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Split Squat: The BEST Way to Prevent Runner's Knee and Hip Pain

How many of us have ever *secretly* thought this about a leg strength routine with 1000x squat variations:

"I'm not 100% confident on what I'm doing or why I'm doing these.

I don't even know if I'm doing this right…"

Or what about this one:

"I'm doing all these different squats from a youtube video made by a running coach. But why do my knees hurt and why am I still getting injured? Do these do anything?"

Wouldn't it be nice to skip that part?

Wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what type of squat runners should be doing?

Heck, what about the BEST strength exercises for runners with knee pain?

Or Hip pain?

OR ITB syndrome?

You're in the right place, runner.

Over the next few weeks we're going to dive into the Literature together and see what science has to say about the BEST strength exercises for runners to keep you injury and pain free.

(Yep, we're looking at you knee pain, ITB syndrome, hip pain…)

But guess what?

You're probably already doing a lot of them...or variations of them.

But do you know the potential mistakes you're making and how to fix them?

Because knowing what to do, is different than doing the thing correctly.


And being able to self-correct along the way.

See where we're going with this?

So let's Dare to Train Differently, running fit fam and get real, get in it, and start making our strength work count rather than going through the motions.

SQUATS: Both Legs or 1 Leg?

Let's cut the chase here…

Pretty sure we all know what a squat with 2 legs looks like.

But have you heard of a single leg squat vs. a split squat?

Do you know HOW they're different?

Check out these examples below.

Single Leg Squat (yes, this is also called a Bulgarian split Squat..)

Split Squat

The trouble we get into, is that there are so many *fancy* versions of the single leg squat.

Take a pistol squat for example.

And a split squat gets confused with a lunge (they're NOT the same!)

What's a runner to do?

Easy- do the one's that are best for runners ;)

In our case, a recent dynamite research paper has our back.

This specific research paper studied 3 different lower extremity exercises, one of them being a variation of a single leg squat. (don't worry, it's NOT a party trick exercise like the pistol squat!)

Start with one leg off the ground, squat down as close to parallel to the floor as possible with the leg you are standing on. Keep the leg off the ground behind you and reach your arm across your body towards the leg you are standing on. Then return to the starting position in a controlled manner.

Why do we even care about which specific squat exercise to begin with? Aren't they all the same and do the same thing? Well, let's back the train up a second…

"Hip muscle recruitment and activation is an important topic and is widely researched in many different contexts. Proper hip muscle recruitment can potentially reduce injury risk in a variety of movements. Both the gluteus maximus (GMAX) and gluteus medius (GMED) are heavily recruited during running and may assist with limiting biomechanical flaws linked with running-related injuries. The GMAX and GMED also stabilize the pelvis during dynamic activity while eccentrically controlling femoral adduction and internal rotation."

I know, we went from 0 to 100 there at the end of that quote… but what the authors have done is laid the foundation.

They've listed what we know as runners:

  • Strength work is important for reducing injury

  • Strengthening our different glute muscles in mandatory as these are "heavily" used while we're running

  • And when those different glute muscles are not at their strongest, we fall into this pigeon-toed, knee-knocking position that results in a lot of bad muscle recruitment and injury.

See? Not so bad after all. :)

The cool part of this study?

The EMG side of it.

By using this specific lab tool, the authors were able to measure in runners, the recruitment of these 2 different glute muscles and determine which exercises made which muscle work harder!

(See? So WE can work smarter, not harder!)

What they found, was during the exercise in question (the single leg squat variation above) was that the glute max (the largest glut muscle) was more active during the concentric phase of this exercise (rising up from the squat) compared to the eccentric phase (getting into the squat). The same goes for the glute med.


Out of all 3 exercises the authors tests, it was the single leg squat exercise that made the glute med work the HARDEST (especially in the eccentric phase).

Why does this even matter?
Because during the motion of running, you flow between those two stages of eccentric and concentric contraction.

You don't even think about it; you just do.

You're body however, needs stability, control, and strength in order to accomplish that transition of movement seamlessly and repeatedly, without injury.

And THAT is why we strength train: in order to make that happen.

And THIS exercise has the objective, scientific data to say it can deliver on that promise.

All of this, allows YOU to work smarter, not harder; to do the exercises that matter and keep you injury free so you can enjoy your long run without a second thought.

Want to hear something even cooler?

They did my ABSOLUTE favorite thing….

They made 2 out of the 3 exercises *LOOK* like running!

(did you notice that with the description of the single leg squat above? Could you see it from the pictures included in the study?)

In addition to that, I appreciated this quote:

"All of the exercises are functional in nature as they are performed in a weight bearing position similar to the stance phase of running gait. Additionally, single leg squat and forward lunge are performed unilaterally, which improves the running-specificity of each exercise possibly improving the transfer to single limb support in running."

Breaking that down…

They deliberately designed the exercises to replicate running, some more so than others. And the exercises that delivered the best results were…you guessed it!...the ones performed on one leg that looked like running! (like I've said a million times before: we're runners and we need to train like it. Our strength work needs to challenge us and put us in positions that resemble running)

Bringing everything back…

I went ahead and did an experiment on myself and gave this one specific single leg squat exercise a shot.

I'd like to say my balance is pretty decent (I do all my strength and balance work barefoot), but let me tell you…

Exercises like these ones are STILL a challenge!

You have to take these slow and controlled.

And have patience with yourself and your body while you tackle these.

And I could see how come runners might *not* be quite ready for ones like these.

So what are you supposed to do?? Just NOT do them?

No, we just take it down a notch.

We earn the right to progress to a challenging exercise like their single leg squat.

Enter: The Split Squat.

The split squat is 1 step away from being a single leg squat like the one in the research article

...(and there are still a million different versions of this split squat exercise…but we're not going down that rabbit hole today).

Before we go any further: do you NEED to do this version instead of the other one in the research article?

No, not at all!

If you like the first one and you nailed it perfectly, run with it! (pun not intended)

But in case you DO struggle with the one above, I wanted to give you an option, a fall back, that will still get you the same result of working your oh-so-important glute max and med muscles, making you a stronger, more confident, resilient, and injury-proof runner.

(because who doesn't want that?)

Common Errors that Might Happen with Your Split Squat:
  • Making the split squat a lunge

    • Think of the lunge as a STEP. With a lunge, you're actually covering some ground and moving forward

  • Wobbling and losing balance

  • Leaning forward from the waist with rounded shoulders

  • Knees are NOT in line with toes

So How Do You Fix Those?
  • Keep your squat it in a tight foot print.

    • How? Propose! Go from standing to down on 1 knee. That's it. That's where you live. Come up. Come down. In that space.

  • Take your time. If you're wobbling in the wind, you need that CORE control! Don't grab the weights yet. Earn the right with core stability and use body weight before you add load.

  • Keep that core tall and chest puffed out proud

  • Your knees will NOT spontaneously combust if your knees cover over your toes. However, DO keep your knees in line with your toes! If your knee wavers and travels to the inside or outside, it's a sign you're losing control.

So there you have it, running fit fam.

Scientific evidence to challenge you, back you up, and Dare you to Train Differently.

One last thing…

Don't feel you have to throw out your entire strength routine.

All you need to do, is add in one of these exercises.

Let it be easy.

Work smart, not harder.

And as always…

Dare to Train Differently,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT //



Connelly, C., Moran, M., & Grimes, J. (2020). COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF HIP MUSCLE ACTIVATION DURING CLOSED-CHAIN REHABILITATION EXERCISES IN RUNNERS. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 15(2), 229-237. doi: 10.26603/ijspt20200229

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