The bilateral squat is one of the most common leg exercises seen in strength training programs for runners, but it’s also commonly performed with less than ideal form. Simply put, a squat involves folding at the hips, knees and ankles to move the body toward the floor and is used to strengthen the quadriceps and glutes. While the myth that squats are bad for your knees is untrue, squatting with poor form can hurt your knees—which brings us to my top three tips for teaching a runner how to perform a proper bilateral squat.
Tip #1: Keep Your Heels Flat and Knees Lined Up Above Your Middle Toe
To ensure proper balance at the bottom of the squat and to ensure that the target muscles are loaded (the glutes as well as the quads) you must keep your heels flat on the floor and your knees inline with and behind your middle toe. If you squat and your heels lift up, your knees will travel excessively far forward which will place unwanted stress on the knee joint, tendons and ligaments—more stress than is placed on the target muscles. If you keep your weight more evenly distributed from heel to toe and your knees back so you can see your toes, the target muscles will receive optimal stress while your knee joints receive very little stress.
As you begin to squat, it’s common for the knees to want to cave inward. To fix this, think spread the floor with your feet. If the floor were paper, pretend like you’re trying to rip the piece of paper down the middle. This cue will activate your hip abductors and help keep your knees inline with your middle toe.
Tip #2: Don’t Let Your Spine Shape Change
Keep a neutral spine when squatting to remove any stress placed on the lower back. Before initiating the squat, brace your abs with your spine in a neutral position. As you fold through the hips, knees and ankles, let your torso lean forward slightly. This will allow you to find optimal front to back balance at the bottom of the squat. Many runners think they need to keep a vertical spine in the squat, but this is incorrect. The spine will be at an angle forward from the hip.
At the bottom of the squat, the top of your thigh should reach parallel or, if you can, just below parallel with your hip crease aligning just below the top of your knee. With this range of motion, the quads and glutes will both be challenged appropriately.
To help teach the front-to-back balance, torso lean and proper depth, try the Zombie Squat.
To do this variation, stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with your toes turned out roughly 5 degrees. Hold a 5- to 10-pound weight in front of you at shoulder height. Brace your abs and start to squat down. Spread the floor and use the weight as a counterbalance to find your center at the bottom. Try to sit to thigh parallel or just below. Pause for 5 seconds and feel as if the wind blew, you wouldn’t fall over. Notice all the weight of your body in your thighs. This is a good sign! Next, stand and squeeze your glutes at the top. Practice the Zombie Squat until you feel comfortable enough to add weight.
Tip #3: Front Load the Squat to Better Your Form
Many runners are familiar with putting a bar on their backs to weight a squat. From my experience strength-coaching runners, they don’t normally perform the barbell back squat particularly well. Instead, I opt for front loading runners when they squat. I find runners are better able to maintain a neutral spine, better able to find optimal torso lean and better able to hit adequate depth. Here are 3 front squat variations for you to try:
Front Squat Variation #1–Goblet Squat
How: Stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with your feet turned out roughly 5 degrees. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell lengthwise in front of your chest/upper stomach. Brace your abs and spread the floor. Squat down keeping your heels flat and knees inline with and behind your middle toe. Try to bring your thigh to parallel or just below. Let your torso lean forward enough to maintain balance. Stand and squeeze your glutes at the top.
Do: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps
Front Squat Variation #2–Barbell Front Squat
How: Set up a barbell at sternum height in a squat rack. Walk up to the bar and place your shoulders underneath the bar with the bar touching your throat. Your arms should be in the zombie position to allow the barbell to sit on the shoulder muscles. Cross your hands over each shoulder like a genie, stand and walk back 2 steps to un-rack the barbell.
Stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with your feet turned out roughly 5 degrees. Keep your elbows up to keep the bar in place. Brace your abs and spread the floor. Squat down keeping your heels flat and knees inline with and behind your middle toe. Try to bring your thigh to parallel or just below. Let your torso lean forward enough to maintain balance. Stand and squeeze your glutes at the top.
Do: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps
Front Squat Variation #3–Angled Barbell Squat
How: Place one end of a barbell in an angled barbell attachment or against a squat rack. Load the opposite end of the barbell with weight plates and pick up the end of the barbell. Hold the end of the barbell at chest height with your elbows pointing down.
Stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with your feet turned out roughly 5 degrees. Support the end of the barbell so it doesn’t dig into your chest. Brace your abs and spread the floor. Squat down, keeping your heels flat and knees inline with and behind your middle toe. Try to bring your thigh to parallel or just below. Let your torso lean forward enough to maintain balance. Stand and squeeze your glutes at the top.
Do: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a Strength & Conditioning Coach with 15 years of experience. He’s a co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada, a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner.