The quadriceps are a group of four muscles found on the front of your thigh. These are about extending or straightening the knee.

When you get off the couch, climb the stairs, or kick a ball, your knees will stretch.

So it makes sense that, to train the quad muscles, you’d only want to straighten your knees with a move like the quad extension.

What are leg extensions?

A single-joint movement that targets the quads, leg extensions (aka quad extensions) involve repeatedly straightening the knees under load. Most gyms have dedicated leg extension machines. You can perform quad extensions at home with a resistance band or just your body weight.

Can quad extension hurt the knee?

The quad extension is controversial because, being a single-joint exercise, it puts more stress on the knee than multi-joint exercises like squats and lunges.

“But it’s probably not a problem if your knees are healthy,” explains Trevor Thiem, CSCS, Beachbody’s senior director of fitness and nutrition content. “Like most exercises, knee extensions only increase your risk of injury if you have a pre-existing problem (in this case, with your knees) or if you perform the exercise with incorrect form or excess weight.”

If you have knee sprains, you should stay away from this exercise, he says.

Unlike squats and lunges, which primarily load the knees with compressive (downward) forces, quad extensions apply shear (back-and-forth) forces.

The unstable knee is more vulnerable to injury from shear stress as opposed to compressive forces.

Regardless of the condition of your knees, performing leg extensions safely and effectively depends on good form.

How to do quad extension with perfect form

If you are using a weight machine:

  • Line up your knees with the axis of the machine.
  • If the machine you’re using has two pads, set the top one firmly against your thigh and the other against the front of your ankle. If the machine doesn’t have a thigh pad, just hold onto the handles or either side of the seat.
  • With control (using no swing or momentum), squeeze your quads to extend your knees until they are straight but not locked.
  • Pause, then slowly bend your knees to return to the starting position.

If you are using a resistance band:

  • Sit on the edge of a chair or couch with a light resistance band looped around one ankle and attached to a firm point directly behind the ankle, such as a furniture leg. Keep the band taut in the starting position.
  • With control (without using any swing or momentum), squeeze your quads to extend your knee until it’s straight but not locked.
  • Pause, then slowly bend your knees to return to the starting position. Do equal reps on both sides.

What are some alternatives to leg extensions?

Whether leg extensions are right for you or not, incorporate some of the best quad exercises into your workout.

For well-rounded quad strength, performance, and injury prevention, the key is to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine.

1. Squat

  • Stand tall with a pair of dumbbells at your sides, feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed forward.
  • Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You want to “sit” the exercise, pushing your hips back like you’re lowering yourself into a chair or bench. Never bend forward at your waist – this will only increase the stress on your spine and throw you off balance.
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position.

2. Lunge

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells by your sides.
  • With your chest up, shoulders back, core braced (imagine someone is about to punch you in the gut), and back flat, take a big step with your right leg. Lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground and bend your back knee 90 degrees (it should be a few inches off the floor).
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Repeat, this time stepping forward with your left leg. Continue alternating legs, doing equal repetitions on each.

3. Step-up

  • Stand tall holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your side and place your left foot on a bench so that your hip, knee and ankle are all bent 90 degrees.
  • Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, push your body up with your left leg until it’s straight (keep your right leg slightly higher behind you).
  • Pause, and then return your body to the starting position under control. Repeat equally on both legs.

4. Bulgarian Split Squat

  • Stand facing away from a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells by your side. Place your left toes on the bench behind you.
  • Keeping your torso straight, lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the ground (don’t let your left knee touch it).
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position. Repeat equally on both legs.

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