Foam Rolling Your Quads For Decreased Tightness And Increased Performance

Foam Roller Exercises for Your Quadriceps

Tight quads got you down?  Don’t despair: foam rolling your quads is quick, it’s easy, and it is truly effective.  We’ll show you how to decrease tightness while increasing flexibility and athletic performance; all you need is a foam roller and a few minutes each day.  Sound good?  Let’s get to it then.

Getting To Know Your Quadriceps

diagram of the quads needed when foam rolling your quads
A diagram of the thigh muscles, includes those of the quadriceps

The quads, or quadriceps, are a group of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and the vastus intermedius.  (What a mouthful!)  These muscles are located at the front of your thigh and control movement of the knee.  They play a crucial role in walking, running, jumping, and squatting.  One of the quad muscles, the rectus femoris, also plays a role in hip flexion.  This helps swing your leg forward while walking and running.  Finally, the vastus medialis also plays a role in stabilizing the patella and knee joint.

Strong quads, like the epic specimens pictured below, are highly desired by athletes and bodybuilders alike.  For athletes, a strong quad will give the explosive acceleration needed for sports like track, soccer, football, etc.  However, the training required to build these quads can often lead to strains, over fatigue, and other injuries.

well defined quads
Maybe your quads aren’t quite this big, that’s ok.

How Quads Become Tight

Now that you know what they do, it’s important to know how we get tight, strained quads, so that you know how to properly address the problem.

Weight training is one of the most common causes of tight quads.  Bodybuilders, both traditional and crossfit style, all want super defined quads.  This means a lot of squats.  After a particularly intense leg day, your quads can often feel very tight and inflexible.  Foam rolling your quads is actually a perfect compliment to weight lifting, and squats in particular.  I always recommend two foam rolling sessions each day: one either in the morning or evening, and one right before your exercise.

Over training is another culprit.  Given that the quads are responsible for explosive acceleration, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that often times when accelerating explosively, one might hurt their quad.  This happens a lot when athletes aren’t properly warmed up.  The recommendation here is to do dynamic stretching, not static stretching, before beginning your running.  Then, start with slower pace runs before your sprints.  Finally, if possible, do uphill sprints before starting flat sprints.  Now you can go all out and be less likely to suffer from tight quads afterwards.

Muscle imbalance is a common cause of tight quads in runners.  This condition is caused when the hamstrings are much stronger than the quadriceps.  Along with foam rolling, the recommendation is to add more quad-specific strength conditioning.

Strained quadriceps is an actual injury, a tearing away of the quadriceps muscle fiber from the bone.  This is most common in martial artists, but still appears in other athletes.

How To Foam Roll Your Quads

Tip: Because the quads are generally pretty thick and muscly, we find that people tend to prefer a firmer foam roller. Using something like the TriggerPoint GRID foam roller will ensure that you’re able to penetrate deeper into the muscle tissue, to really work the fascia and get out any lingering knots.

There are two main variations on foam rolling your quads: rolling both legs at the same time (the two leg variation) and rolling each leg individually (the single leg variation).  Neither is better, per se, it’s really a matter of personal preference and what works best to release your fascia.  If you’ve never used a foam roller before, or never foam rolled your quads, you might want to start with the two leg variation.  It maintains an even pressure on both quads at the same time, distributing your weight onto two legs, and so it’s a little lighter.  The single leg variation exerts more pressure onto the fascia, so it’s better for those that have rolled their quads before, and know that their quads require harder pressure.

The Two Leg Variation

Foam rolling your quads is pretty easy.  Lay down on top of your foam roller, with the roller positioned under your quads and just above the knees.  It should be perpendicular to your body.  I find that a full-sized foam roller is better to use with the two leg variation, since it provides a little more room to lay on.  Now, with your body weight on your forearms, begin pushing yourself slowly backwards, so that the roller moves up towards your hips.  You want to roll slowly, at around one inch per second.  Once you reach about 1-2 inches from your hips, change directions and start rolling back down.  Continue this for 30-45 seconds, making sure to focus on any trigger points that you identify.  If this is your first time foam rolling your quads, it will probably hurt.  That’s OK.  Tomorrow it will feel great!

Here’s a video demonstrating the technique:

The One Leg Variation

If you need to work deeper into the fascia to eliminate your quad pain, you might prefer the one leg variation.  To foam roll your quads one leg at a time, first lay atop your roller positioning the roller underneath your right quad, just above the knee.  The left leg should be canted out to the left, bent about 45 degrees.  You might find this easier with a shorter, half length roller, rather than the full length version.  Put your weight onto your forearms rather than your wrists to prevent any wrist injuries.  Now slowly begin to roll, moving the foam roller up towards your hip at a rate of approximately one inch per second.  Rolling too fast is one of the most common foam rolling mistakes; foam rolling should feel sloooow.  If you find a particularly tender spot (called a trigger point), pause there for 20-30 seconds.  This will really help to break up any adhesions on the fascia.  Now repeat on the other leg.

Here’s an excellent video demonstration from the great folks over at Triggerpoint:

Additional Stretches For The Quads

The standing quad stretch compliments foam rolling the quads
The standing quad stretch is an excellent compliment to foam rolling you quads

The standing quad stretch is an excellent stretch that will compliment your foam rolling, and is really the quintessential quadriceps stretch.  While standing, raise your right foot behind you, bending the knee, and attempting to get that foot as close to your buttocks as possible.  Using your right hand, grasp your foot to pull the stretch a little deeper.  To deepen the stretch even more, use the opposite hand to hold.  If your balance is anything like mine, feel free to use a chair or something to help yourself upright.  Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.

supine quad stretch

The supine quad stretch is another great stretch, especially for runners.  Lay on your back, then bring one knee up to your chest.  Your leg should be bent, not straight or locked out.  With both hands, hold the leg just below the knee, then slowly “hug” the leg closer to your torso.  Don’t hold it too tight, just until you can feel the pressure.  Hold this stretch for 30-45 seconds and then switch sides.

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