Hip versus quad emphasis in lower body exercises is an interesting and very important topic! In order to structure effective lower body training programs it is crucial that you have a completely understand the differences between hip dominant and knee dominant (quad dominant) exercises. Without knowing these differences it’s very likely that you’ll unwittingly neglect some lower body muscle groups and develop physique and strength weaknesses.
The main difference between hip-dominant and quad-dominant exercises is quite straightforward. It’s all about what muscle groups and joints certain exercises target. With this in mind, a hip-dominant exercises will primarily train the glutes, hamstrings and adductors, working through hip flexion and extension, such as a hip thrust. On the other hand, knee-dominant exercises primarily train the quadriceps, working through knee flexion and extension, such as a leg extension.
The key word here is “primarily”. This is because many exercises train and have aspects of both, but often focus on one or the other. Just because an exercise is hip dominant, does not mean it is not training the quads, and vice versa. Also, by varying how you execute different exercises, you can make hip-dominant exercises more quad-oriented and vice versa.
Hip Dominant vs Knee Dominant Exercises
The way you perform any given exercise can have a profound effect on which muscles are emphasized. For example, you can perform a squat with a relatively vertical or horizontal trunk angle as shown in figure 1 on the image below.
The trunk angle affects which lower body muscles are emphasized during a squat. When your trunk is more vertical, your knees must travel forward to maintain balance (i.e., quad emphasis). Conversely, when your trunk shifts farther forward, your hips travel backward and very little forward movement of the knees is required to maintain balance (i.e., hip emphasis).
Basically speaking, maintaining a trunk angle of greater than 60 degrees at the bottom of a squat emphasizes the quadriceps more than the hips, while a trunk angle of less than 60 degrees emphasizes the hips. You can use the shin angle as a guide for determining which muscles you will emphasize. The shins travel forward to emphasize the quadriceps (see figure 1a) but remain mostly vertical to emphasize the hips (see figure 1b).
Importantly, this categorization is not limited to the squat: It carries over to all lower body exercises. Two examples are appropriate here.
Forward lunge & reverse lunge
First, a forward lunge emphasizes the quadriceps since the shin travels forward. You can also perform a reverse lunge with a vertical shin angle to emphasize the hips, as shown in figure 3.
Put another way, a reverse lunge spares the knees, making it a joint-friendly option for those who have knee pain.
Second, a deadlift can begin with the shins angled forward to emphasize the quadriceps or remain vertical to put a greater emphasis on the hips, as shown in figure 3.
Closing thoughts: Hip Versus Quad Emphasis
When designing functional training programs, it is helpful to categorize lower-body strength exercises into either hip-dominant or knee-dominant movements. Organizing all lower-body movements into either of these two subdivisions can ensure simple and balanced programming.
From a programming standpoint, both quad- and hip-emphasis exercises have their place to ensure complete development of the lower body musculature. That is why you’ll often see a hip-emphasis exercise in one workout followed by a quad-emphasis exercise in the next workout. Therefore, such an arrangement is no coincidence.
Knee-dominant exercises like goblet squats, split squat variations, and single-leg squats primarily develop the anterior knee extensor musculature like the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis while developing the glutes and hamstrings to a lesser degree.
Hip-dominant exercises like deadlifts and bridges focus primarily on development of the posterior chain musculature, specifically the glute and hamstring muscle groups.
However, if you have cranky knees, an exercise that emphasizes the hips more than the knees might prove to be a better programming option, as opposed to skipping a lower body exercise altogether, which will impair your results. For example, if you see a forward lunge in your workout, you can replace it with a reverse lunge to spare your knees. Conversely, if you want more quadriceps development, you can adjust the technique of any hip-emphasis exercise to have a greater quad emphasis, as covered earlier.