One of the best – or worst depending on how you view it – indicators of a good training session is muscle DOMS. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the feeling of soreness you get in the 24-48 hours after a workout session and when it comes to legs, it’s definitely a sign that you’ve worked the muscle!
What does it mean then when you don’t get DOMS? One particular issue people have come across is quads not sore after squats or leg days.
If your quads are not sore after squats then this is either the result of bad exercise form/execution or a lack of workout volume. If you follow a strength-based training program, the number of sets and reps would not be enough to cause muscle damage and the resulting quad soreness afterward.
While the above is a good example of why your quads might not be sore after squats, there are a number of reasons you’ll need to consider not only to see why your quads are not sore after squats but also to ensure you are properly stimulating the desired muscle group.
We’ll therefore cover this in more detail below…
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Quads Not Sore After Squats
I’ve personally had unbearable DOMS from heavy leg sessions before and they’ve lasted a week meaning I couldn’t properly tackle stairs, walking, or even sitting.
It’s worth noting that DOMS is not always a good sign of muscle growth so the goal is not to have sore muscles all week (more on this later) but for most beginners, DOMS is an indication that you’ve at least trained the intended muscle group.
Most beginners will feel soreness after squatting or a leg day in general just because of the new level of stimulation but once you get more experienced in the gym, increase workout intensity, yet find you’re no longer feeling soreness (particularly in the quads) then it is worth checking whether or not you are doing something wrong.
Again, the goal is not to have DOMS as this is usually the sign of unproductive muscle damage. To build a muscle optimally, you want to stimulate the muscle through resistance training, activate muscle protein synthesis which puts your body into a muscle repair/building state, and most importantly – recover!
DOMS – especially when they are excessive and last for 3-7 days – are not really beneficial for optimal muscle growth because they are a sign of too much muscle damage. When you can’t optimally recover, you can’t optimally train and therefore, you can’t optimally grow.
One of the best things you can learn when it comes to muscle growth and training is:
“Stimulate, not annihilate”
For most people, the aim is to get soreness the next day to show they’ve trained the muscle group effectively so not feeling sore quads after squats will usually be an indication that they may be doing something wrong…
Is It Good to Have Sore Quads After Squats
Following on from the above, having muscle soreness or DOMS is not only non-essential for an effective workout but it could even be detrimental. Research shows that DOMS Is not a sole factor of muscle growth and in a lot of instances it can actually be a negative factor.
The reasons why include:
- Longer recovery time needed
- An inability to train the muscle group
- An inability to exert maximum force during a training session (until fully recovered)
Therefore, if we take a very conservative view of training (because there is no single best approach or correct way to train), a good rule to follow is to stimulate a muscle and feel some level of soreness the next day.
If you are squatting and not feeling any soreness at all, this could definitely be an indication that you are either not targeting the correct muscle group or that you are training the correct muscle but without enough intensity or volume.
Hamstrings Not Sore After Squats
If your quads are not sore after squats, the initial thought is that the hamstrings must be taking over during the movement and acting as the primary muscle group.
We’ll cover this in more detail shortly as one of the keys for people who have quads that are overdeveloped is that they are knee dominant and the quads take over most of the work during a squat.
If, however, your quads are not sore after squats and your hamstrings are not sore after squats then it becomes much easier to troubleshoot the issue.
If you’re reading this purely because you are not getting sore quads after squats or leg days but you are getting sore hamstrings or calves then it’s very likely that you can rectify this by making adjustments to your form and squatting technique.
Why Your Quads Are Not Sore After Squatting
If your quads are not sore from squats then it comes down to some very noticeable reasons that you’ll want to check:
- Squatting Form
The very first thing to consider is your squatting form and also what type of squat you are doing as the two can be linked. Firstly, I’ll quickly touch on the type of squat as this will usually fall under two categories:
- Back squat (high bar or low bar)
- Front squat
While both variations are technically a squat, a front squat and a high bar back squat will both place more emphasis on the quads. This is because the barbell position means you need to keep a more upright posture and the weight becomes more front-loaded, placing the tension further onto the quad muscles.
