By Adam Bisek
The quadriceps femoris consists of 4 distinct muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius. The rectus femoris attaches to the ilium (pelvis) and superficially spans the distance from the hip, inserting at the patella (knee cap) and covering the vastus intermedius. All three vasti (lateralis, medalis, intermedius) attach at some point on the upper portion of the femur and insert at the quadriceps tendon and patella similar to the rectus femoris.
The quadriceps group is pretty straight forward, they all extend the knee. However, because the rectus femoris attaches to the ilium it also acts on the hip joint helping with hip flexion. Additionally, the vastus medialis works to stabilize the patella (knee) during gait.
1) The Shortened Position: Banded, Hips Flexed (Sitting Forward) Leg Extension
Working Sets: 3
Repetition Range: 10-12
Rest: ~60-90 seconds
Banding particular exercises can accommodate something called the “strength curve.” Essentially this curve explains the differing level of strength and mechanical advantage you have as you go through an exercises’ full range of motion. For this particular exercise using a band attached to a leg extension apparatus more so accentuates the difficulty at the top of the movement where the quadriceps are reaching their shortest length and a weaker position. Thus, this technique doesn’t increase resistance to match the strength curve but rather is a technique to accentuate tension at the muscles shortened position.
To set up make sure you sit a bit forward off of the back of the seat, this more hips flexed position will help us put your quadriceps into the shortest position we can get them. Use the handles to hold yourself down in the seat throughout the exercise. Now smoothly drive your lower leg up, holding the top end contraction for a second. While doing this I imagine the cue of “pulling” your kneecap towards your hip to help with the intention of “feeling” your quadriceps working. Now lower the weight in a controlled fashion and begin the next repetition keeping constant tension.
This exercise is meant to get an initial “feel” of your quadriceps working and achieve increased blood flow to the target tissue while warming up the knee joint. We are not looking to kill you here but certainly get some good, concentrated volume. If you don’t have an appropriate band you can certainly execute this movement in the manner aforementioned with the same set-up and achieve a similar effect.
2) The Mid-Range Position: Hack Squat
Working Sets: 4
Repetition Range: 8-10
Rest: ~180-240 seconds
In reality, this movement could be any big, multi-joint, squat-based movement. I prefer the hack squat when trying to target the quadriceps as it’s a bit easier to bias the knee joint compared to a free bar, or barbell squat variation.
This is our “meat and potatoes’ movement of the training session where we have an opportunity to apply a great deal of load and hit the quadriceps hardest at their midrange length.
The hack squat is pretty simple in its execution. With a roughly shoulder-width stance place your feet on the platform at a distance that will allow for some forward knee travel, but at the same time allow you to keep your heel pressed firmly into the platform throughout the full range of motion. The more knee travel you can create with this condition the more your quadriceps will have to bear the load of the movement. Descend downward under stellar control and as far as you can while keeping a relatively neutral pelvis. You know you’ve passed your active range of motion when your pelvis wants to tuck under (posterior pelvic tilt). You want to stop descending roughly before this point in the range of motion which will differ a fair amount from person to person. After reaching this point reverse your direction, driving your feet downward and knees back in a smooth fashion, stopping before you reach a fully straightened leg, avoid locking out during the movement as to keep constant tension.
3) The Lengthened Position: Sissy Squat (Hack Variation or Traditional)
Working Sets: 3
Repetition Range: 10-12
Rest: ~90 seconds
This movement is meant to create a lot of torque for the knee and quadriceps to overcome as the quadriceps reach their greatest length. The sissy squat variations are meant to create a good amount of tension with one’s hips extended and going into deeper knee flexion. This puts the quadriceps near their longest length.
If you have access to a traditional hack squat apparatus (such as the one in the video) you can create the aforementioned condition very well. Start on the balls of your feet placed towards the top of the platform and extend your hips as far as you can. At this position brace your abdominal wall and contract your glutes to create a rigid “core” for the movement. Now descend as far as you can in a controlled, slow fashion gauging where your own “point of no return” is. When you reach the bottom drive the balls of your feet into the platform in a similar feel and fashion as if you were performing the leg extension exercise done earlier in the workout. Similar to the other two exercises, only come up so far as to keep constant tension, not completely locking out. While this movement is ideal to reach greater torques in the quadriceps lengthened position, it’s a quite difficult one that many may not be able to do even if there is no weight loaded on the apparatus.
The traditional, old-school sissy squat may be the best option for most both physically and logistically. Standing next to a stable apparatus that you can hold onto with one arm start on the balls of your feet. You can do this bodyweight or while holding a weight plate, but most can stick with just their body weight and get the full effect. Now descend by pushing your knees forward with your hips fully extended, contracting your glutes and bracing your abdominal wall to keep a rigid torso (“core”). Only go as far down as you can still get back up, but the deeper you can go the more we can accentuate the amount of tension we create in a lengthened position. As you reach this bottom point make sure to keep your braced, rigid torso, not breaking at the hips, and drive your toes into the ground in a similar fashion and action to a typical leg extension. The less you can break the tension at the top of the movement the better but at this point in the workout, it may be tough not to.
While the OGS model works well to target the quadriceps at several muscle lengths it may not be enough total volume for a full leg day or even for the quadriceps. With a lot of research pointing to 10-20 working sets per week, and sometimes more, needed to build a particular muscle group a second leg day will more than likely be needed. Not only that but most traditional leg days will also involve hamstring, glute, and calve work, and thus this OGS quadriceps model will most likely involve a handful of other exercises included within a session.
There are several ways you can implement this model and successfully grow your quads. With multiple leg days per week, you can do the entirety of the OGS model in one of the workouts, split it over the sessions, and certainly can add some extra quadriceps exercises and volume. Most experienced trainees will need this additional quadriceps weekly volume over what is done in one OGS quadriceps session to further growth. Additional overall leg work (hamstrings, glutes, calves) will be done at some point and can be paired with this model in any way you wish while still employing an appropriate amount of training session volume.
With the OGS model at hand employing two single-joint, isolation movements, additional multi-joint quadriceps-oriented movements will help round out your program. Other squat-based movements, leg presses, and lunge variations are great options. To make these movements more “quad dominant,” biasing more knee movement than hip movement is crucial. Thus, in any squat, leg press, or lunge movement the more knee travel and often upright posture you can employ the more you will utilize your quadriceps in the movement.
How much additional quadriceps volume will be needed for growth is very interindividual. My suggestion for most, even experienced, trainees would be to add 5-10 more quadriceps working sets (on top of the OGS model outlined) during the week and ensuring that you can progress in some fashion over time (reps, weight, time under tension, decreased rest, execution, etc.). As you add more and more working sets per week keeping an eye on progression is key. If progression plateaus over a couple of weeks then most likely its prudent for you to drop your total volume back down.
*Tempo is referred to in a 4-digit sequence whereby the first digit and thirst digits are the lowering/lengthening (eccentric) contraction and raising/shortening (concentric) contraction respectively. The second and fourth digits are the times between those two contractions/movements. For example, using the Leg Extension tempo above (2011) you would lower the weight and lengthen your quadriceps for 2 seconds (2011), not pause (2011), extend your legs/knees for 1 second (2011), and then hold that full extended, shortened contraction for 1 second (2011) before lowering the weight again.
**RIR stands for Repetitions in Reserve and is essentially the assumed amount of repetitions you have left before you technically fail on the exercise. Technical failure is denoted by the last repetition you can complete with technically sounds failure, this is not absolute failure, where simply completing the repetition with breaks in form and compensation most often occurring.
Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers. (2016, January 20). Retrieved from https://www.asfyt.com/blog/muscle-anatomy-the-quadriceps