Understanding the differences between knee dominant and hip dominant exercises is important when it comes to structuring your training program.
Without this understanding, you can end up overtraining certain muscles, especially your areas of strength, and developing strength and muscle imbalances.
So, what is the difference between knee dominant and hip dominant exercises? Knee dominant exercises primarily train the quadriceps, working through knee flexion and extension. A prime example is the leg extension. Hip dominant exercises primarily train the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors, working through hip flexion and extension. A very specific example is the hip thrust.
And your own limb length can determine which of these movement patterns you are more comfortable with, often leading to imbalances.
By the end of this article, you will understand the difference between knee dominant and hip dominant patterns of movement, exercises that fit each category, how your limb length affects your dominant movement pattern for lower body exercises, and how to design your own strength training program to maximize balance.
I will cover:
- What it means to be knee or hip dominant
- 5 differences between hip and quad dominant exercises
- When to use hip and quad dominant exercises
- How limb length can affect the dominant pattern of a movement
- 7 examples of hip dominant exercises
- 7 examples of quad dominant exercises
- How to design your own program based on your limb lengths
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What Does it Mean to be Knee or Hip Dominant?
Knee and hip dominance describe the muscle groups and joints that are targeted by specific exercises.
Hip dominant exercises require movement (flexion and/or extension) about the hip joint, with minimal extension or flexion of the knee joint. This movement pattern primarily targets the glutes and hamstrings.
Knee dominant exercises involve movement (flexion and/or extension) about the knee joint, with minimal movement of the hip joint. This movement pattern primarily targets the quadriceps.
It’s important to understand that while some movements do isolate the quadriceps, glutes, or hamstrings by focusing on one of these movement patterns, most exercises train both of these patterns simultaneously.
How you perform an exercise and the length of your legs relative to your torso can also affect how hip or knee dominant an exercise is. We’ll cover this later.
Knee Dominant vs Hip Dominant Exercises
There are 4 key differences between knee dominant and hip dominant exercises.
- They emphasize different muscle groups
- They experience maximum range of motion at different joints
- Truly knee dominant exercises often involve machines
- You can typically lift more weight with hip dominant exercises
1. Emphasize Different Muscle Groups
The biggest difference between knee dominant and hip dominant exercises is the muscle groups they primarily target.
Hip dominant exercises primarily train the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.
Knee dominant exercises primarily train the quadriceps through knee extension, but can also train the hamstrings through knee flexion.
2. Max Range of Motion at Different Joints
Hip dominant exercises are designed to maximize the range of motion occurring at the hips, while limiting it at the knee.
Quad dominant exercises, on the other hand, are designed to maximize the range of motion at the knee, while minimizing it at the hip.
With the Romanian deadlift, for example, we can maximally stretch the glutes and hamstrings while causing very little flexion or extension of the quadriceps.
3. Truly Knee Dominant Exercises Often Involve Machines
While there are knee dominant free weight exercises, such as the short-step split squat, knee dominant exercises are more commonly performed on machines.
This is often because they require a large amount of knee flexion and extension, which can be difficult to control with free weights. Machines lock you into position, allowing you to make adjustments to focus on your quads. With free weights, you often have to rely on your hip hinge to balance you out.
The leg press and hack squat machine are two knee dominant exercises that come to mind, both of which can be easily adjusted to focus on the quads.
The lying leg curl machine is another, although it focuses on your hamstrings. This is a movement that is much more difficult to perform with free weights.
On the other hand, there are plenty of hip dominant free weight exercises, such as the deadlift and glute bridge. Even the barbell back squat, which is traditionally viewed as a knee dominant exercise, is often executed with a high degree of hip hinge, causing significant stretching of the glutes and hamstrings and often minimal stretch on the quads.
If you train at home, you likely don’t have access to some of the knee dominant machines found in most gyms.
Don’t worry though, there are plenty of effective knee dominant exercises that can be done with your body weight, minimal equipment, or free weights.
I’ll cover some.
4. You Can Typically Lift More Weight With Hip Dominant Exercises
Your hip extensors are larger and more powerful than your knee extensors. Compare your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors to just your quads.