The most common type of squat however is a regular back squat which isn’t quite low-bar (powerlifting technique) but certainly resembles this more. The weight is on the posterior chain, there is a tendency to lean forward, and you take a wider stance and all of these factors tend to place more emphasis on the posterior chain muscles like the hamstrings and glutes.
When getting more technical on squatting form and technique, the way you initiate the movement will usually indicate which muscle is going to be most active. To put it simply, if you start a squat by bending your knees (also referred to as breaking with the knees) then the quads will be the primary mover. If you start a squat by bending at the hips and sitting backward, the hamstrings and glutes become the primary movers.
This is a very subtle form difference that can dramatically impact the muscles that are most active during the lift. Another factor to consider is foot placement as the more narrow the stance, the more quad engagement during the movement, and the wider the stance (shoulder width or wider) the more the hamstrings and glutes will be engaged.
Some people are also naturally more hip-dominant so even with a neutral stance, some people may find their hamstrings and glutes take over the movement due to the fact that they are stronger muscles and the human body will utilize stronger muscles to prevent injury, etc…
- Volume and Intensity Is Too Low
The second reason why your quads might not be sore after squats are because of workout intensity or volume. Now, this isn’t a statement intended to dent a few egos as I’m not referring to the individual effort that you put into the workout.
What I’m referring to is the stress the muscle is placed under and more specifically, how many muscle fibers are being fatigued as a result of your training style. Long-distance runners as an example will suffer from leg DOMS and soreness because they are fatiguing the slow-twitch muscle fibers but as it’s clear to see, a long-distance runner is far from jacked!
When this translates to the weight room, a strength training program doing 3 sets of 5 rep squats or a “hypertrophy” routine of 3 sets of 8 reps at 80% of your 1RM simply might not be enough to fatigue the muscle fibers enough to cause muscle soreness.
Take the 20-rep squat as an example as this is the kind of routine that will fatigue the fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers and likely lead to soreness the next day. The only issue is that it’s highly advised you only do this a few times per year because of the resulting damage and length of time needed to recover.
Therefore, you need to find a balancing act between enough intensity to stimulate and fatigue the muscle fibers but not so much that you annihilate them and can’t recover fully.
How to Activate Quads During a Squat
If you aren’t feeling your quads after squatting (or leg day in general) and want to at least ensure you are targeting and training them effectively when squatting, there are a few solid practices that you can follow.
Firstly, squat variation and setup are key. If you want to feel your quads work when squatting, opt for a front squat or high bar back squat. To further place tension on the quads you’ll want to place some small 10lb plates underneath your heels.
This is a weightlifter’s hack to shift more tension onto the quads as the raised heels allow you to squat deeper by increasing the range of motion at the knee and significantly increases quad activation. Next, you’ll want to focus on having a closer stance (though this doesn’t need to be so close that you are unbalanced) so shoulder width or slightly less will be best for most people.
Finally, by initiating the movement with the knees and breaking with the knees, you’ll be positioning yourself to have the quad as the primary muscle during the movement. These form tips are only general guidelines and are not a guarantee but they will stack the odds in your favor when it comes to working the quads.
Next – and something that is more tricky to implement – is ensuring your workout intensity is enough to stimulate significant muscle hypertrophy. Now, this isn’t my specialist area so if you are looking for a leg routine for muscle growth both T-Nation and EliteFTS have hundreds of programs that are hypertrophy specific from industry-leading coaches.
This will come down more to the leg routine as a whole though. If you are only squatting for legs then you are leaving growth potential on the table, especially if muscle growth is your primary goal!
If you’ve been squatting heavily but not feeling any muscle soreness, especially in your quads then it could likely raise some questions as to whether you are making any mistakes. DOMS are after all a good indicator that you’ve at least stimulated the muscle even if they are not essential (or even necessary) for muscle growth.
The reasons for this will usually come down to form/technique and your weightlifting routine/intensity. If you make some of the adjustments outlined in this article then chances are you can already identify areas where you might not be properly targeting the quads like squatting with a wide stance back squat.
Therefore, make the necessary adjustments but also note that you do not need to feel quad soreness after squatting to indicate progress in terms of strength or muscle growth so if you’re seeing progress in the mirror or logbook – keep doing what you are doing!