5 Squat Variations for Quads to Enhance your Leg Workouts
Fitness Drum, Published February 25, 2023; 9-minute read
One of the reasons we love squats so much is the ability to adapt and adjust the standard movement to focus on specific goals and muscle groups.
With subtle changes, you can better incorporate squats into all sorts of workouts and routines. For those looking to focus specifically on growing and strengthening your quads… you’re in luck, as this guide outlines 5 of the best squat variations for quads that anyone can do. Strong quads play vital role in healthy movement and athletic performance. They help support your knees, reducing the risk of injury and making any sort of movement that involves bending the knee easier. All these squat variations will still activate the glutes, hamstrings and calves as well… but they will just help you optimize your quad training to ensure the quads take more of the load than with traditional squats.
Combatting a naturally wide stance
You may find you naturally squat with quite a wide stance… which puts more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings. Consequently, incorporating some of the squat variations below into your workouts will ensure your quads are getting sufficiently activating. The changes may be subtle, but the impact can be substantial.
Changing up your stance is perhaps the easiest way to adapt how a squat engages and activates your lower body muscles.
A narrow stance squat will put more emphasis on the quads (and subsequently, less on the glutes and hamstrings). This follows the same biomechanics as how stance effects other leg exercises, as we discussed in our guide on the best leg press foot placement for quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.
As well as strengthening the quads, narrow squats can be a useful adaptation if you have limited hip mobility and struggle with a regular or wide stance (as the movement puts less stress on the hip joint).
It also helps improve balance and stability… however, due to the narrow stance testing your balance, you’ll probably find you aren’t able to lift as much weight.
Narrow squats involve greater range of motion at the knees and can also help unlock stiff ankles.
Hypertrophy and Building Muscle
You’ll find narrow squats aren’t as popular in powerlifting and workouts that focus a 1 rep max… however, they are really effective for hypertrophy, building muscle and HIIT workouts.
A front squat is another great way to focus on your quads. If you usually add resistance to your squats by holding a barbell on your upper back (back squat), changing the bar position is a subtle but significant change.
This anterior chain exercise focuses the load on the front of your body, directly above the quads.
One of the reasons the front squat is so highly praised is that is encourages good posture (i.e. a straight back) during the movement. Unlike a back squat, you’re less likely to lean forward to compensate for the heavy load as this would affect your balance.
Zombie squats can be a great variation of front squats to help promote better technique too.
Like a narrow squat, you’ll likely find you can’t lift as much as a traditional back squat, but the targeted focus on your quads will mean they are getting a tougher workout with the front squat variation.
From a front squat, you’re also naturally in a great position for a shoulder press too… if you wanted a simple superset to target the majority of the muscles in your body.
Other front squat variations
As well as using a barbell, the same logic applies to other squat variations that involve holding a weight in front of you… such as a goblet squat (holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of your chest).
A cyclist squat (or any sort of heel-elevated squat) will also put more emphasis on the quads.
Cyclist squats are traditionally done with a barbell high on your back, a relatively narrow stance and the heels raised. It was popularised by strength coach Charles Poliquin in 90s.
For cyclist squats, your quads are engaged and activated for longer than a flat-footed squat, which increases time under tension. Ultimately this means the quads are working harder and adapting to the challenge (leading to muscle development).
By having your heels elevated, you can squat deeper… i.e. beyond where your heels would normally be. This increased range of motion will really kick the inner quads (vastus medialis) into gear.
Cyclist squats are also gentler on your ankles… so if you feel your ankles are sore, you may find this a useful variation to try. For this reason, heel elevated squats are often used in physical therapy and injury rehabilitation programs too.
There are a variety of ways to elevate your heels. The easiest is to simply rest your heels on a barbell plate. Other common ways involve using “wedges” or slant boards. Our guide on decline slant board benefits explains how to use this equipment in more detail.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a great unilateral squat that works the quads, hamstrings and glutes. With one foot resting on a raised surface behind you, the exercise trains and strengthens each side of your body separately, helping to combat any muscular imbalances.
Including at least one unilateral exercise in your leg workouts is definitely recommended, to ensure one side isn’t overcompensating for the other (which may lead to injury).
The reason Bulgarian split squats made this list of the best variations for your training your quads is that the quad on your front leg has no time off during the movement… even when you’re in an upright position, it needs to be engaged to help provide balance.
Bulgarian split squats also reduce any stress on the back… a common problem for those doing traditional back squats.
You can also incorporate Bulgarian split squats with other variations in this list, such as having your heel raised on your front foot (cyclist squat), or holding a weight in front of you (front squat), to further emphasis the focus on the quads.
Sissy squats are quite an unusual exercise to witness, but they are one of the best squat variations for isolating and targeting the quads. They also build a stronger core and improve balance.
The sissy squat involves lifting the heel and leaning back as you squat down. Your knees push forward during this movement, almost so your shins are parallel to the floor.
This will really test your strength and flexibility in different ways than a traditional squat does, and ultimately, challenge your quads to take more of the load during the movement.
Although sissy squats are traditionally done as a bodyweight exercise, there are gym machines designed for this movement too, that make it easier (and reduce the need to have pretty good balance). You can also use a wedge board to reduce the need to balance on your toes.
Due to the fact you have to lean back and put your body in quite an unusual position, it isn’t really a beginner-friendly exercise, and even if you are experienced, we wouldn’t really recommend adding much (if any) additional weight when performing repetitions.
Another squat variation that is similar to sissy squats worth trying is the Hindu squat. This is easier and lends itself well for HIIT/high repetition workouts.
If you’re looking to focus on your quads, try some of these squat variations for quads in your next workout. You could also combine some of them to further activate the quads too.
Something to consider is that lots of these exercises will naturally put more pressure on the knees to help activate the quads… so if you’re struggling with knee pain or discomfort, you may want to resolve and address that first, before attempting these squat variations for quads.
Also, by definition, if you’re putting more emphasis on your quads, you’re reducing the activation of your glutes and hamstrings, so make sure you adapt your workouts to give these muscle groups attention too.