3 Reasons the Squat is NOT the Cornerstone of Strength Training for Sprinters

This article is guest blogged by Joel Smith, an Assistant Strength Coach of Olympic Sports at the University of California, Berkeley.  Visit his website at www.just-fly-sports.com.

3 Reasons the squat is not the cornerstone of strength training for sprinters

The winner of a 100m dash puts the most force into the track the fastest, and in the proper direction. Speed and direction are typically improved via deliberate practice on the track, but maximizing force is an area where the weight room reigns supreme. Track and field is all about pure human movement, yet strength training programs following that precision are not always common. The point I am trying to make is this: many track coaches have their events coached to an exact mechanical model, but all that precision and attention to detail can go out the window the minute their athlete steps in the weight room.

What makes the winning difference for strength work in an aspiring sprinter is the emphasis of each “big exercise” and how that exercise is coached. (Strength training, although not as complex, should be approached with a similar precision to sprinting). Oftentimes, the positive effects of strength work can be negated through reducing mobility, the creation of muscular imbalances and an inappropriate shift of adaptation reserves. On the other hand, properly selected and coached lifting can lead to the benefits of increased muscle cross-sectional area, increased force production potential, more synchronized muscle firing patterns, hypertrophy of fast twitch fibers, and increased strength of the muscle-tendon complex.

There are many considerations to look at when designing resistance training programs. The focus of this article will be on the side-effects of over-squatting sprinters and the need for a hip dominant weight room environment. The fact that, in the past, I boosted many of my sprinters squats by a large number, without similar increases on the track led me to question my selection of exercises in the weight room. There are three good reasons that a coach should take care as to the amount of squatting their sprinter does.

  • Squats are a knee dominant exercise, while top-end speed is determined by cross sectional area and strength in the psoas, hamstrings and glutes (hip dominant musculature).
  • Too much squatting can create a muscle size, muscle tone, and postural imbalance for a sprinters frame.
  • Excessive squatting can promote a lack of extension in hips and plantar flexors.

Let’s dissect each of these areas briefly.

Are squats or deadlifts better for athletes? This is a common strength training question, but the answer lies in what the goal of your sport is.

Determinants of Top-End Speed: Knee Dominant vs. Hip Dominant

Squats are generally a quadriceps dominant exercise, and this is where the first problem of over-squatting arises. Sprinting relies heavily on the quads for the first few steps out of the blocks, but once an upright sprint posture is assumed, their importance to sprint success is diminished. Research by Dorn (2012) highlights top end speed sprinting as a function of hip flexor, hamstring and glute power. Because of this, the longer the upright phase of the given race, the greater emphasis is given to the posterior chain in the weight room (over the anterior chain). Quad dominant athletes can make great accelerators, as they push the ground away from themselves well, but when it comes to upright sprinting where they are forced to pull it underneath themselves, they struggle.

Improving the size and strength of the glutes, hamstring, hip flexor, and the ability of those muscles to transfer force through the torso, is going to provide the most direct source of improvement for sprint performance. Posterior chain power can be improved in the weight room via Olympic pulls, deadlift variations, “Good Mornings”, glute ham raises, Nordic hamstrings, and hip thrust variations. Properly coached squats will certainly develop the posterior chain, but don’t hold a candle to some of the alternatives for building glute and hamstring strength.

Squatting can be altered to engage the posterior chain to a greater degree, such as wide stance box squatting, but there are other, simpler, exercises that offer a more practical engagement of the posterior chain. Therefore, the athlete should gravitate towards those exercises rather than trying to turn the squat into something it is not really designed to do for sprinters.

Muscular Imbalances

The second problem of over-squatting is the creation of an imbalance in the strength ratio between the hip flexors (psoas) and the quadriceps. Research by Hoshikawa (2006) has shown that sprinters who had a larger cross sectional area of the psoas musculature in relation to their quadriceps were faster sprinters than those with a small cross sectional area of the psoas compared to the quadriceps region. Squatting excessively can produce postural imbalances on sprinters due to their emphasis on the anterior chain, excessive shortening of the psoas and promotion of lordotic posture.