Adjusting your form to use more of your posterior chain can help you move more weight. Just look at the difference between a front squat and a low-bar back squat. Most people can lift far more weight with the back squat than with the front.
Benefits of Hip Dominant Exercises
The following are reasons you may want to include hip dominant exercises in your training.
Grow Your Glutes, Hamstrings, and Adductors
Hip dominant exercises target your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors, primarily through the muscle damage and mTOR hypertrophy pathways.
If your goal is to improve the strength, explosiveness, or size of your glutes, hamstring, and adductors, then including hip dominant exercises in your training is a must.
It will also be important how you train this movement pattern. The muscle damage and mTOR pathways are involved mostly during the eccentric phase of the lift, and when stretching a muscle under load.
Stretching under load is a huge one. The muscle that gets stretched the most gets activated the most. This is why free weights can be so effective at building the posterior chain through the hip hinge.
The best exercises for this are the ones that have a large range of motion and allow you to really get a good stretch on your glutes and hamstrings. The Romanian deadlift is one of my favorites, as it allows you to maximize the stretch on your glutes and hamstrings while keeping the load relatively light.
Address Hip Extensor Weakness
One common issue I see with knee dominant lifters is weak hip extensors. This can lead to all sorts of knee, ankle, and hip issues.
If you find that your knees cave in when you squat or your hips feel tight when you deadlift, then chances are you have weak hip extensors. Or if you tend to fail lower body exercises at the top end range of motion, like locking out a deadlift.
Including some hip dominant exercises in your training can help address this issue.
One way to do this is by including free weight exercises that allow you to get a good stretch on your glutes and hamstrings, such as the Romanian deadlift I mentioned earlier.
Another is to include unilateral exercises in your training. These are great because they force each side to work independently, which can help correct any imbalances you may have.
The single-leg RDL is one of my favorite exercises for this. It’s a great exercise for building strength and balance in your hips.
Improve Your Deadlift Strength
If your goal is to increase your deadlift, then you need to include hip dominant exercises in your training.
The deadlift is a hip dominant exercise, with the majority of the work being done by your glutes and hamstrings.
Your quads do play a role, but they’re not doing much compared to your posterior chain. This is why most people can Deadlift more weight with a conventional stance than with a sumo stance.
The conventional Deadlift uses more of your posterior chain, while the sumo Deadlift uses more of your quads.
If you want to deadlift big weights, then you need to train your posterior chain with hip dominant exercises. There is a wide variety of hip dominant exercises you can choose from that will allow you to improve your deadlift without excessive volume for your low back muscles.
Improve Your Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is a movement pattern that is essential for daily life, and an absolute requirement for sports performance. It’s the basis for all lower body exercises, including the Squat and Deadlift.
If you want to improve your Squat and Deadlift, then you need to be able to perform the hip hinge correctly. This means keeping a neutral spine while moving about your hips.
Including some hip dominant exercises in your training will help you develop better technique and improve your strength in the squat and deadlift.
The more hip dominant exercises you master, the more precise you will become with the hinge, and the better you will get at effectively recruiting these muscles.
Benefits of Knee Dominant Exercises
The following are reasons you may want to include knee dominant exercises in your training.
Grow Your Quads
Knee dominant exercises are often quad dominant exercises. If you want to grow your quads, you’re going to need to include these in your routine.
Include plenty of knee dominant exercises, and adjust compound movements to make them more quad dominant and less hip dominant.
You’ll know if you have a quad weakness if you fail lower body exercises in the bottom range of motion. For example, if the hardest part of the squat is at the bottom.
One of the best ways to address this issue is to include single-leg knee dominant exercises in your training. These will help correct any imbalances and help build strength in your quads.
The split squat is one of my favorite exercises for this. It allows you to focus on each side independently and really target those quads.
Start with a light weight and focus on perfect technique. You can always add weight later once you’ve mastered the movement pattern.
Using more quad dominant exercises will help you train the quads more directly and stop you from shifting load to other potentially more dominant muscles.
Maximize Squat Strength
I mentioned that the hips, hamstrings, and adductors are your most powerful leg muscles. But they aren’t going to be able to reach their potential if your quads are comparatively weak.
