Your quad muscles help power your knee drive and straighten your knee so you can run—super important steps in your gait cycle. So you need them strong to pick up the pace and go for miles. But if you’ve ever noticed hamstring or back tightness, feel your glutes don’t “turn on” during a leg workout, or you lack that explosive kick to finish out a sprint, you could be a “quad-dominant” runner. And that’s where some problems could pop up, like knee pain.
There’s a simple way to tell if you’re quad dominant: Sink down into your best squat position with your eyes closed. Once you get into position, open your eyes. Can you see your big toes? If you can, that likely means your glutes are firing properly, pulling your knees and quads back into a perfect squat position, explains Ellen London Crane, a running coach at Heartbreak Hill Running Company in Boston.
If you can’t see your big toes? “It’s because your knees are settling over your toes and your quads are taking over the balance work your glutes should be doing.” That means you’re likely quad-dominant, she says.
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“Quad dominance occurs when the anterior muscles (quads and hip flexors) overpower the posterior muscles (glutes and hamstrings) of the leg,” explains AnneAlise Bonistalli, C.S.C.S., a Boston-based strength coach and founder of Boom personal training.
Strong quads is never a bad thing, right? But a strength imbalance could be. Overpowering quads can both hinder performance and up your injury risk. Here are other ways to recognize if you’re quad-dominant—and what you can do to get back in balance.
How You Become Quad-Dominant
Quad-dominance is actually pretty common in the running population, especially in speedier and higher-mileage types. That’s because when you go faster and farther, it takes more power to flex the hip and drive forward, which comes from your quads. Beginner runners are also at risk if they ramp up more mileage than their bodies are used to, says London Crane.
These characteristics are often paired with some other behaviors that only compound the problem, like not spending time doing the strength training or hill work needed to balance out the back side of your body. “It’s likely that without these weight-bearing activities, your glutes and hamstrings are underdeveloped,” she says.
So, most of the time, quad dominance can be blamed on weak glutes and hamstrings. “When these power muscles are weak, your quads naturally take over and throw off your front-to-back body balance,” London Crane says.
Another risk factor? Avoiding the great outdoors for treadmill runs, over and over again. That’s because pounding on the treadmill takes some of the hamstring-glute function out of the equation, since the belt is essentially pulling your legs back, explains Angela Rubin, a former studio manager of Precision Running Lab at Equinox Chestnut Hill. As a result, your posterior chain may need even more strengthening.
What’s more: “Especially in our day and age where most of us sit at desks for work, it’s really easy to be quad-dominant,” Rubin says. Spending hours at a desk can shorten and tighten both the hip flexors and quadriceps.
The Problem With Quad-Dominant Running
Any bodily imbalance potentially ups injury risk and has the ability to hinder performance, Rubin says.
Healthy, stable knees, for one, require two oppositional forces, including “strong quads to straighten the knee and help to flex the foot forward, and strong hamstrings to bend the knee and help to pull the leg backward,” London Crane says. “These two muscles should be working together, and when they’re not, you put your knee at risk.”
Quad dominance can also come to light after a hamstring injury, because when this power muscle is weak, your quads naturally take over and throw off your front-to-back body balance; or a back injury, because tight hip flexors may be causing an anterior pelvic tilt.
What’s more, a muscle imbalance in your lower half can mess with your goals on the road, too. Basically, you can’t quite maximize speed and efficiency if you’re only truly utilizing one half of your body.
Look at it this way: If your quads are taking over for your hammies or your glutes, you’re not allowing these important muscles to do their thing.
“Your glutes are your powerhouse, and most fatigue-resistant muscle,” Bonistalli says. “Without the glutes and hamstrings strength in helping drive each and every stride you make, you are not reaching your full running potential.”
How to Fix Quad-Dominance
The good news: Even if you’ve suffered strength or flexibility imbalances, recurring injuries, or gone your whole life without properly engaging your glutes, you can change things—and it’s worth considering if you’re noticing injuries or feel like your glutes are “sleepy,” and don’t fire during your lower-body exercises.
Your move? Work on balancing out your body. Balance, in large, comes in the form of building your posterior chain, Rubin says. “Focus on both the hamstrings and glutes to counterbalance all the quad activation.”
Glute-activation exercises such as deadlifts, rack pulls, donkey kicks, and glute bridges all engage and strengthen glutes and hamstrings. Start with just your body weight while you nail form, then introduce weights to build strength and power, London Crane suggests.
Foam rolling your quads, hamstrings, adductors, IT band, and active release of your tensor fascia latae (TFL/hip abductor) and iliopsoas (hip flexor) will alleviate any tension in your legs after hitting the road, and if done regularly, will help to prevent injury, Bonistalli says. “To get back to a ‘normal state’ you need to release the muscles that are tense and then activate and strengthen the muscles that are weak.”
Just remember: Any change to your workout habits takes time and practice. And moving too quickly—like adding in 50 deadlifts out of the blue—can be a recipe for injury, London Crane says. “Be sure to gradually ramp up your glute-activating exercises in the same way you’d gradually ramp up your weekly mileage.”
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel. A former Shape and Men’s Health editor, her work has also been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, CNTraveler.com, and other national print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her drinking coffee or running around her hometown of Boston.