Creating Rotational Stability For Effective Quad Stretching
The quads are a set of four muscles at the front of the thigh that work on the knee. One of these four muscles, the rectus femoris, also works on the front of the hip joint.
Together these muscles can be used to straighten the knee or to help it resist bending. The rectus femoris portion can also be used to help flex the hip, in other words, bend it forwards. And it can be used to resist the hip being bent backwards.
Quad stretches in general involve bending the knees. The more you bend them, the deeper the stretch to your quads.
To intensify the quad stretch and target the rectus femoris in particular, you can bend one or both knees, fully closing them, and then bend back at one or both hips. Another basic option is to bend back at the hip first and then deepen the knee bend.
An important aspect of quad stretching is understanding the rotational capabilities of the knee and ankle.
(Yes, the knees are designed to rotate or to resist rotation, but only a slight amount, and generally, only when bent!)
Quadriceps Stretching positions index
Tight quads may be due to rotational instability
In order to stretch the quads effectively it can help to understand that the knee joint is designed for rotation, particularly when it is bent.
If you have trouble stretching your quads, or your quads are tight, it may be due to a lack of control of knee rotation. Your quads may be tight because they are chronically engaged in order to stabilize the knee against rotation.
Our knees and ankles rotate!
In general, with the knees slightly bent, your shins can rotate relative to your thighs. This is "knee rotation".
It's actually what allows us to squat with our feet at varying distances apart and it's also what allows us to do poses like virasana, where the idea is to kneel with the butt on the floor (or sinking towards the floor) between the feet.
While standing, the shins can also be rotated relative to the feet. This can cause the arches to lift with external rotation and lower with internal rotation.
We can stabilize knees and ankles against rotation
So, there are muscles that can be used to cause rotate the shins relative to the femurs. These same muscles can be used to stabilize the shins against rotation relative to the femurs (or vice versa).
There are also muscles that can be used to rotate the shins relative to the feet.These same muscles can be used to stabilize the shins against rotation relative to the feet (or vice versa).
When it comes to doing quad stretches, you can use this understanding to work towards more effective (and even "sensational") quad stretches.
Toe muscles can help to control ankle rotation
One other bit of anatomy that can be helpful is understanding that some of the muscles that work to extend or flex the toes cross the ankle and attach to the lower leg bones.
These muscles can also be used to help stabilize the ankles and even to help stiffen them against shin rotation relative to the feet.
Making your quad stretches more effective
And so when stretching the quads, something you can consider doing so that your quad stretches are a bit more effective is making your toes active, your feet and ankles active (even combine the two), or making your knees active.
In the case of the toes and/or ankles you can activate them with the intent of stiffening the foot, ankle and lower leg bones. In the case of the knees, you can stiffen them in such a way that rotation is restricted, or at least controlled.
How to anchor your rectus femoris for more effective quad stretching
One additional means of ensuring effective, and sensational quad stretching that I'll mention here is one way of anchoring the rectus femoris.
Since the rectus femoris attaches to the front of the hip bone (just below the ASIC), one further action you can do when working on stretching the quads is to anchor the front of the hip bone. This can mean creating an upwards pull on the pubic bone (since it is relatively easy to feel). Better yet, since the rectus femoris attaches just below the ASIC (the bony point of the hip crest), you can try creating an upwards pull on the ASIC on one or both sides.
A variety of positions for stretching your quads
Apart from kneeling and lying quadriceps stretching one leg at a time, position options for quadriceps stretching include stretching them while standing, while in various lunge type postures like pigeon, low lunge and splits, lying on your belly, and in addition, placing one shin against a wall with the knee at the base of the wall as in couch stretch.
For a double leg lying quadriceps stretch check out virasana yoga pose.
If you can't touch your butt to your heels while kneeling or squatting, then squatting is another possible position for not only stretching your quadriceps muscles but also strengthening them.
For knee stability, try squatting with the heels lifted.
Activating and Relaxing the Quadriceps to Strengthen and Stretch
One of the nice things about stretching the quadriceps while either kneeling or lying is that it is relatively easy to activate the quadriceps by just pressing the foot into the floor.
You may find that activating and relaxing your quadriceps slowly, repeatedly, and rhythmically, makes it easier to stretch them. You may find that you can go deeper into the stretch on either the active phase or the relaxed phase.
With the standing quadriceps stretch it may be a little bit more difficult to activate your quadriceps. You'll have to work at pushing your foot or your ankle (whichever you are grabbing) out of your hand or hands. So you'll have to have a good grip.
