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Six Steps to Bigger Quads

Admit it, your quadriceps are in need of a major fix. Use the oft-neglected front squat as the backbone of an eight-week program to blow up your legs.

The well-meaning Dr. Drew Pinsky has brought in vogue the concept of rehab with shows like “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sex Rehab.” In these reality-based programs, Dr. Drew and his staff work to lead drug-, alcohol- and sex-addicted “celebrities” back to the fringes of productive citizenship, or beyond, first by showing them what their disease has done – or prevented them from doing – in their lives. 

Whether it’s being played out on VH1 or elsewhere, the process of recovery always has a familiar first step: Identifying the problem. So for you, the aspiring bodybuilder with dreams of thick, wide-swept quads, getting to where you want to go may simply require a good, long look in the mirror. How have these four-headed showcase lower-body muscles responded to your current training program? Have they flourished, or floundered? If you’re still reading, we’ll assume that they’ve done more of the latter than the former. So what’s the problem?

A training guru’s first fix for lagging quads is usually this: “Squat more.” But traditional squats aren’t always the best remedy for quads, per se. By involving the glutes, lower back and hamstrings to a great extent, the squat simply isn’t the best way to zero in on your quads. Mind you, it’s an excellent leg exercise ⎯ probably the best ⎯ but perhaps not the best for just the quads. The highly neglected front squat, on the other hand, is a squat variation that reduces the involvement from those other muscle groups while increasing the muscular stress on the quads, making it a better choice for those in need of a little quad rehab.

This program uses the Smith-machine front squat as the foundation of an eight-week, growth-made-simple solution for the quad impaired. With the problem identified, you can now move forward with confidence, learning first on the easy-to-control Smith machine before moving on to the free bar front squat. And when you graduate this stint in rehab, you’ll be rewarded with a bellowing set of quads that could warrant their own reality show.

Full Frontal

Conventional wisdom dictates that all lower-body training – perhaps all training in general – should begin and end with the barbell squat, and for good reason. There may be no more taxing exercise than a heavy set of glutes-to-the-floor squats. The squat calls a huge degree of your body’s musculature into play while placing a huge overload on your legs ⎯ a sure ticket to Hugeville. But whether you’ve built a base and are in need of some refinement or you’ve avoided the squat altogether, it’s time to branch out to add a little strategy to your training that can take you to the next level. 

Enter the front squat. The front squat is one of the least-performed yet most-effective exercises for targeting the quads because its more upright position allows you to move heavy loads while reducing (but not eliminating) the contribution from the lower back, glutes and hams. And regardless of whether you’re well-versed on this move or not, performing it on a Smith machine has additional benefits. Research shows that lifters are, on average, about 5% stronger with Smith squats than with free-weight squats, likely because of the reduced need for balance. While the study involved back squats, it’s safe to assume that the same can be expected for the front squat as well. 

In each of the first six weeks, you’ll start your leg day with front squats on the Smith to: 1) train or retrain yourself on this mass builder, and; 2) shock your quads into new growth. But under the quad-beefing canopy of the front squat lies a host of other size-boosting tools, which come into play progressively to keep your gains coming.

Weeks 1–2

Getting to Know the Front Squat

The front squat is one of the more difficult variations of the squat you can perform, if only because most lifters don’t do it. The position of the bar and uncomfortable positioning of your hands, arms and shoulders all make it generally shunned. However, after a minimal amount of practice, most trainees will find it preferable to the standard squat particularly because of the acute effect it has on your quads. After a few initial sets of well-performed front squats, your quads will quiver with blood flow and growth potential. During the first two weeks, you’ll work on technique, focusing on standard, hypertrophy-inducing loads that allow you to get 8–12 reps at normal rep speed.

Weeks 3–4

Slow to Grow

Sometimes, all you need to do to induce new growth is to check your rep speed. Are you mindlessly pounding through reps to reach your target number? Or are you taking time to make sure that your muscles are adequately stimulated throughout the set? During Weeks 3–4, we simply have you pump the brakes a bit, taking your sweet time on the negative portion of the rep ⎯ up to five seconds with around 125% of your 1RM ⎯ before having your training partner muscle you through the positive portion of the rep. Negative-rep training helps to induce a greater amount of muscle damage in the muscles being trained that, over time, equates to greater muscle gain. 

Focusing on the eccentric ⎯ or negative ⎯ portion of the rep can also increase growth hormone release, another factor in maximizing strength and muscle gain. Putting this kind of beating on your quads with the Smith-machine front squat at the outset of your workout will help you create the perfect environment for change in your quads. (Editor’s note: When performing negative sets, always employ a spotter to help you get through the positive portion of the rep on every rep.)