Athletes who visibly pack much larger muscle mass in the front of their leg compared to the back are going to be in big trouble when it comes to upright sprinting, and will rarely be able to get into the proper sprint position of tall knees and good hip extension, regardless of their coaches efforts to technically correct them. The engine of these athletes lies in their anterior chain, so their sprint form will always reflect that engine with a low knee action which pushes the ground away rather than pulls the ground underneath. These athletes reflect their quad dominance in squatting as well and for these athletes, squatting heavy creates a vicious cycle of quadricep dominance that can cripple technical efforts on the track.

The final muscular imbalance that excessive squat work creates is a tendency towards anterior pelvic tilt. Most sprinters carry with them some form of anterior tilt, yet manage to correct it during dynamic motion. Some, however, cannot correct, and a coach needs to be careful in regards to how the work in the weight room is affecting that athletes posture. Squatting less, and pulling more (with cues for neutral or posterior tilt at the top of the lift), while stretching the hip flexors regularly will help athletes learn to achieve a more powerful posture.

Soccer players have large quadriceps and adductors to help them decelerate and accelerate in linear and lateral directions. Sprinters have one goal: to beat their opponent to the finish line, and their build reflects that in large hamstring and gluteal muscle groups

Extension Power

Building a lack of finish in the explosive toe-off power in sprinters is the third way that squat overload can hurt the competitive sprinter. Traditional squat work builds a neuromuscular pattern in a manner that involves a deceleration aspect towards the top of the lift. Fortunately, 1000’s of sprint strides each week will balance out a few dozen reps of squatting quite easily, but sprinters who love the weight room to the point of sacrificing volume on the track may notice a damage in their ability to extend at the hips and the ankles during high velocity sprinting. The solution to this is relatively simple, which is to always keep sprinting as the primary means of training and keep squat volume in check.

Part of the reason that Olympic lifts are popular for sprinters is due to the fact that they work the posterior chain a manner that teaches acceleration and finishing power. A properly performed Olympic pull will teach a strong and rapid stretch-shortening of the hamstrings and glutes, finishing with a strong toe-off and hip extension, things that carry over well to sprinters. Keeping a large volume of properly performed Olympic pulls in a sprinters workload is a valuable practice to minimize losses in extension power.

Conclusion:

All this doesn’t mean that squatting for sprinters is a negative thing, in fact, taking squats completely out of a sprint program would more likely than not, be a bad idea. What coaches need to do is make sure that the priority exercises for sprinters is balanced between knee dominant (squats) and hip dominant (deadlifts, hip thrusts) lifts. I prefer two hip dominant lifts for every one knee dominant lift in the program. Remember all lifts are tools, and it is far better to have a small tool-set performed perfectly than a large one performed with mediocre skill, so stick with the exercises you know how to coach correctly. Match your on-track demands with the weight room, and you will be one step closer to athletic success.

About the Author

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength Coach of Olympic Sports at the University of California, Berkeley where he works with Track & Field and Tennis. He has prior experience as a college track coach, lecturer, researcher and personal trainer. Visit his website at www.just-fly-sports.com.

References:

Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting, by Bryanton, Kennedy, Carey and Chiu, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Oct 2012

Influence of the psoas major and thigh muscularity on 100-m times in junior sprinters. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Dec;38(12):2138-43.

Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance Tim W. Dorn, Anthony G.  Schache and Marcus G. Pandy J Exp Biol 215, 1944-1956

Advances in Functional Training. Training techniques for coaches, personal trainers and athlete. 2010, On-Target Publications. Mike Boyle.

“Advanced Glute Training”, Bret Contreras. T-Nation Online Article. October 2009.

