Strength training: partial squat exercises improve your strength, stability and efficiency

Partial squats: an outstanding exercise for improving your strength, stability and efficiency

If you are a soccer player, a basketball participant, a rugby enthusiast, a cricketer, a sprinter, a distance runner, or anyone who wants to be able to run long and fast, then the one-leg squat should be a staple of your strength-training programme. Indeed, if you had time for only one strengthening exercise in your training programme, it would have to be the one-leg squat. That’s because the one-leg squat is the most useful, time-efficient, and versatile exercise for improving running-specific leg strength.

 Incorporating simultaneous flexion at the hip, knee, and ankle joints in the squatting, full body weight-bearing leg, the one-leg squat mimics the basic biomechanics of the footstrike portion of the running gait cycle and thus can dramatically improve running-specific strength and coordination.

Some critics have carped that the one-leg squat is not specific to running across the soccer field or around a 400-meter oval because it involves greater flexion at the hip, knee and ankle than actually occurs when one sprints, jogs, or moves along at a submaximal but high-quality pace. However, the increased range of motion associated with the squat is actually a positive because it places larger-than-usual eccentric strains on the key muscle groups in the legs – the quads, hamstrings, and calves. This fortifies these muscles for the eccentric stresses associated with running, leading to less soreness and fewer injuries during training, as well as greater efficiency of movement during workouts and races. The one-leg squat is also extremely versatile, in the sense that it can be easily ‘tweaked’ during the course of a training progression; these ‘tweaks’ (described below) make the exercise more difficult and dynamic.

The one-leg squat is sometimes criticised for its ‘foot-anchored-to-the-ground’, non-dynamic characteristics, but that can be easily remedied – once great one-leg-squatting skill is attained – by shifting over to other exercises in which the support foot is called upon to get off the ground quickly and repeatedly. Such variants include one-leg hops on the spot and one-leg squats with lateral hops. These latter moves can be as strengthening as the plain one-leg squat, but lateral hops add strengthening in side-to-side and rotational planes of motion, and both additional exercises improve the rate of force production when the foot is on the ground and enhance skill and efficiency at getting it off the ground quickly. To put it another way, they help transform the running-specific strength gained from doing basic one-leg squats into power, ie speed. Both exercises can also be carried out with a balance board, providing additional coordination and ‘neural training’ and thus improving agility and quickness.

An exciting new version: the partial squat
Another remarkable version of the one-leg squat, never previously mentioned in Peak Performance is the partial squat with barbell. This involves no hopping or side-to-side movement (at least initially), but is a terrific routine for enhancing running-specific strength, stability, coordination, and fatigue resistance. Like other exercises which improve basic running strength, it is part of the foundation you need to optimise your power as a running athlete. The basic philosophy is this: first, you expand force production in your leg muscles with exercises like the one-leg squat and partial squat with barbell, then you heighten your rate of force production dramatically by using one-leg hops on the spot, one-leg squats with lateral hops, explosive strength training, and high-quality running workouts. To put it another way, first you become able to run for a longer period of time at a desirable pace, and then you develop the ability to run for the same time at a considerably faster pace.

Here’s how to carry out your partial squats with barbell
Stand on your left leg, with the foot directly under your left shoulder, keeping the knee just slightly flexed and maintaining relaxed, fairly erect posture. Hold the barbell (initially with no weights attached) so that it rests on the top-back of your shoulders just below your neck, inclining your upper body slightly forward for balance. Most of your body weight should be directed through the heel to mid-portion of your left foot. Your right leg should be flexed at the knee so that the foot is not touching the ground (although you may need to ‘spot-touch’ the floor occasionally for balance). From this position, if you were carrying out a traditional one-leg squat, you would normally bend your left knee and lower your body until there was an angle of about 90 degrees between your upper and lower legs, with your thigh almost parallel to the ground. For the partial squat, however, you go down only about half-way, creating an angle of around 135 degrees, then return to the starting position, maintaining upright posture with your trunk. That’s one rep!

So far so good – but you have lots more work to do! Continue in the manner described above until you have completed 10 reps. Then – without resting – descend into the 11th partial squat, but instead of rising back up, hold the partial-squat 135-degree position for 10 seconds. We’ll call your body alignment during this 10-second period the ‘static-hold’ position.

After 10 seconds in the static-hold position, immediately rattle off 10 more reps, maintain the static-hold for 10 seconds again, hit 10 more reps, and then hold statically for 10 more seconds. That’s one set! To summarise, a set consists of 10 partial squats followed by 10 seconds of holding your leg and body in the down position, performed three times with no rest between repetitions. Bear in mind that your body weight must be supported only by the active leg; the other leg does not participate in the movement or support.

Considerable room for manoeuvre here
It’s important to note that the static-hold times are somewhat arbitrary. For example, when you first try the routine you might be able to do the first two repetitions but then have trouble holding the static position for the full 10 seconds on the third. If you can do it, that’s a sign that you can afford to increase the resistance by adding about 10 pounds to the barbell for your next workout. If you can’t do it, leave the resistance as is, and don’t increase weight until you can handle the whole set. If you have trouble getting beyond the second 10 static-holds within the set, that’s a sign that you should take some weight off your barbell.