If you want to improve your squat, then you should be using knee dominant movement patterns that focus on building the strength of your quads through their full range of motion.
Choose knee dominant movements that allow you to reach a fully lengthened position (full knee flexion, or your hamstrings near your calves) such as hack squats, pendulum squats, or narrow stance leg presses, and get stronger through this full range of motion.
Remember, the muscle that gets stretched the most gets activated the most.
Address Gaps In Your Program
We’ve all heard that squats are king and that if you want a respectable set of wheels you’d better be squatting.
Whether you’re a powerlifter, bodybuilder, CrossFitter, or just trying to look your best, chances are much of your leg training focuses on the squat. Maybe even the deadlift.
If you aren’t including exercises that specifically train your quads in a shortened position, you’re missing out on strength, size, and definition gains.
This shortened position is when your knee is fully extended, like at the top of the quadriceps extension machine. When your knee is fully extended, the quadriceps muscle is at its shortest length.
How Limb Length Can Affect the Dominant Pattern of a Movement
Your limb length can determine whether you tend toward hip or knee dominance when performing leg exercises. Here we’ll cover the differences between long limbs and short limbs, and how you should structure your training to maximize benefits.
How to Determine If You Have Long or Short Limbs
When we discuss long and short limbs, we’re primarily addressing limb length relative to torso length. You could be 6’7″ but have short legs and a long torso, or 5’4″ with long legs.
Here’s how you determine whether you have long or short legs from a training efficiency standpoint. For the purposes of this article, we’re just going to focus on your leg-to-height ratio. I go more in-depth on this specific topic here, where I also discuss tibia length and wingspan.
Measure from your malleolus (the bone on the inside of your ankle) to your anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS). Find your ASIS by placing your hand on your hip bone and following it forward and down until you find the very prominent point in the front of your hip.
Start from your malleolus, let the tape measure travel up the inside of your leg, and end on your anterior sacroiliac spine.
Measure in inches or centimeters. Either is fine.
Now take your full height, also in inches or centimeters.
Divide your leg measurement by your height and you’ll get a percentage.
- Short legs = 40-43% of your height
- Average legs = 44-47% of your height
- Long legs = 47-51% of your height.
I’ll use myself as an example. I am 5’10”, or 178cm tall. My leg measurement is 95cm.
95/178 = 53%! Of course, I already know I have long legs.
Short Legs, Long Torso
The following are generally true of people with short legs relative to their torsos:
- Find it easier to get stronger on the squat than on the deadlift
- Quads are the easiest leg muscle to develop
- Calves are the second easiest to develop
- Hamstrings are third
- Glutes are the most difficult to develop
Long Legs, Short Torso
The following are generally true of people with long legs relative to their torsos:
- Find it easier to get stronger on the deadlift than on the squat
- Respond very well to unilateral exercises
- Glutes are the easiest leg muscle to develop
- Hamstrings are the second easiest to develop
- Quads are third
- Calves are the most difficult to develop
Obviously, there are exceptions to all of these generalities! You may have long legs, massive quads, and no butt. But most people will find that what I just listed is pretty well true for them.
Again, taking myself as an example.
I have long legs and horrible quads. When I wear pants I don’t look like I have much of a butt, but this is mostly true because long legs just look skinnier. On stage, in posing trunks, my glutes and hams definitely overtake my quads, and my calves are laughable.
I can squat rock bottom and live there all day. But my sticking point in the squat is also at the bottom! If I can get to parallel, I can finish the lift.
My best ever squat was 365. Low bar, to parallel. My best deadlift, 545-pounds, in competition, at 165-pounds body weight. Yeah, that’s a horrible ratio of squat to deadlift!
Why Does Leg to Heigh Ratio Affect Your Dominance?
Those with short legs and long torso find it very easy to stay upright during the squat. When your torso stays vertical, your butt doesn’t shoot out behind you, so you don’t get a strong stretch on your glutes and hamstrings.
Your hips drop straight down, the bar follows a nice straight path, and you get a great stretch on your quads. Your squat is very knee dominant
When short-legged people lunge, they tend to take shorter steps, which rely more on their quads. Their bodies naturally do this because their bodies want to rely on our strengths.