So a bonus here is you'll not only strengthen and stretch your quadriceps, you'll also strengthen your hands.
The usual way to stretch the quadriceps while standing is to stand upright. You can start with the knee forwards so that the focus is on your quadriceps, then move your knee back so that you also stretch the hip flexors.
Another standing quadriceps stretching option is to bend forwards.
It helps if you can touch the floor with your hand. If not, use a chair or yoga block for your supporting hand.
Initially start with the knee close to your chest, then move the knee back and up to deepen the quadriceps stretch.
You can do a similar stretch in a low lunge. With some padding under your knee, (you might like to fold you mat over for comfort) first move your hips back and grab your foot. Then move your hips forwards and down. Sink your hips.
You might have to start with your arm straight. In this pose the hip flexors are also stretched and they may inhibit the degree to which you can stretch your quadriceps. Try resisting the stretch by pushing your foot back against your hand.
As both sets of muscles loosen up, then bend your arm and increase the knee bend to deepen the quadriceps stretch.
If you like you can try shifting your hand position so that you are pushing on the foot instead of pulling it. To get this hand position you may find it helps to move your hips back first, get your hand in position then sink your hips, then push your foot forwards.
Note that this requires some shoulder flexibility and if you can't already touch your butt to your heels while kneeling, then you may not be able to do this option.
An interesting variation of the previous quadriceps stretching position is to grab the foot with the opposite hand.
Start with your other hand on the floor with the elbow straight. Work at pulling your foot forwards as you also work at sinking your hips. From there, try to place the elbow of your front hand on the floor.
Using pigeon as a quadriceps stretching pose, you'll probably have to support yourself with your front leg hand. Grab the back foot and pull it forwards. If possible, adjust your hand position so that you can push your foot forwards.
Here, scapular control may be important. You may have to relax your scapular muscle enough to get your hand into position. Then, stabilize against retraction so that you can use your hand to push your foot forwards.
For the quadriceps stretch, first resist the stretch by activating the quadriceps. Use it to push your foot back against your hand. Then after a brief pause, relax your quadriceps and push your foot further forwards. Repeat a few times, or until this method ceases to be effective. Then just hold the quadriceps stretch.
You could also front to back splits as a quadriceps stretching option. Once you've gotten down into the splits, try bending your back knee and then grab the foot. You may have to lift your hips slightly to begin with.
Use your hand to push the back leg foot forwards and downwards to stretch the quadriceps of that leg.
Laying prone, with your belly downwards, you can stretch one quadriceps at a time or both. Starting with one foot, bend the knee and pull the foot forwards.
To get the hand in the "push" position, prop your torso up using your free hand. Also, it may help to use your spinal erectors to bend your spine backwards and lift your chest.
As you try to get the hand into the push position, activate your quadriceps so that your hand has something to work against. That in combination with using your spinal erectors may make it easier to get your hand in position. Then, once the hand is in position, you can relax the quadriceps.
Then activate your quadriceps to resist the hand, then relax it to see if you can push the foot further down and stretch the quadriceps further. As you go deeper, move the foot to the side so that you push the foot towards the floor to the outside of the thigh.
When pushing down, pay attention to your knee. Work at smoothly pushing down as opposed to suddenly pushing down so that you can stop if you need to.
The double leg stretch, called frog pose, is a technical challenge. With one foot in position you may have to activate the quadriceps to give that hand and your torso a stable foundation. With the spinal erectors also active you may then be able to get the other hand into position.
Once you are in position, keep the quads active. But balance the activation against the downward pressure of the arms so that you resist the quad stretching action while at the same time giving your arms something to push against so that you can keep your chest lifted.
Hip flexor control
For exercises that focus on helping you to get a better feel for and control of the hip flexors, particularly those that attach to the ASICs, check out the Lessons in muscle control for your Hip flexors course.
Published: 2012 09 28
Hi, I'm Neil Keleher.
I have a degree in Systems Design engineering. Before that I served in the British army for five years. My main job was fixing guns.
I've been teaching yoga for about twenty two years now. I also do a lot of programming in python and node.js.
One of my other main projects is studying Chinese, but it's been hold while I developed tools to make studying easier. One of those is a Chinese character dictionary and the other is a Chinese word and phrase dictionary.
Both include a lookup system for Chinese characters that is foreigner friendly and that I'm proud to say that I designed.