Nothing completes a physique more than strong legs. Legs have always been one of my favorite muscle groups to train because I genetically had strong legs, to begin with.
Today, I train them about 2-3 times weekly, and I love them even more: I typically always look forward to my leg days.
In this article, I wanted to simplify the Quadriceps and Hamstrings so that you can optimize your leg workouts. After this, I believe you're going to appreciate the legs a lot more - you'll give your legs the respect they deserve on leg day.
Let's get into it!
The Quadriceps and Hamstrings
The legs are muscles that are very similar to the structure of the arm. Think of the legs as the "arms in the opposite direction": the quads extend (“triceps”) while the hamstrings curl (“biceps”). In this section, we are going to divide the legs into the front of the thigh (Quadriceps) and the back of the thigh (Hamstrings) so that we can simplify the anatomical function of both.
Anatomy and Function of the Quadriceps
The Quadriceps are the muscles that are on the front of the thigh. They consist of four major muscles: the Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and rectus femoris.
These four main muscles contribute to the following functions:
The Vastus Lateralis, Intermedius and Medialisallow us to perform knee extensions (to "kick" the leg backward, or to straighten our leg).
The Rectus Femorisallows us to perform knee extensions and even hip flexion (picture kicking the whole leg up entirely)
Quadricep Training Strategies
Primary Squat Variation: Choose whether you want to utilize a High/Low Bar, or Front Squat. When it comes to picking the right Squat for you, ask yourself: is my goal to lift more weight, or a longer range of motion for development? One thing to keep in mind is that various squats might have similar EMG activation, so choose which one you can enjoy and stick with for the long term!
- If your goal is to lift more, choose Low-Bar. Low-Bar Squats allow you to lift more weight but have a shorter range of motion. Powerlifters prefer Low-Bar Squatting.
- If your goal is for overall development, choose High-Bar. High-Bar Squats have a longer range of motion, which is better for muscular development. Olympic Lifters and Bodybuilders utilize the High-Bar Squat.
For Quadriceps Compound Movements (Squats and their variations), make sure not to take them to failure. Compound leg exercises are more demanding and fatiguing on your body. Never go to failure on the compound leg exercises.
Try Squatting to Parallel or Below. Partial Squats don’t have as much muscular activation in the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. If you do partial squats, you might not be optimizing your leg development. Make sure you are getting the best possible range of motion your body allows.
For Leg Extension variations, “kick” your leg up slowly to flex your quads. For most people, they tend to rely on their knee joints to move the weight. This is why our “knees hurt” or we get injured. Move your quad through the whole movement and flex at the top.
Utilize a lunge variation in your leg workouts. Lunges help stretch the quadriceps and strengthen the glutes. They also provide overall mobility to your lower body.
When going through a leg extension movement, make sure you bring your leg slightly upward to target the Rectus Femoris. Recall that your Rectus Femoris is developed through knee extension and hip flexion, so kicking your leg upwards will work the rectus femoris. You could replicate this on an exercise like the leg extension: at the top of the extension, bring your leg slightly more upwards, lifting it off the seat.
Use a one-legged variation of a Quadriceps exercise. While training through compound movements like the Squat, sometimes one leg can become more dominant than another. We believe it is important to utilize a unilateral or one-legged movement to optimize muscular balance. Our preferred choice would be a dumbbell lunge or unilateral leg extension.
Use a combination of high and low reps when training the quadriceps. When it comes to squat variations, we would recommend lower reps (4-10 reps). For cables and machines, we would recommend higher reps (10-20 reps).
12-18 weekly sets for Quad development is recommended. 12-18 weekly sets are optimal for Quad development and anything above this may affect recovery.
Utilize a 2-3x a week frequency for leg development. Through research, doing legs twice a week will typically improve leg development. Anecdotally, it has reduced any fear or anxiety I have for training legs. Once you do it frequently, you might just enjoy it!
- The Squat (High Bar/Low Bar)
- Front Squat
- Hack Squat Machine
Bulgarian Split Squats:Will kill, but they are here for AWESOME leg development.
