How the Quadriceps Muscles Work

Bodybuilder Working Leg Muscles In Gym
AleksandarGeorgiev / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

The quadriceps muscles, commonly called the "quads," are powerful muscles involved in lower body movement and propulsion. The quadriceps muscles consist of four large muscles at the front of the thigh. These muscles are primarily responsible for hip flexion and extension at the knee joint.

Keeping the quadriceps muscles healthy will help you move through regular daily activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair with greater ease. It will also help to improve your performance in athletic activities like running, cycling, or team sports such as football or soccer.

Anatomy of the Quads

Each muscle that makes up the quadriceps group has a different location and a different function. The primary function of the quadriceps is to extend (straighten) the knee. Each muscle has a different origin, but they all attach near the patella (the kneecap).

Rectus Femoris

On many people, the rectus femoris is the most noticeable muscle in the quadriceps group as it runs down the middle of the front of the thigh.

The rectus femoris is responsible for stabilizing and creating flexion at the hip joint. This occurs when you tip the torso forward or when you bring your thighs closer to your torso. Activities that involve hip flexion include walking, running, stepping up onto a bench or staircase, and standing up. The rectus femoris is also involved in extension (straightening) at the knee joint.

Vastus Lateralis

The vastus lateralis is another prominent muscle on the front of the thigh. In fact, it is the largest of the quadriceps muscles. In well-developed athletes, you'll notice it prominently on the outside (lateral side) of the thigh. This quadriceps muscle is also responsible for extending the knee.

Vastus Medialis

The vastus medialis is similar to the vastus lateralis but it runs along the inside (medial side) of the front of the thigh instead of the outside. It works together with the other muscles to create extension at the knee joint. The vastus medialis also adducts the thigh (moves the thigh towards the midline of the body) and stabilizes the kneecap.

Vastus Intermedius

The vastus intermedius lies under the rectus femoris and between the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. It runs down the middle of the thigh and attaches at the top part of the kneecap. It also forms the deep portion of the quadriceps tendon. Like the other quadriceps muscles, it helps extend the knee.

What the Quadriceps Muscles Do

In simple terms, you use the quads whenever you straighten a bent knee. In everyday life, they help you get up from a chair, walk, climb stairs, and squat. You extend the knee when you kick a ball, run, stand up, and perform other activities where you need to straighten the legs at the knee joint.

During walking and running, the quads are active at the onset of a stride and get used significantly when going downhill. They get a real workout with cycling and are used in jumping and in sports like basketball, football, or soccer.

The Quads and Other Leg Muscles

The quadriceps are antagonists to the hamstring and gluteal muscles, which do more of the heavy work in running and walking. Antagonists are muscles that oppose each other during a movement—in effect balancing the function of the joint.

If one muscle group is tight, it can have an effect on the opposing muscles. For example, those with tight quads may have underdeveloped hamstring and gluteal muscles. One way to relieve the tight quads is to develop stronger hamstrings and glutes to achieve balance.

Strength Exercises For the Quads

Sprinting, cycling, and stair climbing are different ways to strengthen the quadriceps muscles with cardiovascular activities. But most people who are interested in building stronger quads head to the weight room.

There are many different ways to strengthen the quads. Compound exercises are those movements that involve more than one joint and muscle group. Just a few compound exercises for the quadriceps include:

You can also do isolation exercises for the quads. Isolation exercises are those movements that involve just one joint. Common isolation exercises for the quads are leg extensions and exercise machines for the inner thigh and outer thigh.

Stretches for The Quads

Tight quadriceps can cause an imbalance with the hamstrings and gluteal muscles. When this happens, it is not uncommon to experience hip or lower back pain. Runners and cyclists may experience tight quads. Warming up at an easy pace can help relieve the tightness.

But you can also participate in regular flexibility training to keep the quads from getting too tight. Simple quadricep stretches can be performed standing or lying down. It is generally best to do them at the end of a workout or at least when the body is warm.

Common Quadriceps Muscle Injuries

Runners can develop an imbalance between strong hamstring muscles and less-developed quadriceps. A pulled or strained quad muscle is a risk with a muscular imbalance, especially during sudden acceleration, sprints, or kicking actions. Tendonitis, which is inflammation of the quadriceps tendon, is also a risk for runners that can lead to small tears.

Strong quads are crucial for preventing anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. The quadriceps are also involved in rehabilitating these injuries, so having strong muscles in that area may also help you heal faster.

The best way to prevent quadriceps muscle injuries is by actively warming up before a workout or training activity. As well, strengthening the quadriceps and surrounding muscles can reduce muscular imbalances that lead to injury. You can prevent tendonitis by taking rest days and not pushing yourself if you feel pain or soreness. And remember to ease slowly into any new training activity or increase in frequency.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Washington Department of Radiology. Rectus femoris. 2020

  2. University of Washington Department of Radiology. Vastus medialis. 2020

  3. Miao P, Xu Y, Pan C, Liu H, Wang C. Vastus medialis oblique and vastus lateralis activity during a double-leg semisquat with or without hip adduction in patients with patellofemoral pain syndromeBMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2015;16:289. doi:10.1186/s12891-015-0736-6

  4. Loyola University Medical Education Network. Vastus medialis.

  5. University of Washington Department of Radiology. Vastus intermedius. 2020

  6. Chandler TJ, Brown LE. Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance, Third Edition. Routledge; 2018.

  7. Kaeding CC, Borchers JR. Hamstring and Quadriceps Injuries in Athletes, A Clinical Guide. Springer; 2014.

  8. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Quadriceps tendon tear. February 2016.

  9. Bodor M. Quadriceps protects the anterior cruciate ligament. J Orthop Res. 2001;19(4):629-33. doi: 10.1016/S0736-0266(01)00050-X.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.