Many runners are quad dominant, but aren’t even aware of it.
But what is quad dominant running? What causes it? Is it a problem? And, if so, how can you fix quad dominant running?
If you suspect you are a quad dominant runner, keep reading to find out the answers to these questions and more!
In this article, we will cover:
- What Is Quad Dominant Running?
- Why Is Quad Dominant Running Bad?
- How Does Quad Dominant Running Occur?
- Quad Dominant Exercises
Let’s jump in!
What Is Quad Dominant Running?
Quad dominant running refers to a running gait where your quadriceps are “dominating” or doing most of the work when you’re running.
The quads are a group of four muscles that run down the front of your thigh from the hip to the knee.
This muscle group includes the:
- Rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap
- Vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh
- Vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh
- Vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center.
The quads are biarticular muscles, which means that they are responsible for moving two different joints: they work together to flex the hip and extend the knee.
They work in opposition to the hamstrings, a group of three muscles that run down the backside of the thigh and extend the leg at the hip and flex the knee.
The quads play numerous roles when you run, but one of the primary functions of this muscle group is to support your body weight and prevent the knee from collapsing when you land at initial contact.
Upon landing, when your foot first makes contact with the ground for your next running stride, the quads are working eccentrically or lengthening as they work to combat the force of gravity and your body weight that try to flex the knee.In this way, the quads prevent your knee from buckling or collapsing under the load of your own body weight when you land.
When you run, the quads also flex the leg at the hip, which helps you lift your leg up off the ground as you push off and enter the swing phase to propel you forward and onto the next stride.
Although the quads are indeed one of the largest and strongest muscle groups in the body and integral players in the execution of a healthy running stride, many runners experience muscle imbalances between the quads and hamstrings, and glutes, which can lead to quad dominant running.
Why Is Quad Dominant Running Bad?
Although quad dominant running is common, it’s not ideal from a running economy and injury risk reduction standpoint.
Ultimately, rather than spreading the workload of the running stride more evenly between the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, quad dominant running overemphasizes the reliance on the quads, which can increase the risk of injury and compromise the strength and efficiency of your stride.
Even at the most basic level, one issue with quad dominant running is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle. If your quads are habitually doing more than their share of the workload as you run, they will continue to get stronger and stronger because they are consistently being used.
Concurrently, the muscles on the backside of your leg, namely the hamstrings and glutes, will be “missing out“ on the opportunity to also get stronger because they are not getting worked as much as they should be.
Much like the economic concept where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, the dominant quads get stronger and more dominant, and the underutilized hamstrings and glutes get weaker and weaker.
Over time, this perpetuates a cycle where it becomes more and more natural and necessary to use a quad dominant running style because your hamstrings and glutes are no longer up to the rigors of your running workouts should you suddenly switch to a more balanced running gait.
Quad dominant running can also lead to overstriding and other gait and biomechanical abnormalities.
The muscles on the front of your thigh (the quads) and the muscles on the backside of your thigh (the hamstrings) can be thought of as operating like a seesaw.
This is because both of these muscle groups are biarticular, controlling both the hip and knee but responsible for the opposite motions at each joint relative to one another.
With a seesaw, when one end is up, the other end is down.
In much the same way, when the quads work to flex the hip to pull the leg forward, the hamstrings extend the hip to pull the leg back again. When the hamstrings flex the knee to bend it back so that you can clear your foot off the ground during the swing phase, the quads extend it when you land to prevent your knee from buckling under your own weight.
If one of these two muscle groups is more powerful than the other or takes over a bulk of the workload, your hips, and especially your knees, are at an increased risk of injury.
This is mainly due to the fact that the flexion and extension joint angles and range of motion that you achieve during your running stride are not going to be biomechanically optimized, putting your hip and knee joint in a vulnerable position over time for injuries and decreasing the efficiency of your stride.
Quad dominant running can increase the risk of injury and reduce your running economy. It can cause the knee to become out of alignment and can cause anterior knee pain, or what is typically referred to as Runner’s Knee.
