We don’t skip leg day in CrossFit—we embrace it. After all, our legs carry us from point A to point B, they help us squat, run, jump and move. The strength and health of our quadriceps have a large part to do with that, so we must ensure that we’re doing all that we can to keep them in tip-top condition (if that means that we can’t fit into jeans anymore, so be it).
Quadricep anatomy 101
The quads, or ‘quadriceps femoris’, are a group of muscles in the front of the thigh. These are the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. The vastus muscles originate on the femur (the thigh bone) and attach to your kneecap. The rectus femoris inserts on to your hip bone, but it also partially covers your vastus muscles. All four of these muscles help your knee joint (and therefore your leg) extend, and due to the rectus femoris’ attachment to the ilium (the biggest bone in the pelvis), it’s also a flexor of the hip; Hence why the muscle group is so important in walking, running, jumping and squatting. But because we use them so often in daily life, they are prone to injuries like strains and tears.
Strengthening the quads
One of the best ways to ensure that the quadriceps don’t get damaged is to ensure they’re strong enough to handle whatever you throw at them during the day. Furthermore, strong quads equal a stronger squat, acceleration in sprinting, balance, power production and sex appeal. They also help to protect the knee joint (which is a very unstable joint that relies on ligaments and muscles to ward off injury). In fact, possessing weak quads significantly raises the risk of developing knee arthritis in later life. To that end, here are some of the best drills you can perform for strong quads:
Any type of squat will work your quadriceps, but the reason why front squats are listed as
the best variation for quad development is due to the angle of the tibiae (shin bones) and the angle of the torso. Performance coach Mike Robertson explains:
“You can think of both as a spectrum or continuum, but the more angled the tibia(e) is, the more quad dominant the exercise will be. The more vertical the tibia(e) is, the more hip dominant the exercise will be.
At the torso, similar rules apply.
The more upright the torso is, the more quad dominant the exercise will be. The more angled the torso is, the more hip dominant the exercise will be.
So when you start to put these pieces together, it looks something like this:
Angled Tibia + Upright Torso = Quad Dominant
Vertical Tibia + Inclined Torso = Hip Dominant”
Since the front squat allows you to maintain a more vertical torso through the position of the barbell in the front rack, and there is more pronounced forward incline of the tibia, the greatest stress is placed on the quadriceps.
Sprints are a tremendous anaerobic exercise that are great for muscle building, since they give a boost to testosterone levels in the body. Using the momentum of your own body mass as a form of resistance, sprints are a form of progressive overload work. You can generate more than three times your bodyweight in landing impact each time you strike the ground, and all that tension and force trickles up through the ground into the muscles of your legs. Remember, the quads are involved in knee extension and hip flexion, both of which are done powerfully and quickly during a sprint. Sprinting induces specific adaptations in the neuromuscular system (i.e., rate of motor unit recruitment, synchronization, etc.) that will allow the body to generate force faster. The faster you can summon force, the more total force you can generate during a rep attempt. All in all, sprinting gives you big quads—just look at any top 100m sprinter, speed skater or sprint cyclist and you’ll have no doubt that’s the case.
Bulgarian split squats are a great unilateral exercise that highlight muscular imbalances between your quads, but also help to correct them. Once again, the nature of the movement forces you to keep a vertical shin angle, placing greater emphasis on quadricep recruitment to extend the knee with each rep. The closer your front foot is to the bench or box, the greater tension is placed on the quads.
Lunges are another functional movement that work multiple muscle groups, though the quads take the brunt of the workload. Like the Bulgarian Split Squat, they can be great for highlighting imbalances between your legs, and their versatility allows you to perform them with a barbell (overhead, front rack, back), kettlebells or dumbbells (overhead, front rack, sides) or any other implement to tax your muscle endurance, strength, balance and stability.
While gripping a set of dumbbells or kettlebells by your side, place one foot on a box in front of you, drive through the foot (feeling your quads pop as they help to extend your knee) and bring your other leg to a standing position on the box. Straightforward and great for quad development.
Exercises for quadricep mobility
Many athletes overlook how important it is to keep the quads flexible. We need them to move through a full range of motion during exercise. However, if we never stretch them they’ll become short and tight. As a result, you’ll struggle to fully extend your knee and flex your hip.
-All fours quad stretch
Start on the ground on your hands and knees. Bend your right leg up and take your right hand to grab the ankle of your right foot. Hold in this position, ensuring the knee is fully flexed and that you extend your hips by thrusting them towards the floor. Hold this position for 30 seconds, and switch.
-Hip Flexor stretch
Kneel with one knee on the floor and the other foot in front of you to the side. It should look like you’re in the bottom position of a lunge. Push your hips forwards, maintaining a a flat, tall back. You should feel this stretch working at the top of your thigh and front of your hip. Hold for 30-60 seconds, and switch.
-Hip Flexor wall stretch
Start in the same position as you would for a regular hip flexor stretch, except this time position your back knee about eight inches away from the wall, resting your toes against the wall. Your front foot is in front of you (with the knee directly above the ankle), slightly to the side. Keep your chest up and back flat—you may need to hold on to a PVC pipe for stability. The closer you bring your back knee to the wall, the tougher the stretch becomes.
Photo courtesy of Tony Frescas Photography