Women: Protect Your Knees With the Sprinter Stance Squat
I’m not a powerlifter.
I’m not an Olympic lifter.
I am a former high-level swimmer turned physical therapist for more than a decade. Rarely have I seen lifting weights as an end unto itself. I have always used strength training in various forms to improve how I perform, how people move, how people feel in the sport of real life. That is why I am not dogmatic about anything, favoring instead the idea of “movement strength.”
Women are often told to train like the guys, but we aren’t guys. Apart from the obvious, women have some pretty significant differences when it comes to their training needs. Female athletes are at a much higher risk for injury in the same sports as males. In fact, a study of NCAA athletes showed that women suffered ACL injuries four times more often in basketball; three times more often in gymnastics; and two and a half times more often in soccer.1 These increased injury rates are attributed to differences in strength, joint structure, joint laxity, ligament size, and hormonal influences. Remind me then why we should train “just like the guys?”
Should Women Be Doing It Differently?
Research has shown that the above issues are not purely rooted in raw strength. A Norwegian study of female handball athletes demonstrated that the use of “balance” training was a key component of enhancing neuromuscular control and reducing ACL injuries.2
Part of the challenge is defining what this type of balance strength training should look like. One hint comes from an Australian study, which found that “people with good performance on the single-leg squat will have better hip muscle function (earlier onset of gluteus medius activity and greater lateral trunk, hip abduction, and external rotation strength) than people with poor performance.”3
Renowned strength coach Mike Boyle believes that the one-leg squat is a superior exercise for strength development and injury prevention in athletes:
“If you're looking for a great exercise for athletes, this is it. The one-leg squat demonstrates true single-leg strength, and our athletes are capable of using more than 100 pounds in this lift. I particularly love this for female athletes and ACL injury prevention.”
While the evidence points to the utility of single-leg work for women, integrating it into your training can be a challenge. Many women jump into single leg training and find it too challenging to do well. Instead of getting the benefits of single leg exercises, they end up with more problems in the knees and hips because they can’t achieve the correct movement patterns. Even lunges, as much as I love them, aren’t true single-leg exercises because both feet are in contact with the ground. How can we develop a better system for success?
The Sprinter Stance Squat
The “sprinter stance squat” is a useful technique to build the strength and stability needed to bridge the gap between double and single-leg squats. While visually similar to the a “b-squat,” there are some distinct differences. The sprinter stance takes the standard squat position and makes it a bit unstable, unlike the b-squat that brings the feet very close together. If you don’t have the right ankle, knee, and hip mobility, the b-squat drill can cause a lot of problems. The second difference is that some people perform the b-squat with a flat back foot, which causes rotation in the pelvis. To avoid this rotation in the sprinter stance, we always have the back heel elevated.
The sprinter stance squat is meant as a progressive technique toward true single-leg work. The goal is for the lead leg to assume about 60 percent of the work. When you jump into instability training without the proper foundation, your body can’t create force because it’s spending all its time trying not to fall over. The video below details the proper technique for performing a sprinter stance squat.
A Squat for the Real World
The unique training needs and injury risks of women require a substantially different approach to training. In particular, the elevated risk of knee injuries in women can be addressed by unilateral movements. The sprinter stance squat is an effective way for women to experience the benefits of one-legged strength work without the risks associated with more advanced exercises.
The sprinter stance squat opens the door for variety, progression, and greater purpose in your squatting exercises. It uses three planes of motion in your training, and can also challenge how the core integrates with the functions of the hip, lower leg, and foot. Your body uses natural chains, not individual muscles, to perform every day and sporting actions. Being able to train the body in the way it was designed provides an opportunity to identify your weak links.
Best of all, this movement creates a relationship with how we position ourselves when we want to be powerful and fast. Watch most athletes set up; they aren’t flat footed with both feet set in place. They are staggered, weight distribution varied, ready to react. Use the strategies of load position and body position as demonstrated in the sprinter stance squat to enhance strength, power, agility, reaction, and resilience.
Here are some more ways to safely train single-leg movements:
1. Arendt, Elizabeth, and Randall Dick. "Knee injury patterns among men and women in collegiate basketball and soccer NCAA data and review of literature." The American Journal of Sports Medicine 23, no. 6 (1995): 694-701.
2. Myklebust, Grethe, Lars Engebretsen, Ingeborg Hoff Brækken, Arnhild Skjølberg, Odd-Egil Olsen, and Roald Bahr. "Prevention of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female team handball players: a prospective intervention study over three seasons." Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 13, no. 2 (2003): 71-78.
3. Crossley, Kay M., Wan-Jing Zhang, Anthony G. Schache, Adam Bryant, and Sallie M. Cowan. "Performance on the single-leg squat task indicates hip abductor muscle function." The American Journal of Sports Medicine 39, no. 4 (2011): 866-873.