When designing a program to develop quad muscles, I commonly run into two issues.
1. Many people are quad dominant— meaning, even if you are training your hamstrings or glutes, you can’t help but feel more quads during these exercises. This is great if you are trying to build your quads, but troublesome if you want to keep the quad focus out and build glute and hamstring size and strength.
2. Exercise selection. It is easy to come up with leg exercises that work your hamstrings and glutes— squats, leg press, lunges… the list goes on. And, sure, all of those exercises will definitely work your quads, too— it’s usually just secondary to hamstrings and glutes. The tricky part is coming up with exercises— or WAYS to alter exercises— that will take some of the glute and hamstring focus out and use your quads as the primary mover.
First, you need to work on your mind-muscle connection throughout your body. This applies every training session. The more practice you have with this, the better your physique will build and change.
When putting your mind at your quads, I like to start with doing a simple exercise such as the leg press and simply play around with different foot and leg positions throughout a set to see where the focus goes.
Make sure all distractions are turned off; even a song you love jamming out to during workouts can be too much of a distraction when learning the mind-muscle connection with your body.
After two warm-up sets on the leg press, add a moderate amount of weight onto the leg press machine— a little more than your warm-up weight but not quite as heavy as you would go for your first couple of working sets. You don’t want it so heavy that you can’t focus on shifting weight around in your legs with different foot positions. If it’s too heavy, you’ll just be putting all of your energy into moving the weight instead of learning it.
Set 1: Place your feet high on the leg press platform (toes aligned with the top edge), feet a bit wider than shoulder-width and toes pointed out slightly. Unlock the leg press platform and lower the weight slowly. Make sure your knees don’t collapse inward (keep them pointed in the direction of your toes) and feel the weight in your heels. Lower the platform as low as you can— you want a full range of motion and a full stretch in your glutes at the bottom. Don’t let the weight or platform bounce or rest at the bottom— just pause for one to two seconds there and begin to push the weight back up. Keeping the knees pointed outward, press through your heels when moving the weight slowly.
If you follow those steps, you should feel most of the focus in your glutes and hamstrings. Do a few reps just like that to begin feeling that focus.
Set 2: Now, move your feet to the bottom of the platform (heels almost off the bottom edge), feet close together and toes pointed outward even more than your first set. Your heels should be close together— about six to eight inches apart. If you locked the leg press after your first set, unlock it and lower the weight slowly. Your knees should be pointed far outward and you should be slightly up on the balls of your feet. It is an awkward stance compared to the standard glute and hamstring-dominant stance, but this one will work your quads like crazy!
Lower the platform as low as you can comfortably. After a one- to two-second pause at the bottom, begin to push the weight back up. Keeping your knees pointed far outward, press through the balls of your feet while moving the weight up slowly.
If this seems too difficult, lower the weight and try again. Make sure to throw your ego out of this one— you’ll have to go much lighter than usual to make this foot placement work effectively.
If you follow those steps, you should feel the focus in your quads— and it should be hard! Do a few reps just like that to get it right. Every body is different— different leg length, femur length, flexibility, etc— so it’s important for you to not focus on heavy weight and just play with tiny adjustments in your foot positions to nail that focus.
This foot placement is a favorite of mine in the hack squat machine, too!
TIP: Anytime you’re training quads (think leg press and leg extensions), hold onto the machine’s handles firmly so that you ground yourself down into the seat as much as possible. The more you press your body into the set, the more you can focus on your quads.
Other Favorite Quad-Dominant Exercises
Unfortunately, not many gyms will have this (but there are effective alternatives!) piece of equipment, but if you see one— get over there! Practice makes perfect with this one, too, as it is a little tricky find that focus in your quads. Lock your feet in tight and keep your stance narrow. At first, try holding your hands behind your head— it will help keep your torso upright, which keeps the focus on your quads. If you let your torso bend forward, you’ll do a ton of reps and still be wondering how this is a quad exercise. Squat down low and don’t come all the way back up (don’t lock your knees or straighten your legs) at the top. A steady tempo is best and I love throwing these in at the very end of my quad workouts!
Split stance (Bulgarian) squat
Bring a box or a bench with you to the Smith machine. To find the correct placement for the box or bench, stand perfectly upright under the bar (shoulders, hips and feet all in alignment) and bring a leg backward to touch the box or bench. If it feels like a good and safe distance behind you where you can stay balanced, you found the right spot. Now scoot your other foot forward approximately one foot’s distance forward (without shifting it right or left).
With that foot planted forward, double check your other foot behind you on the box or bench. Unlock the bar and do a few non-weighted reps with your back foot on the box or bench to see if you’ve found a good split stance distance.
You want to be able to get plenty of depth here without your front knee traveling forward beyond your front toes.
And, just like your sissy squat, you want to keep your torso from bending too far forward. An upright body position throughout the entire movement is what you’re going for.
Like your leg press exercise, add a moderate amount of weight and perform a few reps to make micro adjustments to your stance, depth, feet and torso position to shift the main focus from your glutes and hamstrings into your quads.
This one won’t be as obvious, because the entire leg will be recruited for this exercise, but those micro adjustments will make all the difference!
TIP: Once you’ve found the perfect spot for your front foot on one leg, put a marker on the floor so you know your stance depth for the other leg.
Grab dumbbells AND a weight plate and head over to an area with enough space to perform walking lunges.
Do a quick warm-up of non-weighted walking lunges to check in with your joints and balance.
Set 1: Holding dumbbells at your sides, begin your walking lunges. Don’t be scared to use heavy dumbbells!
TIP: If your grip or forearms are giving out from holding heavy dumbbells, try using grips like Haulin Hooks or Versa Grips!
Make sure you are getting plenty of depth in each step without your front knee traveling forward beyond your front toes, and allow your torso to lean forward just a bit throughout the entire set.
After 30-40 steps, check in with yourself to see where you felt these the most — quads or hamstrings?
Set 2: Put the dumbbells down and grab the weight plate. Holding the plate directly over your head, keep your torso perfectly upright the ENTIRE set of 30-40 steps. Make sure you get plenty of depth in each step without your front knee traveling forward beyond your front toes.
Now where did you feel the focus?
For me, I feel my quads work more when my torso is upright and I have the plate overhead. You can absolutely work your glutes and hamstrings this way, too, but when you focus on your quads this way, it works!
When I hold heavy dumbbells and lean forward, coming up out of each lunge step is where I feel it the most in my glutes. In a deep lunge position while your torso is leaning forward, you are placing maximum stretch on your glutes, which means they will have to use as much force as possible to lift you up out of that lunge position.
Give these exercises a try on your next leg day— and see if you can work on that mind-muscle connection to build up your quads! Here is a workout to follow using the above guidelines:
50 bodyweights squats
2 sets x 30 reps (15 each leg) walking lunges
Frog leg press
5 sets x 15 reps
Split stance squat
4 sets x 15 reps (each leg)
Walking lunges (plate overhead)
4 sets x 30-40 reps (15-20 steps per leg)
Supersetted with: Sissy squats
4 sets x 20 reps
5 sets x 15-20 reps
Photo credit: Bodybuilding.com