 There is considerable room for manoeuvre with partial squats! First, you can tinker a bit with the static-hold times and number of reps (although the 10-10-10-10-10-10 regimen seems to work very well). Secondly, you can gradually increase the speed of the reps, so that the movements are closer in velocity to those associated with real running. Thirdly, you can add weight progressively to the barbell (bearing in mind that a good balance in training is achieved by alternating workouts with less resistance and fast movements with those with more resistance and slower movements). Finally, you can add on relaxed, quick hops Рon the spot or laterally Рafter each partial squat, keeping your body relaxed and upright and holding the barbell in its normal position. Such hops help improve the reactivity of your neuromuscular system and are a precursor to greater running speed. Overall, partial squats are fun and challenging, and they improve key components of your overall fitness: strength, balance, coordination, and mental toughness.

How many sets should you complete? At first, one set carried out twice a week will suffice. However, as your partial-squatting skill increases, you may try two sets per workout, two or three times per week.

Poor leg springiness? Here’s your answer
Runners who use partial squats find them especially helpful during speed workouts. They report that regular partial squatting makes their legs feel less tired during high-quality training sessions. Interestingly, this relief is often immediately apparent, suggesting that there is a strong neurological benefit associated with the ‘pose’ of the exercise and the balancing involved. You may safely carry out a high-quality track or other intense workout immediately after completing the partial squat routine – and expect to perform at a higher-than-normal level. Soccer and basketball players may also include partial squats as part of their pre-workout warm-ups.

Bear in mind that most athletes lose a tremendous amount of energy each time one of their feet is on the ground – because of a lack of stability and springiness in their legs. The poor springiness forces leg muscles to work harder to provide adequate forward propulsion, and the poor stability requires the leg muscles to exert extra force in an attempt to stabilise sloppy mechanics and movements. Both effects can dramatically accelerate muscular fatigue, impair workout quality, and downgrade competitive times.

When the foot hits the ground during running, a great deal of energy goes into controlling impact forces, limiting the extent of ankle dorsiflexion, and regulating flexion at the knee and hip (not to mention the control of ankle pronation/supination and rotation plus similar side-to-side and rotational movements at the knee and hip). Partial squats develop the strength which enables you to control all of those movements optimally. Small wonder, then, that after a month or so, many runners feel much more efficient, fatigue-resistant, and powerful while doing their high-quality workouts. When you have leg muscles which can exert more strength during a running movement and a nervous system which can control those muscles very efficiently in a highly-coordinated manner, it’s a winning combination!

It is best to put off using partial squats until after you have progressed through PP’s ‘special’ strengthening period, or at least until after you have become extremely proficient and comfortable with one-leg squats. Partial squats are particularly effective when carried out before and in conjunction with higher-intensity portions of your overall training progression.

In case you are unfamiliar with basic one-leg squats and their two key variations (one-leg hops on the spot and one-leg squats with lateral hops), here is a description of the power triad of exercises:

One-leg squats
* Stand with your left foot forward and your right foot back, with your feet about one shin-length apart from front to back and hip-width apart from side to side. Maintain upright posture with your trunk and hold your hands at your sides; * Place the toes of your right foot on a block or step 6-8 inches high, with most of your weight directed through the heel of your left foot;
* Bend the left leg and lower your body until there is an angle of 90 degrees between the thigh and lower leg;
* Return to the starting position;
* Complete 12 reps;
* Repeat with right foot forward and your left foot back;
* Rest for a few moments and repeat twice more.

One-leg hops on the spot
* Adopt the same starting position as for one-leg squats, with the toes of your right foot supported by a 6-8-inch block or aerobics step;
* Hop rapidly on your left foot at a cadence of 2.5-3 hops per second (25 to 30 foot contacts per 10 seconds) for 40 seconds. Your left knee should rise by about 4-6 inches with each upward hop, while your right leg and foot remain stationary. Your left foot should strike the ground in the area of the mid-foot and then spring upwards rapidly, as if landing on hot coals. Your hips should remain fairly level and motionless throughout the exercise, with very little vertical displacement;
* Repeat for 40 seconds on your right foot;
* Rest for a few moments, then repeat twice more.

One-leg squats with lateral hops
* Take up the same body position you used for the basic one-leg squats, with your left foot forward and most of your weight directed through your left heel. Maintain upright posture with your trunk and hold your hands at your sides;
* Bend your left leg and lower your body until there is an angle of 90 degrees between the thigh and lower leg;
* Hop laterally 6-10 inches with your left foot, keeping the right foot in place; * Hop back to ‘centre’;
* Hop medially (to the right when your left leg is forward) 6-10 inches;
* Hop back to centre and return to the starting position;
* Perform 12 reps of this entire routine;
* Repeat with your right leg (12 reps);
* Rest for a few moments, then repeat twice more.

Owen Anderson