Comfort zone. We have all them. We all love them. They're safe places for us to reside, where nothing can hurt us. Even painful training isn't all that bad, if we're in a familiar gym, using exercises we know and love, for sets we've grown accustomed to completing. The comfort zone feels very nice, because we know it, and that means there is no fear.
Well, if you want your quads to grow to new levels, you're going to have to face that fear. Welcome it. Accept, anticipate, and embrace the unknowns which accompany training your upper legs in new and often unfamiliarly painful ways. Let's look at a few ways you can embrace the common barbell squat you've been using for muscle mass and strength building, and see ways you can make it even more effective!
If you're not using this exercise currently, you are about to start. And if you're not already using it, then it's actually some fairly good news. This means you're about to experience an explosive boost in growth, as you stimulate the front quadriceps in ways they have never seen before. The beauty of front squats is that they lessen the workload that your glutes and hamstrings, and force your front quad muscles - including the elusive teardrop - to do more of the work! The range of motion is a bit larger, so you can go deeper than it possible with standard squats. Mix in strap grip (strap yourself to the bar), Frankenstein grip (hands out in front of you), and the standard crossed-arm grip until you find the handle that fits your lifting style best.
Follow with the Leg Press… Only Slower
We've all seen King Ronnie Coleman knock out 2300 pounds on the leg press. He exploded into those repetitions, and even a decade later, many of us are still emulating his explosive lifting style. That is great if you plan on entering and crushing it at some odd powerlifting competition which suddenly and inexplicably now includes leg press in the mix. Or, if you're trying to impress your gym buddies, that's nice too. But if your goal is maximum muscle fiber stimulation, then you are going to want to remove that explosive aspect from your leg press. This may mean reducing the weight, and it will most certainly involve slowing down your repetitions to a 3 second count on the positive and negative portions of the lift. But it will pay off in the long run, as more of your muscle fibers will be recruited each time you lift. The result will be sets that are more painful to your ego and your leg muscles - but more rewarding as you add new inches of muscle mass to your quads. Why talk leg press? Because it's the squat's little brother, and should absolutely follow the squat every time you lift, without exception!
Isolate early, and later
Most of the time, we save isolation exercises such as leg extensions and leg curls for the end of our workouts, dropping them in after we've knocked out the heavy squats, presses, lunges, and stiff-legged deadlifts. However, there is some great added benefit for front quad development by isolating the quads first with leg extensions, then following them up with your standard heavy squats. You can do this one of two ways. You can knock out 3 or 4 sets of high-rep leg extensions (in the 20 to 30 range) as many top bodybuilders do. Tackling the isolation movement early on means that your front quads will already be pumped when they're called upon for squats, thus making them work harder. The alternative is to actually tie them together in a pre-exhaust method. Complete 12 to 15 reps of leg extensions, then immediately jump to the squat rack. You are not even ready for that level of intense muscle stimulation!
Follow your squats with lunges…
The lunge is an awfully awkward way to tell your quads that you love them… but hitting the legs all over with an unusual stretch of a movement, immediately after squatting, can lead to acute muscle fiber recruitment. Once again, you can hit them in one of two ways. They can be a stand-alone movement, and you can complete 3 or 4 sets of them after you've moved thru the squats and leg presses. Or, you can create a super-set in which you move directly from the squats or leg press to the lunges. You'll need a fairly empty room with plenty of rack space open if you wish to train in this manner. But the workout you see will be level of muscle fiber stimulation that your legs will likely have never seen before. Squat better by following them up with an all-encompassing movement such as lunges to really finish those quad muscles off!
Write down "hashtag workhorse" to accompany everything you do, every minute of every day. Stop looking for ways to make things easier and more efficient. Look for ways to make your leg training harder and more painful, slower and more deliberate. Be that workhorse in the squat rack, spending twice as long in there as your peers, plugging away with deep repetitions and safe, complete range of motion. Skip the drive thru and be that workhorse when it comes to diet too, putting in the hours in the kitchen preparing meals.
The name of the game is muscle stimulation. Every way you can hit the quad muscles to accentuate the impact of squats is another way you can inspire some new muscle growth. Let squats be the bedrock for your heavy training, and use additional movements and techniques to further expand upon the gains that you will see. Good luck!