Quadriceps: Learn Your Muscles

The quadriceps group are the muscles on the front of your thigh. They consists of four muscles:  the vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and rectus femoris. These four muscles work together to help you do things like straighten your leg or kick a ball.

All of the quadriceps cross the knee joint, but one crosses the hip as well. It’s because of this relationship that tight quads can lead to knee and hip pain.

Location

quadricepsThe 3 vastus muscles originate on the upper half of the shaft of the femur (thigh bone). They insert on the patella (knee cap), then are connected by the patellar ligament to the upper anterior part of the tibial tuberosity (bump on one of your two shin bones). All 4 of the quadriceps insert in the same location.

The origin of the rectus femoris is the front part of the ilium (part of the pelvis) above the hip socket. Rectus femoris inserts on the patella (knee cap) and then is attached to the anterior part of tibial tuberosity (bump on one of your two shin bones) via the patellar ligament. This means that the actual muscle inserts on the knee cap, but then is attached by a tendon to the top front part of your tibia.

Knowing the origin and insertion of the rectus femoris is important because of the quadriceps, it is the only one to cross both the hip joint and the knee. When looking at knee or hip pain and the muscles that cause that pain, it’s important to remember this muscle. Because it crosses both joints, the rectus femoris can be a culprit for hip and knee pain.

Function

All of the quadriceps extend the knee joint. This means that if your knee is bent, they are the muscles that will straighten it. Because the rectus femoris also crosses the hip joint, it will act as a hip flexor and bring your femur in front of your body.

Since all the quadriceps pass on top of the patella, they are also important for patellar stabilization and correct patellar tracking.

Common Dysfunction

When the quadriceps are tight, they can limit the range of motion for the knee to bend. Tight quadriceps can also pull on the patella, causing it to slide out of place. With its relationship to the knee and the hip, a tight rectus femoris can cause the pelvis to tilt anteriorly (to the front) instead of maintaining neutral. These issues sound very minor, but they are frequently the culprits of knee and hip pain.

Sometimes, the quadriceps are deeply injured. As with all muscles, the quadriceps are susceptible to sprains, strains, tears, and contusions. If you believe you had a serious injury to your quadriceps, seek help from a medical professional. They will be able to do imaging to be certain of your injury, its severity, and the appropriate course of treatment.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

If you don’t have significant injuries and are dealing with routine tightness, the best way to stretch the quadriceps is with the standard quad stretch. To do a quad stretch, make sure both femurs are in neutral position. Bend a knee and hold that stretch for several breaths. This stretch can be done standing, kneeling (although, be careful to not be on the knee cap here), and prone (on your stomach).

It is worth noting that when the femur is hanging straight down from the hip and you bend the knee, you stretch the quadriceps. However, if the femur reaches posterior, you change the stretched muscle. When the leg is in this position, you stretch the psoas instead of the quadriceps.

More Information

For more information, I recommend “The Quadriceps Muscles” by David Keil. He has a wonderful yoga anatomy book that I enjoy. That book is called Functional Anatomy of Yoga. Here is a link to buy it on Amazon. When you buy this book through this link, I earn a small commission.

Another book that I find helpful is The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. I used lots of information from his book while writing this post. The link I have provided is to an updated version of the book I have. It appears to be a very thorough update, although I have not personally looked through the whole book.

For what other reasons are the quadriceps important? What other stretches do you do for your quadriceps? Let us know in the comments below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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