Training

Why Are My Quads Sore After Doing Squats And Not My Glutes?

Updated May 27th 2021

If you’re doing squat after squat to build your glutes only to limp home, check the mirror, and wonder why everything except your glutes ache—you’re not alone. 

Or are you not sore after squats at all?

Squats are known as one of the exercises we can perform to target the glute muscles; however, based on immediate results, it’s easy to think that they’re targeting the quad muscles instead. 

Generally speaking, if your glutes are not sore after completing your full-body workout, there are at least two possible reasons: 

  • You’re not optimizing your workout properly to target your gluteal muscles
  • Your glutes may be developed differently than your other muscles or the glutes of other lifters, for any of a number of reasons. 

As the motif goes: No pain, no gain. However, even if your glutes aren’t on fire after your workout, those squats may be doing more than you think.

Let’s talk about your quads, your glutes, what happens during a squatting motion, and what we can do to improve our workouts.

Your Glute Muscles

The term ‘glutes’ actually refers to three different muscles that span from your pelvis to your femur: the gluteus minimus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus maximus

They’re all on top of each other, go from small to large, and accomplish similar goals in synergy. The gluteus maximus is the biggest and buffest — and usually the one that people seek to target with squats. 

It works to keep the pelvis stable and support hip rotation.

Having strong glutes can help with more than just a great rear view — having a strong butt can help with improved posture, which can help you look more confident and taller. 

When you’re squatting, your glutes usually come into play when you’re getting up--when your upper leg is moving back and up to get you to a standing position. 

However, the work done when squatting depends on a number of factors, including your stance. 

If you’re looking to build glute development, you’re going to want to include other movements alongside your squatting routine. 

Other Movements that Target Your Glutes: 

Even though squats are popularly known as glute-busting movements, they only work one of the three glute muscles — the gluteus maximus. 

Therefore, in order to fully round out your gluteal workout, you should incorporate some moves that target all three of your glutes! 

Some other exercises that do are: 

  • Barbell hip thrusts 
  • Donkey kicks 
  • Deadlifts 
  • Lateral leg lifts, and
  • Lunges  

Squats and deadlifts only for legs... there is a much bigger world out there.

What if you only want the BEST glute exercise that is not squats?

What does the research say?

Here are some trends that were observed:

  1. Girls can fire more glutes more maximally than guys in all hip exercises
  2. More hip flexion, abduction, or external rotation, the more glutes are maximally activated
  3. Bracing the abs will help activate more glutes compared to non-bracing
  4. Unilateral exercises (on one leg) activate the glutes more than bilateral exercises (on two legs)

But enough about the trends, what about the glute exercises that are not squats?

  • Laying facedown, donkey kicks to the ceiling
  • Single leg bridges, one knee flexed to 90 degrees, the other knee is straight (on a ball)

These make sense too.

If you want to isolate the glutes and not allow the quads and hamstrings to fire, take away those motions and force the glutes to contract.

The glutes, as a whole, control these motions:

  1. Hip extensions
  2. Hip external rotation
  3. Hip abduction
  4. Hip flexion
  5. Hip internal rotation

But this is just focusing on only a fraction of the thousands of exercises out there.

We have not even discussed good mornings vs Romanian deadlifts for glute activation...

Long story short, if you want to properly fire up all three of your gluteal muscles, squats are definitely a part of that story—but not the entire book. 

Incorporate other movements into your routine to get the most out of your time at the gym! 

Your Quad Muscles

Your quads, or quadriceps, are a group of muscles located at the front of your thighs. 

There are four of them — the vastus intermedius, the vastus medialis, the vastus lateralis, and the rectus femoris. Together, these muscles work to help your leg lengthen and bend: if you sit in a chair and lift your foot from the floor (90 degree angle) to a straight position before you (leg at a 180 degree angle), you’ll see your quad muscles working in your thigh. 

Just as with your glutes, if you’re looking to build your quads, you may want to include other movements in your workout routine. 

Other movements that target your quads: 

  • Barbell front squats 
  • Dumbbell and Barbell lunge 
  • Leg press 
  • Hack squats 
  • Dumbbell step-ups 
  • Sprints

For those who are curious, these would be the best leg press hack squat machines.

What if you want the best exercises research has to offer?

We can compare several exercises and let you decide on which one you want to incorporate into your programming:

  • Back squats vs split squats

For back squats vs split squats, back squats showed more quad activation than a regular split squat.

When comparing back squats vs rear leg elevated split squats (Bulgarian split squats), both showed very similar muscle activation all around, with the Bulgarian split squat showing even more bicep femoris activation, outer hamstrings.

If you need a complete leg exercise, Bulgarian split squats should be your go-to.

Your next question... Bulgarian split squats with a barbell or dumbbell.

  • Back squats vs front squats

Back squats vs front squats showed us a few things:

  1. There is no significant difference for all lower leg muscle activation
  2. Since lifters usually lift less with front squats than back squats, front squats are inherently the safer exercise with less weight and similar gains

The biggest thing to look out for is to avoid front squat shoulder bruises and you should be good to go.

 

How Not to Squat

Any repeated physical motion that puts a significant amount of stress on your body can put you in danger of seriously injuring yourself; so, when you’re going through reps of intense workout motions such as squats, you need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself.

Let’s talk about a few ways you can make sure that doesn’t happen—and ways you can make sure you’re targeting the muscle groups you want to target. 

Your Stance Matters

When you’re setting up your squat, there are a few factors you need to take into account to avoid injury — and to work the muscle groups you intend to work. 

Toe Angle 

There are two basic toe angles discussed when it comes to squats: relatively forward, and turned out (at about 10-30 degrees; more than that could hurt.) 

