How to: squats for runners

Bouncy barbell or bodyweight squats. Barbell training has a long and successful history in athletics. Students of running history familiar with the barbell training methods of Percy Cerutty, who coached the second man to break the 4-minute mile, John Landy, and 1960 Olympic 1500m champion and then world record holder, Herb Elliot. Graem Sims’ book WhyDie? catalogs the eccentric Cerutty and some of his methods, it has a few great photos of Elliot and the scrawny but powerful Cerutty lifting some impressive weights on barbells.

Coordination and running. Using the barbell, particularly in squats, allows you to maintain postures and movements that are very similar to running while providing an overload in the form of the weight on the bar or your body.  The barbell also teaches you to maintain excellent lower back posture and strength, without which you cannot train safely or effectively. The running technique tip for this exercise is that this posture also carries over into running, preventing forward collapse and helping maintain a good upright posture. Squats are hip extension exercises that help runners develop the power to push off with strength from a position where the hips and knees are both flexed.

How to:

  1. Select light weights – only the bar itself if you are starting out. Be cautious as the big Olympic barbells weigh 20 kilograms which may be too heavy. Choose a lighter bar to begin.
  2. Lift the bar and place across your shoulders (not on the neck). If you progress to using heavy weight use a squat rack (not for beginners).
  3. Keep your core engaged and a good curve in your lower back.
  4. Position your feet at least as wide as your hips, allow your toes to point outwards slightly.
  5. Keep your torso upright, core engaged and back strong.
  6. Squat your butt down towards the ground – don’t go past the horizontal with your thighs.
  7. Catch the weight with your butt and push powerfully back to the start position.
  8. Begin with a single set of 10 – 12 repetitions.
Think about: Breathing in as you squat, breathing out as you push up. Maintaining strength in the core and lower back. Sitting down on your butt. Trying to catch the weight and push off with a bounce from your butt (you need light weights to practice this without risking injury).

Try not to: Flex forward at the spine, don’t allow your back to round forward as this leads to injury. Squat forward at the knees – the idea is to sit down on your butt, not flex forwards at the knee. Don’t go deeper than you need to. Maximum depth is your thigh to be horizontal to the floor; the exercise is effective working in a short range of motion, making it similar to running. Don’t fully straighten your knees at the top of the movement – keep them slightly flexed.

Squat demonstration video

Making progress:

  • Master activating the buttocks and hamstrings and maintaining excellent posture first.
  • Add an additional set of 10 – 12 repetitions.
  • Increase the repetitions to 20 per set.
  • Add a third set.
  • Increase speed and add more bounce to the movement.
  • Only then think about increasing the weight.

Mastery: This is an exercise that takes a long time to master. You should resist the urge to add weight before you are completely comfortable and competent at performing the movement. Doing the squat side on to a mirror or having someone video your posture is an excellent idea. The main problem you’ll experience is flexing forward at the spine as you get tired or as you try and add weight. This needs to be avoided at all costs.

The second element that needs mastery is the timing and power of the bounce you generate out of your butt at the bottom of the movement. Practicing this is very relevant to running and will increase your power and speed of stride.

Once you have mastered the posture and movement required for squats you can think about adding heavier weight. Remember being bouncy and powerful is better than being able to squat a huge weight – coordination is key.

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2 Responses to How to: squats for runners

  1. joe May 27, 2013 at 2:50 am #

    I agree that strength training will improve running performance. However, I tend to get injured when doing strength exercises like body weight squats and lunges.

    When i do body weight squats, my right knee clicks. Should I continue doing the squats or will this exercise damage my knee ?

    Thank you,

    • Brian May 27, 2013 at 8:42 am #

      Hi Joe,

      I think you should get your knee checked by a qualified physical therapist or other professional. Best to check things out when you’re experience any kind of discomfort.