Those with long legs and short torsos end up with a very hingy squat. They find it difficult to stay vertical when they squat because their center of balance is off if they do
Instead, their first movement tends to be “butt back.” They get a great stretch in their hamstrings and glutes, but not much in their quads. They have a very hip dominant squat.
The same is true with lunges. People with long legs find it more natural to take long steps, ending up with a vertical shin, and relying much more on glute and hamstring power.
Choosing Exercises to Focus on Your Weaknesses
All of this is designed to help you understand what exercises will help you create a balanced physique. You can use this to select assistance exercises that will focus on the areas that you need the most.
For example, I have long legs, so I don’t need much direct assistance work for the glutes. They grow well by doing squats, deadlifts, lunges, Olympic lifts, and pretty much any lower body compound movement.
So I spend my assistance training money on movements that will target my quads, or I adjust my form to make exercises more knee dominant to better stretch my quads and shift some of the focus away from my hamstrings and glutes.
If you have long legs, the front squat will be better than the back squat for overall development. The front squat allows you to stay more vertical, making the movement more knee dominant.
You can also elevate your heels by wearing a lifting shoe or standing on 10-pound plates, and choose a narrower stance. All of these will help increase the stretch on your quads and decrease glute and hamstring activation.
If you have short legs and you want to make a back squat more hip dominant you can choose a flat shoe, a wider stance, driving your knees out, and hinging further forward. These changes will shift more of the focus to your glutes and hamstrings.
With short-legged clients, however, I prefer to just add more hip dominant movements into their routine, and let their squats do what they do best naturally…grow some quads.
7 Hip Dominant Exercises
Now we’ll cover some of the most common hip dominant exercises.
1. Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
Romanian deadlifts are one of my all-time favorite exercises, and definitely my favorite hip dominant exercise. Of course, I have long legs and these come very naturally to me.
These are especially effective at targeting the hamstrings. The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle, meaning they cross both your hip and knee. Exercises that train extension and flexion of the hamstrings at the same time, like a squat, are not very effective builders.
RDLs allow you to extend and stretch your hamstrings while limiting knee flexion. Because they allow you to train the hip extensors through a full range of motion, these are a great option if you need to bring up these muscles.
They also allow you to train your hip hinge without excessive loads, which is why I like them better than deadlifts for most people.
Related: check out our in-depth guide on the dumbbell Romanian deadlift.
2. Good Mornings
Good mornings are very similar to Romanian deadlifts, except the barbell sits across your shoulders in a back squat position. They are a great exercise that trains the hamstrings and glutes through a large range of motion.
These are often a better movement for beginners than the RDL because your body will naturally hinge to balance your body as you lean forward. New trainees can have a tendency to bend too much at the waist and round their backs instead of shooting their butts backward with the Romanian deadlift, which doesn’t train the movement pattern and places stress on the lower back.
If you have any kind of shoulder concern or tightness through your upper body, a safety squat bar can make these much more comfortable and easier to perform.
3. Low Bar Back Squats
Squats are a compound movement and will always target your entire legs. You cannot completely eliminate either hip or knee involvement. But the low bar back squat is much more hip dominant than the traditional squat stance.
The low bar position will also target the adductors as a hip extensor in the bottom position.
If you have long legs, this is going to be your strongest squat position. You’ll be able to use the posterior chain muscles to their max, playing to your strengths.
If you have short legs, this can help you build your backside.
4. Hip Thrusts
A staple hip dominant exercise, the hip thrust is a great option for training the glutes.
The only limitation can be the relatively short range of motion when using a barbell setup. If you have access to a machine thrust I recommend using this.
Interested in knowing how hip thrusts help your squat and deadlift? Read our articles
5. Wide Stance Leg Press, High on Platform
The leg press is a compound exercise that follows the squat pattern. It is typically a knee dominant movement, focusing primarily on the quadriceps. However, by placing your feet high and wide on the platform you will get a much better stretch in your glutes and hamstrings, and less in your quads.
