9 Exercises That’ll Help You Build Crazy Strong Quads

Monster quads help you crush the ride. Here’s how to carve a pair of your own - on and off the bike.


Selene Yeager and Hailey Middlebrook |

Bulging, carved quads are like flashing neon signs announcing that you are a cyclist, and you’ve come to kick some ass. And those diamond-cut cannons are more than just aesthetically pleasing in your spandex. The four muscles collectively called the “quads” are the primary movers when you push through the pedal stroke, so stronger quads equals more watts.

“Cycling is a power sport,” says David Ertl, Ph.D., a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach with Peaks Coaching Group. “You need leg strength to crank out power. That means building all the muscle fibres you can. If you can get 10 or 20 percent stronger than the next guy or gal, you won’t fatigue as quickly, and you’ll have that much more in reserve when you need to give a burst up a hill or off the line at the start.”

This size of yours depends on a host of factors including your height – shorter riders’ legs tend be (or appear to be) stockier; your genes – some people, like sprinters, have more fast-twitch “anaerobic” muscle fibres, the ones that really pop, giving track racers those Lycra-busting quads; and how and where you ride – spinning easy at a high cadence develops less muscle than pushing harder on those pedals.

Of course, powerful quads come in many shapes and sizes. After all, Chris Froome’s legs are downright willowy compared to the tree trunks on Mark Cavendish, yet both do an admirable job of getting a bike to the line fast and often first.

To build your quad strength, Ertl recommends strength training both on and off the bike. Don’t worry; you won’t be toiling away for hours in the gym; you only need a few key moves. These quad exercises, demoed by Kenny Santucci, certified personal trainer and instructor at Solace in New York City, can help you spin stronger and faster.

How to use this list: Before adding weight to the exercises below, try performing them with body weight only to nail down your form first. Once you’re comfortable with the technique, incorporate weights slowly, using light dumbbells to start and gradually going heavier. A good rule of thumb is to choose a weight that allows you to lift to “momentary fatigue” – the point at which you can’t perform another rep with proper form.

Perform two to four sets of 8 to 12 reps once a week during the season, and two to three times per week during the off-season to rebuild. When on the bike, perform the drills listed below.

Off the Bike:

1. Side Step and Kick

Start standing to the right of a box or step with hands at sides (with or without dumbbells). Step left foot onto the box. Press through left heel to lift body up while swinging the right leg out to the side as high as possible. Return to the starting position. Complete 10 reps, then switch sides.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat

Stand holding dumbbells with your back to a standard bench or box. Reach right foot back and place the top of the foot on the box. Bend left leg to lower right knee down toward the floor. When the left thigh is parallel to the floor, push through left foot to return to starting position. Complete 10 reps; then repeat on other leg.

3. Slide Lunge

Stand with feet shoulder-width distance apart. Place a paper plate or towel underneath right foot. Shift your weight to left leg and clasp hands in front of chest for balance. Send hips back as you bend right knee and slide left foot out while lowering into a lunge. Remember to keep left knee over toes and chest lifted. Slowly pull the left leg in and rise back up to the starting position. Repeat for 15 reps, then switch sides.

4. Lunge Split Jump

Start standing then step left foot forward and lower down into a lunge so that both knees form 90-degree angles. Swiftly, press into left heel to jump up and switch your legs in the air in a scissors motion, landing with right foot forward. You can use your arms for momentum and balance. When the left knee grazes the ground, jump again. Perform 5 jumps on each leg for 10 jumps total.

5. Squat

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with hands clasped at chest. Send hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat until thighs are about parallel to the floor. Keep chest lifted. Press through heels to return back to starting position. Perform 10 reps.

6. Walking Lunge

Stand holding dumbbells at your sides. Take a giant step forward with left leg, and right knee toward floor. Both knees should form a 90-degree angle. Press into left heel to rise back up to standing, then repeat with right leg. Continue for 20 paces, 10 on each leg.

On the Bike:

1. Single-Leg Pedalling

Your rectus femoris is the quad muscle that runs straight down the front of your thigh and helps flex your hip – i.e. pull up and push down the pedals. A great way to work it along with your other hip flexors – and get a silkier pedal stroke in the process – is a single-leg pedaling drill. “Most people can pedal with one leg for about 30 seconds before they fatigue because the hip flexors get neglected when you use both legs because the leg pushing down is always pushing the other back up,” says Ertl.

Sit on an indoor trainer with one foot clipped in and the other unclipped and propped on a chair or stool. With the bike in an easy gear, begin pedaling at a comfortable cadence, concentrating on keeping a smooth pedal stroke through the top (where it usually will feel hardest). Spin like that for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat 3 to 4 times. Finish by pedalling easy with both feet clipped in. Build up to being able to single-leg pedal for 3 to 4 minutes on each leg.

2. Low RPM Grind

Big-gear work yields big quad development. In season, Ertl has athletes supplement their gym work by performing big-gear, low-cadence intervals into the wind or on slight inclines to build strength on the bike. “Try to keep your cadence below 60 rpm and push steadily for about 5 minutes.” Then rest and repeat for 2 to 3 sets.

3. Over Gear Intervals

(Note: Skip this drill if you have a history of knee problems)

On a flat stretch of road, shift into a big gear that slows you down to about walking pace. Stay in the saddle and forcefully, but smoothly, push the pedals, increasing your pace until you’re at top speed. Hold there for about 30 seconds and then shift back down, spinning easily to recover for 1 minute. Repeat 5 to 8 times. Do once or twice a week.

All GIFs by: Julia Hembree Smith

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