Quad Dominant Running Explained + 4 Ways To Fix It

Many runners are quad dominant, but aren’t even aware of it. 

Many runners unknowingly rely too heavily on their quadriceps while running, which can lead to muscle and force imbalances and, as a result, increased injury risk.

At its essence, quad dominant running is a biomechanical phenomenon wherein the quadriceps muscles hold a disproportionate burden during the running stride.

If you suspect you are a quad dominant runner, keep reading to learn ways to help this biomechanical imbalance. We’ll delve into what quad dominant running is, its causes, why it’s problematic, and how you can correct it.

A person running.

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.1Bordoni, B., & Varacallo, M. (2018, December 15). Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Quadriceps Muscle. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513334/

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.2Myer, G. D., Ford, K. R., Barber Foss, K. D., Liu, C., Nick, T. G., & Hewett, T. E. (2009). The Relationship of Hamstrings and Quadriceps Strength to Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury in Female Athletes. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 19(1), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1097/jsm.0b013e318190bddb

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.3Hody, S., Croisier, J.-L., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P. (2019). Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Frontiers in Physiology10(10), 536. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00536

‌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, many runners experience muscle imbalances between the quads and hamstrings, and glutes, which can lead to quad dominant running.

A person running on the road.

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.

This, in turn, 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 habitually do 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.

Two people running on a path.

The more dominant a muscle group is, the more it will be used. Dominant quads get stronger and stronger, and the underutilized hamstrings and glutes get weaker and weaker. 

Over time, this perpetuates a cycle where it becomes 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.

Two people running on a cobblestone road.

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 because the flexion and extension joint angles and range of motion that you achieve during your running stride are not going to be biomechanically optimized.

Over time, this puts your hip and knee joints in a vulnerable position for injuries and decreases 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.

A person running on the road.

How Do You Know If You Are A Quad Dominant Runner

Unfortunately, quad dominant running is a common issue that often emerges right from the outset when beginners take up running.

This pattern tends to persist due to the continual strengthening of the quadriceps, often at the expense of neglecting the hamstrings and glutes.

As beginners embark on their running journey, they frequently default to a quad dominant stride. This inclination is partly due to the inherent strength of the quadriceps, which are often more developed than the hamstrings and glutes.

Prolonged periods of sitting, such as those spent at a desk, can exacerbate this muscular imbalance, further weakening the hamstrings and glutes.

Moreover, prior engagement in activities like cycling or squats, which primarily target the quadriceps, can exacerbate this muscular imbalance, tipping the scales further in favor of quad dominance.

Over time, this reliance on the quadriceps becomes ingrained in the runner’s movement patterns, shaping their typical running form.

A person running on the road.

Even experienced runners may find themselves falling into the trap of quad dominant running, particularly if their training regimen emphasizes activities that reinforce quad strength.

For instance, incorporating sprinting or high-intensity interval training into workouts can amplify the dominance of the quadriceps. The explosive movements involved in these activities heavily recruit the quadriceps, further strengthening them.

Similarly, treadmill running can exacerbate quad dominance due to its unique biomechanical demands. The continuous motion of the treadmill belt can allow the hamstrings and glutes to take a backseat, leading to an overreliance on the quadriceps.

A simple test to gauge quad dominance is performing a slow, controlled squat with proper form.

If, at the lowest point of the squat, you can still see your toes, it suggests a relatively balanced muscle engagement.

However, if your knees protrude significantly beyond your toes, indicating a lack of engagement from the hamstrings and glutes, it’s likely that quad dominance is at play.

In essence, quad dominant running can be insidious, affecting both novices and seasoned runners alike. However, awareness of its potential causes and indicators can empower runners to address muscular imbalances and strive for a more balanced gait.

A person doing a banded glute brigde.

4 Strategies To Fix Quad Dominance

How can I correct quadriceps dominance in my running form?

Fixing quad dominance takes some time, particularly if you have been running for a while, because not only has your running form become intuitive, 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: Strength Training Your Glutes and Hamstrings

Glute activation and strengthening exercises of the lower body, such as deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, bridges, lunges, hip thrusts, and quadruped leg extensions, are a great way to start training your body to activate the posterior chain and rely on your glutes.

Hamstring curls with a stability ball are a great way to strengthen your hamstrings.

Strength training will also boost your overall health!4Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: Effects of strength training on health. Current Sports Medicine Reports11(4), 209–216. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8

With any of these weightlifting exercises, we recommend working with a personal trainer or physical therapist. They will ensure you perform proper form and muscle activation. They can also determine the correct number of sets and reps for you.

Two people doing high knees on a track.

#2: Run Backwards

How do I stop being a quad dominant runner? Run backward, (it doesn’t have to be all the time.)

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.

Work with a running coach if you need help with these drills.

#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 injuries.

#4: Hip Flexor Stretches And Foam Rolling

Because quad dominant running overworks the hip flexors, stretching the tight hip flexors helps alleviate this tightness, promoting better flexibility and range of motion in the hips.

Foam rolling the quads and hip flexors can also help release tension in the fascia, promoting better muscle mobility and function.

If you are a quad dominant runner then fixing the issues at play through physical therapy will help you increase injury prevention.

Try out our great glute activation exercises in the following guide: 11 Glute Activation Exercises For Runners.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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