Ways to Stretch Tight Quads

Our sedentary culture breeds tight quadriceps muscles. Chronically tight quads can pull the pelvis forward which may accentuate the lordotic curve in your low back. A little lordosis is a good thing, but when it becomes excessive, back troubles may set in.

Tight Quads and Back Pain

The quadriceps muscles are a group of four muscles located at the front of the thigh.

It’s the effect the quadriceps have on the hip and pelvis that matters most when it comes to back pain.

  • One of the four muscles, the rectus femoris, originates on the anterior inferior iliac spine and crosses the hip. The rectus femoris flexes the hip joint and straightens the knee joint. It is not possible to fully do both actions at the same time.
  • The other three muscles originate on the thigh (not crossing the hip). They all insert on the patellar tendon and extend the knee.

Sitting puts you in a position with the rectus femoris in a shortened position. The more the quadriceps shorten and tighten, the greater the chance of chronic muscle tension in your lower back muscles.

When your quads are tight, they pull down, which in effect, pulls your entire pelvic bone forward, into an anterior tilt. The spine normally wedges in between the two hip bones (in the back), so it is carried along with this forward movement. The spine adapts to the change in position by accentuating the normal lordotic curve.

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Assessing Tight Quads

Woman sitting at a desk with laptop.
Sitting at a desk can lead to tight quadriceps and low back pain. Science Photo Library/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Quadriceps muscle tension can be insidious. As a constant sitter, you may not notice the day in and day out decrease in your quad flexibility or the resulting tension in your low back muscles.

Or you might resign yourself to the regular low back aches and pains you’ve accumulated to the point that they've become your new “normal.” In other words, you’ve learned to live with limitations and at least some back pain—all because your quads are tight.

While getting a physical evaluation by a licensed doctor and/or physical therapist is the most accurate and reliable way to determine how tight your quadriceps muscles are, there’s a simpler way to determine your need for regular quad stretching.

You just put your hip joint on a stretch and notice how it feels. See a few ways to accomplish this very thing.

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Hips Forward

Try standing up and push your hips forward. Push from your sitting bones in order to target the correct location.

How far forward can you go and what does that feel like? If you notice pain and/or limitation, you may have tight quadriceps.

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Lunge

The lunge exercise can be a great quadriceps tension assessment tool, as long as you are safe and without pain. You can get into a lunge position with one leg forward (and bent) in front of the other, and the back leg straight.

Whether during yoga or plain ‘ole exercise, once in a lunge position, ask yourself: What does this feel like at the front of the hip of the back leg? If this area is talking to you, you might consider adding a regular lunge exercise quad stretch to your daily routine.

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Camel Pose

Another tell-tale yoga pose for tight quadriceps muscles is the Camel. In the Camel Pose, you begin in a kneeling position. Depending on your level of ability (and flexibility), you arch your back, with the ultimate goal of grasping your ankles behind you with your hands.

Camel Pose Pointers

Use these tips:

  • Be sure to modify the pose to accommodate any back or neck pain you have. 
  • Variations exist where you can reach behind you and touch the wall if you’re stiff, just getting into yoga, or you have other limiting issues.
  • There is a specific order and technique to safely getting into and out of the camel pose. It's best to work with a certified, experienced teacher, especially when you first start or if you have back issues.

The Camel Pose puts the quads at the hip on a pretty intense stretch if you’re not used to it. So if you can’t reach all the way back or you need to prop up or modify the pose a lot in order to tolerate the pain, chances are your quadriceps are tight

To really get the quad stretch in this pose, bring the bottom of your pelvis forward, toward the wall in front of you. If your physical therapist suggests it, you can do this daily (starting with a minimal stretch and slowly advancing each day) to stretch your quads.

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  1. Chun SW, Lim CY, Kim K, Hwang J, Chung SG. The relationships between low back pain and lumbar lordosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Spine J. 2017;17(8):1180-1191. doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2017.04.034