Can’t Feel Your Quads When Squatting? Try These 8 Tips

8 tips to help feel your quads while squatting

The quads are one of the most important muscle groups for squatting, but many struggle to feel their quads while performing their squats. 

This could be an indication that our technique isn’t quite right, our quads are not strong enough to do their job, or we simply are not engaging them as well as we should be.

Here are my 8 tips to help feel your quads while squatting:

  1. Let The Knees Track Further Over The Toes
  2. Keep The Knees Forward Out Of The Hole
  3. Engage The Quads Before Descending
  4. Slow Down The Eccentric To Keep Tension In The Quads
  5. Focus On Maintaining Tightness In The Bottom Position
  6. Press The Big Toe Into The Ground
  7. Utilize The High Bar Squat
  8. Add Front Squats As An Accessory

In this article, I’ll discuss the specific role of the quads in the squat, go into further detail on my 8 tips to help feel your quads when squatting, and give you a list of squat variations that target the quads to a greater extent.

Do you also struggle to feel your glutes while hip thrusting? If so, check out these 9 Tips To Help Feel Your Glutes Hip Thrusting.

Quad Involvement In The Squat: In-Depth View

The quadriceps perform 3 important roles in the squat:

  1. Eccentric Loading (Knee Flexion)
  2. Isometric Contraction
  3. Concentric Action (Knee Extension)

Don’t let these biomechanical terms scare you.  Let’s breakdown what each of these means in more detail: 

1. Eccentric Loading (Knee Flexion)

The quads should be working as we descend into the bottom position of the squat because they help to maintain control to prevent us from dropping too quickly into the bottom, which can cause us to lose tension. 

The quads main role is to extend the knee, but when we are descending into the bottom position we are bending the knees instead; therefore, the quads are lengthening (rather than contracting) under the load of the barbell, which we call an eccentric contraction. 

If the quads are not strong enough with this eccentric contraction to maintain control, then we will drop too quickly and lose tension when we reach the bottom position.

2. Isometric Contraction

When we are in the bottom position of a squat, there is a moment when we switch from a downward trajectory (eccentric portion of the squat) to an upward trajectory (concentric portion of the squat), but between these two phases there is a brief period of time that we are motionless.

When we are motionless, but force is still being exerted to maintain our position it is called an isometric contraction. 

In the bottom position, we are contracting the quads isometrically (without movement up or down) to help us maintain tension in the bottom position, so we can forcefully reverse the direction of the barbell to begin traveling back up to the locked out position. 

3. Concentric Action (Knee Extension)

The quads main role is to extend the knees on the way up out of the bottom position.

The quads will contract to apply force into the ground, so that we can extend the knees and return to a standing position. Because the quads are contracting as we stand, rather than lengthening, they are working concentrically (rather than eccentrically).

If the quads are not strong enough to perform this concentric action of extending the knees, or we are not distributing our weight evenly throughout the feet – then we may end up shifting the load from the quads, to the muscles of the posterior chain (hips & low back) to try to finish the squat.

This often results in the hips shooting up out of the bottom, and causing us to lose balance by leaning too far forward to compensate.

How To Feel Your Quads When Squatting

how to feel your quads when squatting

1. Let The Knees Track Further Over The Toes

If we are not allowing our knees to track forward, or we are unable to let them track forward due to mobility restrictions, then we are not going to recruit the quads as much as we should.  Therefore, we may not feel them while squatting.

The farther forward our knees are in the bottom of the squat, the more emphasis we place on the quads because the greater the amount of knee flexion, the greater the force required from the quadriceps to extend the knees.

While it is a common misconception that the knees should not travel past the toes when squatting, this is not true as long as our heel remains in contact with the ground and we are staying within our movement capacity. By intentionally limiting knee travel, we are likely putting ourselves at a higher risk of injury because we must alter the position of the spine and the hip to compensate for the inadequate positioning of the knees.

