Learn 4 unique rectus femoris exercises to release tight quads or rec fem without the risks associated with standard static stretching.
Stretching of the rectus femoris and quadriceps is commonly recommended for people with tightness and knee pain, but it can actually do more harm than good.
Hey. It’s Coach E, kinesiologist, and Dr. B, orthopaedic surgeon and lover of movement.
Today, we’re going to help you with your tight rectus femoris and/or quadriceps muscles. What we’re going to do is give you our approach to dealing with tight muscles. It’s a little bit different than what you’ll find in 95% of other articles and videos.
I think what’s most important is the results that we get and the feedback that we get. People tell us that they’ve tried the other best methods, the old ways, and then they try our ways. Our ways tend to get them better and faster results. If you like exercises and want an approach that works and is medically safe, we’ve got you.
Why Should You Avoid Stretching?
First, before we get into addressing that muscle specifically, let’s quickly cover why we should stop stretching and why stretching doesn’t give the long-term results we want.
There are some very clear scientific reasons why we shouldn’t just passively stretch. There’s a difference, too, between actively stretching, which is when you use another muscle to move the tight muscle, versus passive stretching, which is when you might grab your heel and bring it up to your butt, which will stretch your quad.
But passive stretching doesn’t work because you create length without strength.
Muscles need to know how to work throughout their full range of motion. If you create new length by passively stretching, the muscle isn’t aware of how to activate. This creates a feeling of instability and actually makes you very vulnerable to injury if you get into that new range when you’re moving without being able to control it with your muscles.
We need strength and that control through the full range of motion, not just a long, limp, unstable muscle.
The second reason is that you can overload the patellar mechanism. The patella is actually a sesamoid bone that sits within the tendon of the quadriceps. When you have the proper length of the muscle, the patella will track through the femoral trochlea along its groove. But when the muscle is tight, the kneecap or patella can’t move the way it should.
Stretching can actually create some damage. If you just tug on your quad, trying to stretch the muscle passively, you’re actually jamming the patella into the end of the femur, which overloads the articular cartilage and can create damage. Or you can also jam or pinch the patellar fat pad and tendon.
Finally, the third reason. If you have a little bit of tearing of either the muscle itself or of the patellar tendon along the whole quadriceps mechanism, you can be vulnerable to propagating the tear.
Imagine that the quadriceps is a piece of paper. If you have a little tear in it somewhere along its length and pull on it, you’re going to tear the paper (or muscle). For the force will travel through the path of least resistance, which is where the injury is.
So instead of passive stretching, you want to engage the muscle actively. This will induce remodeling and healing changes in the area that’s injured. It will also prevent you from overloading vulnerable parts of the tissue.
Those are the three scientific reasons why we avoid static stretching, specifically to the rectus femoris and the quadriceps.
Why Do Muscles Get Tight?
Generally speaking, why do muscles get tight?
For example, we’ve got a tight muscle, and everybody thinks, “Oh, it’s tight, I’ll just pull on it.”
But if we understand why muscles get tight, then that’ll give us an idea of what we should do to actually address that tightness.
One of the most common reasons is compensation.
The rectus femoris is one of four parts of the quadriceps muscle. There’s the vastus medialis and intermedius. Those tend to work together. If the vastus medialis and intermedius are not turned on, strong enough, and doing what they’re supposed to be doing to extend your knee or stabilize your leg when you’re moving, then the rectus femoris is the guy that has to jump in and take over.
The rec fem then becomes overworked. It becomes tight.
Also, if the psoas (a hip flexor) is not working properly, it’ll create a situation where the rectus femoris has to compensate. The rec fem crosses the hip and the knee. When it crosses the hip, it also acts as a hip flexor. If the psoas isn’t doing its job of flexing the hip, then the rectus femoris says, “Ah, I gotta jump in and do the work.”
It’s not meant to be doing that work. So what does it do? It gets tight. It complains and becomes painful, creating all sorts of problems.
The solution is not to stretch the heck of out the rec fem, but it’s to give the rec fem a break. It’s to get the VMO and intermedius on, and get the psoas on.
Then the rec fem can just chill out, and it’ll relax. You won’t have that feeling of tightness.
The last reason for rectus femoris tightness is muscle imbalance. Specifically, an imbalance of the glutes and the hamstrings in their shortened range of motion (which is hip extension and, when the knee is bent, knee flexion).
If you don’t have good strength in those muscles and good range in that shortened range of motion, where you can really bring your heel to your butt while you extend your hip. Then, you’re not actively stretching the rectus femoris on a daily basis or through your regular movements.
And also neurologically, if you don’t have good strength, and you don’t have that range of motion, you have that imbalance, which can lead to the rectus femoris getting that tight feeling.
In order to fix rec fem tightness, we’ve got to address these areas:
- Vastus intermedius
We specifically have to address the above at their shortened range of motion to give us the best chance of the rectus femoris relaxing. That’s exactly what we’re going to do with these four rectus femoris exercises.
