A silly yet very debatable question repeatedly springs up in the strength and fitness world: “If you could choose only a single exercise to do from here forward, what would it be?” Ask that question to a hundred different people and you might get forty different answers depending on who’s being asked and where they are coming from. If you ask a figure competitor, she might say the front squat because it can lead to muscular growth through a large portion of the body and also develop the abdominals.
If you ask a basketball trainer, he might say the barbell thruster because it combines a squat with an overhead press training the two most important areas – the legs and shoulders – and can significantly improve a baller’s vertical jump. If you ask me, I would say “It depends…” because I would first want to assess the client’s structuralbalance and methodically select the exercise that can best lead to performance improvements and reduce existing injuries or imbalances. Structural balance means that every muscle is in balance with other muscle groups, not only within a limb but across both sides of the body.
If my client was a runner and I did not have the time to test but selected an exercise based on experience, reviewing the common injuries and imbalances would be my first consideration. Runners experience a wide array of imbalance-related as well as overuse strain injuries including knee pain (runner’s knee), patellar tendinitis, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, IT band syndrome, and side stitches. Considering that most runners seldom strength train, these athletes frequently expose themselves to a rather limited range of motion in the knees and hips which can lead to or worsen muscular imbalance and tightness. Therefore, that single best exercise for a runner, in my opinion, is the split squat and I will now illustrate why.
The split squat also known as the “assisted one-leg squat” is a very progressive exercise which can be tailored to all levels from inexperienced, tight, and weak to those who are athletic, flexible, and strong. Raise the front foot on a step and you make it easier. Raise the back foot (Bulgarian style) and you’ve made it a lot more challenging requiring range of motion. Added resistance can include a low cable pulley in the contra-lateral hand, dumbbells in each hand, or a barbell on the shoulders. As a strength and strength balancing exercise you want to perform it at 8-12 repetitions (per side) for 3 to 6 sets as part of your workout depending on your fitness level.
A basic or beginner’s split squat begins by stepping forward into a split stance of hip width with the front foot on a step anywhere between 4 inches to 18 inches high. Keeping your feet straight and parallel you want to maintain this foot placement until you have completed all reps in the set and then switch feet and repeat. The exercise movement involves hinging the front knee forward over (and beyond) the toes until it reaches its limit – hopefully with the hamstrings and calf in contact – and then pushing/extending back to the starting position while keeping a tall posture and a firm core. The front foot should stay flat and in full contact with the ground throughout the movement. If the front heel happens to lift off the ground then your front and back foot are too close. You will need to lengthen this distance until heel lift does not occur and the rear foot is able to freely hinge on the ball of the foot. Marking the floor with tape at the ideal positions would be a good way to increase effectiveness and save time.
How it helps runners:
Properly executing the split squat with good alignment between the front ankle, knee, and hip and through a very long range of motion will target in on the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO), gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, the adductors, and the hamstrings of the front leg while the rear leg is being stretched in extension to open up the hip flexors . Essentially it is training each leg in balance through movement and control for great coordination. Those runners with valgus knee or with pain around the knees, hips, and sides will see a reduction in symptoms as the muscles re-establish a new balance with consistent training with good form. Those with tight hips see a greater stride length and faster times in shorter distance races.
Objectively speaking, the single best exercise is simply the one that you’ll actually do rather than skip training. By making the split squat a regular part of your strength training you will really reap the rewards towards running or any lower-body dominated sport! If you would like more information on this exercise or are interested in being coached on the on the finer points of the split squat, feel free to contact me at Niagara Health & Rehab Centre to book in a lesson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 289.362.3600
Personal Trainer and Strength & Conditioning Coach