If mobility is insufficient and we cannot get the knees over the toes without the heel lifting, then we may want to consider investing in squat shoes – which will elevate the heels and allow the knee to travel forwards more easily without restriction. 

Although we could use plates under our heels to accomplish the same thing, they could slide out of place or cause us to lose our balance – for these reasons I prefer squat shoes.

2. Keep The Knees Forward Out Of The Hole

It is common for lifters to fall into the habit of letting the knees shoot back when coming out of the bottom position of the squat, to let the muscles of the posterior chain take over; but to keep the quads engaged, we must keep them forward as we come out of the hole.

The quads are responsible for the initial drive upwards out of the hole by extending the knees. 

However, if the quads are not strong enough to do this, or we’ve simply developed a bad habit of letting the hips shoot up, then we are not going to feel our quads in the squat because they are not in the right position to do their job efficiently.

To keep the quads engaged we need to keep the knees forward for as long as possible out of the hole, as this is the position where they will be the strongest. 

If we continue to let the posterior chain take over, then our quads will never be strong enough to do their job and we will be putting ourselves in an unfavorable torso position (inclined further than it should be), which we must compensate for to finish the squat safely and successfully.

Related Article: Quads Sore After Squats: Is This Good Or Bad? 

3. Engage The Quads Before Descending

To feel the quads while squatting, we can make a conscious effort to flex the quads in our start position, to give ourselves a mental reminder to keep them engaged throughout the lift.

By flexing the quads before initiating the eccentric portion of the squat, we are shifting our focus to this muscle group and reminding ourselves to keep them engaged throughout the movement. 

Oftentimes, if we’re trying to rush through our set or we’re focused on other cues, we can forget to consciously engage the quads.

By making a conscious effort to flex the quads and give ourselves a mental reminder to engage them throughout the lift, we are more likely to feel the quads working, maintain better tension throughout the lift, and have more forceful knee extensions out of the hole.

4. Slow Down The Eccentric To Keep Tension In The Quads

To feel the quads more when squatting we can slow down the eccentric portion of the squat, which will require the quads to work harder as the time under tension increases and we descend into the bottom position.

By treating the squat like a tempo squat and going slower into the bottom position, we are engaging the quads more than we normally would because of the increased time under tension. 

This will not only help us feel the quads more as we descend, but it can also be beneficial for developing consistency in our positioning – which can set us up for better quad recruitment as we come out of the hole.

5. Focus On Maintaining Tightness In The Bottom Position

We should make a conscious effort to maintain tightness in the bottom position, rather than relaxing, to ensure that the quads are active – this helps us to maintain better positioning to push through the quads out of the hole.

If we let the legs relax in the bottom position, then we will not have the tension that we need to drive as forcefully as possible out of the bottom position. If we are not maintaining tension in the bottom position then our quads will not be engaged, and we will not feel them.

If we are not keeping our quads engaged in the bottom position, then we are likely going to struggle to stand back up – especially as the weight gets heavier.

If we’re losing tension in the bottom position because our quads are not strong enough to isometrically or concentrically contract under the load, then it is worth spending time at lighter weight working on this with pause squats.

If we’re relaxing in the bottom position of the squat, we will likely notice that we’re shifting our weight back to allow the posterior chain to take over to try and stand back up, or we could be failing our squats altogether.

Still struggling to maintain tension in the hole? Check out these 8 Tips To Fix Losing Tension At The Bottom Of A Squat.

6. Press The Big Toe Into The Ground

Using the cue of pressing the big toe into the ground throughout the squat can help us to keep even pressure throughout the whole foot during the squat, which keeps the legs fully engaged; rather than lifting the toes and limiting the force contribution form the quads.

A cue that is often used is to keep our weight in our heels, which is extremely misleading because it results in the toes lifting and eliminates a point of contact that is crucial to fully engage the quads throughout the squat. 

Instead, we should be focused on keeping our weight balanced over the entire foot and forming what we call a “tripod foot” by. 