This is a great option if you have short legs. Use your squats to build your quads, and adopt this foot placement to round out your legs by focusing on your posterior chain muscles.
6. Glute Ham Raise
A glute-ham raise is a great option for those wanting to build strength in the hamstrings and glutes. And even though it’s typically performed with just your bodyweight, It’s one of the most challenging exercises to learn and perform.
If you give these a shot and can’t perform many reps, try focusing on the eccentric, only completing partial reps, or having a partner help. You can also use a band or a PVC pipe to modify this exercise until you develop the strength to do them unassisted.
If you don’t have access to a glute-ham raise machine, fear not! There are plenty of ways to train your posterior chain without one.
7. Hyperextensions (Hip Extensions)
Another hip dominant exercise, hip extensions are an excellent way to target the glutes and hamstrings, while also training the lower back and spinal erectors.
While they can be performed with weight, I would recommend using bodyweight or very light weight when first starting out. This will help you master
7 Knee Dominant Exercises
As we’ve talked about, knee dominant exercises target the quads. These are typically going to be compound movements like squats and lunges that incorporate knee and hip extension.
While you can definitely target the quads with isolation exercises like leg extensions, I believe that the best way to build muscle is through heavy, compound lifts. Not only do they allow you to move more weight, but they also train your muscles to work together in harmony, which will carry over into everyday life and other activities outside the gym.
1. Front Squats
My favorite lower body exercise!
In order to perform front squats, you must maintain a vertical torso. This minimizes the hip hinge and makes this squat variation very knee dominant.
With my long legs, I rarely back squat. Front squats are my go-to compound lift for strength, power, and size. However, if I want to lift the most weight I go for the low bar back squat and play to my strengths, and if I want to make a back squat more quad dominant I choose a high bar position with a narrow, heels elevated stance.
You can make this movement even more quad dominant by wearing a pari of weightlifting shoes with an elevated heel, placing a pair of 10-pound plates under your heels, or adopting a narrow stance.
These adjustments will allow your knees to more easily pass in front of your toes, furthering stretching and activating your quads.
2. Zercher Squats
If you haven’t tried these, you should.
Named after powerlifter Ed Zercher, who was known for his massive quads, this squat variation has you holding the bar in the crease of your elbows. This can be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it.
The placement of the bar forces you to maintain a more upright torso than other squat variations, which makes this another knee dominant movement. By keeping your torso more upright you place greater emphasis on your quads rather than your hips and glutes.
A little tip…if you have knee sleeves, wear them on your elbows. This will save you some pain and discomfort.
3. Narrow Stance Leg Press, Low on the Platform
The leg press is another knee dominant exercise. And while you can use a variety of foot placements to target different muscles, for our purposes we’re going to focus on the quads.
To do this, take a narrow stance and place your feet low on the platform. This will help ensure that your knees track over your toes and keep tension on your quads throughout the entire lift.
Start with a moderate weight and increase as needed. Be careful not to let your ego get in the way here! It’s easy to load up too much weight and start rocking back and forth on the machine, using momentum rather than muscle to move the weight. But that’s not going to build any muscle!
And rock bottom is not always best here. If you’re focusing on quad development, stop if you notice your hips begin to flex. That’s the end range of motion for your quads.
4. Hack Squat
I’m not a fan of the hack squat machine. Never have been. It’s a great quad builder! But it’s always bothered my knees and I usually opt for different options. But if you need to focus on your quads, this is one of the first compound machines you should try.
The hack squat machine locks your upper body and hips in place, making the movement incredibly knee dominant. It’s hard to be hip dominant when you can’t hinge.
This is a great way to train your quads through a full range of motion while moving considerable weight.
The narrower your stance and the more elevated your heels, the more knee dominant this exercise becomes, and the more you’ll target your quads.
5. Pendulum Squat
If you have access to one of these, I’m jealous!
There’s nowhere to hide with pendulum squats. The machine prevents both locking out at the top or sitting at the bottom. Unless you fail a rep, your muscles are going to be under constant tension.
Again, your hips and torso are locked into place, allowing your quads to take over. But, unlike the hack squat that is best for training your quads in the bottom range of motion, the pendulum squat provides more consistent tension through the entire range of motion.
