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Published in Muscle & Fitness, May 1997

Fancy Footwork


Tom McCullough MEd MSS


How many times have you seen a professional bodybuilder who has exceptional quadriceps development and wondered what exercises they did to get that way? Doing the right exercises can be pretty confusing. In fact, you can walk into any gym and see dozens of leg machines being used with many different variations.

Which exercise is best? Is it really necessary to incorporate all of these different variations into your leg training? Many professional bodybuilders say, to some extent it is necessary. In fact, most believe that by varying the foot position and knee position with some exercises, you’ll be able to selectively target specific areas of your leg. However, the existing research done in this area by exercise scientists suggests that these variations may not only be a waste of time, but may also subject the joints to unnecessary risk of injury.

To determine the validity of the assertions by bodybuilders of all levels, researchers have done studies by measuring electromyographical (EMG) activity in the muscles of the quadriceps. These EMG studies measure the electrical activity produced when the muscles in the legs contract during exercise. The higher the electrical energy, the more work the actual muscle is producing.

An EMG study done using leg extensions (Wheatley, 1951), reported that lateral rotation or turning the feet outward produced the highest level of electrical activity in the inner teardrop of the quadriceps. They also reported that medial rotation or turning the feet inward produced the highest level of electrical activity in the outer sweep of the quadriceps. In other words, it may be possible to selectively target different areas of your quadriceps just by turning the feet slightly inward or outward.

A more recent EMG study (Signorile, 1995) investigated the effect of foot and knee position on the different levels of electrical activity of selected muscles of the quadriceps while performing squats and leg extensions. This study found that when doing leg extensions the highest level of electrical activity in the vastus medialis (inner quads), vastus lateralis (outer quads), and rectus femoris (middle quads) was found when the knee was slightly laterally rotated, the foot rotated laterally and in dorsiflexion or flexed upward towards the shin. This study also revealed that the entire range of movement was necessary to target the quadriceps.

When the same researchers measured the electrical activity produced when performing the squats, they found that variations in foot position showed no significant difference in EMG patterns. This study suggested that stance and foot position might be of importance only to the comfort of the lifter. An extreme outward toe and knee point would reduce stability and not allow the proper drift of the hips in the concentric and eccentric phase of the squat, thus effecting optimal performance. Extreme inward rotation of the foot and knee would be equally dangerous because, stability, base and lower body drift would be affected.

The Squat (Smith Machine)


If it is overall leg development you are after, the squats might be the best all round exercise. While exercise scientist and professional bodybuilders may have a few different views on leg training, most seem to agree on one thing. Squats, with out a doubt, are probably the best exercise for over all quadriceps development. In fact, Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield, Ph.D. says, “Squatting provides the greatest amount of adaptive stress to the greatest number of major muscles in the upper leg.” Professional bodybuilding champion Mike Matarazzo adds, “Squats are definitely the best overall leg builder, you need to develop the quads first with heavy squats, then target specific muscles with isolation exercises.”


There are many variations in the width of the stance used when performing a squat. Because we’re all built a little differently, your best stance may vary. However, the best suggestion for overall quadriceps development is to first start with a stance that is about shoulder's width. Then gradually narrow or widen your stance until you find a comfortable, solid position where you can perform a squat, with good form. Experiment! A narrow stance that might feel good to a shorter person might where a wider stance might work better for a taller lifter. Dr. Ben Weitz, states, “There is actually no difference in the part of the quad involved when performing squats. This has been studied and the old thought that close stance hits the inner quads more and that wide stance hits the outer quads more is just not true.”

Foot Position

Variations in your foot position will really do nothing to target specific areas of quadriceps development. It is widely accepted that the toes should be rotated slightly outward (lateral rotation) to provide for a more natural biomechanically sound position and a safer more stable base. Weitz cautions that, “Turning the toes in (medial rotation) will bring you into my office very soon with a knee injury.” Professional bodybuilding champion Porter Cottrell agrees, “Variations in the toe direction provide no extra benefit.”

Range of Movement (Depth)

There are also variations in the range of movement or depth of the squat. If you want to get the most overall leg and gluteal development, squats should be done to just below parallel. Professional bodybuilding champion Paul Dillett contends that, “The hamstrings get more involved when going to parallel, and the glutes are really stressed when you go just below parallel.”

Most exercise scientists also believe that squats should only be done with the entire range of movement. Hatfield adds, “Get big first, by doing squats and then hope that the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, gave you the genes necessary to have that pleasing sweep bodybuilders favor.”