Comments

  1. Jon says

    Nice article. I’m not an expert but in my group that I train with I think that some individuals place a little too much emphasis on how much weight they can push in the gym and beating their personal best/PR in lifts each year when I can clearly see when we do a circuit after a track session that they cannot perform a squat correctly without weight. I can only just imagine how their form must look when there is added weight. Anyway my point was I think correct form is essential too but how do you advise a fellow athlete as our coach just work with us on the track and that’s it.

    • Jimson Lee says

      @Jon, I truly believe a coach should change the weight program every year or 2. For example, a 16 year old skinny kid would benefit from squats in his early development, as compared to an elite athlete who can full squat 405lbs or higher.

  2. says

    If you squat deep enough, you will go from anterior to posterior pelvic tilt and back.

    Sprinting with anterior pelvic is not bad, just as sprinting with posterior pelvic tilt isn’t bad, it just depends on what the sprinter is emphasizing, stride length or stride rate. You can use both tilts in race or just one.
    So if one practices squatting and working the tilt then they should avoid any imbalances.

  3. says

    Squatting has helped me jump higher but not necessarily run faster. Though that may have a lot more to do with the 20kg weight gain. However, I was a lot quicker when I was lighter and wasn’t squatting. I guess what you’re tryna say is squats while at times necessary are not the holy grail right?

  4. Joel says

    AM,

    I think in your case it is likely the weight gain itself more than the squats that have hurt you (at least in the short term). When you gain a lot of weight quickly, that will cause an inevitable reduction in quickness/speed (and it depends on how much of that gain was muscle/fat and what places you put that weight on).

    Also, getting better at squats can help quickness, but where squats can hurt (if not surrounded by PC work) is top end speed (the cornerstone of track sprinting). Another consequence of too much weights in general is losing hip and ankle extension, so I would encourage you to perform dynamic activity such as bounding on a soft surface to get that back.

    • says

      Hmm, yea I’d imagine that’s right on. I didn’t actually know that squatting could affect top end speed so that’s very interesting indeed. I’ll have to look into that.

      Speaking of ankle extension, I’m actually nursing an ankle injury and I do not for the life of me know how I picked it up. I simply woke up one morning with a mildly sharp pain and it got worse as the day wore on.

      Thanks for your reply Joel,

      Dennis

  5. Captain Jack Sparrow says

    I don’t agree with the article premise, that is to say that squat is a quad/knee dominant exercise.
    In fact a technical, below parallel squat (which you can observe for example in a high level IPF powerlifting meet) is a posterior chain control and flexibility feat. There’s no need of ultra-wide stances or exaggerated sitting-back movements to do so, only proper technical control.

    • Joel says

      Jack S,

      With the squat, it is largely about the shin angles that classify the exercise as “quad” or “hip” dominant. Check out this article by Mike Robertson that conveniently came out recently.

      http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/maximal_leg_development

      The shin angles in lifting correspond heavily to the shin angles encountered in sport… in terms of training transfer.

      There are a lot of people out there who can elicit a strong posterior training effect from the squat, but here is the thing: It probably took them a while to work their squat technique to the point where it was hammering their glutes/hamstrings over their quads (even though PC is important in an olympic squat, the quads are more important), and most quad dominant athletes will typically make their dominance worse by placing too high of priority on that squat.

      The point of this article was not so much to say that the squat is incapable of being an effective exercise for the glutes and hamstrings but rather, that it is incapable of the focused targeting of the posterior chain for any athlete (beginner to advanced) that simpler weightroom tools can do with major effectiveness.

      You will also find that many top sprinters with their long femurs don’t make ideal candidates for squatting, and will often do it in a quad dominant manner, as opposed to their shorter-femured counterparts.

      The squat is the holy grail of strength training, no doubt, but it is just a tool, and one that isn’t as effective for top end speed as other methods.

