The vastus medialis is one of the most important muscles in the lower body. It is the only quadriceps muscle that directly stabilizes your knee joint during lower body exercises such as squats, deadlifts and lunges.
It does not matter if I am working with my patients as a physical therapist or my online coaching clients: strengthening this muscle is ALWAYS a top priority for me. Without a strong vastus medialis you are going to be smaller, weaker and at a bigger risk for injury!
The vastus medialis, aka the “VMO” is one of the 4 major quadricep muscles. It is the large “teardrop” shaped quadricep muscle on the upper / inner part of your knee.
Here is a great picture of the vastus medialis:
We know from EMG (electromyography) research that it is possible to target different parts of a muscle with different exercises. For example it is very easy to pick exercises to target the long head, lateral head or medial head of the triceps muscles. The same thing is true when you train the quadriceps!
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you the best training strategies for strengthening the vastus medialis muscle.
One of the best overall exercises for training the quads is the back squat. For example:
We know from EMG research that the vastus medialis is most active during two different points in the squat:
- In the bottom 15 degrees of the squat
- In the top 15 degrees of the squat
If your goal is to strengthen the vastus medialis as fast as possible then there is no getting around it: you have to train with a full range of motion. This means squatting low enough that your hamstrings touch your calves in the bottom position. Remember, that last 15 degrees of range of motion is where the vastus medialis is really worked the most.
Dmitry Klokov gives a perfect demonstration of the full range of motion squat in the above video. If you are truly serious about bringing up your vastus medialis then there are many ways to tweak the squat to recruit more of this muscle.
One of the best squat variations for training the VMO is called the “cyclist squat.” The basic idea is to squat with your heels close together and elevated above your toes.
For example here is a perfect demonstration of the cyclist squat:
Research shows that squatting with your heels close together and squatting with your heels elevated helps you target the vastus medialis. The cyclist squat also helps you squat with a more upright spine. Even taller lifters find that they can maintain a vertical spine while squatting which puts more tension on your quads and less on your hamstrings.
The cyclist squat works best for relatively higher rep ranges. If you try to use an ultra-heavy weight with the cyclist squat then you may have a hard time keeping your balance or you may put too much pressure on the connective tissue of your knees.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of higher-rep training programs you can use with cyclist squats. One of my favorites is the original German Volume Training program.
The goal of German Volume Training is to perform 10 sets of 10 reps on 2 exercises such as squats and leg curls. You want to use the same weight for all 10 sets so try to use your estimated 20-rep max. Here is a sample training program:
German Volume Training Cyclist Squat Routine
- A1: Cyclist back squat, 10 x 10, 4/0/2/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointing straight), 10 x 10, 3/0/2/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Alternating stationary DB lunge, 3 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree back extension (holding DB at chest), 3 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
For this workout it’s extremely important that you use the listed exercise tempos. That means using a true 4-second lowering phase / 2-second lifting phase on your on your cyclist squats. This routine will help you bring up your lagging VMO in no time!
Another great strategy for targeting the vastus medialis is to find ways to spend more time in the bottom position of squats. Remember, the bottom 15 degrees of the back squat is where you recruit the vastus medialis the most.
One of the best ways to increase your time under tension in the bottom position is with one-and-a-quarter squats. With one-and-a-quarter squats you squat all the way down, come up to just above parallel, squat all the way down and then squat all the way up to lockout. All that counts as 1 rep.
Here is a perfect demonstration:
This variation is great because you spend more time under tension in the very bottom position where your VMO muscle is recruited the most. In my experience one-and-a-quarter squats work best in the 5-10 rep range. This is almost like 10-20 regular reps because the time under tension is so long for each repetition that you do!
Here’s a really simple one and a quarter squats routine that almost anyone can do to begin strengthening their vastus medialis:
One-And-A-Quarter Squats Routine
- A1: One-and-a-quarter back squats (medium stance / heels flat), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
- B1: 45 degree leg press, 3 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
- C1: Walking DB lunge, 3 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
- D1: Lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
- E1: Romanian deadlift, 3 x 12-15, 2/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
The other great way to spend more time in the bottom position of squats is to pause for several seconds in the bottom position. When you pause in the bottom position you eliminate the stretch reflex from the exercise. The stretch reflex is basically energy that builds up in your connective tissue as you perform the lowering phase of an exercise.
The stretch reflex acts as a “spring” that helps you out of the bottom position of almost any exercise. When you pause in the bottom position you take away the stretch reflex almost completely. This means that your vastus medialis has to work much harder in the bottom position to lift your body up.
One of the best variations of the paused squat is called the “Klokov Squat.” A Klokov squat is performed with a 7-second lowering phase and a 6-second lifting phase. For example:
The Klokov squat is pretty much the most extreme version of a paused squat ever invented! They are named after the Olympic weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov because he relied on them to boost his squatting strength during his competitive career.
