Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.
I wasn’t blessed with big legs when I was younger – and I’m still working on them now. I was that guy who always trained in tracksuit bottoms because I was too embarrassed to get them out. I was also that guy who trained legs once a week yet complained they weren’t growing. But I learnt, through a process of trial and error, an effective way to develop well-defined quads.
If you really want to see growth to your quads you need to start training them more than once a week. I really didn’t see any development of my quads until I started adding more workouts each week. For at least two or three years I trained my quads between two and three times per week. And if you apply my tips below I assure you that you will take your quads to the next level.
Variety is essential
First things first. When it comes to the best reps, sets and tempo protocols for developing killer quads variety is the key. One thing I do with all of my bodybuilding clients is to ensure there is some high rep work in there as well as heavy work. The first thing you need to consider is which part of your quads to you want to develop over the rest. For most people it’s the ‘sweep’ or the thick slab of meat you see on the outside of bodybuilders quads.
When trying to grow this area I find getting as much blood flowing into the muscles works really well. So I like to use medium loads but for higher reps – anywhere from 20 to 50 reps – including drop sets.
I’ve tried phases of just doing high reps, and phases of just doing low reps. I’ve found that the quads lose density when low reps are avoided and that they lose fullness when high reps are avoided.
That’s why I like to incorporate a variety of rep ranges into training programs and I tend to start off quad workouts with a heavy lift and then the reps get higher as the workout develops. As for tempo, I think it’s essential to add pauses into sets. I like peak contraction pauses on the leg extension, and pauses in the stretched position on the hack squat and front squat. Placing a pause in each rep ensures you’re putting a deep focus on the quads, which brings out fantastic depth and development.
I also like to use slow eccentrics on many of the heavy quad exercises that I prescribe. Heavy eccentrics create maximal damage and tension within the muscle. This is key for muscle hypertrophy.
When I watch people training their quads I often see weight being added set after set. It appears people think the only way to grow their quads is progressive overload, adding more and more weight with each set. Whilst this is a key component to muscle development, it really is only part of the equation. I also notice people training their quads alongside their hamstrings. Where this falls down is often one muscle groups gets more attention that the other. You must see your quads and hamstrings as a set of muscles on their own, just like you do with your chest and back. Give each muscle group the time and attention it needs and deserves to develop fully.
When it comes to exercise selection it’s very difficult to pick one overall favorite. Each and every exercise has its benefits when it comes to building big quads. Where I think people go wrong is the execution of the exercises they choose. Let’s take the leg extension, for example. It’s a fantastic exercise for developing the rectus femoris, but hardly anyone focuses on maximally contracting it.
Most people use the leg extension as an ego machine and try to lift as much weight as possible. When you next use it, drop the load you’re using and try to bring your toes up as high as you can. You also need to concentrate on contracting your quads right up by the top of your hips and keep your chest up.
Another great quad-builder is the leg press yet many people execute it incorrectly. Firstly most people push through their toes and knees so they place less load directly higher up on into their quads. Focus on placing every bit of effort deep into your quads higher up towards your hips, and pull yourself hard into the seat. Another tip you can try to help develop the ‘sweep’, or outer thigh, is to place your toes out and keep your heels six inches apart. Lower the weight by driving your knees out then focus on pressing the load back up with the outside of your quads.
Get hacked off
I would be lost without the hack squat. This is yet another exercise that people load up to the max, but fail to place any tension deep into their quads. Learn to accept pain when you get into the hack squat: once you start to embrace it you quads will grow. One tip I like to give people on the hack squat is to press the load up through the center and outside of their quads.
I get them to think about presenting their quads as if they were on stage by slightly rotating their femur. You might think this is a simple tip but you’ll be surprised how many people cheat the pain by pressing up through their knees or by letting their knees buckle in.
For every exercise try to focus on lowering the load whilst contracting your quads really hard. Many people drop into quad exercises and then immediately bounce out. If you really want to see growth, learn how to control the eccentric portion of the lift.
All or nothing
The single-best tip I can give is this: man up and train like your life depends on it. The quads are a big muscle group and can handle a lot of damage. You have to be prepared to endure a level of pain in the process. My quads failed to grow until I learned to embrace the pain that comes with effective quad training.