The vastus medialis is easily the most neglected muscle group in the lower body. This is a shame because it plays a critical role in keeping your knees healthy and boosting your performance in the squat and deadlift.
If you want to maximize your results in the gym then you must learn how to target this quadricep muscle!
- Part 1: Step ups
- Part 2: Split Squats
- Part 3: Lunges
- Part 4: Full Squats
- Part 5: Special Exercises
The vastus medialis (also known as the VMO) is the “teardrop” shaped quadricep muscle located on the inner part of your knees. It plays a crucial role in preventing various knee injuries including ACL tears. It also critically important in many lower body exercises such as the back squat and front squat.
Most trainees have extremely weak vastus medialis muscles. In fact the world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin estimated that 99% of his first-time clients had insufficient VMO strength.
If your vastus medialis is too weak then you will struggle to make progress in many lower body exercises and you will be at an increased risk for injury. The good news is there are many exercises that you can use to specifically target and strengthen this quadricep muscle.
No, I am not suggesting that you can fully “isolate” the vastus medialis. It is impossible to fully isolate any of the 4 quadriceps heads. However you can very easily increase the recruitment of the vastus medialis muscle by choosing the best exercises and performing them with proper form.
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you 19 of the most effective exercises for training the vastus medialis muscle.
The best vastus medialis exercises include step ups, split squats, lunges and full squats. The scientific literature has shown that these exercises maximize the recruitment of the VMO and are ideal for strengthening this neglected muscle group.
There are many different variations of each of these 4 exercises. I will teach you the most effective exercise variations and the correct order to perform them in. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Step ups
If you have a weak vastus medialis muscle then the first exercise you should focus on is the step up. There are five types of step ups that you should be aware of:
- The Poliquin step up
- The Peterson step up
- The front step up
- The side step up
- The triple jumper’s step up
Let’s take a closer look at each of these step up variations.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #1: The Poliquin Step Up
This is the first exercise that you should perform to correct a muscular weakness in the vastus medialis. The Poliquin step up is actually an easier version of the Petersen step up.
Research has shown that when you perform a step up variation with your weight on the ball of your foot you dramatically increase recruitment of the VMO. That is the idea behind this exercise. It is extremely important that you execute this exercise with proper form.
Here are a few pointers:
- Keep the majority of your weight on the ball of your foot throughout the exercise
- Your knee should travel past your toes during this exercise. Yes, this is safe!
- Your working foot should be slightly externally rotated (pointing outwards)
- Your heel of your non-working foot should land just in front of your toes for your working foot
The range of motion for this exercise is extremely short. Because of this you should keep your reps in the 10-20 rep range. A great place to start would be to perform 3 sets of 15-20 reps with a 1/0/1/1 tempo.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #2: The Petersen Step Up
This is a more advanced version of the Poliquin step up. The main difference between a Petersen step up and a Poliquin step up is that your heel is not supported by a slant board. This makes the exercise MUCH more difficult.
If you are strong enough to perform this exercise then it is absolutely fantastic for teaching your body to “turn on” the vastus medialis so that it works harder during other compound exercises such as the squat.
The world renowned Charles Poliquin once said that if there was 1 exercise he knew that made him a lot of money it was the Petersen step up.
I strongly recommend you spend some time on this exercise to keep your knees strong and healthy. If you are strong enough to perform this exercise with extra weight then you either hold dumbbells or hold a barbell in the back squat or front squat position.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #3: The Front Step Up
This is a very simple but very effective exercise for training the VMO. This exercise primarily targets the mid-range of the strength curve of the quadriceps. It is very important that you ONLY use your front leg to lift yourself up when performing this exercise.
It can be helpful to actually curl your toes up on your back leg. This helps to prevent you from using your rear leg to lift yourself up.
There are a number of ways to make this exercise more challenging including holding dumbbells or holding a loaded barbell in the front squat or back squat position.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #4: The Side Step Up
This is another simple but effective variation of the step up. This variation is excellent for increasing the recruitment of the vastus lateralis, another one of the 4 quadricep muscles. Of course it is still reasonably effective for training the vastus medialis.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #5: The Triple Jumper’s Step Up
This exercise can be thought of as the king of all step ups. No other step up variation works the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings quite like the triple jumper’s step up.
Part 2: Split Squats
There is a huge amount of misinformation regarding split squats. Most people are familiar with “Bulgarian split squats.” For example:
There is nothing wrong with this exercise. It is a perfectly reasonable way to train the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. However if you want to maximally train the vastus medialis then this exercise is not your best bet.
The problem with the Bulgarian split squat is that it does not train the quadriceps through a full range of motion. Research has shown that the vastus medialis is heavily stretched and recruited in the very bottom position of exercises like squats and split squats.
