The Short Arc Quad Exercise to Improve Quadriceps Strength

Photo of PT working with a man's knee.
The short arc quad exercise can help support your knee. Colin McPhearson / Getty Images

The short arc quad exercise is a PT exercise that is often used after a lower extremity injury to strengthen and improve neuromuscular recruitment of your quadriceps muscles.

If you are having knee pain, hip pain, or difficulty walking and moving around, you may benefit from physical therapy to help improve your strength and overall functional mobility. Your physical therapist will likely prescribe exercises to strengthen the muscles around your hips, knees, and legs to help improve your ability to walk, rise from a chair, or move around in bed.

One effective exercise to help improve lower extremity function is the short arc quad (SAQ) exercise.  This exercise is a simple, yet effective, way to improve the strength and endurance of your quadriceps muscles.

What are the Quads?

You quadriceps, or quads, are the large muscles on the top of your thighs. They course down the front of your thighs and cross your knee joint. When your quads contract, your knee extends and straightens fully.  

An injury to your hip or knee, or a surgical procedure to your knee, may cause weakness of loss of function in your quads. An extended period of bed rest may also cause weakness in your quads. One of the goals of physical therapy for knee and hip injuries is to improve overall quadriceps strength and function to improve your mobility.

Who May Benefit from The SAQ Exercise?

Just about anyone can benefit from doing the short arc quad exercise, as it is effective in maintaining strength in your quadriceps muscles.

Performing the exercise on a regular basis may help to prevent problems with your hips or knees.

Some people with certain conditions or in certain situations may benefit from performing the SAQ exercise. These may include:

  • If you have been bedridden
  • In the hospital
  • If you have hip pain or after hip surgery

The SAQ exercise is an easy exercise to do, and it may be helpful for anyone experiencing quadriceps weakness or dysfunction to perform it. It also the first step in performing the straight leg raise exercise progression for knee and hip pain.

How To Do the Short Arc Quad Exercise

Before starting the SAQ, or any other exercise, consult your doctor or physical therapist to ensure that it is safe for you to do for your specific condition. Be sure to stop the exercise if it causes increased knee pain or discomfort.

To perform the short arc quad exercise, follow these simple directions:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees out straight.
  2. Place a bolster under the knee of the quad you wish to strengthen. You can use household items like a coffee can or basketball as a bolster.
  3. Slowly straighten your knee until your leg is fully straightened. Maintain contact with the bolster at all times during the exercise.
  4. Tighten your quad muscle as your knee straightens. You should try to straighten your knee out all the way.
  5. Hold the straight knee position for 3 to 5 seconds, and then slowly return to the starting position.

You should repeat the exercise for 10 to 15 repetitions.

 Performing 2 to 3 sets of the SAQ may be recommended to maximize the challenge to your quads. You can also increase the intensity of the exercise by placing a 1 to 3 pound cuff weight on your ankle when performing the short arc quad.

To progress work on your quads and hips, you may wish to perform the straight leg raising exercise progression after doing the SAQ exercise. Your PT can show you how.

Exercises to strengthen your quads are an important component of any rehab program after knee and hip surgery or whenever quad weakness makes walking and moving around difficult. Check in with your physical therapist for a full assessment, and then try the short arc quad exercise to start strengthening your quads and improving your overall functional mobility.

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