The cue I like to use to accomplish this, to ensure that we are able to exert force into the ground to use the quads for knee extension, is to focus on pressing the big toe into the ground throughout the entire movement.

Although it is not just the big toe we want to keep pressed into the ground (we also want the heel, and the pinky toe pressed) to feel the quads more in the squat, it is more common for the big toe to lift when lifters are shifting their weight towards their heel.  Therefore, this should be the main focus initially.

7. Utilize The High Bar Squat

Incorporating the high bar squat into our program can teach us how to use the quads effectively, due to the forward knee position. This is especially beneficial for those who primarily train with low bar squats.

If we have not utilized the high bar squat in a training cycle then we are likely missing out on the quad development that the high bar squat can offer. By incorporating the high bar squat, we can learn how to descend into the hole with the knees tracking further over the toes – which places a greater emphasis on the quads to extend the knees out of the bottom position

This can help us to better utilize our quads out of the hole by developing the proper mechanics, and strength in these positions – even if we primarily compete with the low bar squat.

Are you better suited to high bar squatting or low bar squatting? Find out in our article Where You Should Put The Bar When Squatting.

8. Add Front Squats As An Accessory Movement

To learn to feel our quads when squatting, we can add front squats as an accessory movement to take full advantage of our ankle mobility and get the knees tracking forward – which requires more force from the quadriceps than other squat variations.

Because the front squat requires a more vertical torso, we must utilize our ankle mobility to the best of our ability to get the knees forward and maintain a more upright position. 

This position will help us develop more strength in our quads to address any weaknesses and reinforce a more vertical bar path, rather than shifting our weight to the posterior chain out of the hole and allowing the bar to come forward. 

The front squat can help teach us to keep the hips down out of the hole because if we allow the hips to rise before the shoulders, then our elbows will drop and we will drop the bar.

Using the front squat to strengthen knee extension out of the hole will help us to feel the quads better while squatting by using our ankle mobility to get the knees forward, and using the strength we’ve developed to keep them forward during the concentric portion of the squat.

Squat Variations That Target Your Quads More

While I already mentioned the front squat as a squat variation that you can use to target the quads, there are several other exercises that I would recommend to see if you get additional quad activation.  

I wouldn’t implement all of these exercises at once within the same training program.  Rather, I would select one movement from this list, do it for 3-4 weeks to gauge its effectiveness, and if you’re still struggling with quad activation, then try a new variation.

Related Article 9 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Glutes.

Hatfield Squat 

the hatfield squat is a squat variation that uses a safety bar squat

The Hatfield squat is a squat variation that uses a safety bar squat; however, unlike a traditional safety bar squat, we will keep our hands on the uprights of the power rack, rather than on the bar.

How-To:

  • Set a safety squat bar on the pins of a power rack at approximately shoulder height
  • Walk under the bar and position it on top of the traps so that the pads are sitting comfortably
  • Grab the handles of the bar and extend the knees to unrack it from the pins
  • Take 2 steps backwards to clear the pins and set the preferred squat stance
  • Let go of the handles and grab the rack uprights for support
  • Keep the the hands on the uprights and squat down with a vertical torso position
  • Allow the knees to travel over the toes to reach the bottom position
  • Push through the legs to begin extending the knees, while using the uprights for assistance
  • Stand all the way up and return to a stacked position before starting another repetition
  • Return the hands to the handles of the barbell to re-rack

The Hatfield squat targets the quads more effectively because by gripping the uprights of the rack, rather than the bar, we are better able to maintain an upright torso which will allow us to get the knees further forward in the bottom position.

The more forward our knees are, the more we recruit the quads to help extend the knees.

The Hatfield squat is a great variation for those who struggle to maintain an upright torso position or those who lack balance during a traditional squat. With the use of the uprights, we can get our torso in a more vertical position with the knees forward to help us feel the quads more while squatting.

