If your quads played Sportsball, they might be the MVP, because they try to do everrrrything – even when it isn’t their job.
So, let’s talk about this quad dominance thing.
First, when I say quad dominance, I’m referring to over recruitment of the quads + hip flexors during daily movements and exercises, which also means under recruitment of other muscles like the glutes, hip stabilizers and deep core.
If you’re not sure if that’s you, here’s what quad dominance feels like:
- You don’t feel your core when you do exercises involving table top legs like dead bugs or toe taps and planks. Rather, you feel burning in your hip flexors.
- When you lunge and squat, you’re very aware of the work in the front of the leg, but you feel practically nothing in your backend.
- When you do hip extension exercises targeting your glutes and hamstrings, you still feel the front of your legs.
- Your quads and hip flexors talk (or scream) at you during running, walking and other cardio moves, but your hamstrings and booty? Not so much.
This isn’s to say that your quads and hip flexors are bad guys, because they’re not. They’re essential to functional movement and strength. It’s just that when they’re doing all the work, you end up with misalignment, muscular imbalance, and faulty movement patterning, which is correlated with injury and discomfort in the hips, knees and low back.
And I should also add that quad dominance super common, because even if you’re active, odds are you’re part of a sitting society and here’s what happens when you sit.
Your quads and hip flexors are locked short and your hamstrings and glutes disengage, so even when you get up to move or workout, you’re carrying that pattern into active life (and ironically I see it in folks who stand for work too, but for the opposite reason. We stand in a static position for too long, so we end up locking back in the knees and hanging out in the lower back).
What can you do to “fix” quad dominance?
I’ll start by saying that it’s not so much fixing anything as it creating workouts or movement programming that promotes better balance in the pelvis.
Personally, I like to go about this as a three step process (and if you don’t feel like reading the technical explanation you can scroll to the bottom for specific exercises):
Step 1: Release the tight stuff via massage, foam rolling or stretching
Even with something as specific as quad dominance, the areas that you focus on can vary, because everyone has a unique tension pattern and sometimes things that feel tight are actually too long (I’ll save the why on that for another day).
That being said, here are some pretty safe bets.
If you tend to stand in a posterior tilt (aka butt tucked under with no low back curve):
- Stretching/foam rolling the hamstrings
- Foam roll your quads
- Skip stretching the hip flexors. In the butt tucked pattern they’re usually already too open
If you have the opposite standing pelvic position and you’re too anteriorly tilted (aka butt out with a big low back curve):
- Stretch your hip flexors
- Foam roll or stretch your quads
- Skip the hamstring stretches. They’re typically already too long in this pattern.
When it doubt, just do a little foam rolling on everything (e.g. quads, glutes, hamstrings, shins and/or calves.
The beauty of compression techniques (aka foam rolling) is that it acts like a reset button for both too long and too short muscles, telling them to return to a more appropriate tone and length.
Step 2: Strengthen the weak stuff
For most of us this means hip stability + glute strength. There are so many exercises you could do, but a few examples include bridging, side leg lifts, monster walks, donkey kicks or clamshells.
Bonus points if you can find a neutralish pelvis when you do these (aka you have a small low back curve present and your pubic bone and hip bones are in roughly the same line).
Additionally, you want to target your deep core. This can be gentle exercises like heel slides and dead bugs or bigger exercises that require more of the superficial muscles like the Pilates roll-up. In all of these, you will use your hip flexors to an extent. The challenge is seeing if you can get your deep core to fire too!
Step 3: Integrate by doing exercises that works the strong stuff with the weak stuff
These are big mover exercises, standing and isometric work that involve multiple muscle groups including quads and hip flexors. Examples included squats, lungs, planks and hovers.
And if you wanted to see a sample version of that might look like as a 15(ish) minute routine, here you go!
Core and glute activation exercises to fix quad dominance
Foam roll quads
Leg lifts (keeping gentle pelvic tuck)
Side legs with body rolled forward to 45 degrees
Prone leg lifts
Standing hip extension