by Jim Cordova

Olympian Quads

Nothing looks more ridiculous than a powerful upper body that rests on a pair of under-developed legs. Take it from me, as I seek to save you from the embarrassment of learning this the hard way! If you find that you are lagging behind in any particular region of the quadriceps, that is about to change. Assuming that you are willing to take some pain, this article will provide you with the game-plan needed to blast each of the four muscles into submission, putting you on the path toward developing a pair of quads so mighty that the Greek gods themselves will bow down before you and shudder!

Some believe that region-specific quad training is impossible, and in one sense, I can’t blame them. When you reflect upon their basic function, it is reasonable to draw such conclusions. The attachment points and belly length (of three of the four quad muscles mostly activated when pressing) is unaffected regardless of how you rotate the legs to form a given stance and they extend the lower leg along a single axis. So, what’s the point of utilizing various stances or movement pathways? All speculation aside, the answer to this will require a basic analysis of muscular anatomy and training dynamics, while keeping the core bilateral movements in mind, namely squats and leg presses.

It should spark your curiosity as to why such an intricately configured muscle group is needed to extend the lower leg. The fiber course in each of the four quadriceps muscles is very unique relative to one another, and each contracts and pulls on the quadriceps tendon from different directions. The fiber of the vastus lateralis and medialis run obliquely, virtually opposing each other, while the split-fiber direction of the rectus femoris possesses both of these characteristics. Interestingly, only one of the four muscles, the vastus intermedius, runs in linear fashion up the femur. This alone hints toward the idea that you can place more emphasis on one muscle over the other.

Generally speaking, whenever you perform squats or leg presses, the force of the weight remains constant, moving along a fixed path. The stress is distributed to the appropriate muscles in the proportion necessary to generate a counter-force that pushes in the opposite direction. There will be a mechanical advantage for some muscles over others based on both foot placement and movement pathways. For example, the muscles recruited when pressing with the legs flared will be different than those called upon when pushing with the legs parallel to each other. This will become clearer as we finally move on to practical application.

Of the four quads muscles, a well-developed vastus lateralis (outer quad) and vastus medialis (teardrop) appear to be the most coveted. The fiber makeup of these two muscles angle in near-opposition to each other, pulling across the knee joint accordingly. This implies that they work hand-in-hand to stabilize the knee or else one of the two muscles would rip the lower leg out of the socket. In one sense, this scenario is very much like performing a cable low row, as both of your forearms angle in toward the waist and yet the cable moves forward in a single direction.

The knee joint is often described as a ‘modified hinge joint,’ since it allows for a slight lateral and medial rotation. This is important because it reveals that the knee was designed to endure a stronger pull from either the teardrop or outer quad, implying that you can shift more tension to one of these muscles over the other. The foundational component behind activating both of these muscles to the extreme entails squatting or pressing with the knees pointed out.

Vastus Medialis: Whenever the legs are flared wide and the feet are planted, the teardrop will be working hard to pull the knee in toward the midline of the body. To enhance stimulation, allow the knees to point out as widely as possible before too much tension builds in the hips upon bending the legs at roughly 90-degrees at the bottom of squats and presses. The teardrop works very hard from this point all the way to near-lockout. It is therefore highly beneficial to focus on the top portion of the ROM.

Now here is where it gets tricky. You must pay attention to your execution. To toast the teardrop, you will want to perform a sort of extension-like style of repetition. Some find that pushing with the heel will aid in the contraction. However, the key point of focus will be on the knees, as they travel from the flared position toward the midline of the body. Frequent execution of a slow and controlled rep cadence is recommended when working the teardrop, especially since it is one of the primary stabilizers of the knee.

Vastus Lateralis: Things are quite different when it comes to specialized emphasis of the outer quads. For starters, the legs should not flare out to the same degree that you would use to place emphasis on the teardrop. A safe bet is to place the feet at roughly shoulder-width, pointing the toes out a bit. You will not want the knees to move toward the midline of the body to avoid shifting the tension to the teardrop, which usually occurs during the final quarter of the ROM of presses and squats. Therefore, you will want to focus more on the bottom half of the ROM. The outer quad is designed for power and so an explosive rep scheme will place a considerable amount of stress over to this region.

Remember, the teardrop and outer quad work very close together. Placing more stress onto one region over the other necessitates that you focus on the three key form components, namely, the pathway of travel, rep tempo, and ROM. To experiment, choose a single exercise. Perform three sets with a powerful “piston-like” cadence, stopping a quarter short of lockout, while using a shoulder-width stance for three sets. Follow that up with three more sets using a slower tempo, a wider flare to the legs with a focus on bringing the knees to the midline of the body, while remaining within the upper three-quarters of the ROM. Without a doubt, both the emphasis and pump will shift from the outer quads to the teardrop.

Vastus Intermedius: The vastus intermedius lies underneath the rectus femoris and runs down the femur. It is the only muscle in the quads with a (near) linear fiber course from origin to attachment. As this muscle grows, it will indirectly enhance the appearance of the rectus femoris by pushing it out more. You will find data supporting that this muscle is strongly recruited at the bottom of a squat or leg press and my own experience agrees with it.