      Kind regards,

      Joel

    • Joel says

      Ben,

      I really like split squats, particularly as a teaching tool on pelvic posture in a bi-lateral movement. Keeping the pelvis neutral will invoke a stretch of the rear hip flexor while the hip and hamstring of the lead leg is worked pretty well. Downsides of the split squat are a lack of maximal weight due to balance issues, the feet being far off of directly under the center of mass and the tendency for the adductor (groin) to be highly active in the movement. Overall, a nice lift for sprinters when properly coached.

      Joel

  6. Patrick O'Flaherty says

    Joel,

    Whether it’s a 40 yard dash or 60 meter sprint, both races are pure acceleration for an advanced athlete or world class sprinter as there’s insufficient length to achieve max velocity. Although ~ 80% of acceleration occurs in the first 20 meters, should these persons alter your recommended 2 to 1 ratio of hip dominant to quad dominant exercise prescription?

    Same question for a 100 meter specialist, given that more than half the race is acceleration?

    • Joel says

      Patrick,

      Excellent question, and I think the answer lies largely in the shin angles found during the race, as well as how the muscles are working over the course of the race. Acceleration is largely quads, as well as glutes. Hamstrings are a bit shortened during ground strike, so as the athlete reaches upright position, they become increasingly more important to the race. The more vertical the shin is as the athlete continues to accelerate, the more important hamstrings and glutes are, and the less important quads are to that acceleration. You said that 80% of acceleration is found in the first 20m, and this is why quad dominant athletes are usually great accelerators out of the blocks.

      Anyhow, long story short, I think for 60 and 100m specialists who are already balanced could end up more in a 50/50 split, and as Jimson has said, program emphasis should certainly switch a bit every now and then. I find a lot of 100m and 60m specialists specialize at those races because they are a bit quad dominant, so the solution for these athletes to improve the second half of their 100m and the last 20-30m of their 60m is to balance themselves out a bit, in which they should stick with the 1:2 ratio of knee to hip dominant work. Athletes who tend to get to upright shin angles early in the 60m or 100m despite coaching efforts are probably hip/hamstring oriented… but then I would doubt they are true 60m specialists! Sorry if this answer was a bit of a ramble! Let me know if there is anything you need me to clarify, or you can email me at joel.smith.7@gmail.com

      Kind regards,

      Joel

      • Patrick O'Flaherty says

        Joel,

        Thank you for the clarification. What if you factor in faulty starting mechanics with inexperienced and or weak sprinters who have a tendency to stand up abruptly coming out of the blocks rather than the preferred 45 degree angle which shifts the load away from the quads / hip flexors onto the glutes / hams, one could reach false conclusions as to anterior / posterior dominance?

        Is there a comparative strength test and or an acceleration versus max velocity test that can help determine if one is quad or hip dominant?

        • Joel says

          Patrick,

          Yes, for sprinters who haven’t reached mastery of block clearance and drive phase, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions regarding imbalances. For sprinters of younger ages, they likely haven’t reached as high or noticeable level of imbalance as their older counterparts either, and for these kids I would worry about mechanics much more than potential imbalances that might exist. I don’t train a whole lot of youth athletes though, so perhaps you may be more of an expert than me here!

          The easiest “test” in my opinion is to watch 3 things: How the athlete walks, how they squat (or hex deadlift), and how they do a kettlebell swing. If the knees usually end up over the toes, they are probably a bit quad dominant, where if the knees don’t clear the toes, they are more hip dominant. As a rule of thumb though, sprinters should always be able to deadlift (with a straight back) more than they can squat…. unless they have T-Rex arms, but their longer legs will typically make up for this.

