Are your quads feeling sore after squatting? Sometimes the soreness you feel after a workout can be hard to identify. Is the soreness cause for concern, like an indication of an injury? Or is it the soreness you can and should expect after a squat workout?
So, why are your quads sore after squats? Sore quads after squats are normal and can be caused by three reasons: (1) delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), (2) fatigue, or (3) injury. Depending on the squat variations you performed and the total sets and reps, you can identify if your soreness falls under one of these categories.
Let’s break down the process to identify where your quad soreness is coming from.
Why Are Your Quads Sore After Squats?
If you are experiencing sore quads after a squat, it comes down to:
- You are feeling DOMS (usually the case)
- You injured them (not as common)
- You’re fatigued (usually depends on the type of squat variation)
The American College of Sports Medicine breaks down DOMS for us concisely:
“Any type of activity that places unaccustomed loads on muscle may lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This type of soreness is different from acute soreness, which is pain that develops during the actual activity. Delayed soreness typically begins to develop 12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours after the exercise has been performed.”
Researchers used to think that the lactic acid that fills your muscles during an intense workout caused DOMS, but that has since been disproven. The soreness you feel from DOMS is just the sensation of your muscles repairing the micro tears that you developed during the exercise of that muscle.
So as the ACSM explains, if your squat workout incorporated what could be called an “unaccustomed load,” (as any good powerlifting program should), then DOMS is very likely the soreness you are feeling in your quads.
Now your “unaccustomed load” doesn’t just mean you squatted heavier than usual. You can also vary your load by increasing the volume (weight x reps), or slowing the tempo of your reps to keep the muscle contracting and stretching under the load for more time (time under tension, or TUT). TUT is particularly effective for inducing DOMS.
In fact, your worst cases of DOMS will come after long breaks from training and training with higher volume/TUT. Check out my article on how to return to lifting after a break in order to minimize DOMS.
Now why are your quads hurting more than anything else after squats?
That all comes down to the mechanics of the squat, and the fact that the quads are the primary leg muscle recruited for the competition squat and all variations of the squat. Read my full article on the Muscles Used In The Squat to learn more.
The more squats you do, the more weight you have on the bar, the more your quads are being called upon to move the weight, and the more likely they are to experience DOMS afterward.
Remember, I’m not a doctor, and if you think you are feeling sore quads due to an injury, talk to your doctor.
I can confidently say that most injuries become apparent to the lifter as soon as they happen, or very soon thereafter. It’s less common to discover an injury after a day or two of rest since your workout. You would have likely felt the pain during the exercise or while resting between sets.
This is different from the acute soreness we described above (or “the pump,” the burning sensation during the exercise when you train with intensity). You may recall feeling a pop, snap, or pinch, or some other sudden, sharp pain during the lift. You may have felt that this pain made it difficult or impossible to continue squatting even after some rest.
If the pain in your quad is suddenly present during a workout and it doesn’t go away with rest between sets, there’s a chance it’s an injury (could be minor or major), and you should get advice from a medical professional.
The last reason your quads might be sore is fatigue, or emphasis. What I mean by this is how much your quads were recruited or used during your squat workout.
Looking at your last squat workout, the squat variations you performed that day (even if you performed them with relatively normal, familiar loads and rep ranges) could have emphasized your quads more than you usually do, making them more sore than you expected.
So you may not be injured or introducing an unaccustomed load, but you simply emphasized your quads with your exercise selection, and they are more fatigued.
Should You Be Worried If Your Quads Are Sore After Squats?
Based on the explanations above, sore quads are totally normal after squats, depending on how often you train them and what your last workout was like.
As you try to identify the source of your soreness, think through those factors above – did you feel a sudden appearance of pain during the workout that didn’t go away? Did you increase your load, sets, or rep ranges more than usual? Has it been a while since you trained squats? Did you perform a squat variation that emphasizes your quads more?
The only time you should really be worried is if you answered “yes” to the first question. Otherwise, there’s no reason to be concerned about the soreness you feel after squatting.
Technique To Implement If You Want To Reduce Quad Soreness From Squats
If you feel you are performing squats the best you can, but constantly experience quad soreness, there can be a few things to consider.
Think about good squat form for a moment. Then think about the variations that put more emphasis on the quads (narrow stance squats, high bar squats).
If your standard form looks more like either of those two variations, then you’re recruiting more of your quads for the lift than may be necessary.
So if you’re constantly feeling sore in your quads after squats, it may be advantageous to make a few adjustments.