These almost remind me of the old Nautilus machines from decades ago. Man, I wish they’d bring those back.
Place your feet low on the platform and let your knees travel past your toes to get the most out of your quads.
6. Leg Extension
This is one of the few purely knee dominant exercises in this list. Leg extensions focus on your quads by extending and flexing the knee joint.
While compound exercises train the quadriceps in their lengthened position (getting the most out of your quads in the rock bottom position), leg extensions train your quads in their shortened position, when your knee is fully extended and your shins are parallel with the floor.
If you are looking to maximize weight in your primary compound movement, like the squat, train this exercise later in your routine.
But my favorite method is to use these first in my leg training, wiping out my quads as best I can, and then using heavy compound movements to pound my quads into submission.
7. Goblet Squats
Goblet squats can be performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell. Similar to the front and Zercher squats, holding the weight in front of your body forces you to maintain a more vertical torso, maximizing the range of motion at the knee.
Goblet squats are great as a finishing exercise, performed for high reps. They’ll burn your quads like no other, and they are a much safer exercise to take to failure than most barbell squat variations.
Designing your own program based on your limb length
We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Understanding this can help you design your own programming to create a strong, balanced physique.
Here is how I may design a program for a client with either short or long limbs. Notice the following examples begin with the client’s strengths so that we can push for maximum effect, and then the accessory exercises are designed to target areas of weakness.
Short Leg Programming
Use the squat to build the quads, and add more hip dominant accessory work.
- Back squat: 6-8 reps
- Romanian Deadlift with the front of the feel elevated: 8-10 reps
- Leg curl: 8-10 reps
- Band pull-through: 12-15 reps
- Hip extension: 15-20 reps
Long Leg Programming
Choose a front squat or single leg variation, and add more knee dominant accessory work
- Front squat: heels elevated, narrow stanch: 6-8 reps
- Short step lunges: 8-10 reps per leg
- Leg press: narrow stance, feet low on the platform: 8-10 reps
- Quad extension: 12-15 reps
- Standing calf raise: 15-20 reps
Recommended Equipment for Leg Training Dominance
I love being able to train at home. Especially with two kids under the age of 7! I’m not going to miss my workouts, but I don’t want to sacrifice family time either. Here are some of my favorite pieces if you want to start your own garage gym.
Rogue Fortis Power Rack – If you don’t have $2,000 to spend, buy this one. Solid construction, works with Rogues’ Monster Accessories, comes with band pags, and can bolt to the floor. I also like that the pull-up bar can be placed in the front of the rack giving you room for kipping movements.
Rogue Fitness Cast Iron Olympic Plates – These are high quality and slightly less expensive than bumper plates. Again, great if you’re not going to drop them.
Rogue Crumb Bumper Plates – Crumb bumpers are amazing for home gyms! They are incredibly durable and are much quieter than typical bumper plates. And, if you plan on training outside at any point, these are the plates you need.
I use each of the barbells listed below on a regular basis. They are incredible all-purpose barbells at great prices.
Again Faster Team Barbell 2.0 – This is the barbell I have and use at home. I love it. You can get this in both 20kg and 15kg versions.
Rogue Bar 2.0 – This is an incredible all-purpose barbell, and is one of the bars used at the CrossFit Games. In my humble opinion, this is the best barbell that most people can buy (along with the Bella bar for women).
Rogue Bella Bar 2.0 – Modeled after the Rogue Bar 2.0 but designed for women with a 25mm shaft and 15kg (33lb) weight. This is an incredible all-purpose barbell and is the bar the women use at the CrossFit Games.
Conclusion: Knee Dominant vs Hip Dominant Exercises
There are a variety of knee dominant and hip dominant exercises that you can use to target your lower body. It’s important to understand the difference between these two types of exercises so that you can choose the right ones for your specific goals and limb lengths. Hip dominant exercises involve more hinging at the hips, while knee dominant exercises involve more bending at the knee. We’ve provided examples of both types of exercises, along with tips on how to make them even more effective. So which one is best for you? That depends on what you’re trying to achieve!