If you want to use split squats to target the vastus medialis then you need to load your knee joint through a full range of motion. Research has shown that the vastus medialis is strongly recruited during exercises emphasizing full knee flexion.
This means your hamstrings need to cover your calves in the bottom position. Here is the more effective way to perform a split squat:
This exercise places your VMO in a very powerful loaded stretch in the bottom position. It is also fantastic for developing the hamstrings, glutes and adductors (inner thigh muscles). There are a few different variations of the split squat that you can perform:
- The front foot elevated split squat
- The regular split squat
- The rear foot elevated split squat
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercise variations.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #6: The Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
The split squat is a very challenging exercise. There are two things that you must do during this exercise:
- You must work your front leg through a full range of motion. This means your hamstrings cover your calves in the bottom position of the exercise.
- You must keep your rear leg almost completely straight. You can bend your rear knee a little bit but no more than that. This requires a lot of flexibility in your hip flexors.
Most trainees have very tight hip flexors (the muscles you use when you “march” your legs or raise your legs forward). Tight hip flexors are a very common problem among people who spend a lot of time sitting in a chair during the day.
If your hip flexors are too tight then you will have difficulty performing this exercise with both of your feet on the ground.
The front foot elevated split squat is an easier version of the regular split squat because it requires less flexibility in your hip flexors and it is less mechanically challenging to perform. As your flexibility increases you can decrease the height of the platform to challenge yourself even more.
You can also hold a pair of dumbbells or hold a barbell in the front squat or back squat position to progress the exercise.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #7: The Split Squat
This is the traditional version of the split squat. This exercise is much more challenging than it looks. In comparison to the front foot elevated split squat this exercise places your hip flexors in a bigger stretch and puts you in a more challenging mechanical position.
This exercise is great for training the vastus medialis but it also places a lot of stress on the glutes and hamstrings. If you use a wider stance this exercise will also strengthen and hypertrophy your adductors or your inner thigh muscles.
Once again you can progress this exercise by holding dumbbells or holding a barbell in the front squat or back squat position.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #8: The Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
This is a very advanced version of the split squat. It requires superior flexibility in your hip flexors and places your body in a very difficult mechanical position.
I strongly recommend you use either the front foot elevated split squat or the regular split squat variation before progressing to this exercise variation.
Part 3: Lunges
Lunges are right up there with split squats as one of the most challenging single-leg exercises that you can perform.
Lunges are somewhat less effective at targeting the vastus medialis relative to exercises like split squats and triple jumper step ups. However lungs have one big thing going for them: they eccentrically overload the quadriceps.
When you lunge forward and land on your front foot your quadriceps have to decelerate your body and absorb a huge amount of force. In other words you are exposing your quadriceps to an accentuated eccentric stress. This is a powerful way to stimulate strength and size gains in the lower body.
The downside to This is that you have to be very careful with how you program lunges. The world-renowned bodybuilding coach John Meadows recommends that you only perform lunges towards the end of your routine when your legs are already pre-fatigued. As a general rule of thumb this is a good idea.
There are four major types of lunges that you should be aware of:
- Stationary lunges
- Reverse lunges
- Walking lunges
- Drop lunges
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercise variations.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #9: The Stationary Lunge
This is the classic lunge variation that most people are familiar with. Your VMO and the rest of your quadriceps are exposed to a strong eccentric stress when you land on your front foot.
You want to think of your front foot as a giant break that is slowing you down as you land.
I agree with coaches like John Meadows that say it is best to perform stationary lunges towards the end of your lower body routine. For example you might perform several sets of front squats or back squats before proceeding to your lunges. This will help to warm up your knees and reduce the risk of injury.
Stationary lunges can be progressed by holding a pair of dumbbells or holding a barbell in the front squat or back squat position.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #10: The Reverse Lunge
Reverse lunges are a rather unusual exercise variation. Unlike the other forms of lunges such as walking lunges and drop lunges the reverse lunge does not place a lot of eccentric stress on your quadriceps. This is because the front foot is stationary throughout the movement.
The stationary lunge does emphasize the quadriceps a little more and the glutes and hamstrings a little less than most other lunge variations. Once again you can progress this exercise by holding a pair of dumbbells or using a loaded barbell.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #11: The Walking Lunge
The walking lunge is commonly used in the routines of bodybuilders and other physique athletes. It often makes for a great “finisher” exercise in a lower body hypertrophy routine.
This exercise places a reasonable amount of eccentric stress on the vastus medialis and the rest of the quadriceps and is an excellent exercise for stimulating strength and size gains. It is also an excellent exercise for improving your overall lower body structural balance.