This pain is usually experienced just beneath the kneecap, or you might have patellar tendinitis pain, which is pain in the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shin bone below your knee.
Shin splints, compartment syndrome, achy knees, and hip flexor pain can also result from quad dominant running.
How Does Quad Dominant Running Occur?
Quad dominant running is unfortunately quite common and often occurs right from the get-go when a beginner first takes up running and then is perpetuated based on the resultant strength that continues to develop in the quads at the detriment of strength-building in the hamstrings and glutes.
Beginners often start with a quad dominant running stride because the quads tend to be naturally stronger muscles based on our typical movement patterns. For example, sitting all day at a desk allows the hamstrings and glutes to become particularly weak.
Additionally, the common types of exercises that beginners might have performed prior to taking up running, such as cycling or squats, further build quad strength and create muscle imbalances between the quads and hamstrings.
New runners often naturally fall into a pattern of relying heavily on the quads, which will then become ingrained as their typical running pattern.
One way beginners might be able to learn whether they are using a quad dominant running form is if the quad muscles are particularly sore after their first several runs or first several weeks of training.
Although muscle soreness is common and expected to some degree when beginners first start running, it can be used to provide insight into relative weaknesses or relative overworking of one muscle group.
For example, if all of the muscles in your legs feel equally sore, stiff, and fatigued in the 24 to 48 hours after your run, then you likely just need to build up the strength in your legs as you get accustomed to running.
However, if one muscle group is particularly sore, you should use that information to help inform you about your strength and running form.
In most cases, because the quads naturally tend to be the strongest muscle group in the legs, if your quads are noticeably sorer than your calves, hamstrings, and glutes, it’s a pretty good indication that you are letting your quads take on the brunt of the workload as you run (quad dominant running).
With all this said, it’s also possible for experienced runners to eventually develop quad dominant running even if they previously had a more balanced running gait.
Taking on a lot of speed work, particularly longer speed workouts or faster-running intervals during those workouts, will cause you to extend your knees harder to reach forward with each stride and flex the hip harder and faster to propel your body forward for the next stride.
This power and strength come from the quads and subsequently strengthen the quads.
Treadmill running can also lend itself to developing more of a quad dominant running stride. Because the belt is moving at all times, and you just have to keep up, the biomechanics of running on a treadmill is slightly different than with over-ground running, in a way that allows the hamstrings and glutes to take a relative backseat while relying more heavily on the quads.
Another good test to see if you are quad dominant is to perform a simple squat as slowly and with as good form as you can.
If you get to the bottom portion of your squat, where you are at your lowest point, and you can still see your toes, you probably have fairly balanced muscles and may not need to worry about quad dominance.
However, if you cannot see your toes because your knees have jutted out further forward beyond your toes, your hamstrings and glutes are probably weak, and it’s a likely sign that you may be a quad dominant vs glute dominant runner.
Quad Dominant Exercises
Fixing quad dominance running usually takes some time, particularly if you have been running for a while, because not only has your running form become intuitive and natural, but your quads have continued to get stronger and stronger while your hamstrings and glutes have gotten weaker.
However, working on correcting quad dominant running as soon as possible will help you get on track and eventually have a more neutral and balanced running stride.
Here are some quad dominant exercises for you to try out:
#1: Strengthen Your Glutes and Hamstrings
Glute activation and strengthening exercises such as deadlifts, bridges, hip thrusts, and quadruped leg extensions are a great way to start training your body to activate and rely on your glutes.
Hamstring curls with a stability ball are a great way to strengthen your hamstrings.
#2: Run Backwards
Doing running drills like running backward for 20 to 50 meters is a great way to start strengthening and activating your glutes and hamstrings.
Skipping is also a good drill to help fix quad dominant running.
#3: Push Your Legs Forward
Be mindful as you run.
Think about pushing your legs forward rather than pulling your legs backward with each stride to help activate your hamstrings and glutes.
Give these exercises a try to improve your running and reduce the risk of running-related injuries. Try out our great glute activation exercises in the following guide: 11 Glute Activation Exercises For Runners.