Isometric Pistol Squat

the isometric pistol squat is a single leg squat variation that requires us to elevate one leg, while the other leg is loaded in a squat

The isometric pistol squat is a single leg squat variation that requires us to elevate one leg, while the other leg is loaded in a squat. The squat does not have any movement up or down, and therefore is called an isometric squat (contracting with no movement).

Check out our complete exercise guide to the Isometric Squat.

How-To:

  • Take a narrower stance and squat down to the lowest position possible, without rounding the lower back or letting the heels lift.
  • Shift the weight onto one leg (working leg)
  • Lift the other leg (non-working leg) off the floor and try to extend it out in front of the body
  • Hold this pistol squat for 5 to 10 seconds
  • Return the elevated leg to the floor, and switch sides
  • Each hold counts as a rep
  • Complete as many reps as is prescribed and then stand back up

The isometric pistol squat can help us feel our quads in a squat by isolating one leg at a time and teaching us to maintain tension in the quads in the bottom position.

The bottom position will require higher amounts of ankle and hip mobility, which will result in higher amounts of knee flexion; therefore, the quads will be working harder at this range of motion to help us maintain our position.

This squat variation is a great option for those who struggle to maintain tension in the bottom position, and/or those who have one side stronger than the other.

The reason for this is that this variation is all about holding a static position without relaxing, but it also allows the left and right side to work independently, which can address any side-to-side imbalances.

Narrow Stance Squats

a narrow stance squat is taking our regular squat stance and placing our feet closer together

A narrow stance squat is taking our regular squat stance and placing our feet closer together, which increases the range of motion of the lift and requires increased mobility at the ankles to allow the knees to travel forwards to hit depth.

How-To:

  • Set up a barbell at shoulder height on the pins of a squat rack
  • Place the hands evenly on the bar and walk under to position it on the upper traps
  • With the hips under the bar, extend the knees to take the bar off of the pins
  • Walk the bar out and place feet at shoulder-width or slightly narrower, with the toes pointed forwards
  • Keeping the weight evenly distributed with a tripod foot, break at the knees and hips to descend into the bottom position
  • Allow the knees to travel forwards over the toes as you descend to keep the torso more vertical
  • Once the hip crease is even with or slightly below the knees, push through the legs to extend the knees
  • Ensure that the hips and shoulders are rising at the same rate to maintain positioning
  • Stand all the way back up and return to the hips and knees to a stacked position before starting the next repetition

The narrow stance squat targets the quads more effectively because of the increased range of motion that needs to come from the knees, and the ankles (because they allow the knees to travel forwards over the toes). The further forward our knees are in the bottom position, the more quad recruitment we need to extend the knees and return to a standing position.

The narrow stance squats are a great addition for those who typically have a wider stance while squatting, because the wider stance will not activate the quads as much as a narrow stance squat; therefore, these lifters should include a variation that addresses this potential weak point.

Safety Bar Squats

the safety bar squat is performed with a special bar that has padding around the neck

The safety bar squat is performed with a special bar that has padding around the neck, and handles that are positioned over each shoulder that makes it easier to hold the bar while squatting.

How-To:

  • Set a safety squat bar on the pins of a power rack at approximately shoulder height
  • Walk under the bar and position it on top of the traps so that the pads are sitting comfortably
  • Grab the handles of the bar and extend the knees to unrack it from the pins
  • Take 2 steps backwards to clear the pins and set the preferred squat stance
  • Keeping the core braced, break at the knees and hips to squat down with a vertical torso position
  • Allow the knees to travel over the toes to reach the bottom position where the hip crease is even with the knees (or slightly below)
  • Push through the legs to begin extending the knees to return to a standing position
  • Ensure that the hips and shoulders are rising at the same rate to maintain positioning
  • Stand all the way up and return to a stacked position before starting another repetition

The safety bar squat is a more quad-dominant squat variation because the bar is placed in a high bar position, which requires a more vertical torso position. This is accomplished by allowing the knees to travel forwards (while keeping the heel planted) while sitting back, as we descend into the bottom position. 