Rectus Femoris Exercises
If you want to follow along with the four exercises to strengthen the quads that we’re going to show you today, click over to YouTube to watch our video Stop Stretching You Tight Rectus Femoris & Quads (4 Better Exercises).
Exercise 1: ASMR Rectus Femoris
The first exercise we’re going to go through today is active self-myofascial release for the rectus femoris.
We’re going to focus right from just above the kneecap up the middle of the thigh to the hip. There’s where that muscle runs.
We’re going to focus our efforts on that. You’ll need a foam roller for this. It can be any foam roller.
Start off in a plank position with the roller just above your knee.
If you find you’re tensing up already, take a second to relax the quads. Breathe, and once you’re relaxed, you’re going to start moving slowly. The roller goes up your thigh as you bring your heel towards your butt. That’s activating the hamstrings and lengthening the rectus femoris muscle. You’re going all the way up to the hip and the hip flexors. Once you’re there, squeeze the glutes and lift the thigh up away from the floor. Hold it for a couple of seconds. Release and go back to the start position.
That glute squeeze is going to lengthen that rectus femoris muscle further.
- Start with the foam roller just above the knee
- Roll up your thigh to your hip flexors while pulling your heel toward your butt
- Squeeze the glutes
- Lift the thigh away from the floor
- Hold for 5 seconds
Do 1-2 minutes per side.
We find active self-myofascial release is more effective than just passively rolling around. Rolling around is great. It’s like getting a massage. But when you add the active component, we’re getting our brain involved. We’re building those neuromuscular connections, which solidify any length and any gains in the range of motion that we get with standard foam rolling exercises.
Exercise 2: Extended Knee Ankle Fl-Ex
The next technique is such an important technique for anybody with knees, but especially if you have knee pain.
It’s the Extended Knee Ankle Fl-Ex.
For this exercise, you’ll be using the roller again. This time, it’s on your hamstring, just above your knee.
Keep your legs straight to start off, and you’re going to lean back a little bit and get comfortable. You shouldn’t feel tense in the hips or anything cramping. Then, you start off by gradually increasing the contraction of your quads. We call that ramping. So you’re ramping up the quad activation, and then you can tap your VMO. (That’s the muscle just above your knee toward the midline of your body.)
We’re trying to get that VMO muscle active, which also gets the vastus intermedius active. If you find that rec fem muscle is really firing up and kind of taking over the movement, what you can do is just gradually release a little bit, relax a little bit, focus on the VMO, and then push your thigh into the roller just a touch. Squeeze the glutes. That can help to shut off that rectus femoris muscle.
Contract up as high as you can without over-activating the rectus femoris while getting the quads on. Keeping those quads on, slowly extend to full terminal knee extension. From there, hold that terminal extension – that straight knee. Don’t let it bend at all through this exercise. Then plantar flex the ankle, thinking of pushing the ball of the feet down, not the toes. You’re not curling your toes. Activate for about 10 seconds.
Then, switch to ankle dorsiflexion, pulling the top of the foot up towards the knee. Again, not so much the toes, but the top of your foot closing that angle. Once you’re at your end range of dorsiflexion, hold there, activating and keeping that knee straight. Then go to neutral ankle, keeping the quads on.
This is a challenge. Slowly lower the heel to the ground, and once you’re on the ground, that’s when you gradually ramp the contraction down, and you’re finally totally relaxed.
- Sit with the foam roller under your hamstring
- Slowly ramp up your quads
- Tap your VMO to get it activated
- Extend the knee
- Hold knee extension while plantar flexing the ankle
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Hold knee extension while dorsiflexing the ankle
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Return to neutral ankle
- Maintain quad activation while lowering your heel to the ground
- Ramp down quad contraction
Do 2 sets of 2 – 5 reps per leg, holding the activations for 5 – 10 seconds.
This exercise teaches you to get the VMO and the vastus intermedius active, shutting off the rectus femoris. It’s building strength because you’re fighting the ankle movements at that terminal extension. You’re building strength and stability of the knees. When the VMO and the vastus intermedius are on, that rectus femoris can look at that and see that, “oh, i don’t need to work so much. I don’t have to get overworked and I can just chill out and relax.”
Exercise 3: Standing Slumpy Psoas Activator
The third exercise is to get that psoas muscle activated and stronger. It’s called the Standing Slumpy Psoas Activator.
Remember that the rectus femoris is a hip flexor as well, but it’s a weak hip flexor. If we can get the psoas and the iliacus muscles activated and make sure that they’re strong, that can then ensure that the rectus femoris isn’t trying to take their jobs and isn’t getting overworked as a result.
For this exercise, you’re on a wall. Lean into the wall with your fists (if you don’t want to get your wall dirty) or your hands. Your feet are back a little bit, so you’re leaning into the wall.
Start off in really bad posture, hence the word “slumpy” in the name. From there, straighten up, get really tall, and even exaggerate the extension. Flex your hip, bringing the knee up. Think of pulling the knee and thigh in towards your pelvis. So you’re sucking the leg in. Accentuate the lumbar curve.
