The quadriceps (called “quads” for short) is a group of four muscles that make up the front of your thigh. Combined, they’re the largest muscles in the leg, and the longest muscles in the body. Not surprisingly, having strong quads is extremely important in not only performing well in sports and physical activity, but also in daily life.
Research on older adults has found a consistent link between quadriceps weakness and lower quality of life, as well as increased disability in daily living, hospitalization, contact time with a family doctor and falls.
Here’s something that might surprise you: Did you know that quad muscle strength can predict mental function? One study with participants aged 60 to 85 found that quadriceps strength predicted cognitive performance, even after taking into account demographics, chronic diseases, health behaviors and levels of folate and vitamin B-12.
Here are two exercises to strengthen your quads, plus a flexibility move you can do afterward to release tension from your muscles.
1. Front Squat With Pause
Here’s a twist on the squat — a classic lower body move — that puts more emphasis on the quad muscles in two ways: first, by holding the weight in front of you (instead of behind, as in a barbell squat), and second, by performing extra “half” repetitions that keep your muscles working longer than usual. Many of my older clients with lower back pain regularly practice this move because it’s quite challenging with less weight than you’d use for a regular squat — meaning less compression of the spine.
Stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder width, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your shoulders. Hinge your hips back behind you and bend your knees so your thighs move toward parallel to the floor. Descend as low as you comfortably can, without rounding your spine. Press into the floor with your feet and come halfway back up toward standing, that is, until your thighs are at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. Pause, then lower back down so your thighs are at 90 degrees. Then come all the way up to standing. That’s one repetition. Aim for 10, starting with light dumbbells (eight pounds) and working your way up to 20 pounds or more.
2. Foot Elevated Split Squat
Also called the Bulgarian split squat, this is a challenging lower body move that focuses on the quads, as well as the glutes. It’s also a great stability move to improve your balance, which is extremely important for preventing falls in later life.
Stand with hands clasped in front of you at chest height, left foot forward and right foot elevated on a sturdy bench or chair. Squat down by flexing your left knee and hip. Your left knee should form a 90-degree angle, and right knee should come close to the ground. Straighten both legs to return to the start position, and repeat for repetitions before switching to the other side.
My beginner older adult clients perform this exercise as a body weight move until they can comfortably perform 10 repetitions on each leg. Intermediate clients will add dumbbells (starting with 10 pounds in each hand), and advanced clients use heavier dumbbells (one of my 70-year-old clients uses 35 pounds in each hand).
3. Half-Kneeling Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch
Excessively tight quadriceps muscles can create imbalanced muscle tension at the hips, leading to problems with posture, back pain and increased susceptibility to injury. This quad stretch also involves your hip flexors, which can become tight from prolonged sitting.
On a soft surface like a carpet or gym mat, get into a half-kneeling position with your right leg forward and left leg back, both bent at 90 degrees. Contract your left glute and raise your left shin off the floor, moving your foot toward your glute. If you feel balanced enough, grab your foot with your left hand. Otherwise use a bench or couch to support your foot. Shift your body forward to intensify the stretch for a few seconds, then move back to relax. Repeat 10 times, breathing smoothly and avoiding excessive arching in your low back.
Instead of using the leg extension machines at many gyms (which isolate the quadriceps muscle), focus on strength exercises that work other muscle groups simultaneously, like the glutes and hamstrings. Other than in specific rehabilitation situations, isolation movements like leg extensions aren’t going to be as effective as compound movements. Plus, compound exercises like squats (getting up from a chair) or deadlifts (picking up a heavy box or grandchild) have much more carryover into your daily life.