The quads (a group of muscles on the front of the thighs) are a large and receptive muscle group. What this means, in a nutshell, is that they have a high ceiling for muscle growth and size.
This is excellent news for anyone looking to build a decent set of pins, but if you start to train your legs without this prior knowledge, it’s easy to find your physique can quickly become unbalanced. Females in particular struggle with this issue when it comes to leg training and find that their quads are too big (or bigger than they might prefer!).
If your quads are too big you’re likely to be quad dominant. For these individuals, it’s best to incorporate more hamstring than quad training in your leg routine, at a ratio of 2:1. You should also incorporate more hip dominant exercises like wide stance back squats and Romanian deadlifts.
While you’d think people have the most issue with trying to grow their legs, you’d be surprised how often people find more or an issue with their quads being too big and out of proportion.
Therefore, in this article, we’ll cover why your quads are too big but more importantly, how to balance them out!
What Are Quads
For a quick overview, the quads (short for quadriceps) are the group of muscles that make up the front of your thigh. There are four in total – hence the name – and they are responsible for extension of the knee (straightening the leg) and flexion of the hip (to a lesser extent).
The four muscles that make up quads are:
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Intermedius (runs underneath the rectus femoris)
When you think of people training the “thighs”, what they are really doing is working these four main muscle groups that make up the quads. Having multiple muscle groups doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall muscle is bigger.
This is an obvious assumption – the triceps are made up of three muscle groups but overall, the tricep isn’t a large muscle group – and one that immediately causes training imbalances as people try to balance out muscle groups. When it comes to the quads though, combined they are a large muscle group capable of a high ceiling when it comes to strength and overall muscle growth.
They are not as big a muscle group as the hamstrings and glutes though which also make up the legs. For many people, the hamstrings will have more growth potential so why is it that the quads can more often become too big and out of proportion?
Quads Are Too Big
If your quads are too big there are usually two key factors to consider (and an additional third factor):
- You’re a quad dominant individual so your quads will often act as a primary mover in leg exercises
- You are including too many knee dominant exercises in your leg routine and not enough hip dominant exercises.
- You hold more body fat in your thigh region
The third factor is one I’ll cover quickly as it’s an important thing to troubleshoot. Everyone will store body fat in different places, for males, it’s likely that you’ll store surplus body fat around the hip and abdomen while for females, fat storage is quite common in the hip, glutes, and thigh area.
Therefore, one reason why your “quads” are too big could be that you have excess body fat and a large proportion of this is being stored in the thigh area. The simple solution for this is to lose excess body fat by going through a cutting phase which could last 8 – 16 weeks (depending on your body fat percentage starting point).
Getting to a body fat percentage of around 10%-12% will quickly reveal whether or not your quads are too big because the muscles themselves are out of proportion or whether you were just holding too much body fat in this area.
** It’s easy to assume you’ve got bigger muscles than you actually do so don’t underestimate how much body fat you might be holding as it could be a surprising amount!
Moving back to the first two factors again then, I’ll break each one of these down further:
Quad Dominance Causing Quad Growth
Quad dominance sounds like a technical term but all it means is that during a leg exercise (squat or leg press), your quad will be more active in moving the weight than your hamstrings.
This happens in other exercises, people with shorter arms as an example could be more tricep dominant when pressing which is why they struggle to build their chest with a regular bench press.
Another way to look it is is knee dominant because the joint and muscle group that you initiate a movement with is usually the one that will be engaged, stimulated, and do most of the work during the exercise.
What this basically means is that when you are standing up during a squat, before you drop down to lower the weight the first thing you do is bend your knees. By bending your knees first, you initiate the movement with the knee which means movement at the knee activates the quads.
Transfer this thought process to other leg-based exercises and it could be easy to see why your quads are getting too big…. They are doing most of the work!
Quad dominance means that during a neutral pressing position, your quads will still tend to do more work or be more engaged than the hamstrings. This could be due to the quads being a stronger muscle group (the body has safety mechanisms so stronger muscle groups will tend to take over exercises where possible) or your body position is leading to them being a more active muscle.