There’s a decent amount of controversy over which option you should choose.

However, according to research, many people either choose one or the other method:

  1. Squat with toes relatively straightforward
  2. Squat with feet out slightly

The reason for this lies in the muscle groups that are turned on by this slight rotation.

As we mentioned above, the glutes are responsible for assisting hip rotation. 

If then, our hips are rotated outward, the glutes will be more affected by the motion. 

To sum up: If our feet are pointing relatively straightforward during a squat, the movement will focus more on balance, ankle and hip mobility, and core control. If we’re looking to work our muscle groups, including the glutes and the adductor muscles, the feet should be turned outwards at a 10-30 degree angle. 

Foot Placement

Why does the width between your feet matter? Lessening or augmenting the gap between your feet can cause your squatting motion to target different muscle groups. 

  • Things to consider during wide-stance squats: These are the ones power-lifters tend to favor. 

Generally speaking, the wide-stance squat is accompanied by the low-bar hold, which can force your posterior further back and engage your hips more. This may result in more glute engagement. 

  • Things to consider during narrow-stance squats: These may be more difficult if you haven’t practiced before, so, keep that in mind! 

Narrow-stance squats are often coupled with high-bar holds, but either way, the narrower stance tends to put more emphasis on the quads.

Therefore, research tends to favor investing time in practicing the wide-stance squats if you want to see more glute development. 

Your Motion Matters

First of all, to avoid injury, always observe proper form and careful movement when you are completing your exercise regimen. When you’re squatting, ensure that your knees do not go beyond the plane of your toes. 

If your quads hurt more after a glute workout, you may think that you are “quad dominant”: This actually isn’t a genetic condition, but something that you may work yourself into through improper exercise. 

For example, failing to stretch and finding yourself with extremely tight hips may result in squatting with your knees first, instead of hinging at the hips.

This will result in your quadriceps and hamstrings taking most of the load in a glute-targeting movement.

This could also explain why your hips shoot up for deadlifts

However, there is another reason that one lifter may experience different results from another. 

Your Genes Matter (Somewhat)

Different exercise regimens will produce different results for different people; and that’s all there is to it. 

Sometimes, you just have the genes for this sport.

And, if you have great genetic quads, that may be another issue to surmount. 

You just need to keep on working on your strengths since you have an advantage.

If this is the case, you’ll have to take extra measures to ensure that your quads are getting the result of your workout! 

The Difference Between a High-Bar and Low-Bar Squat

When you’re doing a high-bar squat, proper form dictates that your barbell be held relatively high on your back.

This should be on your upper traps

Hurt traps from squats are common but they should only be temporary.

You are placing the barbell on your back by creating a shelf with your shoulder blades as you squeeze them together.

Your upper traps with contract and create a muscular shelf for the barbell to sit on.

With a low-bar squat, the bar is set about 2-3 inches lower than the high-bar position. 

This may be awkward and uncomfortable, the first time, but low-bar squats come with benefits: because you have to lean forward to maintain your center of gravity, your knees will likely not track as far forward as they might otherwise, lessening your chance of injuring your knees. 

Which works your glutes more?

What does the research say?

Low bar back squats work on these muscles more than high bar back squats:

  • Lumbar erectors
  • Glute max
  • Bicep femoris, outer hamstrings

This makes sense since you are more bent over with a low bar back squat than a high bar back squat.

High bar back squats work on these muscles more than low bar back squats:

  • Rectus femoris
  • Vastus lateralis, outer quads

The high bar back squat demands more output from the quads compared to the low bar back squat.

Not by much but it still registered more on the EMG readings.

The vastus medialis (inner quads) showed mixed results, meaning that both exercises showed that the VMO is activated during both the high bar back squat and the low bar back squat.

Do not forget about whether or not you go thumb vs thumbless grip for squats.

Beginning Lifters: Start Here 

If you want the best beginner program for your squat, I would recommend no other program to deliver faster results than Starting Strength, where you squat 3 times a week.

This is how you would begin finding your working weight for squats - start doing a low-bar barbell squat for sets of 5 until the weight gets challenging.

Record that weight.

Then, knock off a significant amount of weight and begin to start the program.

Remember that you are building strength, not testing it. 

You might even squat more than you deadlift initially.

For example, if 225lbs for 1 set of 5 is a bit tough, start your working set at 175lbs for 3 sets of 5. (That is what I would do).

If 135lbs for 1 set of 5 is tough, I would start at 85lbs for 3 sets of 5 and work my way up.

If you have never done barbell squats in your life, start off with the bar.

There is no shame in that.

Everyone had to start somewhere.

Make sure it is not feeling dizzy after squats.

Should squats work your glutes? 

Squats can almost be considered a whole-body workout—but they only work every muscle group to differing degrees. 

Any workout regimen you build to target your glutes should include other types of moves.

Squats can definitely work your glutes — but if you’re not seeing results, there may be a way to make a few small changes that have a big difference. 

Just trend carefully if you do go into a squat session with a pulled glute from deadlifts.

How to Optimize Squats to Work your Glutes

For the most optimized workout, including low bar back squats will work on your glutes more than your high bar back squats.

Though the difference is small, low bar back squats will work on your glutes maximally.

When squatting, avoid having a ramrod-straight back, and instead emphasize a slight lean in your torso — chest out, shoulders back. 

AKA low bar back squat positioning.

When you’re aiming for glute development, there’s little that’s more frustrating and confusing than sore quads after a glute-focused workout. 

There are lots of reasons why your quads could be taking more than their share of the load, but if you work to optimize your stance and understand your body, you should be able to modify your workouts to work towards the results you want. 

The next step would be knowing the cost of a squat rack and getting one to train with.

Always be safe and work with your body instead of against it!


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