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Without a doubt—the barbell squat is an awesome, basic exercise for igniting mass and strength gains in the quads. Some of the biggest thighs ever seen in the world of bodybuilding (think of Platz, Coleman, Greene, and Warren) were created with this movement serving as the foundation of their leg-training programs.
But most guys (and gals) who swear by the superiority of barbell squats are almost always perfectly built for the movement, easily allowing for perfect technique, a full range of motion, optimal torso positioning, and more direct targeting of the quads’ musculature. For many others, this exercise is awkward and uncomfortable, and it results in greater butt and lower-back stimulation and stress than anything else—no matter how carefully each rep is executed.
As an example, I worked quite diligently on perfecting my form on barbell squats for my first 10 years of training, eventually working up to sets of 10 to 12 textbook reps with 405 pounds (not much weight for some, but it was an increase of more than 350 pounds from where I began).
Did my quads become massive from my loyalty to the barbell squat? Unfortunately, the answer is no. They got a little bigger, for sure, but my glutes always grew disproportionately (not a good look), and my lower back took quite a wicked beating (resulting in more than one painful injury). It wasn’t until I decided to scrap the barbell squats and switch over to hack, sissy, and machine squats (as well as various types of leg presses) that my legs finally began to take on significant development. The key difference was that I was able to feel these movements to a far greater degree in the target muscles and put much more mental focus and intensity into every rep of every set.
Still, I do recommend every new lifter give the barbell back squat a fair chance. Do not be lazy or look to take the easy way out. Work hard and long on perfecting them, then honestly assess whether they are effective as a quad builder for you or not. Just don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t build big legs without regularly performing the barbell squat.