How many times have you seen a professional bodybuilder who has exceptional quadriceps development and wondered what exercises they did to get that way? Doing the right exercises can be pretty confusing. In fact, you can walk into any gym and see dozens of leg machines being used with many different variations.
Which exercise is best? Is it really necessary to incorporate all of these different variations into your leg training? Many professional bodybuilders say, to some extent it is necessary. In fact, most believe that by varying the foot position and knee position with some exercises, you’ll be able to selectively target specific areas of your leg. However, the existing research done in this area by exercise scientists suggests that these variations may not only be a waste of time, but may also subject the joints to unnecessary risk of injury.
To determine the validity of the assertions by bodybuilders of all levels, researchers have done studies by measuring electromyographical (EMG) activity in the muscles of the quadriceps. These EMG studies measure the electrical activity produced when the muscles in the legs contract during exercise. The higher the electrical energy, the more work the actual muscle is producing.
An EMG study done using leg extensions (Wheatley, 1951), reported that lateral rotation or turning the feet outward produced the highest level of electrical activity in the inner teardrop of the quadriceps. They also reported that medial rotation or turning the feet inward produced the highest level of electrical activity in the outer sweep of the quadriceps. In other words, it may be possible to selectively target different areas of your quadriceps just by turning the feet slightly inward or outward.
A more recent EMG study (Signorile, 1995) investigated the effect of foot and knee position on the different levels of electrical activity of selected muscles of the quadriceps while performing squats and leg extensions. This study found that when doing leg extensions the highest level of electrical activity in the vastus medialis (inner quads), vastus lateralis (outer quads), and rectus femoris (middle quads) was found when the knee was slightly laterally rotated, the foot rotated laterally and in dorsiflexion or flexed upward towards the shin. This study also revealed that the entire range of movement was necessary to target the quadriceps.
When the same researchers measured the electrical activity produced
when performing the squats, they found that variations in foot position
showed no significant difference in EMG patterns. This study suggested
that stance and foot position might be of importance only to the
of the lifter. An extreme outward toe and knee point would reduce
and not allow the proper drift of the hips in the concentric and
phase of the squat, thus effecting optimal performance. Extreme inward
rotation of the foot and knee would be equally dangerous because,
base and lower body drift would be affected.
If it is overall leg development you are after, the squats might be the best all round exercise. While exercise scientist and professional bodybuilders may have a few different views on leg training, most seem to agree on one thing. Squats, with out a doubt, are probably the best exercise for over all quadriceps development. In fact, Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield, Ph.D. says, “Squatting provides the greatest amount of adaptive stress to the greatest number of major muscles in the upper leg.” Professional bodybuilding champion Mike Matarazzo adds, “Squats are definitely the best overall leg builder, you need to develop the quads first with heavy squats, then target specific muscles with isolation exercises.”
Most exercise scientists also believe that squats should only be done with the entire range of movement. Hatfield adds, “Get big first, by doing squats and then hope that the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, gave you the genes necessary to have that pleasing sweep bodybuilders favor.”
Many professional bodybuilders actually prefer doing the leg press and hack squat because they feel that after a certain point squats will add thickness to the waist and overdevelop the gluteals. Cottrell agrees, “I actually prefers the leg press and hack squat over the squat, only because squats tend to add to many inches to my glutes and thicken my waist.” Dillett adds, “This is my favorite leg exercise, I actually feel that I get great results doing the leg press however, it’s really all just a matter of personal preference.”
Is it possible to go too deep? Yes! You do not want the low back to come up off the seat and roll. This roll places stress on the vertebrae and could result in injury. Matarazzo agrees and says, “For the best overall quadriceps development I like the moderate stance, feet higher on the platform, toes pointed slightly outward, and just below parallel.”
Weitz says, “When reaching the bottom of the hack squat or leg
the knees should only approximate a 90 degree angle (parallel). A low
placement will result in increased knee compression and potential
of the quadriceps and patella tendons.”
When performing leg extensions, do variations in toe position really make any difference in quad development? The bodybuilders I talked to all agree the answer would be yes! However, current research indicates the answer is no, as hard as it is to believe. Weitz says, “We used to think that toes out would hit the inner quads more and toes in would hit the outer quads, but Signorile (1995) and Wheatley (1951) have shown that this is simply not the case.”
Foot flexion also seems to determine which area of the quadriceps will feel the most stress. When the foot is pointed downward (plantar flexion) the stress seems to be felt more in the lower quads and when the foot is flexed upward (dorsiflexion) the stress will be felt higher up on the quads.
Matarazzo says, “For the best overall quadriceps development, I prefer doing single leg extensions with the toes rotated slightly outward and downward with a full range of movement.” Cottrell prefers a slightly different variation and said, “I also prefer single leg extensions but, with the toe pointed down and straight.” These variations in the leg extension seem to be a personal choice and very much dependent on which part of the quadriceps you might need to give a little extra attention to.
In general, most of us could probably make better use of our time in
the gym, by eliminating the practice of using multiple foot and knee
The need for these variations should be limited. Nevertheless, because
we are all built differently, it is necessary to try different stances
and foot positions to decide which is the most comfortable. So
and see what works best for you!
2. Wheatley, M. and W. Jahnke. Electromyographical study of the superficial thigh and hip muscles in normal individuals. Arch. Phys. Med. 32508-515. 1951.
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