Learning to squat effectively teaches runners how to be better runners by addressing and improving basic athletic skills.
Irrespective of the training focus, many runners will incorporate some form of strength training into their training programs this year. For most runners, however, hitting the weights is like visiting the dentist — a necessary evil and something to be done twice a year.
Here, I’ll begin to outline a more intuitive approach to strength training that cohesively connects the separate worlds of running and strength. This approach will give runners renewed purpose and motivation to add strength work into their routine more frequently than they visit the dentist.
This approach to strength training will focus on a common language centered around athletic movement and skill. While there is some logic in the prevailing muscle-centered view on strength training— hamstring exercises for stronger hamstrings — it does not connect our running with the weight room. We can do better.
Learning to squat effectively teaches runners how to be better runners by addressing and improving basic athletic skills. For example, squatting teaches runners how to load and engage their posterior chain, how to stabilize their hips, knees, and ankles, and how to move with good posture and maintain that good posture for longer periods of time.
The faults that occur while squatting — losing posture, loading improperly with the knee, and being unstable in the hip, knee, and ankle — are the same movement faults that are responsible for the majority of running injuries athletes face.
To squat effectively, we must address three basic skills:
1. Maintaining posture
2. Adding load
3. Adding torque
These three skills — posture, load, and torque — extend way beyond the squat. They are the blueprint for athletic movement.
Let’s look at how these skills are expressed in the squat to better understand how they relate to running.
Moving from the top to the bottom, the spine needs to be muscularly “shrink-wrapped” for zero movement. This requires serious core engagement and body awareness. Increasing the load increases the postural demand, requiring ever more core strength and body awareness.
To initiate the squat, aggressively drive the hips backwards before dropping down. This properly loads the hips by engaging the posterior chain—calves, hamstrings, and glutes. Proper loading allows for a deep and powerful squat, meaning you can squat without damaging our knees, ankles, or low back.
Aggressively shove your knees outward to increase stability and power. While it looks odd to those newly initiated, it further engages the hamstrings and glutes, significantly increasing our sense of strength and stability. Torque makes heavier weight easier and safer to handle.
The Workout: Incorporate 5-8 sets (3 reps each set) of a back squat. Focus on squatting with good mechanics and depth (see above photo) first and add weight as you get more comfortable doing the exercise. Do this workout 2-3 times per week as part of a longer strength-training routine.
To better understand load and torque, it is helpful to picture the muscular system as a series of rubber bands. If a rubber band remains slack, no tension or energy can be stored, and the rubber band cannot fire. Our muscles work the same way. If we squat with our knees forward, our posterior chain cannot engage because the system is slack. As a result, we are weak, unstable, and injury prone.
Aggressively pushing our hips back and shoving our knees outwards loads up our posterior chain like a giant rubber band, increasing tension and stability. We are strong, stable, and athletically more robust.
Focusing on athletic skill development with posture, load, and torque, a runner’s relationship with the weight room can be changed forever. While we want stronger hamstrings, we cannot just do hamstring exercises and expect better running results. Why? Because the whole is greater than the sum of its muscular parts. Using the squat to focus on our athletic skill development and movement is a crucial step in that direction.
About The Author:
Nate Helming, based in San Francisco, coaches at San Francisco CrossFit and owns and operates Helming Athletics, an endurance coaching company for triathletes preparing for Ironman, 70.3, Olympic, and sprint distance races. He also coaches runners and cyclists for single sport preparation. Follow him on Instagram: @natehelming