Shock Your Quads

Create shape and definition in your quads with this workout.

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT | March 04, 2016

Genetics are often the bane or boon of our existence. Many of us have to work hard to create shape and definition in our quads, thanks to an unfortunate DNA set that doesn’t jive with our version of perfection. But with a little elbow grease, some training tricks and a dash of intensity, anyone — regardless of the hereditary hand they’ve been dealt — can develop that elusive quad sweep.

For those who don’t know, a quad sweep isn’t a fabulous new way to clean your floors; it refers to the shape of the quadriceps muscles, specifically the outermost of the four, the vastus lateralis. When developed well, this muscle sweeps outwards and then downward, creating a rounded shape rather than a strictly vertical one, and giving the legs a fuller, more muscular appearance. Though your four quadriceps muscles always work together — that is, you can’t work the vastus lateralis or the rectus femoris without also engaging the others – there are ways to make one work harder than the rest, allowing you to specifically shape your legs the way you want them.

“There are techniques and tweaks you can apply to traditional exercises to make them more sweep-centric,” says Dave Quevedo, a certified personal trainer in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Foot position, toe position and the position of your feet on machine carts can influence the emphasis of an exercise.” A standard exercise, such as the leg press, can be made more quad-centric by placing your feet lower on the footplate, while a leg extension performed with your toes turned slightly inward will hit the vastus lateralis harder than a standard extension. Using heavier weights when lifting may also be key because, as you know, heavier weights equal greater muscle breakdown, which equals growth and change.

If you aren’t a fitness competitor, you might be thinking “Quads? Who cares!” In most women’s lower-body routines, the glutes and hamstrings get a lot more attention than the quadriceps. Increasing the strength of the front of your legs can balance overall development, creating that killer pair of gams you’ve been working for.

The Plan

Use this sweep-shaping quad routine once a week to start, working your way up to two days a week if desired. Leave at least three full days of rest in between workouts to allow for adequate recovery, and remember to stretch thoroughly to assist in the repair and rebuilding of your muscles. “I also highly recommend foam rolling postworkout to increase circulation,” adds Quevedo, who advises to roll each quad for a minimum of one to two minutes, then following up with an additional quad stretch on each leg.

Those newer to exercise should stick to training legs (hams and quads) on the same day, while more experienced exercisers can split them into separate days, according to Quevedo. Do this routine for the next four to six weeks, then reassess your lower half. Your results should sweep you off your feet!

Get Killer Quads

For each move, rest about one minute between sets to recover, up to two minutes if you’re lifting heavier.

Exercise Sets Reps
Single-Legged Leg Press 3 (each leg) 10–12
Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squat 3 (each leg) 10–12
Front Squat 3–4 6–8
Leg Extension 4 10–12
Sissy Squat 3 8–10

Single-Legged Leg Press

Target Muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus

Set Up: Sit at the leg press machine with your back against the padding. Place one foot on the footplate and put your other foot on the floor underneath the machine.

Action: Extend your leg to push the footplate away from you, then slowly bend your knee to return to the start. When your set is complete, repeat on your opposite leg.

Why is this good for the sweep? Single-legged motions force your legs to work individually, adding stress to build strength and size unilaterally.

Tip: Place your foot lower on the footplate to hit the quads harder.

Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squat

Target Muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings

Set Up: Adjust the Smith machine so that the bar rests across the back of your shoulders. Extend your left leg behind you and place the foot, laces down, onto a flat bench.

Action: Bend both knees, keeping your weight centered over your working leg. When you’ve come as low as you can go, press through your front heel to stand. When your set is through, switch sides.

Why is this good for the sweep? The Smith machine adds an element of balance to the one-legged motion, forcing the quads to work harder to maintain stability in the knee and hip.

Tip: If a bench isn’t available, simply stagger your feet so the non-working leg is in front, touching the ground for balance but bearing very little, if any, weight.

Front Squat

Target Muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings

Set Up: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them lightly on the fronts of your shoulders, with your elbows pointing towards the floor as shown.

Action: Bend your knees and hips to lower into a squat. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the ground, then press through your heels to stand.

Why is this good for the sweep? “Squats are the ultimate quad builder, engaging and stressing all four muscles equally,” says Quevedo. Front squats shift your center of gravity forward, emphasizing the quads more than the glutes.

Tip: If you’re used to back squats, these might feel awkward at first. Use a lighter weight than normal until you get used to the motion, and build up from there. Alternately, try this exercise with a barbell.

Sissy Squat

Target Muscles: quadriceps

Set Up: Stand beside a post or pole, with your feet hip-width apart. Hold the post with your nearest hand with a light but supportive grip.

Action: As you bend your knees into a full squat, simultaneously lift your heels from the floor, leaning your torso rearward as shown. Stop when your knees are fully flexed, then reverse to return to the start.

Why is this good for the sweep? “Sissy squats create a deep separation in the mid thigh, giving the sweep a more drastic appearance,” says Quevedo.

Tip: This is a beginners’ version. As you advance, try to drop your knees closer to the floor.

Leg Extension

Target Muscles: quadriceps

Set Up: Adjust the machine so the pad touches your shin just above the ankle. Grasp the handles on either side of the machine for stability, and flex your feet.

Action: Smoothly lift the lever arm by extending your legs, squeezing the quads hard before returning to the start. Keep a small bend in your knees at the top of the move.

Why is this good for the sweep? “Extensions are isolation moves that specifically target the sweep,” explains Quevedo.

Tip: Rotate your femurs (the thighs — not just your toes!) inward so that your toes point towards one another slightly to better hit and isolate the vastus lateralis.

Be Proudly Pain Free!

Jim White, RD, ACSM-HFS, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia, gives you the 411 on keeping your quads pain free and functional.

1. White recommends being preemptive about pain by warming up before your quad workout. Five to 15 minutes of jumping jacks, walking or biking will better prepare your muscles for the work ahead of them.

2. After your workout, try this stretch: kneel on the floor, sit your butt on your heels, place your hands behind your head and lean forward from your hips. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat up to three times.

3. Another way to reduce postworkout muscle discomfort is through self massage (kneading the sore muscle lightly and gradually increasing the depth of the massage), icing the area, then elevating the offending body part. Afterwards, have a hot bath with epsom salts; this will help aid circulation.

4. If you are suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness (also known as DOMS), you don’t have to sit out on the sidelines the next day. White suggests doing “gentle” exercises like walking, which will help direct blood to your muscles as well as reduce soreness.

About the Author

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT

Oxygen Fitness Editor Lara McGlashan has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, who specializes in health, fitness, and nutrition. 

Lara is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. Her sports background includes skiing, snowboarding, flying trapeze, yoga, competitive beach volleyball, dance, mountain biking, hiking and running, to name a few endeavors. She is currently exploring the world of CrossFit in her home base of Connecticut, where she lives with her 2-year-old son, Alex.

You can follow her on Facebook at LaraFitnessEditor.