Weeks 5–6

Power Up

The greatest joy of the Smith machine is its inherent safety. Because of the fixed path of motion, you can perform most major barbell exercises with much less risk of injury. But it also serves as a power rack. By setting the safety pins at various heights, you can focus on certain parts of the movement path. During this phase, you’ll still begin with the Smith front squat but you’ll set the safeties where the bar would normally come to rest in the bottom portion of your reps. For each rep, you’ll start from this position ⎯ taking a deliberate, 1–2 second pause to eliminate the benefit of elasticity that comes with normal speed reps before exploding upward. Reducing the ability to bounce out of the hole (taking out the elastic energy) makes a given weight much more challenging and makes you work that much harder.

Weeks 7–8

The Fine Print

The first six weeks of this program will likely have stimulated noticeable gains in quad size and your front squat strength will likely have skyrocketed. What to do now? Well, you certainly won’t abandon the Smith-machine front squat, but you’ll change where it’s placed in your workout. Counterintuitively, you’ll move it to the end of your routine, where strength and sheer will have likely abandoned you. But again, the luxury of the Smith machine is that it allows you to challenge yourself safely. 

Here, you’ll use the front squat as a quad finisher, performing sets of 20 lighter-weight reps to flood your thighs with blood and nutrients ⎯ a veritable leg “pump” that will highlight every earned striation and widen every hard-working blood vessel your legs have to offer. This type of training will also recruit more muscle fibers ⎯ as your slow-twitch fibers begin to fatigue on such higher-rep sets, your fast-twitch fibers will come in to play, even though the resistance is significantly reduced. If you overshoot with the weight and can only complete, say, 15 reps, simply rack the weight, pause for 10–20 seconds and continue until you reach 20. You’ll do this for a grand total of five widow-making sets before dragging yourself out of the gym.

Support Structure

While the focus of the Quad Rehab program may be on the Smith-machine front squat, it’s still replete with the traditional leg builders that you’ve come to know and, uh, love. 

The leg press, like the Smith front squat, allows you to move heavy loads without the fear of a bar crushing you like an empty beer can. It also eliminates the need to stabilize weight, allowing you to better target your quads. You can increase that benefit by keeping your feet placed more centrally on the platform ⎯ the higher you place your feet, the greater the involvement of your glutes and hamstrings, so keep your feet on the lower side of the foot plate. 

The machine squat also allows you to train safely with a heavy weight. Stuffed into the middle of the workout, your focus should be on form and technique. Again, foot placement is important ⎯ be mindful of keeping your heels beneath you rather than out in front of you. For every few inches that your feet are out in front of you, you reduce the emphasis on your quads significantly. 

You’ll get away from machine moves with the dumbbell lunge after the machine squat. Simply grab a pair of dumbbells and a small patch of real estate, and alternate lunge steps in place, being careful not to extend your forward knee past the vertical plane that comes up from your toes. Take caution when selecting your weight ⎯ this normally innocent move can become more challenging when your legs are already fatigued. 

The addition of leg extensions and lying leg curls provides some lighter, targeted, isolation work at the end of the routine to provide the finishing touches to your workout. The exception, of course, is in the final two weeks when you’ll follow these two moves with your high-rep Smith front squat work.

Graduating Rehab

Getting bulked, striated quads involves a little bit of sacrifice, we all know that. It requires that you step out of the comforts of your current routine, gut through the burn, feel nauseous, eat, rest and then do it all over again next week. This front squat-focused routine is certain to reinvigorate your leg training and give you a set of quads that you can be proud of ⎯ even if you have to go through hell to get them. So it’s time to check in: Quad Rehab starts today.

Quad Rehab Split

During Quad Rehab, you’ll train legs at the start of the week, when you’re freshest. Then, you’ll take two full days off from the gym ⎯ no cardio allowed ⎯ to allow for maximum recovery. Trust us, you’ll need it. More familiar training days follow before you start anew the next week. Once per week for a new set of quads? You’ll take it; we’re sure. 

Day 1: Legs

Day 2 : Rest

Day 3 : Rest

Day 4 : Chest, Biceps, Abs

Day 5: Back, Triceps

Day 6: Shoulders Abs

Day 7: Rest

Quad Rehab Routine

Use this progressive, eight-week program to build a Hall of Fame set of quads. Rest 1–3 minutes between all sets, except during negatives training in Weeks 3–4, when longer rest may be required. 


1 Using approximately 130% of your 1RM, focus on the negative portion of each rep, taking up to five seconds to lower yourself into the bottom position. Have a spotter help you through the positive and repeat for reps. Rest 3-4 minutes between sets.

2 All sets will be performed as a reverse Smith machine front squat. Set the safeties at the bottom position of your normal front squat and start from that spot, without using momentum. Take a deliberate pause between reps at the bottom to eliminate elasticity and focus on powering through the positive portion of the rep.

3 Reduce weight to 50-60% of your 1RM and perform 20 reps per set. Re-rack if needed, resting no longer than 10-20 seconds and then continue toward your goal. If you can perform more than 20 without rest, add weight the next set.

4 Each leg.

5 Rest 1-3 minutes between all sets, except during negatives training in Weeks 3-4, when longer rest may be required.