          Joel

          • Patrick O'Flaherty says

            Joel,

            I forgot about this and accidently rediscovered this since my last post so thought I would share it with everyone. I don’t recall where I got this from but here’s a test to determine anterior / posterior dominance and what type of training to correct (if anterior dominant) or enhance (if posterior dominant):

            If 10m or 10y Static Start + 3.0 Sec 40m or 40y Static Start = Need Posterior Chain Strength + Horizontal Elastic Plyos + Weight Sleds

            For a point of reference, Usain Bolt = 4.49 (40m split not including reaction time) – 1.74 (10m split not including reaction time) = 2.75 During 9.58 World Record

            So I would infer for overall success in the short sprints the smaller number (< 3.0) the better as my number at age 50 is around 3.8 to 3.9 and I would need about a 30 meter head start just to finish even with Bolt for 100m :(

  7. Joel says

    Stefan,

    Thanks for your comment on my article. I read over the article you provided, and I respect Warren Young as a researcher, in fact, I used some of his work for the literature review in my master’s thesis. I believe that his review has flaws (which may have been accepted at the time because the strength training community hadn’t really caught on to hip thrusts and antero-posterior work for speed at that time). Those flaws, however, connect with the general point I was trying to make with my article.

    The flaw of the review is this: The research that Young looks at only has to do with axial/vertical loading exercises (such as the squat) and jump squat. In most of these research projects, these usually happen to be 1/2 squats with no sort of instruction as to where the knees go over the toes and lend themselves towards a knee dominant nature. If the exercises used in the review are knee dominant, how can they transfer to maximal speed, which is a function of glute and hamstring strength? In fact, the research review even goes to the point of highlighting that improving the leg-extensor muscles doesn’t transfer to maximal speed (page 2).

    Like I said early in my article, I have increased my athletes squats in the past without making them faster, this review is precisely why.

    Of course, hip dominant strength training isn’t magic, as it must be accompanied by proper training on the track to really affect top end speed, especially because strength training can temporarily affect the contraction/relaxation properties of fast twitch muscle. Use strength training to build more high density muscle units in glutes and hamstrings and then use proper track training to “wire in” that strength.

    Kind regards, and hope this helps,

    Joel

  8. Stefan IJmker says

    Hi Joel, I can follow your thinking and there is logic in your argument.

    However, I am concerned about transfer of training effects. I mean there are reviews about resisted sprinting and they show sprinting only produces same improvement as doing resisted + nonresisted sprinting. http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2012&issue=01000&article=00040&type=abstract

    From zatsioskys book (Science and Practive of Strength training) I know that transfer in shot putting can happen (using lighter implements or heavier implements), but I ask myself whether that applies to sprinting as well.

    Also studies with horizontal plyos do not transfer to maximal sprinting speed. Should they have done only horizontal stuff http://www.setantacollege.com/wp-content/uploads/Journal_db/00124278-200008000-00009.pdf?

    As Young noted and also does this article
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1440244012001053:

    The resemblance of movement velocity determines greatly the transfer of training. Since movement velocity is low/ lower by definition in weighted exercise (plyos or any form of weight training), how can you get any transfer on maximum speed directly? It is logic you get some in acceleration though.

    Please provide me the mechanism how it should work (logic)? You cite an article By Dorn. However, in its premises: “In slow and medium-paced running, stride length is increased by exerting larger support forces during ground contact, whereas in fast running and sprinting, stride frequency is increased by swinging the legs more rapidly through the air.” runs counter this study from Weyand: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11053354.

    I am also interested in the following. You noted that you increased squat strength, without seeing performance improvements in max speed. Have you obsered max speed increases with the new approach and how did you document that? And how much strength is needed, before you set in for a retaining instead of a stimulating load. In other words: how to monitor this in an individual case?

    Thank you for your time. I just have a lot of questions, and asking myself how to best use the limited adaptation reserves of my athletes.

  9. says

    Thanks for the article.
    I read somewhere a few years ago that Bulgarian Split Squats were good for sprinters. I tried this out myself. Split squats have the advantage of not needing so much weight and there is the balancing aspect as well.
    The first time I did this, and subsequently if I have not done them for a while, I feel the quads working during the exercises, but the following day its the glutes and top of the hamstrings that hurt. When running you can feel these muscles pulling the ground through beneath you like you say in the article.

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