The road to get there won’t be easy.
You’re going to be hobbling around like a baby deer after incorporating these moves into your legs-day workouts. But, with some smart recovery tactics and some serious resolve in the gym, you’ll have strong, thick thighsin no time.
Take a look at our ultimate list of quads-building exercises, courtesy of Felix Bangkuai, C.P.T, exercise physiologist at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, and Louie Antuna, C.P.T., a fitness and nutrition specialist who helps clients transform their bodies via his LA Method.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
How to do it: Stand about a foot in front of a bench (lunge-length). Hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest the top of one foot on the bench behind you. “Keep your chest up, shoulders back, and your weight in your heels,” Bangkuai says. Lunge down. “Focus on pausing at the bottom and exploding out of ‘the hole’—the bottom of the motion—maintaining constant tension in your legs,” he adds. Also, lean slightly forward to engage your quads more than your glutes. Lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor, and your front thigh is parallel. “Be careful not to go too heavy, as your grip could be a limiting factor,” Bangkuai advises.
Prescription: High reps is key for hypertrophy, especially when you do single-leg exercises, Bangkuai says. Do 2×20 reps with 30-60 seconds rest. Depending on how you feel and where your level of fitness is, you can do 2 sets of 15-20 to 4-5 sets of 10-20.
2. BOSU Ball Squat
How to do it: If you’ve never done squats on a BOSU ball, flip it ball-side up so the flat edge is against the floor. Stand on the BOSU with both feet. Squat, slow and controlled. If you’re pretty advanced, position the BOSU ball-side down so you’re standing on the flat edge. The point is to create instability—to get your smaller stabilizing muscles firing. But if you’re wobbling all over the place, you’ll risk falling off or suffering injury.
3. Bodyweight Squat
How to do it: Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart, and your toes turned slightly out. Sit back through your hips and lower your body as far as you can, keeping your back straight. Sink your weight in your heels, and keep your chest up. Pause slightly at the bottom of the movement, then explode up.
Prescription: 4-5×20 with 30-60 seconds rest between sets
4. Barbell Front Squat
How to do it: Set a barbell on a rack at about shoulder-height. “With front squats, there’s no need to go too heavy, as you want to get high reps,” Bangkuai says. Come under the bar and grasp it at shoulder-width, raising your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the ground. Unrack the weight, and let the bar rest on your fingertips. Stand with your feet at shoulder-width, toes turned slightly out. “Keep an ‘active posture’—core tight, shoulders back, and chest up,” Bangkuai says. Squat as low as you can, maintaining tension through your legs, sinking your weight in your heels.
Prescription: 3×15-20 with 1-minute rest
5. Goblet Squat
How to do it: Grab a heavy kettlebell with both hands just under your chin, Bangkuai says. Turn your feet out, so they’re at about 30°. Squat, pushing your knees out so your elbows can move in between them. Go as low as you can, maintaining a straight back, then come back up.
Prescription: 3×15-20 with 1-minute rest
6. Barbell Box Squat
How to do it: Set a box behind a squat rack or cage. You want the height to be such that when you squat down, the creases of your hips are below your knees. Grasp the bar with a wide grip. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and lift the bar out of the rack. “Come down as slow as possible in the concentric motion,” Bangkuai says. “As soon as you touch the box, explode up, maintaining a tight core to protect your lower back.” Make sure your knees stay pointing out as well during the motion.
Prescription: Dictate your reps and sets based on how much weight you’re lifting. You can work with heavy weight for 2×6-8 with 2-3 minutes rest, or lighter weight for 4-5×20 with 30-60 seconds rest.
7. TRX Single-Leg Squat
How to do it: Put tension on the TRX handles and center one leg under the anchor point. Raise the opposite foot off the ground. Lower your hips down and back, bending your working leg. Keep your weight in your heel, driving through the floor to stand. “Don’t allow your knee to internally rotate,” Bangkuai advises. Repeat all reps on one leg, then switch. “Use TRX exercises as accessory work to the big compound moves (e.g., front squats, box squats, goblet squats) to help engage stabilizers and focus on balance and proper weight distribution,” Bangkuai says.
Prescription: 3×15-20 (each leg) with 30-60 seconds rest
9.TRX Single-Leg Balance Lunge
How to do it: This is a bit more advanced, Bangkuai says. Hold the TRX using one or both hands. Lift one foot off the floor, then lunge back, keeping your raised foot elevated. “Keep your weight in your planted foot’s heel as you lunge back, maintaining balance and stability in a linear motion,” Bangkuai explains. Rise, and repeat all reps on one side, then switch.
Prescription: 3×15-20 (each leg) with 30-60 seconds rest
12. Wall Sit
How to do it: Put your back against a Swiss ball. Slide down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, like you’re sitting in an imaginary chair. Hold this position. You can also complete with weight plates stacked on your legs, holding a medicine ball, or squeezing a medicine ball between your thighs.
Prescription: 3×60 sec with 30-60 seconds rest
13. Diagonal Walking Lunges
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Step out on a diagonal with one leg, and lower down into a lunge until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel. Step forward with your rear leg, then step out to the side again, creating a zig-zag pattern.
Prescription: 4×20 with 60 seconds rest between sets
14. Hack Squat
How to do it: Start in the bottom of a squat position with your thighs almost parallel to the floor, in front of a barbell. Reach back and grip the bar with your palms facing away. Drive your heels into the ground, and accelerate your hips toward the ceiling as you stand. Pause at the top, then squat back to the start position.
