We don’t talk much about muscle imbalances in runners and the effects they can have on performance or form. One of the most common types of muscle imbalance in runners is quad dominance.
You can run for years and not even know that you’re quad dominant! But it does put you at a slightly higher risk for injury, so it’s worth finding out if you’re quad dominant and taking steps to balance this out.
In this article, we’ll get into the details about what it means, why it could become a problem, how to tell if you’re quad dominant, and how to fix it if you are!
What Is Quad Dominance?
Quad dominance is pretty much just like it sounds. It’s when your quadriceps are the dominant muscle in your legs, and as such, they take over and do most of the work when you run.
In truth, quad dominance is a flaw in running form. While strong quads are definitely not a bad thing, the imbalance that occurs when the hamstrings and glutes are weaker can be.
Why Is It a Problem?
Having quads that overpower your back leg muscles creates an imbalance. Your quadriceps get stronger and stronger every time you run, while your glutes and hamstrings… Well, they don’t.
So the front of the legs are extremely strong, while the back of the legs are actually a weak spot. As you can imagine, this may work quite fine as long as the strain is always on the stronger muscles.
But this imbalance is like a stretched elastic. It hangs out there quite happily, but you never quite know when it’s going to snap and hurt you.
Also, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes work together in many ways. For example, to move the knee, the quads flex to pull it forward, while the hamstrings flex to pull it backward again.
If one muscle isn’t pulling its weight or one of them is being a bully and doing all the work, it puts the knee at risk for injury.
Of course, this also affects performance. If your body is constantly at risk of injury, you’re almost on borrowed time. Your range of motion is most likely not what it could be, and your muscles are not in their best conditions or working together as well as they could be.
How Do You Become Quad Dominant?
Interestingly, quad dominance is common in the running population. It’s even more of a risk if you’re a beginner who’s just started using those muscles for running, or if you focus on speed or long distances in your training.
Beginners may be slightly off with running form from the start. This will most likely lead to the quads taking most of the strain. It does help them to strengthen, but the hamstrings and glutes are left behind. Once your body is in the habit of running like this, it can be extremely hard to undo it.
On the other hand, even more advanced runners can become quad dominant without realizing it. If you push for speed or run long distances, you’ll be extending your legs and hips faster and harder. That power comes from the quads.
If you don’t make a conscious effort to do strength training to develop your glutes and hamstrings, chances are you’re a quad-dominant runner.
Also, if you favor treadmill workouts over real-world running, you may develop quad dominance much quicker. This is because the treadmill isn’t quite versatile enough to work those back-of-leg muscles, and the treadmill belt helps to pull you backward instead of using your actual muscle.
Lastly, if you spend time sitting at a desk for most of your day, your hamstrings could be weaker than they should be. You typically use your quads to stand up out of the chair, so your glutes and hamstrings don’t get the exercise they should be getting.
How Do You Know If You’re Quad Dominant?
Figuring out if you’re quad dominant is the first step towards actually correcting it. But how can you tell? Here are some things you should be looking for.
First, do you most often feel soreness and stiffness in your quads after a run or a leg exercise? This is a classic sign – sore quads but perfectly fine hamstrings and glutes.
Try this quick test! Stand with your feet a comfortable width apart. You’re going to drop slowly into a squat, making sure to keep your form as good as it can be.
Once you’re down at the bottom of the squat, check and see if your toes are visible. If they are, you’re good to go and probably aren’t too quad dominant.
On the other hand, if you can’t see your toes, it could be a sign that your quads are taking over and you’ve got a case of lazy hamstrings and glutes!
Common Quad-Dominant Injuries
One of the most common types of injuries to quad-dominant runners is knee injuries. When the quads and hamstrings aren’t working together during the running stride, it can actually cause the knee to get out of alignment.
The first place you’ll feel it is likely to be your anterior knee. Although the word “anterior” means “in front of”, technically this doesn’t mean you’ll feel pain on the front of your knee. Rather, the pain presents behind the kneecap. This is still in the front of the knee, but definitely underneath the patella.
Other commonly seen results of quad dominance include shin splints, compartment syndrome, and in more severe cases, tibial plateau fracture. Continuing to run with dominant quads can eventually lead to osteoarthritis in the knee joints.
As well as these types of injuries, chances are you’ll also find yourself fatiguing earlier than you should be during races. The quads are predominantly made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are great for short, sharp bursts but less effective at long distances.
That’s where the glutes should come into play, as they’re slow-twitch muscle fibers. But in quad-dominant athletes, they tend to stay behind the scenes, leading to fatigue.
How to Fix Quad Dominance
Once you know that you’re quad dominant, you can begin to take steps to balance out those muscles. You’ll find that as time goes, you’ll experience less quad soreness, better glute and hamstring activation, and more stable knees!
Here are a few things you can start implementing to begin activating and strengthening your glutes and hamstrings and bringing things back into balance.
Do Glute-Activation Exercises
Yes, this will require cross-training, and it will be most efficient in the form of lifting weights. The following exercises help to engage the glutes and should be performed at least once a week:
- Deadlifts (pay particular attention to form!)
- Hip Thrusts (glute bridges, weighted)
- Lunges (be sure to get your form right to activate the glutes)
Form is incredibly important in all of these exercises. Getting it wrong can put you at risk of injury! Don’t rush through them, but rather go through the range of motion slowly and pay particular attention to your glutes tightening.
It may take a bit of experimenting to figure out what weight works best for you. You should be able to do between 6 and 10 reps of each exercise with perfect form. If your form shakes slightly on the last few, that’s okay.
You can ramp up the weight and intensity once your body is used to the motion. Don’t overdo it, but make sure you’re lifting enough to feel it in those muscles.
Push, Don’t Pull
When you’re on a run, you can train your hamstrings and glutes too. Focus on the phrase “push, don’t pull”. We tend to pull our legs forward with our quads and hip flexors, but try to focus on pushing with the glutes and hamstrings instead.
It may sound weird, but simply visualizing and feeling this as you run can be enough to get those muscles engaging.
Drills like heel lifts, backward running, and posture drills can also make a big difference. Skipping and stretching the hip flexors will also help.
Foam Roll to Loosen Muscles
The quads can become tight as they do most of the work. Foam rolling the legs can be a great way of loosening up those muscles and reducing muscle soreness after exercise or a run.
We recommend foam rolling your quads, hamstrings, IT band, calves, and hip flexors, at least a few times a week after you’ve done a workout.
Releasing tension in those muscles helps to bring the muscles back to a state of relaxation, which puts them in the best position to either be strengthened or stay a bit more relaxed than they’re used to.
You can foam roll lightly before your exercise, but we suggest focusing on foam rolling as part of recovery rather than warming up.
Remember, just like exercising, you shouldn’t progress too quickly here! Begin with light foam rolling until you know where your limit is. Foam rolling can be painful!
Start light and increase as you go.