A wide stance squat will recruit more of your glutes at the bottom of the squat. By adjusting your stance to step out just a bit, you can get a lot more assistance from the glues (a pretty significant muscle group, by the way) to get your squat out of the hole.
By spreading the work to another muscle group, your quads won’t have to work alone, and this may help them feel less sore.
Secondly, look at the position of the bar on your back. A high bar position (on top of your traps) will keep your torso more upright to keep your weight centered during a squat, while a low bar position (on your rear delts) will require you to bend forward a bit to keep the weight centered during a squat.
By adjusting the bar to a low bar position, you can introduce more muscles in your lower back to help move the bar, similar to the way we got help from the glutes with a wide stance squat.
By using all the available muscle groups to squat, we can reduce the demand put on the quads so you feel less soreness in the quads after squatting.
Which Squat Variations Can Make The Quads More Sore?
You might think that we want to avoid exercises that make the quads more sore, but truthfully, these are great variations we can and should incorporate for that very reason – to emphasize and isolate the quads to make them stronger.
The following squat variations train your quads more:
- Narrow Stance Squats
- High Bar Squats
- Front Squats
- SSB Squats
- Pistol Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat
Note that every squat variation will require your quads to work, but the list above will overemphasize the activation of the quads beyond that of the standard, competitive squat.
That extra emphasis may make your quads more sore as a result.
What To Do If Your Quads Are Sore After Squats (6 Things To Follow)
If you’ve been experiencing soreness in your quads after squatting and you’d like that to be less frequent, follow these tips:
Here’s an easy one to avoid injury and potentially decrease the impact of DOMS – take the time to warm up. Personally, I recommend a few minutes on a stationary bike and starting your squat warmup with an empty bar.
Read my full squat warm up routine.
Improve your technique
Take the time to really look at your form and see where it can be improved. If you’re constantly feeling sore quads after squats, there’s a good chance your form needs attention (i.e. adjust your stance).
Spread out your volume
As we explained previously, DOMS becomes more common with higher volume and intensity. You may try doing more sets of fewer reps. For example, instead of 5 sets of 5, try doing 8 sets of 3. See if spreading it out helps reduce the onset of DOMS.
This may seem counterintuitive, but you might need to train your quads more. If you’re only training quads once a week while you squat, you could benefit from lightly training them a second time a week, so they aren’t so “cold” when you squat.
Consider adding a few sets of isolated quad work (like seated leg extensions or lunges) on your squat days or other lower body days and see if the added frequency helps.
Learn more about how many times per week you should squat.
Similar to a warm up, try taking the time to cool down after a workout. Hop on the stationary bike for a few minutes after your heavy squats, or do a few light goblet squats with a dumbbell after your heavy sets..
Stay the course
Finally, this may just be a growth period for your quads, and the sore muscles are just a sign that everything is going to plan. Soon enough, your quads will catch up with the rest of your squat muscles, and you’ll identify a new area to focus on. At that point, I might be more concerned about plateauing if I haven’t felt a good bout with DOMS in a while.
What If Quad Soreness Was Unexpected After A Squat Workout?
Here’s a quick checklist to go through:
- Determine the type of soreness. Determine if you are experiencing DOMS, soreness from fatigue/emphasis, or injury.
- Determine if the soreness is intended. Did you do a workout that is designed to make your quads sore? For example, did you include more quad variations of the squat? Did you increase the volume or TUT?
- Review your workouts and technique. Using the breakdown above, check your form. See if there’s a positioning change you can make to improve your technique and not rely on your quads as much.
- Keep moving. Some of the best advice I can give a person who is sore after lifting is to just keep moving. Nothing makes sore muscles more sore than sitting on them and doing nothing.
Can You Still Train If Your Quads Are Sore From Squatting?
If the soreness you are experiencing is just DOMS, then yes, you’re good to keep training. Especially if you’re set to train another muscle group, then your quad soreness shouldn’t be a reason to stop.
If you want to train quads or legs again, just be mindful of the soreness and make sure it’s not affecting your form negatively in that next workout. Sometimes lightly training those muscles again can be the best way to work through the DOMS.
If your quad soreness is due to an injury, talk to a physician before training them again.
Soreness is the most common result of training hard. But soreness can also be a warning sign that we aren’t training correctly and could be alerting us to injury. By knowing the difference between injury soreness, muscle fatigue, and normal DOMS, you can determine if you can be happy about the soreness (and getting the results that follow), or if you need to seek medical assistance.
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