The vastus intermedius will receive the greatest amount of stress when the feet are placed close together so that the legs travel near-parallel to each other throughout the movement, with the upper legs coming in toward the chest. Additionally, both studies and athlete experience suggest that this muscle seems to be activated to a greater extent when the upper body and upper legs form a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the press. Basically, this means that you will want to keep the upper body upright, such as on a hack squat or leg press, and enhancing stimulation by using a powerful rep tempo, while remaining within the bottom half of the ROM.

Personally, I find the leg press to be ideal, feeling a notably greater burn when moving the seat toward the upright position, bending the legs just past a 90-degree angle at the bottom, and stopping more than a quarter short of lockout. It is recommended to switch up your stance width, remaining within the range of four inches to one foot between the heels, or up until the point where the legs begin to naturally too flare outward. Below is a basic pressing pattern geared around thorough stimulation of the vastus medialis, lateralis, and intermedius:

Rectus Femoris: The muscles located in the upper front portion of the quad are the vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris, with the latter being visible. Though these two muscles lie on top of each other, they are quite unique in terms of function. The rectus femoris is the only muscle in the quads that crosses two joints. You will find a great deal of scientific evidence showing that activation is strongest during single joint movements and very weak when hip flexion is combined with knee extension. While I am not completely sold on this notion, it does imply that many versions of presses and squats might not be ideal choices to develop this muscle. Furthermore, you will find conflicting opinions as to whether leg extensions, a key single-joint quad movement, are sufficient to stimulate the rectus femoris muscle.

While I am not qualified to solve this matter, I do believe the contraction felt in the rectus femoris during extensions mimics a sort of isometric leg lift, particularly as the hips tense during the start of the movement, and felt mostly when trying to lift the upper leg off of the seat. It is inevitable that the muscle will contract, but I find that activation is not great enough to stimulate rapid development. This correlates with many studies performed on the action of this muscle, revealing that it is not dominant during the extension function performed by the quadriceps, being activated primarily at the very beginning of an extension. Something else to consider is that bending the body at the hips places the rectus femoris in the shortened position and reduces its ability to generate power. Most apparent is that the localized pump and soreness experienced from extensions tell me that the power generated during this exercise is primarily driven by the other three quad muscles.

Nothing tops off leg development like a well-developed rectus femoris that appears as if it is about to explode out of the skin. So, how does one go about developing this muscle? The first thing to understand is that the fiber makeup of the rectus femoris is very unique, running in opposing diagonal directions that form together into what appears to be a split in the middle of the muscle. On a smaller scale, this mimics the action of both the vastus medialis and lateralis as they pull in opposing directions on the knee. Basically this means that you will want to keep the legs in front of the body when performing these variations. Moreover, this muscle acts as a sort of hip flexor and is largely responsible for bringing the legs forward, such as when sprinting. If you think about it, it is for this reason that you feel it contract quite strongly during ab exercises and to a great extent during leg lifts, specifically while keeping a slight bend in the knee.

I personally find it most effective to work this muscle by attaching a weight or cable to the ankles and performing a leg-lift type movement (rectus femoris cable leg lift), preferring to work one leg at a time. Making slight changes in the raising direction of each leg, roughly within a six-inch range from left to right, will slightly shift emphasis and form a unique contraction when performing these. Another way to blast this muscle into submission is to use a Roman chair and perform alternating leg lifts in explosive sprint-like fashion.

Imagine a sprinter when reflecting over the ideal ROM when working this region and you will find that the legs should not rise up so far that the body forms at a 90-degree angle, placing the muscle at a mechanical disadvantage. Moreover, it is essential that you maintain about a 160-degree bend in the legs throughout the movement. Overall, the result is a localized pump, fatigue, and soreness, adding up to refined development and separation in the upper leg near the hips (most apparent when lean).

Now that you understand how to use squats and presses to place specialized focus on the quad muscles, I must point out that there is much more involved. For starters, other principles must be adhered to for continual shock and stimulation of the quad region. Furthermore, like the arms, isolateral, or single-legged, movements are needed to fully bring out the potential for size, shape, and detail within this muscle group. I could probably write a series on the multiple variations of lunges (walking, stationary, horizontal, reverse, uphill, the many forms of weighted, etc.) and reveal how each will emphasize the quads in a unique way relative to ROM, positioning, and rep cadence strategies.

Of course, an individual’s fitness aspirations will dictate what balance of exercises, principles, and strategies are best suited for them. A key lesson that you should take from my articles is that the consistent execution of a prearranged combination of variables will produce a specific outcome in your quest toward muscular development. Moreover, an intelligently designed formula will allow you to realize the goal-specific results that you seek much more rapidly! The quads are very complex and, as with any muscle group, acquiring the correct knowledge is necessary to sculpt them to your liking. So, enhance your knowledge, apply it with consistency, and you will build a set of wheels that will roll over the competition!