This then leads to the next point.
Too Many Quad Dominant Exercises
If your quads are too big then this could be because you have too many Quad dominant exercises in your leg routine which is leading to this disproportionate balance. As a very general rule of thumb that you might have come across before, when it comes to leg exercises (all squat variations, leg press, lunge, etc..) a narrow stance targets the quads and a wider stance targets the hamstrings and glutes.
This is a general tip to follow but also one that could be causing too much quad dominance. If you squat with a narrow stance, lunge with small steps, and have more knee extension-based exercises like a leg extension in your routine, chances are you are placing way too much emphasis on your quads and not enough on your posterior chain.
Quad dominant exercises include:
- Narrow stance squat (all variations including single-leg and hack squat)
- Narrow stance leg press
- Leg extension
- Reverse carries or pulls (backward sled pull as an example)
To clarify, a narrow stance is anything that is closer than shoulder-width for most people. This will vary from individual to individual but this is a pretty good guide to use.
If your leg routine is missing leg curls, stiff leg deadlifts, or wide stance squats/presses then you might be placing far more stimulus on your quads and this could be the main reason why they are getting too big or out of proportion.
How Do You Fix Quad Dominance
The first step to fixing quad dominance is to reassess your exercise selection and ensure you are not placing too much focus on the quad or knee dominant exercises. Using the information above, you want to ensure you start to follow a ratio of 2:1 with a focus on posterior and hip dominant exercises.
Because the quads are a “mirror muscle”, it’s easy to train them more than you would the muscles that are out of sight and ultimately out of mind. Therefore, strategically planning your routine to place more emphasis on your hamstrings will initially start to shift this balance without having to make a conscious effort during the workout itself.
If you do a leg extension twice per week and a leg curl once, a good starting point is to just reverse this and place more emphasis on a leg curl or stiff leg deadlift. This means including exercises like:
- Lying leg curl
- Standing leg curl
- Stiff leg deadlift
- Wide stance back squat
- Wide stance leg press
- Wide lunge
- Barbell hip thrust
Once you place more posterior exercises into your routine, you then need to be more focused on exercise execution. As mentioned earlier, the way you initiate a movement will usually dictate the muscles that are most active and this is important when trying to even out any muscle imbalances.
This means taking a wider stance on certain exercises like a squat or leg press (shoulder width or wider) and taking longer strides on a lunge to shift emphasis to the glutes and hamstrings. Next, you’ll want to initiate movements with the hip to try and make the glutes and hamstrings the primary mover and more active muscle group during the exercise.
The best way to do this for squat variations is to start the movement by visually sitting backward. The thought process should not be to drop directly down as you’ll likely break with the knees naturally and place the emphasis on the quads again. By thinking about sitting backward you’ll instinctively move at the hips first and activate the glutes and hamstrings as the primary mover.
If you’re having issues with lower body symmetry then there are two issues you’re struggling with. One being that your quads are bigger than your hamstrings which is causing a muscle imbalance for both strength and aesthetic reasons and the second issue being that your quads are an overpowering muscle group and are simply too big!
Fortunately, there are ways you can reverse and mitigate this issue. The simple steps to take are to reassess your current training split and ensure that your quad and hamstring work is at a minimum of a 1:1 ratio with each muscle group getting equal stimulation throughout the week. Then try to move this towards a 2:1 ratio in favor of more hamstring than quad work.
Once this step is ticked off, you’ll also need to ensure that the quads are not overly active during compound leg exercises like squats, presses, or lunges. To do this, check that you are opting for a shoulder-width or wider stance.
This isn’t essential and doesn’t need to be excessive in terms of a wide stance. Secondly, try to initiate exercises with the hip where possible. This basically means start the movement like a squat by dropping your hips back and visualizing sitting down which will shift the focus to the glutes and hamstrings.
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