and away from the glutes. Lower the bar slowly until your thighs are parallel with the floor, – then push back up again. Don’t lock your knees at the end of the rep. It’s important to keep your back straight and head up throughout and keep your feet firmly planted with the weight evenly distributed between the balls and heels of your feet. Replacing the bar is done slowly and is the reverse of the start.

Quads Workout Numbers

I perform this workout as a half-session in the gym once or twice per week. The other body part worked at the same time is the hamstrings. From these six, I always do leg extensions and select two exercises from any of the other five. I perform three sets of each of these three exercises, with a target of ten reps per set, plus there’s a single initial warm up set up-front. The warm up set is a single set of whichever exercise I am going to perform first, done to 20 reps but with half the weight I intend to start with on that exercise.

After the warm up, I start on the three exercises. I leave a minute between each set on an exercise, as well as taking a minute as a switching time to the next exercise once I’ve finished all three sets of an exercise. My weight for the first set on any exercise (not the warm up) is the weight I last used for that exercise where I achieved the ten reps – I always write down my key workout stats so I can find the starting weight easily next time.

If I achieve ten reps in a set, then I move the weight up by one increment for the next set. If I fail to achieve ten, then I’ll note the number I failed on and perform the next set with the same weight, trying to getting closer to the ten. In this situation, I will also drop to a lighter weight just to complete the ten, remembering of course where I failed, as that’s the target to beat next set. Ignoring the warm up, this works out to be a total of 90 reps for the quads (3 x 3 x 10). I then move to hamstrings for a further 90 reps (another 3 x 3 x 10) and incorporating the 20 rep warm up at the start of the workout this comes to a total of 200 reps for my thighs. This takes around 45 minutes, and I add five minutes of static stretching at the end for a total workout time of 50 minutes.

“Don’t lock your knees at the end of the rep. It’s important to keep your back straight and head up throughout and keep your feet firmly planted with the weight evenly distributed between the balls and heels of your feet”

6 Smith Machine Squat

This is effectively a variant of the back squat, removing some elements of complexity and requirements for core stability thus adding safety.

The machine restricts the plane of motion of the bar to a fixed-path (straight up and down) so there’s no need to stabilise the body to prevent motion forwards/backwards, side-to-side or rotational.

As a result, there are fewer demands placed on the abs and obliques than a back squat, which may help focus the effort onto the weight being lifted rather than stability. You also obviously don’t have to take a step to un-rack the bar either. You should set the Smith Machine’s safety catches at an appropriate position to ensure that the ideal range of motion for you isn’t exceeded and that you could bail out of the lift if the weight became too heavy.

How to perform:

If uncertain of the position of the safety catches, then go higher (aka safer) for a few reps until you can establish the correct point that will produce the maximum range of motion -which is with thighs parallel with the floor. In terms of bar height set it to a position just lower than your shoulders – your knees will need to be slightly bent in order to get shoulder contact with the bar. Hold the bar with a wide and equallyspaced under-grasp grip with its centre (optionally cushioned with a foam roll) resting on the fleshy part of your shoulders.

With feet shoulder-width apart, gradually extend your legs to ‘take the bar’, then rotate it with your hands to clear it of the rests. Slowly bend your knees to a thighs parallel to the floor position, then push back up for the second rep. It is vital to keep your head up and back straight throughout. Replacing the bar is the reverse of the start process.

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