The best muscle hypertrophy results happen when we include both compound movements and isolation movements to target the muscles we want to strengthen and grow.
But when we don’t have a lot of equipment it can be hard to effectively target specific muscles, like our quads, with isolation moves.
Often when we think about exercises to isolate our quads, we think about the leg extension machine or some sort of cable extension or maybe even band extension.
That’s why I wanted to share one of my favorite bodyweight moves to really isolate and target those quads.
This move is deceptively hard when done right.
And if you have knee pain currently limiting your knee flexion or your ability to kneel, I will go over modifications to still get in bonus quad work!
But do not just demonize this move because of the kneeling or knee flexion.
While not every move is right for every person, lean backs, also often called Reverse Nordic Curls, have even at times been used to rehab specific quad or knee injuries.
Our knees are meant to flex and extend and controlling this movement is key to actually keeping our knees healthy and happy!
Plus this move may be a great way to specifically target the rectus femoris quad muscle because the hip stays in an extended position during knee flexion.
But before I go over modifications and other quad isolation options, what is this amazing bodyweight quad move?
It’s the lean back!
How To Do Lean Backs:
This move looks super simple. But it is deceptively challenging for those quads!
I mention this because, in an attempt to extend our range of motion, often we cheat without realizing it.
To do the Lean Backs, start kneeling with your knees about hip-width apart.
While you can point your toes, I highly recommend starting with your feet dorsiflexed to provide that solid foundation and help with activation. This gives the added bonus of working on foot and ankle mobility. However, if you find it painful you may keep your feet plantar flexed.
If you do find you struggle with calf cramps while keeping your toes pointed, just remember you have the other option too!
Come to that full kneeling position up nice and tall and squeeze your glutes as you brace your abs.
You can reach your hands out in front of you to help with balance to start.
Keeping your glutes engaged, lean back. The movement is coming only at your knees.
While tempting to sit your butt back toward your heels, make sure to keep your glutes engaged and hips extended.
Bracing your abs is also key as it is tempting to just lean back from your lower back.
You’re working your quads to control that lean back and knee flexion. They are working to control and even decelerate that knee flexion.
You are basically using your quads to slow down the eccentric portion of the movement.
Allow yourself to lean back as far as possible with the movement coming at your knees.
Then pull yourself back up to kneeling, feeling your quads working to pull you back up.
Repeat the movement, slowing down that lean back to make sure you’re controlling it.
To advance the move, work through the biggest range of motion you can control and even slow down the tempo further, even including a pause when you’ve leaned back.
If you do have loads, you can always add them to the move to advance it, holding a weight in at your chest or by even using a band anchored behind you so that you have to work harder to press forward and even fight the band pulling you to lean back.
While we need to stop demonizing moves with kneeling or knee flexion and stop stating they are “dangerous” for our knees, they may not be right for people with specific knee injuries, especially to start.
You may seek to build up to the lean back eventually or you may find you never include it because it doesn’t match your needs and goals or fitness level.
If you can kneel but don’t yet have full control of the lean back, you can modify the lean back, by using a band anchored in front of you to assist or even even by holding on to something to control the range of motion.
But if you are looking to improve your quad strength, and find that kneeling or active knee flexion is tough right now, consider including isometrics in your routine to start.
These moves are a great way to really improve your mind-body connection and start to build that strength endurance.
Do not just hold with these moves but actually focus on really feeling those quad muscles work as you even try to engage them harder during the hold.
Moves like the basic wall sit or even bulldog hold are a great way to improve your quad strength endurance while eliminating active knee flexion.
They are a great way to make sure you can engage muscles correctly while even allowing you to strengthen muscles to improve your joint stability.
If you are looking to include some active knee flexion to start, you may even consider seated quad flexes. You can start with just bodyweight and focus on holding harder or even begin to add ankle weights, bands or cables as you feel ready.
Just remember that sometimes we need to regress to progress.
And instead of demonizing moves, simply find the ones that match us where we are at.
No matter what tools we have available, there is often a way to find a movement to match our needs and goals.
So if you’re looking for an amazing quad move, give these lean backs a try. They are great to include after a compound moves like lunges or squats to isolate those quads and really make them work!
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