Prescription: You can work with heavy weight for 2×6-8 with 2-3 minutes rest, or lighter weight for 4-5×20 with 30-60 seconds rest.
15. Leg Press
How to do it: Adjust the seat of a leg press machine so your hips are situated under your knees, and your knees are aligned with your feet. Remove the safeties, and lower your knees toward your chest until they’re bent 90°, then press back up. Be careful not to go too low, though. “I always worry about the lower back, so be mindful, and keep these to a minimum in your regimen.”
Prescription: “You have several options here,” Bangkuai says. “You can use the leg press as a compound exercise by going heavy (75-85% of 1RM) and using low reps (6-10), or going light (55%-65% of 1RM) and going high reps (15-20) to chase the pump.”
18. Box Jump
How to do it: Stand in front of a 36-42″ box. Drop into a squat while swinging your arms down and back. “At the bottom of the movement, aggressively swing your arms up as you jump on the box,” Antuna says. Bring your feet up to your hips so your feet clear it. Land softly in a squat to avoid injury. Stand up, then step down.
Prescription: 5×10 with 45 seconds rest between sets
20. Kettlebell Pistol Squat
How to do it: Grab a kettlebell between 16-20kg—or one that’s about 25% of your weight. Hold the kettlebell at chest level, and tuck your elbows in tight. Extend one leg out in front of you. As you lower into the squat, keep your non-working foot off the ground. “Lower as much as you can, then drive your hips back and down, not forward and back,” Antuna says. “Push through your big toe and heel to come back up.” Start with just your bodyweight, or use a TRX for assistance if this is too difficult.
Prescription: 4×8 on each side with 1:30 minutes rest between set
21. Goblet Squat to Reverse Lunge
How to do it: Cup your hands under the bottom (bell) of a kettlebell that’s 20-24kg or 25% of your bodyweight. Position your feet to be slightly wider than your hips. As you lower into a squat, keep your chest up, and get low enough so your elbows pass your knees. Rise up. Then, at the top of the squat, come into a reverse lunge with the right leg, then the left. That’s one rep.
Prescription: 3×8 with 2 minutes rest between sets
Note: Image above depicts a slightly different variation.
22. Goblet Alternating Lateral Lunges
How to do it: Hold a 24-kg kettlebell at your chest. Pick up one foot, settling your bodyweight into the opposite (anchor) leg, then lunge to the side. “Keep your extended leg from bending so it doesn’t take the load off your lunging leg,” Antuna says. Drive through the ground to push yourself back to the start position. Switch sides, driving your other leg out in a lateral lunge. Push back to start. That’s two reps.
Prescription: 5×16 (8 each leg) with 1-minute rest between sets
Note: Image depicts bodyweight lateral lunge.
23. Double Kettlebell Front Squat (3:1 count)
How to do it: Clean two kettlebells, one in each hand (the total should be 50% of your bodyweight or as heavy as possible), so they’re near your chest. With palms facing your body and elbows angled about 45° down, squeeze your lats to help stabilize this posture. Take 3 counts to lower into a squat, then drive back up as quickly as possible.
Prescription: 5×5 with 2-3 minutes rest between sets
24. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge to Stepup
How to do it: Hold dumbbells in both hands (25-35lbs/50-70lbs total). Stand facing a bench. Step back into a reverse lunge. As you come up from the lunge, step onto the bench with the same working leg. Step down, then lunge back with the opposite leg, coming back up, and immediately transitioning into a stepup.
Prescription: 3×10 on each side with 2 minutes rest between sets
Note: Image depicts stepup portion of exercise.
25. Weighted Hill Sprints
How to do it: Get outside, and find a hill. Wear a weighted vest that’s about 25lbs. Sprint for 10-15 seconds or 100-150 feet. (6×30 yards is 100 feet and 6×50 yards is150 feet.)
Prescription: 12 sprints total with 1-minute rest between short-sprint sets, and 1:30 minutes between longer sprint sets
Note: Image depicts bodyweight hill sprints.
26. Dumbbell Alternating Walking Lunge
How to do it: You’ll need an area of at least 20 feet. (If you don’t have the space, use a treadmill. Just keep the speed around 2.5/3.) Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Pull your shoulder blades back, engage you core, and squeeze your triceps to keep your arms from swinging. Step into a forward lunge, and start walking, alternating sides.
Prescription: 3×1:30-minute rounds holding 20-30lb or 40-60lb dumbbells with 2 minutes rest between sets
28. Barbell Back Squat
How to do it: Load a bar with 85-100% of your bodyweight. Place the barbell across the middle of your traps, and pinch your shoulder blades together. “Inhale, contracting your abs tight, then lower into a squat,” Antuna says. “Then drive back up pushing through your big toe and heel, exhaling at the top.”
Prescription: 5×8 with 2-3 minutes rest between sets
30. Dumbbell Deficit Sumo Squat
How to do it: Place a 75- to 100-lb dumbbell standing up in between two aero steps or benches. Place a foot on either, standing above the dumbbell. Position your feet so they’re just outside your hips and rotated out. Squat down, and place your hands under the top of the dumbbell. Rise, and lift the weight, keeping your arms fully extended. When you lower back down, stop just before the dumbbell touches the floor.
Prescription: 5×10 with 1:30 minutes rest between sets