Sometimes, the solution to a problem starts at the end rather than the beginning. That’s the concept of reverse engineering, in which an object — anything from a military prototype to computer code to a living cell — is disassembled piece by piece in order to understand it better.
The end, then, also might be the perfect place to start if you’re facing your own perplexing quandary: a bodypart that’s not responding to traditional workouts.
Take quadriceps, for instance. One can easily rattle off a typical quad workout: It would start with squats, then perhaps move to a leg press, followed by a hack squat, walking lunge and the leg extension as a finisher. Do that workout with ample intensity and chances are the muscles of the front of your thigh will respond to the stimulus and grow over time.
But what if they don’t? Certainly, you can try a number of remedies — assessing your weight loads, manipulating variables such as sets and reps, or even adding techniques such as drop sets, rest/pause or negatives.
Or, to get a little more radical, you could turn that workout on its head and perform the exercises in reverse order. Doing so wouldn’t just be a shock to the system for its own sake (although that can certainly be valuable when it comes to busting a training plateau), but a way to attack the regimen in a slightly new way.
Here, then, is what a reverse-engineered quad workout would look like:
Often, the extension is utilized as a lightweight warm up before a heavy leg workout. Here you can use it for that purpose, but instead of calling it quits after a few high-rep sets, you’ll settle in for a gauntlet more suited to a finishing move, progressing up the stack for at least five sets as you strive for 12 reps per set or failure (whichever occurs first) — if you top out the stack, you’ll want to rep to absolute failure on that final set. Will your quads be jelly by this point? Well, yes, yes they will. But the workout is far from done.
Do It: Adjust the seat for your body frame, then sit squarely in the machine, hooking your feet under the padded bar. Keep you head straight and hold the handles for stability. With your feet pointed forward, extend your knees, squeeze your quads hard at the top, then slowly lower the weight until just short of the weight stack touching before launching into the next rep.
Dumbbell Walking Lunge
For these, grab a challenging set of dumbbells and take 20 total steps per set — in other words, every step is one count, so you’ll end up taking 10 steps forward with each leg. No failure here … just a tough walk with a deep stretch for the muscles of the thigh in preparation for the three difficult exercises to come.
Do It: Holding dumbbells in each hand, step forward with one foot. Bend both knees to lower your torso toward the floor, making sure your front knee doesn’t pass your toes at the bottommost position. Stop just short of your rear knee touching the floor, then drive through the heel of your front foot while bringing your rear leg forward until you reach a standing position. Then step with the opposite leg into a lunge, repeating the pattern. Continue alternating down the floor.
The hack squat falls smack dab in the middle, meaning you should be able to hit it just as hard and heavy doing the workout forward as backward. So do so — pyramid up the poundage for five sets, looking to bottom out in each rep for a full, explosive range of motion. Here, as in the next exercise, a spotter would help greatly if you need an assist out of the hole on the final few reps.
Do It: Step inside a hack squat machine, placing your shoulders and back against the pads. Set your feet mid-platform just inside shoulder width, keeping your feet flat throughout the exercise. With your chest up and core tight, unhook the safety bars and slowly lower yourself into the bottom position, stopping when your thighs are ideally below parallel to the platform. From here, forcefully press yourself upward to the start position, keeping your knees bent slightly at the top.
At this point, your normal weight loads may start to be compromised. Surely you won’t be able to handle the uppermost levels with the leg press in the fourth position as you would if it was second. No matter, though, as you’ll still achieve the same level of muscular stimulation, if not more. Here, you can try a “run the rack” approach, pyramiding up to your 6-rep maximum over the course of three sets, followed by four sets where you drop a plate per side and strive for 10-15 reps each.
Do It: Sit squarely in the leg press machine and place your feet on the sled, shoulder-width apart. Keeping your chest up and lower back pressed into the pad, carefully unlatch the sled from the safeties. Bend your knees to lower the platform, stopping before your glutes lift off the pad. Hold that for a brief count, then extend your knees to press the weight up, stopping just short of locking out.
Legs wobbly? Energy drained? This is certainly not the time to attempt an all-time personal best in your squat. But it is a great opportunity to use the squat in a different way — that is, as a low-weight, higher-rep effort to burn out the quads. If you don’t have a spotter, we recommend a Smith machine instead of the barbell, but in the latter case, even with someone standing by you should set the power-rack safeties to give yourself the ability to bail out in case of failure. You’ll do 5 sets with a light weight, perhaps 135, 185 or 225 depending on your usual strength in this lift (or less — no need for heroics here), and strive for 12 reps per set, trying to keep the rest periods to a minute or less.
Do It: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart holding a bar across your upper back. Your knees should be slightly bent and your toes turned out slightly. Keeping your head in a neutral position, abs tight and torso upright, bend at the knees and hips to slowly lower your body as if you were going to sit down in a chair. Go as deep as you can handle, ideally to a point where your thighs reach a point at or below parallel to the floor while maintaining your natural lower back arch, then forcefully drive through your heels, extending at your hips and knees until you arrive at the standing position.
The Reverse-Engineered Quad Workout