In my experience Klokov squats work best when you perform 6-8 sets with a weight that is reasonably hard for 1 rep. Here is a sample routine you may want to try. Check it out:
Klokov Squat Routine
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6-8 x 1, 7/6/X/0, 2 minutes rest
- A2: Kneeling leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing out), 6-8 x 2-3, 4/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat, 3-4 x 5-7, 3/1/1/0, 1 minute rest
- B2: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 3-4 x 5-7, 2/0/1/2, 1 minute rest
As you can see there are many different ways to tweak squats to make your vastus medialis work harder. You can use cyclist squats, one-and-a-quarter squats and even Klokov squats to strengthen the VMO. Of course there are many other types of exercises that you can use to train this muscle.
One of the best vastus medialis exercises is called split squats. Here is a perfect demonstration of this exercise:
Split squats are one of the most underrated lower body exercises. They work all of the major lower body muscles including the quads, hamstrings, glutes and adductors. They are also great for improving your flexibility and mobility as they really stretch out the hip flexors. However, one of the best things about the split squat is they overload the vastus medialis muscle.
Just take another look at the above video. In the bottom position the athlete’s hamstrings are completely covering his knees. This is exactly what you want! This means that the vastus medialis will be working very, very hard during this exercise.
The split squat is actually one of the best exercises you can perform if you are not strong enough to perform full back squats or if you cannot perform them safely. The split squats will help you strengthen your VMO and all of the supporting muscles of the lower body so that you can safely squat.
Here is a sample split squat routine you can use to train the VMO and prepare your body for full back squats. Check it out:
Lower Body Split Squat Workout
- A1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 5 x 6-8, 2/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Side step up (holding DBs), 5 x 10-15, 2/0/1/0, 3 minutes rest
- B1: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing out), 5 x 6-8, 2/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree back extension (holding DB at chest), 5 x 10-15, 2/0/1/0, 3 minutes rest
One of the great things about split squats is it is very easy to increase the exercise load. You can hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands or place a barbell on your back to make the exercise heavier. If split squats are still too easy for you then you may want to try some advanced lunge variations.
The lunge is easily one of the best vastus medialis exercises you can use. Your quadriceps have to work very hard right when your feet hit the ground to slow down your body and absorb the impact stress. If you are reading this article then I am sure you know how to perform a regular lunge.
I won’t waste your time covering that exercise. However, there is an advanced lunge variation that you should know about: the drop lunge.
The drop lunge is performed with you standing on a 1-4 inch high platform. You step forward with one leg and land on the ground, then push yourself up and back onto the platform. For example:
Drop lunges are like regular lunges on steroids! They force your quadriceps to work eccentrically to absorb the impact when your front foot lands on the ground. Drop lunges are an unbelievably effective exercise for strengthening the vastus medialis but you do have to be careful with them.
I recommend you perform most of your sets of drop lunges with AT LEAST 8 repetitions. Using less than 8 reps per set may put too much stress on your connective tissue and increase your risk of injury.
If you compete in a sport that features jumping or sprinting such as American football, soccer or basketball then there is another VMO exercise you need to know about: the Petersen step up. The Petersen step up is named after Dr. Eric Petersen, a Canadian Strength coach.
Dr. Petersen was working with the Canadian national ski team and was looking for a way to improve their VMO strength to improve their skiing performance and decrease their odds of injury. Dr. Petersen invented the Petersen step up and the rest is history.
Here is a perfect demonstration of this exercise:
This is a very technical exercise. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
- The foot of your working leg should be externally rotated about 15 degrees
- You want all of the weight on your working foot to be on the balls of your feet
- You want your knee to push forwards over your toes
- You want the heel of your non-working foot to be just barely in front of the toes of your working foot at all times
Why does this exercise work so well? That is a great question! Research shows that when perform quadricep exercises with more pressure over the ball of your foot you actually increase activation of the vastus medialis. Many strength coaches like Charles Poliquin use the Petersen step up with all of their athletes.
Here are Charles’ exact thoughts on the Petersen step up for improving vastus medialis strength:
“If there is one exercise I know that has made me a lot of money it is the Petersen step up.”
Talk about an endorsement! If you want to strengthen your vastus medialis and you can safely perform this exercise then it is one of the best exercises you can do. If you are not strong enough to perform the Petersen step up then consider performing the Poliquin step up. You can click right here for a video of this exercise.
Both of these exercises should be performed for very high repetitions. For example sets of 15-25 reps on a 1/0/1/0 tempo would be perfect.
And there you have it! You now know all of the exercise and training methods for building a bigger, stronger vastus medialis muscle. If you start putting these training strategies into practice you will be rewarded with a bigger, stronger and healthier lower body.
So what are you waiting for? Get back in the gym and start training the vastus medialis like you mean it!
“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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