Quad-Strengthening Exercises


Female urban runner
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The quadriceps (or quads) describe the four muscles located on the front of the thigh. They contract together to help flex (or lift up) the hip and extend (or straighten) the knee. The quads often become weak after injury is sustained or surgery is performed on the lower leg or thigh. For this reason, it is important to learn how to strengthen this muscle group for a complete recovery.

People with certain conditions often exhibit quadriceps weakness. These conditions may include:

Typically, a specific area of your quad called the vastus medialis obliqus (VMO) may be weak or inhibited from contracting properly in these conditions. Your PT can show you how to perform these quad exercises with a special focus on the VMO for maximal effect.

Some quad strengthening exercises place significant stress on your knee joint. Your physical therapist can show you ways to minimize joint stress while still strengthening your quadriceps. Be sure to check in with your doctor before starting these - or any other - exercises.

Review these exercises for quad strengthening and get started on the road to stronger thighs.

Straight Leg Raises

Straight leg raise with an cuff weight around the ankle.
Place a cuff weight around your ankle to add full resistance to your straight leg raising exercise. Brett Sears, PT, 2013

The straight leg raising (SLR) exercise is a simple way to get your quad muscles working properly. Here is how the SLR is done.

  • Lie on your back on a flat surface.
  • Bend the knee of your uninvolved leg (the one that wasn't operated on) to a 90-degree angle, and keep your foot flat on the surface. Keep your involved leg straight without the knee bent.
  • Slowly lift the involved leg 12 inches off the floor (by contracting the front thigh muscles). Hold for five seconds.
  • Slowly lower your leg to the floor. Relax and repeat 10 to 15 times.

The knee of the raised leg should remain straight throughout this exercise. Focus on lifting by using the muscles on the front of your hip joint. This exercise can be made more challenging by placing a 2 or 3-pound cuff weight on your ankle before you lift.

Short Arc Quads

The short arc quad (SAQ) exercise is a great way to really focus in on properly contracting your quadriceps muscles. Here is how you do it:

  • Lie on your back and use a small coffee can (or paper towel roll) to prop your knee up.
  • Slowly straighten your bent knee until it is all the way straight.
  • Tighten your quad muscle and hold it tight for 5 seconds.
  • Slowly lower your leg down.
  • Repeat for 15 repetitions.

Wall Slides

Wall Slides. Photo © Dr. Laura Inverarity

  • Stand upright with your back against a wall and feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Slowly bend your knees, sliding your back down the wall for a count of five until your knees are bent at a 45-degree angle. (Do not bend too much further than this, as it will cause increased strain on your knees.) Hold this position for 5 seconds.
  • Straightening your knees by slowly sliding up the wall until you are fully upright with knees straight.
  • Repeat the above steps 10 more times.

Terminal Knee Extension

Terminal knee extension (TKE) is a simple, yet effective, way to strengthen your quads in a standing position. The TKE is considered a functional exercise, as you quads will be working while supporting your body weight.

To perform the terminal knee extension exercise, you must first obtain a resistance band, like a Theraband, from your physical therapist. Once you have a band, you should be ready to start the exercise. Here's how you do it:

  • Tie your resistance band around a stable object so it is anchored around the height of your knee. (The leg of a table is a good place.)
  • Step into the loop with the leg you wish to exercise.
  • Face the anchor point with the resistance band looped around your knee and your knee slightly bent.
  • Slowly straighten your knee, placing tension on the band. The resistance band should provide some resistance as your try to fully straighten your knee.
  • Once your knee is straight and the band has tension on it, hold the position for 3 seconds.
  • Slowly allow your knee to bend slightly once again.
  • Repeat the exercise for 15 repetitions.

Edited by Brett Sears, PT, Verywell.com Expert in Physical Therapy.

Powers, C. etal. "Patellofemoral joint stress during weight-bearing and non—weight-bearing quadriceps exercises." JOSPT, 44(5) May 2014. 320-327.

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