Smith Machine

Is it really possible that the quadriceps can be targeted differently by doing Smith machine squats? Probably not. Because the weight is not having to be balanced, many synergistic muscles are not used. Cottrell adds, “Using the Smith machine eliminates the need to balance, this elimination of balance will likely decrease the involvement of the gluteus medius, thus optimal leg and gluteal development will be compromised.” However, there is a benefit from using the Smith machine. It is usually easier, as well as safer to learn how to squat properly. Hatfield says, “The benefit of using the Smith machine is derived from the fact that you’re actually leaning against the bar, thereby minimizing shear forces in the lower back.” Because the two exercise are similar, the same technique rules apply to Smith squats as apply to free squats.

The Leg Press (Hack Squat)

Many professional bodybuilders actually prefer doing the leg press and hack squat because they feel that after a certain point squats will add thickness to the waist and overdevelop the gluteals. Cottrell agrees, “I actually prefers the leg press and hack squat over the squat, only because squats tend to add to many inches to my glutes and thicken my waist.” Dillett adds, “This is my favorite leg exercise, I actually feel that I get great results doing the leg press however, it’s really all just a matter of personal preference.”


There is very little value in varying the stance or toe direction other than comfort. The width of the stance, like the squat, is only a matter of preference or perhaps body size. The toes should however, should be rotated slightly outward to provide for a more natural biomechanically sound position and a safer more stable base. Hatfield agrees that variations in stance will not target different muscles and says, “It's called the 'I FEEL it! I FEEL it!' syndrome. If you feel the exercise more on the outer vs. inner vastus by changing stances, it's mechanical and NOT necessarily from selective growth.” Cottrell agrees by saying, “Variations in the width of the stance make absolutely no difference, a good moderate stance will do.”

Range of Movement (Depth) and Foot Position

As with any weight lifting exercise, it is always best to use the entire range of movement. A full range of movement not only develops the quadriceps, but also involves the hamstrings and gluteals. In order to have a full range of movement, it is advisable to place your feet high up on the platform. By placing your feet too low on the platform you limit the range of movement and place unnecessary stress on the knee.

Is it possible to go too deep? Yes! You do not want the low back to come up off the seat and roll. This roll places stress on the vertebrae and could result in injury. Matarazzo agrees and says, “For the best overall quadriceps development I like the moderate stance, feet higher on the platform, toes pointed slightly outward, and just below parallel.”

Weitz says, “When reaching the bottom of the hack squat or leg press, the knees should only approximate a 90 degree angle (parallel). A low foot placement will result in increased knee compression and potential straining of the quadriceps and patella tendons.”

The Leg Extension

When performing leg extensions, do variations in toe position really make any difference in quad development? The bodybuilders I talked to all agree the answer would be yes! However, current research indicates the answer is no, as hard as it is to believe. Weitz says, “We used to think that toes out would hit the inner quads more and toes in would hit the outer quads, but Signorile (1995) and Wheatley (1951) have shown that this is simply not the case.”

Toe Direction

While the differences may be very minimal, having the toes rotated slightly outward (lateral rotation), target the inner sweep of the quadriceps. With the toes rotated slightly inward (medial rotation), the outer teardrop of the quadriceps seem to be effected to a greater degree.

Foot flexion also seems to determine which area of the quadriceps will feel the most stress. When the foot is pointed downward (plantar flexion) the stress seems to be felt more in the lower quads and when the foot is flexed upward (dorsiflexion) the stress will be felt higher up on the quads.

Matarazzo says, “For the best overall quadriceps development, I prefer doing single leg extensions with the toes rotated slightly outward and downward with a full range of movement.” Cottrell prefers a slightly different variation and said, “I also prefer single leg extensions but, with the toe pointed down and straight.” These variations in the leg extension seem to be a personal choice and very much dependent on which part of the quadriceps you might need to give a little extra attention to.

In general, most of us could probably make better use of our time in the gym, by eliminating the practice of using multiple foot and knee positions. The need for these variations should be limited. Nevertheless, because we are all built differently, it is necessary to try different stances and foot positions to decide which is the most comfortable. So experiment and see what works best for you!


1. Signorile, J. F., K. Kwiatkowski, J. F. Caruso and B. Robertson. Effect of foot position on the electromyographical activity of the superficial quadriceps muscles during the parallel squat and knee extension. J. Strength. and Cond. Res. 9(3):182-187. 1995.

2. Wheatley, M. and W. Jahnke. Electromyographical study of the superficial thigh and hip muscles in normal individuals. Arch. Phys. Med. 32508-515. 1951.


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