Hold as you try to get the knee higher, lifting it up. Keep activating while holding. Breathe as you’re activating. Keep that psoas on. Keep those hip flexors on, and your ankles relaxed as you lower down for what I like to call a soft landing.
Then you relax everything and switch sides.
- Start off slumpy — really flexed, bad posture. From there, you
- Flex the hip, get the iliopsoas on, and ankles
- Suck that thigh into the pelvis, fire the glute to stabilize the support leg
- Hold for 5 – 10 seconds
- Soft landing, then relax everything
- Switch sides
Do 2 sets of 3 – 4 reps per leg, holding the activations for 5 – 10 seconds.
We’re trying to get the middle hip flexors working. They’re right on the front of your hips.
We don’t want the outer hip flexors, the tensor fasciae latae. If you can feel that muscle working more than the iliopsoas, you can do a couple of things. First, bring the knee out to the side just a little bit. Then externally rotate the hip a little bit. That tends to shut off the TFL in favor of the iliopsoas.
If you can get the iliopsoas working well with just straight alignment, then do that. Otherwise, abduct a little bit. Externally rotate a bit, and that’s going to further isolate the iliopsoas, which is what we’re going for. We don’t want the TFL compensating for a weak iliopsoas, either.
That is the Standing Slumpy Psoas Activator. It’s a great technique for getting psoas on and stronger in a functional position, the standing position that we need to climb stairs, run fast, and do all those active things that we love to do.
Exercise 4: Glute & Hamstring Activation
The last exercise I’m going to share is going to get the glutes and the hamstrings activated at their shortened end range of motion. The glutes, remember, is a hip extensor. The hamstrings are a knee flexor that extends the hip a little bit as well, but it’s primarily a knee flexor.
When the hamstrings are short, you’re in a knee-bent and leg-back position. That’s why I affectionately call this exercise the Ham Cramper.
You could get some very serious cramps in the hamstrings here, but we’re going to try to avoid that by ramping. We’ll gradually ramp up the activation of this muscle and slowly go into the range of motion.
This is one of our unique methods that we call dissociation. It changes and breaks the habitual movement patterns that we use. When those habitual movement patterns don’t use the muscles that we want them to use, these dissociation techniques do a great job of cleaning that up.
How we’re going to do it is we’re starting with the knee flexed (heel to butt) and hip flexed (knee out in front of you.) From there, extend the hip behind you as you straighten the knee, focusing on activating the glutes. You can use a wall for balance. It’s not a balance technique.
Once you’re at that end range of hip extension, slowly bend the knee, activating the hamstrings so the hams and the glutes are on. That’s going to lengthen the rectus femoris actively with glute and hamstring strengthening at the same time. It’s not just a stretch where you’re grabbing your ankle and pulling your heel to your butt. You’re actively getting into this position.
Then, from there, go back to knee bent, hip flexed. Then, straighten the hips, straighten the knee, and get the glute on. Make sure you’re standing straight with your glutes on. From there, maintain that range of motion of the hip. Then slowly bring the heel to the butt. This is where the hamstrings will cramp up if you’re not careful and if you’re going too fast into it. Breathe as you’re holding. Then, you bring it back to the start position.
- Stand on one leg with your knee raised in front of you and your heel pulled up toward your butt
- Extend your hip (leg moves behind you) as you extend your knee as far as you can
- Slowly bend the knee, activating the hamstrings
- Hold for 5 – 10 seconds
- Slowly return to the starting position
Do 2 sets of 3 – 4 reps per side, with 10-second holds.
If you get a cramp there in the hamstring, you can tough it out a little bit. That’s going to help you teach your brain that you have control of this range of motion.
Cramps often occur when your brain doesn’t know how to control the muscle at that range of motion. It just goes haywire and crazy. But if you just stay with it for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, even 30 seconds but maintain the conscious activation, then the next time you do this – a day or two from now – it’s going to be pretty much gone. It’s pretty quick. Your brain’s pretty quick to learn.
Try that if you can.
You can do these rectus femoris exercises 3 – 5 times per week. It’ll quickly release that rectus femoris while simultaneously building strength and function in the thighs, hips, and knees.
If you want to double down on stretching your rec fem, you’ll like this article on 2 Exercises for the Best Rectus Femoris Stretch.
If you want to take the next steps toward moving freely and without pain, check out our Knee Pain Solution program. It walks you through routines like this one, targeting the root causes of knee pain, starting with the level of pain you’re at.
When I started my pain level was around 5-6. I was walking 3-4 miles a day putting an unnecessary load (intensity) on my knees. I started the program and reduced my walking speed. I also started consciously adding rest days and icing my knees when they felt achy.
My knees slowly began to comfortable and more confident. My legs now feel good and I look forward to what moves the day brings.
The advice from Dr. B was also very useful. The concept of linking the connecting parts of the knee that affect knee health is an effective approach.