The safety bar squat is the best option for those who have had previous shoulder injuries and/or lack the mobility to get a grip on the barbell when squatting. The handles on the safety squat bar eliminate the need to externally rotate at the shoulder joint for back squats, and provide an alternate grip for those with insufficient shoulder and wrist mobility to front squat.

Interested in learning more about the differences between a safety bar squat and a front squat? Check out our article Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons

Pause Squats

the pause squat can be done with a higher bar or low bar position, but it involves a longer amount of time spent in the bottom position

The pause squat is similar to a traditional squat and can be done with a higher bar or low bar position, but it involves a longer amount of time spent in the bottom position – which increases the amount of time that our quads are isometrically contracting (contracting with no movement upwards or downwards).

How-To:

  • Set up a barbell at shoulder height on the pins of a squat rack
  • Place the hands evenly on the bar and walk under to position it on the upper or lower traps
  • With the hips under the bar, extend the knees to take the bar off of the pins
  • Walk the bar out and place feet at normal width (typically hip width)
  • Keeping the weight evenly distributed through a tripod foot, break at the knees and hips to descend
  • Once the hip crease is even with or slightly below the knees, pause here and focus on keeping tension in the legs and back
  • Once the predetermined amount of time for the pause is up (typically 2-5 seconds), push through the legs to extend the knees
  • Ensure that the hips and shoulders are rising at the same rate to maintain positioning
  • Stand all the way back up and return to the hips and knees to a stacked position before starting the next repetition

The pause squat allows us to utilize the quads more than a traditional squat by increasing the amount of time under tension, eliminating the stretch reflex (bouncing out of the bottom position), and improving our positional strength by reinforcing our ability to extend the knees – rather than using the hips out of the hole.

The pause squat is an excellent option for those who struggle with maintaining tension in the bottom position, keeping the knees forward out of the hole, and letting their hips rise before their shoulders. While the pause squat cannot fix all squat issues, it certainly addresses many common deficiencies!

Ass To Grass Squats 

the ass to grass squat is suitable for those who have sufficient hip and ankle mobility to get to these deeper positions

The ass to grass squats are similar to a traditional squat and can be done with a high bar, low bar, or front squat technique – the main difference between the traditional versions of these squats and the ATG version, is that we are really emphasizing the depth at which we squat to.

How-To:

  • Set up a barbell at shoulder height on the pins of a squat rack
  • Place the hands evenly on the bar and walk under to position it based on the style of squat (on the upper traps, lower traps, or on the delts)
  • With the hips under the bar, extend the knees to take the bar off of the pins
  • Walk the bar out and place feet at normal width (typically hip width)
  • Keeping the weight evenly distributed through a tripod foot, break at the knees and hips to descend
  • Descend until the hip crease is well below the level of the knees, without losing tension in the legs or deviating from a neutral pelvis position
  • Push through the legs to begin extending the knees and allow the hips and shoulders to rise at the same rate
  • Stand all the way up and return to a stacked position before starting the next repetition

The ass to grass squat can recruit the quads more than a traditional squat because in order to get to the deepest bottom position possible (while maintaining tension & a neutral pelvis), we must allow the knees travel further forward into larger amounts of knee flexion, which then requires more work from the quads to extend the knee from this position.

This squat variation is suitable for those who have sufficient hip and ankle mobility to get to these deeper positions, but do not take advantage of these ranges of motion on a regular basis. This variation isn’t going to be a good option for those who have limited amounts of hip/ankle mobility because to get into these positions they will have to compensate at another joint – which increases the risk of injury.

Wondering how low you should squat if you’re competing in powerlifting? Check out our other article How Low To Go For Powerlifting Squats.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to understand that even though we may not feel our quads while we’re squatting, this doesn’t always mean that they’re not doing their job; but by implementing these tips, we can rest assured that our quads are in the right positions to produce as much force as possible throughout the squat.


About The Author

Amanda Parker

Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.