Most trainees use dumbbells to load this exercise but some creative bodybuilders and powerlifters such as Ronnie Coleman and Matt Kroczaleski prefer to use a barbell or even a 200 pound log on their shoulders while they lunge!
Vastus Medialis Exercise #12: The Drop Lunge
This is by far the most advanced and challenging lunge variation. It is also the one that you are least likely to be familiar with.
The drop lunge is different from the other lunge variations because you start the exercise by standing on a small 2-4 inch platform. This dramatically increases the eccentric stress on your quadriceps when you land with your front foot.
Your foot will be falling faster than normal when it hits the ground so your vastus medialis and the rest of your quadriceps have to contract especially hard to absorb the impact of the landing.
This is an advanced exercise that should not be performed by anyone with less than 2 years of serious weight training experience. If you attempt this exercise before you are ready you will be at an increased risk of injury.
For safety reasons I recommend you only use dumbbells to progress this exercise although you could use a barbell in the front squat or back squat position if you are so inclined.
Part 4: Full Squats
The squat is often called “the king of all exercises.”
There is certainly a lot of truth to this statement. The squat (along with the deadlift) recruits more motor units in your body than almost any other exercise. If you want to build a big, strong, athletic body then the squat should be a staple exercise in your routine.
Unfortunately most trainees do not use good form when they squat. It is very common to see trainees pile hundreds of pounds on the bar and then squat down 10 inches before coming back up.
There is nothing wrong with using partial range of motion squats as part of your long-term programming. However partial squats should not form the basis of your training program.
Research has shown that the vastus medialis muscle is primarily recruited in the very bottom position of full range of motion squats. Only full range of motion squats adequately train the vastus medialis muscle.
If you rely too much on partial squats in your training then your vastus medialis will be under trained which will hurt your long-term progress and increase your risk of injury.
There are many different squatting variations that you can use to target the vastus medialis. Here are some of your best options:
- Full squats
- Heels narrow squats
- Heels elevated squats
- Quad squats
- Klokov squats
- 1.25 squats
Let’s take a closer look at each of these squatting variations.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #13: Full Squats
Full squats are also known as “Olympic” and “ass to grass” squats. Squatting through a full range of motion is the only way to maximally target the VMO.
The world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin says that you should squat so low that you “leave a stain on the carpet.” In other words your hamstrings should cover your calves in the bottom position.
The full squat is a superior exercise for developing not only the VMO but also the glutes and hamstrings.
If you are not able to perform a full squat then I highly recommend you start with the various step up exercise variations covered above. After you have mastered the step up then you can progress to split squats and lunges.
By the time you have achieved proficiency with the various step up and lunge variations you should have the strength necessary to perform a full squat. I have used this exercise progression with many of my online coaching clients in the past and I am always amazed at how effective it is.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #14: Heels Narrow Squats
There are many ways to modify your stance on the full squat to increase the recruitment of the vastus medialis. One of the simplest ways is to bring your stance in. Research has shown quite convincingly that when you squat with a narrow stance you increase the recruitment of the quadriceps at the expense of the other lower body muscles.
Many people avoid the narrow stance squat because they cannot use as much weight on the bar. This is a terrible reason to avoid an exercise! Would you avoid full range of motion deadlifts because you can use more weight with a rack pull above the knees? I hope not!
You can use less weight on the narrow stance squat because your body is in a more mechanically challenging position. The plus side of this is that certain muscles have to work much harder to lift the load.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #15: Heels Elevated Squats
If you are used to squatting with flat sole shoes such as Chuck Taylors then using Olympic squatting shoes with an elevated heel would get the job done. Other ways to elevate your heels during squats include standing on a pair of 5-10 pound plates (like in the above video) or standing on a wooden slant board.
When you elevate your heels it actually changes the mechanics of the squat. Your knees are pushed further over your toes and you squat with a more upright spine. Both of these things force your quadriceps and especially the vastus medialis to work much harder.
You do need to be careful with how high of an elevation you use. If you have a history of knee pain or injuries then you should be careful about elevating your heels too much.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #16: Quad Squats
The quad squat is performed with your heels close together AND elevated. Both of these modifications on their own are great for targeting the vastus medialis. When you combine them together into one exercise you get one of the most effective quadricep exercises of all time!
Many strength coaches call this a “quad squat” because of how strongly it works the quadricep muscles. If you have a weak VMO then the quad squat is easily one of the best exercises you can perform to correct this muscular imbalance.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #17: Klokov Squats
The Klokov squat is named after the Russian Olympic weightlifting champion Dmitry Klokov. Dmitry likes to perform his front squats and back squats by pausing in the bottom position for 3-8 seconds at a time.
