Nate Helming—Applying torque helps us run farther and faster with less injury. The pistol squat better connects squatting and running, and further demonstrates how a skill-based approach to strength training is more effective than a muscle-based one.
Developing our athletic skills by squatting with posture, load and torque teaches us to run with greater posture, load, and torque. However, focusing on exercises like a mid-range single leg squat focuses our strength training on the wrong things. Strength training shouldn’t specifically mimic running. Instead, strength training should be relevant to running by developing the same athletic skills that are needed to run well.
Torque is the most misunderstood of the essential athletic skills. Simply put, torque is rotational force. Our leg can rotate in and out in addition to flexing forward and extending backwards. If our leg rotates too far inward, for example, the hip “pinches” or impinges, and the knee, ankle, and arch of the foot collapse.
Try it yourself: stand on one leg with your hips even, square, and on tension. Then let yourself relax. You’ll notice your hip will drop and rotate downward, making it far more difficult to balance. Torque is the necessary rotation to resist this collapse.
The next time you’re in the gym, practice three sets of three single leg pistol squats on each side. Eventually move to five sets of three reps, then up to 10 sets of three reps as you improve.
1. Start with a 15-20 inch box or chair behind you.
2. Reach your hips backward to load the hips.
3. Reach your arms and chest far forward to counterbalance. Note: reaching forward keeps the upper body on tension for a stronger pistol.
4. Picture pushing your knee outward a bit to apply torque, preventing the knee and ankle from collapsing inward.
The entire pistol should feel smooth and controlled. Allow the butt to “kiss” the box, and then stand back up—again by reaching forward with the arms. Once you have mastered this, practice your pistol on a lower box, then practice without one. Common faults include bending at the knee first or dropping downward too quickly. Athletes with tight calves will struggle at the bottom as well, so work on your ankle mobility!
Many runners are missing this important stabilizing skill, as evidence by their feet collapsing a lot when their foot strikes the ground. This problem has been tried to be solved through different methods, with varying levels success. Many runners with weak feet are placed in stability shoes or are fit with orthotics. While stability shoes and orthotics certainly stabilize the foot (along with the rest of the leg), it comes with a hefty price tag, including:
1. Dependence on said shoes and orthotics
2. Losing some of our body’s natural shock absorption capabilities, meaning that greater force transfers to the knees, hips, and low back.
Fortunately, a better solution exists. Pistol squats teach us how to move our leg through its full range of motion in a strong and stable manner.
This is where there is some confusion regarding torque. How can I stand or run with my knee sticking out? And won’t doing that hurt my knee?
Remember, torque is rotational force. If we relax completely, our leg rotates inwards, loses all stability and tension, and collapses. We do not want to pistol (or run) with our knee sticking outward, but we do want to resist this rotational collapse. We must apply torque to keep our hips, knees and ankles in line and tense.
Remember, strength training is less about specifically mimicking certain aspects of our run technique and more about developing the relevant skill set—in this case, torque—to run well. Developing a solid squat and pistol squat provides runners with the requisite skill set, strength and stability to rely less on external forms of support such as stability shoes and orthotics.
About The Author:
Nate Helming, based in San Francisco, owns and operates Helming Athletics, an endurance coaching company for triathletes preparing for Ironman, 70.3, Olympic, and sprint distance races. He also coaches runners and cyclists for single sport preparation. Follow him on Instagram @natehelming