Want big legs? Then listen up as we start walking through what you need to know to add size and strength to turn your chicken legs into tree trunks!
We’ll Start with Quads!
The front of the upper leg in the human body is made up of a group of muscles called the quadriceps femoris, also called the quadriceps extensor, quadriceps, or quads for short. The quads are used for pushing movements with the legs, integral to jumping, walking, and running, and used in moves like leg extensions, squats, and leg press. If you want to develop your leg size and have massive quads, then you’ll want to learn more about the location and function of these four muscles and how to work them in order to gain size.
Location and Function of the Quadriceps Muscles
The quadriceps (which gets its name from the Latin for “four-headed muscle of the femur”) is made up of the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. This group of muscles is responsible for extending the knee and flexing the hip.
- The rectus femoris runs straight down the middle of the front of the leg, and covers most of the other muscles. It originates at the ilium in the iliac spine. It plays a huge role in the extension of the knee and flexion of the hip.
- The vastus lateralis is on the outer portion of the thigh, and originates on the lateral surface of the femur. It aids in extension of the knee.
- The vastus intermedius is on the front of the thigh, and isn’t seen. It originates at the anterior surface of the femur and aids in extension of the knee.
- The vastus medialis is on the inner portion of the thigh and is what forms the “teardrop” shape. It originates at the medial surface of the femur and also works to extend the knee.
Here’s another look that shows the vastus intermedius better:
Moves that work the glutes or hamstrings will often work the quadriceps as well. The development of your quads depends on the exercises you do and the position in which you hold your feet.
How to Work Quads
You’ll never grow big legs unless you do the work. Some people are blessed with the ability to pack on the muscle on their quads, but most people have to hit their legs, and hit them hard, to build the muscle. If you’re in the second group, don’t despair. Just be persistent…and be prepared for some pain. The number one way to build leg size is squats. Not everyone can do squats, though. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do them, then go ahead and add them to your routine if you haven’t already. It’s the fastest way to grow your legs if you do them properly.
Another way to grow your legs is through the leg press. If you want to work all the muscles of your quads, move your feet around in different positions. For example, a high, narrow position works your outer quads more, while a wider foot position works the inner thigh muscles the most. Other moves to work and build the quads are hack squats, forward lunges, and leg extensions. Be sure to do the hack squat with varying foot positions to hit all the heads of the quadriceps. Forward leg extensions really hit the “teardrop” part of the quadriceps. Leg extensions are the final move to perform.
Volume, Work Load, and Tension for Huge Quads
If you want huge legs or even legs that are bigger than those on a chicken, you’ll need to work them as hard as you work your upper body. It will hurt, and you’ll want to stop. But if you are faithful to the program and keep at it, you will see results. The trick is to get the proper volume, workload, tension (and of course, nutrition).
Just like with other muscles, you need to work your quads to failure. Forced reps are what makes muscles grow, and that’s where you’ll see progress. When you work out, do a mix of sets where you perform low reps with heavy weights and ones where you do high sets with a lower weight. Play around with time under tension with slow negatives to really get a pump going to help grow those muscles.
As we discussed the anatomy and function of the group of muscles on the front of the upper leg known as the quadriceps. We saw that the quads consist of four primary muscles, the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
Understanding the structure and function of the quadriceps muscles is crucial to designing an adequate plan of attack when it comes to putting together an effective training routine. It is one thing to throw together a handful of random exercises; however, it is quite another to design an intelligent, well-rounded program that will be both effective and sustainable.
As the largest group of muscles in the body, the legs as a whole tend to be the most challenging body part to train. Exercises like heavy squats and leg presses will leave you with sucking air with blurred vision and black spots in your periphery but it really comes down to you to determine your own level of training intensity. When it comes to building big, strong quads, it isn’t all about moving as much weight as possible.
There are many intensity techniques at your disposal that will allow you to beat the living heck out of your quads without having to load up a metric ton on the leg press and blow out a knee or a hip.
