Did you know quadriceps injuries are among the most common that athletes suffer? That’s partially because athletes and non-athletes alike spend more time stretching their hamstrings than their quads, and tight quads are a risk factor for injury.
Some of the most common quadriceps injuries include partial and complete tears of the quadriceps tendons. The junction where the quadriceps muscle meets the tendon is also commonly strained, particularly among athletes who jump. A strained quadriceps tendon is called jumper’s knee and is caused by repetitive trauma to the quadriceps tendon related to jumping. A muscle imbalance between the quads and hamstrings can also contribute to abnormal tracking of the kneecap within its grove and place strain on the quadriceps tendon.
Less commonly, the quadriceps tendon can rupture. This catastrophic injury is more common among people over the age of 60 and is most likely to happen when demands on the quadriceps are high, as during jumping. So, it’s important that your quadriceps be strong but flexible, especially if you do a lot of sprinting, jumping, and high-impact exercise
The Muscles and Tendons That Make Up Your Quadriceps
So, what are the quads? These are the muscles that make up the front of your thigh. The quads are made up of four muscles – the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedium, and the rectus femoris. The muscles originate from the femur, the bone in your upper leg, and attach via the quadriceps tendon to the base of the patella or kneecap. The primary role of the quadriceps is to extend the leg. You use your quads when you walk, jump, run, squat, and climb stairs as well. These muscles also have the important function of stabilizing the kneecap. Some studies even show that strong quadriceps reduce progression of cartilage loss due to knee osteoarthritis.
As you can see, quad strength is important for functional movements and for playing a variety of sports. Strong quads protect and stabilize the knees too. But, quad flexibility is vital as well – and we don’t place as much emphasis on stretching and lengthening the quads as we do the hamstring muscles in the back of the thighs.
How Flexible Are Your Quads?
You might wonder whether YOU suffer from overly tight quads, and, if you do, what you can do to solve the problem. Here’s a simple test you can do to see if your quads are too tight:
· Place an exercise mat on the floor and lie face down on it with your legs straight.
· Bend one knee and bring your foot toward your buttocks. You can use your hand on the same side to pull the foot closer.
· How do your quads feel? If they feel tight, painful, or uncomfortable, your quads are too tight.
How Quadriceps Become Too Tight
Other than the fact that we fail to stretch them, quads become tight from overuse. Activities such as running or jumping, place stress on the quads. However, it’s not uncommon, especially in women, to be quadriceps dominant, meaning you overuse your quads and hip flexors during daily activities and when you weight train. In other words, your quads take over part of the job that the hamstrings and glutes should do. When you squat or lunge, you may notice that you feel the burn in the front of your thighs and very little in the back. That’s common among people who are quad dominant.
When quadriceps muscles are overworked from athletic movements such as jumping, running or weight training, they become tight and inelastic and exert unbalanced tension at the joints. Standing you’re your knees hyper-extended, as well as spending long times sitting, can also produce tightness in the quadriceps. When tight quadriceps are accompanied by weak hamstrings, you have all the ingredients for an ACL injury.
Sitting too much is another factor that can tighten your quads. When you’re confined to a chair for long periods of time, your hip flexors shorten. Because your muscles form a kinetic chain and are linked to one another, tight hip flexors pull on your quads, thereby making them shorter and less flexible.
The Risks of Having Tight Quads
If your quads are tight, why do you need to correct the problem? For one, tightness in the quads creates a muscle imbalance between your quads and hamstrings – and we know that muscle imbalances increase the risk of injury. In this case, your risk of tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the knee goes up. An anterior cruciate ligament or ACL tear is an injury athletes’ fear since a significant tear can end an athletic career. You should be concerned about it too. One way to correct a muscle imbalance of this kind is to strengthen the muscles in the back of your thighs, your hamstrings. But, you also need to lengthen tight quads to lower the risk of injury.
Lengthening Tight Quadriceps
· While standing, reach behind you and pull the ankle of one foot toward your buttocks. If you feel unsteady doing this, hold onto something sturdy with your other hand.
· When you feel the stretch in your quads, hold the position for 30 seconds.
· Switch legs and do the same thing
· Repeat 5 times on each side and do 3 or 4 sets total.
Don’t Forget to Warm Up
Make sure your muscles are warm before doing any type of exercise and before any type of static stretching. Also, when you jump or do plyometric exercises, land with your knees slightly bent and pointing straight ahead. Your knees should never turn inward. Land softly too. The floor shouldn’t shake when your feet hit the ground!
The Bottom Line
Tight quads increase your risk of an acute injury, such as an ACL tear, but also chronic injuries, like jumper’s knee. Make sure you’re stretching them and using proper form when you jump. It could save you the inconvenience and pain of a quad or knee injury.
Practical Pain Management. “Knee Osteoarthritis Impacted By Quadricep Strength”
Arthritis Rheum. 2009 Jan;60(1):189-98. doi: 10.1002/art.24182.
BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders201516:305.
On Fitness. March/April 2016. “Test for Quadriceps Flexibility”
Medscape.com. “Quadriceps Injury”
WebMD. “Jumper’s Knee”
Tufts Now. “Losing Muscle Power as We Age”