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If you want big, strong legs and especially quads, do you have to train them directly or are there better ways to make the quads bigger and stronger?
For athletic performance and strength that’s useful in daily life, quadricep isolation exercises aren’t necessary but don’t hurt anything either although compound exercises that include the quads are better. For pure size, adding some quad isolation work will help them grow faster.
Let’s get into what type of training is best for the quads and why.
If training any body part is necessary depends on what your needs/goals are. Unless your life depends on the size of your legs or jump height, it’s probably not necessary. However, there are a lot of goals you can have that do make it necessary to directly train the quadriceps to reach those goals.
The most common goals people have is to have bigger legs or quadriceps specifically or to perform better in their respective sports. Do you have to train your quadriceps to reach either of those goals?
Most lower body exercise that involves any pushing will use the quadriceps as well. Squatting, deadlifting, lunges, running, jumping all involve the quadriceps quite heavily but not only.
So with most sports that require you to be on your legs and weightlifting you’ll use your quadriceps to some degree and train them to some degree without targeting them directly. The other movements you do aren’t traditional quadricep exercises but the muscle is still used enough to make it a little bigger and/or stronger.
After a while though, you might start feeling you run into the limits of your quadricep strength or endurance. That is the moment you should start considering adding some extra quadricep training. If a single part of your body is holding you back in your athletic performance, training that muscle extra is a good idea. Since the quadriceps are the main power producing muscle in the leg, having them strong and explosive will likely improve your athletic performance. However, for athletic performance, you don’t want just one muscle in your leg to be strong but the whole leg. So working out the quadriceps in isolation might not yield the results you like.
That’s for athletic performance. However, many people want to have bigger legs for aesthetic reasons. This changes things a little bit. The main leg building exercises are compound exercises like squats, lunges and deadlifts. These exercises are very good at building lower body mass. But every muscle needs slightly different stimulation for optimal growth.
So while you can get good muscle gains by doing those exercises, for maximum size, and especially if you feel your quadriceps are lagging, separate quadricep isolation exercises will help. However, for most people and especially beginners, this is likely unnecessary.
To get bigger quadriceps, doing some direct isolation workouts on top of your other exercise will help quite a lot. Especially if you want them to grow faster in comparison to other leg muscles. Muscles grow when you give them the right combination of sets, repetitions and resistance. That has to be combined with training in the right range of motion. You want to use as much of the range of motion of the muscle to maximize growth.
By focussing only on the quadriceps, you can get all the other parameters just right to optimize growth in a way that is not possible with most other exercise. You will get more muscle growth by adding a few isolation exercises.
Again, for the vast majority of people it’s not necessary to isolate the quads if you’re doing lower body compound exercises but adding quad isolation exercises can give you the option to grow your quads a little more than the rest of the leg.
So if you want bigger quadriceps, the best way to get them is to train them directly although with enough lower body exercises you’ll grow them considerably and direct isolation work is not necessary for most. For athletic performance it’s not strictly necessary in most situation unless you notice your quadriceps to be a restriction on performance. But what about normal people? You go to the gym to be in better shape and have some real world strength but don’t care about athletic performance or how big your arms are. Is quadricep training useful for you?
If you want to build some useful real world strength but don’t care about looks, using your time to do compound exercises for your lower body is the best option just like it is for athletic performance or size. Compound exercises work well for growth of the whole leg but also build a lot of strength. Especially if you’re using higher weights and lower repetitions.
Compound exercises are exercises that move more than one joint at the same time. Isolation exercises only move one joint at the same time. Compound exercises use more muscle mass at the same time which means you can move more weight and build more strength. Often these movements are done in a way that focusses more on building strength and less on building muscle. Many of the compound exercises for the lower body will use a lot of quadriceps.
Compound exercises are similar to the movement patterns you usually use your strength in the real world. You push something away, get up from the floor, run or jump. Almost nothing you do in daily life requires just the use of a single muscle. Training a single muscle in isolation will make it stronger and bigger but if the surrounding muscles aren’t any stronger, you can’t really use that strength.
Examples of compound exercises that use the quadriceps as one of the muscles are; Squats, deadlifts, box jumps, lunges, or sled pulls.
Again, just like with athletic performance, there might be a point where your quadriceps are the limiting factor to performing one of the exercises above. If that is the case and you want to get stronger, training the quadriceps in isolation will help you improve your weak points and improve your overall strength. However, that means the exercises have become the goal and not daily usable strength.
So compound exercises are the way to go for athletic performance and real world strength. But if you just like to work out your quadriceps with isolation exercises like leg extensions, does this hurt anything or cause problems?
In most cases, training your quadriceps directly with isolation exercises doesn’t hurt anything or have any drawbacks. Your quadriceps will be a bit bigger and stronger and your legs fill out the pants a bit more. As long as you keep the isolation movements to a normal level, there isn’t much that can go wrong with this.
If you go overboard with the direct exercises, it could start impeding the recovery for the compound exercises. Overuse injuries could also become a problem. Compound exercises, especially for the lower body require a lot of recovery so adding more to this could lead to having to take longer between leg workouts.
Also, for some sports where speed is very important, the extra weight on your legs could actually slow you down a little bit. This is probably offset by the extra strength and endurance but in extreme cases it could be a problem.
If aesthetics really aren’t a goal (they are for most people even if they don’t want huge legs), the extra exercises just take up time, energy and recovery capacity you could use for other things. However, just adding one or two isolation exercises after a workout doesn’t take much time or recovery capacity.
Here are some articles that might help you figure out how to train your quads.