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Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises



This study aimed to examine whether muscle activation of the quadriceps femoris differs between single- and multi-joint exercises, and to explore the factors resulting in muscle and exercise specificity in activation.


Eleven adults developed isometric hip extension torque gradually while maintaining submaximal isometric knee extension torque (Experiment 1). In Experiment 2, 15 men performed knee extension and leg press separately at intensities of 20, 40, 60 and 80 % of their one repetition maximum (1RM) load, and 14 men conducted leg press at intensities of 40 and 80 % of 1RM until exhaustion (Experiment 3). Muscle activation during exercises was measured using surface electromyography from the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis and medialis.


The addition of isometric hip extension torque significantly decreased rectus femoris activation (Experiment 1). In Experiment 2, the rectus femoris activation was significantly higher during knee extension than during leg press, whereas no differences were observed in the vasti. The rectus femoris activation was not significantly different between leg press at 80 % and knee extension at 20 % of 1RM. The results of Experiment 3 showed significant increases in vasti activation at both intensities, whereas rectus femoris activation did not change at 80 % of 1RM.


The results revealed that even at high intensity, the rectus femoris activation during multi-joint exercise is low and does not increase with fatigue, unlike the vasti, and that the inter-muscle and inter-exercise differences in activation depend on whether hip extension torque is exerted in the exercise.

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Fig. 1
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Analysis of variance


Biceps femoris long head




Maximal voluntary hip extension


Maximal voluntary knee extension


Rectus femoris


Repetition maximum


Root mean square


Vastus lateralis


Vastus medialis


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This work was partly supported by MEXT/JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 15J08355 (Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows) and 24300209 [Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B)].

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Correspondence to Ryoichi Ema.

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No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the authors.

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Communicated by Fausto Baldissera.

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Ema, R., Sakaguchi, M., Akagi, R. et al. Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises. Eur J Appl Physiol 116, 1031–1041 (2016).

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  • Electromyography
  • Knee extension
  • Leg extension
  • Hip extension
  • Biarticular muscle