The main benefit of the Klokov squat is that it completely eliminates the stretch reflex in the bottom position. This means that your muscles and your muscles alone are responsible for helping you explode out of the hole. And guess which quadriceps muscle is strongly recruited in the bottom position of squats? That’s right – the VMO!
Many strength coaches such as Wolfgang Unsold believe that a Klokov squat should be performed on a 7/6/X/0 tempo. That is you use a 7-second lowering phase and pause in the bottom position for 6 seconds before exploding back up.
Klokov squats are normally performed for multiple sets of single repetitions. A great starting point would be to perform 6-8 singles on a 7/6/X/0 tempo with a weight that represents your 3-rep max with a normal tempo.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #18: 1.25 Squats
This is a highly underrated training method for targeting the VMO. You are going to perform “one-and-a-quarter” squats to increase the amount of time you spend in the bottom position of the exercise.
As you already know the vastus medialis is most strongly recruited in the bottom position of squats. If we can spend more time in this bottom position then we can make the VMO work harder. 1.25 squats accomplish this perfectly!
You are going to squat all the way down, come up a quarter of the way, go back down to the bottom position and then explode all the way to lockout. All together this counts as 1 repetition. As you can see 1.25 reps are no walk in the park!
I find that 1.25 reps work best in higher-rep accumulation phases where you are trying to increase muscular hypertrophy. These are a great variation to use if you want to pack some quick size onto your quadricep muscles.
Part 5: Special Exercises
There are some “special exercises” that you might want to perform to train the vastus medialis. These exercises do not fit in any one particular category like the exercises covered so far in this article. Here they are:
- Petersen sled drag
- Petersen leg press
- Petersen hack squat
All of these exercises have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #19: The Petersen Sled Drag
If you have access to a strongman sled then the Petersen sled drag is an excellent exercise that you can use to train the vastus medialis. It is definitely a lower-level exercise so you don’t want to use it when your goal is all-out strength gains.
Many strength coaches such as Charles Poliquin have had a lot of success using this exercise following ACL reconstructive surgery to teach the body to properly recruit the VMO during dynamic exercise. The key is to apply force through the ball of your foot on every step.
No, you will not be able to use as much weight as you normally can during a backwards sled drag. Be ready to leave your ego at the door!
Vastus Medialis Exercise #20: The Petersen Leg Press
The Petersen sled drag is another excellent exercise for targeting the VMO. This video does not do the best job of demonstrating proper form for this exercise. Unfortunately there just aren’t many videos on the internet of this exercise being performed properly.
You want to use a relatively low and narrow stance on the leg press. You can start the exercise with your feet flat against the leg press pad. However, by the time you go about halfway down you want your heels to rise up off the foot pad.
In the very bottom position your heels will rise off the pad completely and you will only press with the balls of your feet. As you press up your heels will naturally start to come back down until the top half of the movement where your heels will touch the foot pad.
If you have your feet positioned correctly (low enough on the foot pad) then your heels will naturally rise up as you lower the weight.
I STRONGLY recommend you use higher rep ranges for this exercise. You should use at least 10 reps per set but you are probably even better off using as many as 15-20 reps per set. The higher reps will keep the pressure off of your knees and allow you to more effectively train the vastus medialis muscle.
I often use a variation of the Petersen leg press in my own training and with my online coaching clients.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #21: Petersen Hack Squat
The Petersen hack squat is performed in a somewhat similar manner to the Petersen leg press. John Meadows does an excellent job of demonstrating this exercise in the above video. You want to use a relatively low and narrow stance on the platform.
At the start of the exercise your heels should be flat on the platform. However, as you descend into the bottom position of the exercise your heels will rise up so that the weight is on the balls of your feet.
You may remember from the discussion of the Petersen split squat that when you put your weight through the balls of your feet your VMO “turns on.” This is true for this exercise as well!
Once again I strongly recommend that you use higher rep ranges for this exercise. I recommend you use at least 10 reps per set although 15-20 reps per set is probably best. You will not be able to use your normal hack squat weights for this exercise so make sure you wipe that from your memory banks before using this exercise!
The vastus medialis is the most under-trained muscle in the lower body. If your vastus medialis is too weak then you are hurting your progress in the gym and setting yourself up for a nasty lower body injury.
I don’t care if you are a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter or just an average gym rat looking to get bigger and stronger. You MUST learn how to train this muscle is you want to optimize your long-term progress and stay injury free.
If you want more help with training your vastus medialis then check out my online coaching program. I use my training and experience as a physical therapist to design training programs that keep my clients healthy and pain-free as they pursue their strength and physique goals.
“If you want to turn a vision into reality, you have to give 100% and never stop believing in your dream. For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
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