Dumbbell Lunges: ensure you hit around 10-20 reps on each leg.
Unilateral Leg Extensions: One-legged variation.
Unilateral Leg Press: One-legged variation.
Anatomy and Function of the Hamstrings
The Hamstrings, similar to the Quads, consist of four main muscles: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris short, and long head. The semimembranosus and semitendinosus are the innermost muscles of your hamstrings while the biceps femoris muscles are the outermost muscles.
The Hamstrings’ functions are of the following:
The Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus, and Bicep Femoris (long head), work to provide hip extension and knee flexion. The hip extension movement would be replicated on a Deadlift while the knee flexion would be replicated on a leg curl.
The Bicep Femoris (short head), only functions with knee flexion. Think leg curl variations.
In understanding these muscular functions, you can strategize in training the hamstrings in an effective and efficient pattern.
Hamstrings Training Strategies
Use both Hip Extension and Knee Flexion Movements. Recall that the Deadlift works hip extension, while the leg curl works knee flexion.
Primary Deadlift Exercise: Choose whether to utilize a conventional (regular) Deadlift or Sumo Deadlift. When choosing a primary Deadlift exercise, choose the one that allows you to not strain your spinal erectors or lumbar area too much.
Secondary Deadlift Exercise: Choose to use a Straight Legged Deadlift or a Romanian Deadlift. The reason we recommend a secondary deadlift exercise is to execute a hip extension exercise that isn’t as demanding as a primary deadlift exercise would be. If you implement leg days 2-3x weekly, we recommend doing a Primary Deadlift one day, then the Secondary Deadlift another day.
For Hamstring Compound Movements (Deadlifts and their variations), make sure not to take them to failure. Compound leg exercises are more demanding and fatiguing on your body. Never go to failure on the compound leg exercises.
Utilize both “stretching” and “flexing” exercises for the hamstrings. As we mentioned in Hip Extension and Knee flexion strategies: To properly optimize on hamstring training, you can categorize your training into two types: stretch and flexing exercises. One stretch example would be a straight-legged deadlift, while a flex example would be a leg curl.
When doing any Hamstring exercise, use a slower eccentric movement. Just like a bicep, we recommend slowing down the lowering portion of a hamstring exercise. This is in order to utilize proper form and to prevent injury or strain. For example, while the leg curl’s “rising” portion is quick, the “lowering” portion should be a little slower than the “rise”.
Use a one-legged variation of a Hamstring exercise. When training through compound movements like the Deadlift, sometimes one leg is more dominant than another. It is important to utilize a unilateral (one-legged) movement to develop muscular balance. Our preferred choice is a unilateral leg curl.
Do a Hip Thrusting variation when targeting the Hamstrings. Hip Thrusts or Glute Bridges are glute exercises that will be discussed in the future, but they also target part of the hamstrings through hip extension.
Use a combination of high and low reps when training the Hamstrings. When it comes to deadlift variations, we would recommend lower reps (4-10 reps). For cables and machines, we would recommend higher reps (10-15 reps).
10-16 weekly sets for Hamstring development are recommended. 10-16 weekly sets are optimal for Hamstring development. It is recommended not to go above 18 total weekly sets.
Hamstring development is not too complicated as there are only a few ways to train them. Think of your deadlift exercises as "stretching" the hamstrings and our leg curl exercises as "flexing" the hamstrings.
- Conventional/Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Seated Leg Curls
- Lying Leg Curls
- Unilateral Leg Curls
Repeat your exercises of choice weekly, and do 10-16 sets weekly. You will see solid hamstring development overtime.
Conclusion: Quadriceps and Hamstrings
There you have it: a definitive guide to Leg training.
I hope this has helped you find some motivation in crushing your next leg day and even gave you that epiphany to actually put in some extra work on your legs.
If this article helped you, or if you would like to chime in, throw your thoughts in the comments below.
Until next time legion, go crush it!