To be a better runner, you need squats – and multiple types of it. When it comes to setting race PBs and fending off running injuries, there are few exercises better than the squat.
“Squats are the foundational exercise for every runner,” explains Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at Running Strong. “They build functional strength through the legs and hips, develop proper range of motion in the ankles, and shore up muscle imbalances to prevent the risk of injury.”
Still, no two squats are the same, and if you’ve been performing the same bodyweight workout season after season, it’s time to switch things up. A change in stance, load positioning and technique can dramatically alter the focus of your squats, allowing you to better hammer your glutes, prep your quads for hills or improve your stability when you need it. Check out the six variations below, with tips on how to do them best.
Once you’ve mastered bodyweight squats, switching to single-leg squats (a.k.a. pistol squats) is a great, gear-free way to increase loads and build max strength for each leg. “Running is nothing more than pushing off one leg at a time while maintaining balance,” Hamilton says.
Do it: Stand tall with your feet together, and extend one leg and both arms out in front of you. Slowly, and under control, lower down as far as you can before you feel your form break, body sway, or your working leg “give out”. Pause briefly at your greatest depth and then push through your heel to return to standing. Start with shallow squats, or consider lowering down onto and off a chair. As you get stronger, go deeper. Perform all reps and then repeat on the opposite side. Do three to four sets of six to 10 reps, prioritizing proper form over rep number.
Tip: If you hold a dumbbell or weighted object out in front of you throughout the exercise. It will act as a counterbalance and actually make things easier.
This move involves placing the barbell across the upper back, rather than on top of the shoulders, upping the demand placed on the glutes, says Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USA Track & Field-certified coach, and founder of Strength Running. That’s huge, as the glutes tend to be underdeveloped in runners, contributing significantly to lower-body injuries.
Do it: Stand facing a racked barbell and grasp it with your hands greater than shoulder-width apart. (Start with just a barbell, perfect the form, and then begin adding weight plates.) Tuck your head under it to place it across your upper back, just above your armpits, and rotate your elbows behind you to form a “shelf” for the bar. Stand up with the bar and take a couple steps back. From here, stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, and slowly hinge at the hips and knees to lower your body as deeply as you can without breaking form, feeling discomfort in your joints, or lifting your heels off of the floor. Pause, then push through your heels to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Tip: Your torso will maintain a slight tilt forward throughout the movement. That’s okay. It will help keep the bar in place and increase glute activation.
Adding an explosive, plyometric element to your squats strengthens your legs’ elastic properties and trains your muscles to generate more force in less time, Hamilton says. Those are major benefits to anyone regularly pounding the pavement.
Do it: Stand tall with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, facing a short box. Hinge at the hips and bend your knees to lower your body into a squat. As you lower, slowly cock your arms behind you. Once your thighs are just above parallel with the floor, explosively jump up and forward, swinging your arms up overhead. Land as quietly as possible back into the squat position on top of the box. Step down, rest for a few seconds, and repeat. Perform four sets of six reps.
Tip: Work up to these. Any jumping during your workouts is best saved until you’ve already built up a base level of strength. It’s also best to begin with shorter boxes (under 30cm) and work to taller ones.
Weighted Overhead Squat
“I love this lift, which is executed just like a regular squat with a bar held above the head, because it’s less about strength and more about mobility, control, and balance – elements of general athleticism that are important for runners who tend to only run,” Fitzgerald says.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell with a greater-than-shoulder-width grip above your head. From here, slowly hinge at the hips and knees to lower your body as deeply as you can without breaking form, feeling discomfort in your joints or lifting your heels off of the floor. Pause, then push through your heels to return to start. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Tip: Start using a lighter weighted bar before progressing to a barbell. A standard Olympic lifting bar weighs 20kg.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Another single-leg exercise, this one hones balance while also training the gluteus medius to a higher degree than many squat variations. For those commonly plagued by IT band and other knee issues, this is a must, Hamilton says.
Do it: Get in a staggered stance with your feet hip-width apart, your back foot elevated behind you on a bench. Lower your torso straight down toward the floor, bending your knees and allowing a slight hinge at the hips. When your front leg is parallel to the floor, pause, then press through your heel to return to start. Perform three sets of 10 reps per side.
Tip: Start by performing this movement as a bodyweight exercise. As you progress, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
Eccentric Front Squat
“By holding the barbell across the front, rather than the back, of the shoulders, this is a more quad-dominant squat,” Fitzgerald says. This exercise presents a great opportunity for runners to train their quads eccentrically – or as they lengthen. Doing so will make running downhill feel easier.
Do it: Stand facing a barbell so that it sits on the front of your shoulders, and either grasp the bar with a grip just wider than shoulder-width apart. Choose a grip position that allows you to keep your upper arms parallel to the floor throughout the entire exercise. Stand up with the bar and take a couple steps back. From here, stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, and slowly hinge at the hips and knees to lower your body as deeply as you can without breaking form, feeling discomfort in your joints, or lifting your heels off of the floor. Focus on lowering into each squat as slowly as possible to emphasize the eccentric action of your quads. Pause, then push through your heels to return to start. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Tip: Perform this exercise with just the barbell, and work up to adding weight plates. If the barbell feels too heavy, you can also perform this exercise by holding a dumbbell in each hand just in front of your shoulders. Most people cannot front squat as much weight as they can back squat.