What is a Quad Strain?
Your quadriceps — a group of four muscles in the front of the thigh — can take a lot of stress. After all, they’re responsible for straightening your knee and, during exercise, are hit with forces anywhere up to nine times your body weight. But when those forces get too extreme, fatigue sets in, or your quad muscles just aren’t properly prepared, that’s when a quad strain can happen.
What Is a Quad Strain?
“Each quad muscle is made up of hundreds of thousands of fibers, and a strain is when some of those fibers are damaged or frayed,” says physical therapist Nicole Lombardo, PT, DPT, CSCS. “A quad strain occurs when you overuse or overstretch a muscle beyond its capacity.”
Typically, strains occur near a muscle’s tendons, the thick bands of tissue that connect muscle to bone. If you have a quad strain, you’ll likely feel it near your hip or knee. (That’s where your quads attach via tendons.)
Quad strains can also occur in the tendons themselves. Research suggests that the rectus femoris, which sits dead center in the front of your thigh, is the most commonly strained quad muscle.
Quad strains can happen slowly over time or all at once. In the case of the latter, quad strain symptoms can feel like a popping or snapping in the thigh. Afterward, they can feel tender to the touch, limit mobility, and sometimes come with bruising.
After all, strains vary widely in their severity. Doctors and physical therapists classify them as grade 1, 2, or 3. The greater the pain, loss of strength, difficulty moving the leg, bruising, and number of fibers damaged, the greater the grade — and the longer the recovery time.
What’s the Difference Between a Tear and a Strain?
“A strain is a micro tear,” says Lombardo, explaining that a quad muscle tear is a legit ripping of the muscle. It can also occur in the tendons of the quads.
In the case of tendon tears, the tissue comes off of the bone.
“There are different degrees of tears, ranging from partial to full,” she says. “Partial meaning, part of the tendon is still attached to the bone, where a full tear means the tendon is no longer attached.”
Tears in the muscle or tendon usually occur all at once and are debilitating. While strains can generally heal with at-home treatments and corrective exercise, a quad muscle tear can require surgical reattachment.
How Do You Treat a Quad Strain?
1. The RICE protocol
After a strain occurs, follow the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compress, elevate), according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen or naproxen) can help reduce pain when used in the short term. Research recommends taking them for a few days following a muscle strain. (Any longer may inhibit recovery.)
3. Corrective Exercise
After the acute recovery phase (which can take anywhere from days to weeks), rehab is a must. Whether done on your own or under the supervision of a physical therapist, routines should prioritize mobility work and pain-free strengthening exercises.
What’s the Recovery Time for a Strained Quad?
“Usually eight to 12 weeks is expected for healing time,” Lombardo says. “The lesser the severity of the strain, the less time needed to recover. Also, if activity is not modified, healing might take longer.”
When Should You See a Doctor?
“Seeing either an orthopedic MD or a physical therapist can help,” she says. “Both are trained in distinguishing between strains and tears and can help you with a plan of care.”
She recommends reaching out if you experience any of the following:
- Pain that prevents you from normal daily activities
- Severe bruising or swelling
- Inability to move your hip and knee through their full range of motion
- Marked weakness
- Muscle atrophy
- Pain even after a few weeks of rest
- Uncertainty over how to return to exercise
How Can You Prevent a Quad Strain?
Far easier than treating quad strains is preventing quad strains. Bonus: These strain-preventive strategies will also boost your overall fitness results.
Before heading into the meat of your workout, Lombardo recommends performing dynamic stretches (e.g., standing hip circles, leg swings, lunges, half squats) and light cardio (e.g., cycling, walking, elliptical) can help with this. This will help prepare your muscles for the work ahead and increase elasticity in the quads to prevent overstretching.
In addition to training your quads, “make sure you are keeping your hamstring, abductors, adductors, and abdominals strong,” she says. All of these muscles help support the quads and keep your lower body functioning properly and safely.
Here are nine of the best quad exercises to help you get started.
Even when performing the best lower-body exercises, it’s important to slowly ease into activities and only increase the challenge placed on your body when it’s ready. Called progressive overload, systematically and gradually increasing the intensity, duration, and frequency of your workouts is critical to improving strength while reducing the risk of injury, she says.