Best Quads Exercises
The almighty squat is revered by many as the king of exercises.[ii] A lot of relentless practice is required to master the squat so begin with a weight you can squat to parallel or lower and slowly work your way up in weight from there. To get the most bang for your buck, reps should be in the region of 6-10. Start at the higher end and ramp up the weight to your heaviest 6 in solid form.
#2 Smith Machine Squat
Squatting in the smith machine will allow you to take a much narrower stance to really hammer the teardrop portion of the quads and overload the adductors without having to worry about losing balance. Go for higher reps with these, sets of 12-15.
#3 Leg Press
Plate-loaded sled-style or horizontal, the leg press is a fantastic piece of equipment that will allow you to drastically and safely overload the quads from a variety of angles.[iii] Depending on foot placement and rep tempo, reps can be anything from 8-25.
If you have adequate space in your gym, walking lunges can be a brutal way to toast the legs. Make these the second or third exercises in your workout so that your hips and knees are warmed up without you being so fatigued that balance becomes an issue. Never perform lunges as the first exercise in your workout. Keep reps fairly high, sets of 12-15.
#5 Leg Extensions
I would suggest using leg extensions either at the very beginning of your workout to flood the quads with blood and warm up the knees, or at the very end to finish off the quads. Honestly, I do not think leg extensions are necessary until you have already attained a certain level of leg development. This will be for you to decide; however, the meat-and-potatoes of your quadriceps workout should consist of squat and leg press variations. Using sets of 12-20 as relatively lightweight will enable you to keep your form strict and squeeze hard at the top.
Quads Building Routine
To make sure your hard work continues to pay dividends it is important to realize that you cannot annihilate a muscle group with umpteen sets week-in and week-out without recovery becoming an issue. With some of the intensity techniques mentioned below, you will find that in the early stages of the routine, less really will be more.
We are going to cycle volume by starting week one with just five sets, not including warm-ups. and adding one to two sets each week until we reach around 9-11 sets. Up to this point, you will be learning to apply increasing levels of intensity to your training and your body will be adapting accordingly. At this point we will use a low-volume approach of four to six sets; however, those sets will be incredibly high intensity and will truly test your mettle.
Example Workout – 9 Sets (High Volume)
#1 Leg Extensions
Increase the weight with each set.
- One set of 25
- One set of 12-15
- One set of 10
These sets should not be taken to failure. Focus on squeezing hard at the top to pump the quads with blood. On the third set, drop back down to the weight you did for 12-15 and do 30 partial reps out of the bottom.
#2 Leg Press
Three sets of 12-15.
Increase the weight with each set.
Make your stance slightly narrower than shoulder-width and relatively low on the platform. Do not be afraid to go heavy on these and, if you need to, push with your hands on your knees to help yourself out of the bottom.
Three sets of 10
As we are doing these last in the workout you will not need as much weight. Go all the way down in a controlled fashion and then explode up. Do not lock your knees at the top as this will keep constant tension on the quads. On the third set, complete 10 reps and then lower the weight by 30-50% and perform another 15-20 reps.
Recovery Injury Prevention
It is important to monitor your recovery and decide when you need to take a break. For most, this will usually be around the 12-16 week mark; however, this is highly individual. After two to three weeks of the low-volume, high-intensity phase you will be hammering away with heavy partial reps, drop sets, and a lot of time-under-tension so it would be wise to take a week or two of lighter training. Go into the gym, get a pump and leave. Do not try to set any personal records. Allow your body to recuperate.
Safety must always come first and there are no exceptions to this rule. This ties in with recovery so if you feel aches and pains in your hips and knees that won’t go away then perhaps it is time to take a break, lay off of a particular exercise like heavy squats, or just train lighter with higher rep-counts for a week or two.
So there you have it…your one-way ticket to Quadsville. It is important to remember that experimentation is the key to continued progress. Experiment with exercise variations, rep ranges, and intensity techniques to find what works best for you. I have provided an example workout but I encourage you to mix it up and try your own combinations. Perhaps try 20-rep sets of Smith Machine Squats with a two-second pause at the bottom, or you could try Horizontal Leg Press with a three-second descent.
Whatever you do, make it count and track your progress over time. By applying these methods I am confident you will begin to see your quadriceps take shape in no time at all.