When it comes to getting faster and more powerful out on the roads and trails, making sure your lower body is strong and up to the task is key. One of the best way to achieve this? Incorporating squats into your regular routine.
“I’m a big fan of squats—everybody needs to do some form of squats,” says Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., owner of Atlanta-based company Running Strong.
That’s because they build strength in your legs, but also your glutes and hips—areas in which runners are often weak—to prevent against potential injuries.
So with help from Hamilton, we created a 30-day squat challenge to help you build lower-body strength. And while squats are a core leg exercise, this plan also includes a few other leg-strengthening exercises “that will build strength in several other muscle groups to be more effective for runners,” says Hamilton.
How to do this challenge: Review the six exercises below, which are demonstrated by a variety of certified trainers and run coaches so you can master the perfect form. Before officially beginning the 30-day challenge, Hamilton suggests doing a baseline test to start. “Do a set of each exercise, and go until you feel like some muscles are burning,” she says. “You might be able to do 10 reps or you might be able to do 30 reps.” But don’t go until you’re entirely fatigued.
Whatever numbers you start with for each exercise, jot them down—that will be how many you do the first week. Each week, increase your reps by 10 to 20 percent, depending on how you feel, until the 30 days are up. For example, if you start at 10, you’ll add 1 to 2 more reps each week.
You can make this challenge as easy or as challenging as you’d like. If you want—and are physically able—to do every exercise on this list each day and increase your reps by 20 percent, then go for it. But if you’re new to strength training and can only do three or four of the exercises at a time each day, that’s okay, too. The important thing is to listen to your body. “We aren’t all built in the same way, and what works for one person might not work for another,” Hamilton says.
She also recommends trying the basic squat at varying depths, speeds, and foot positions to switch things up and, again, make things as easy or as challenging as you’d like. To make it harder, you can do any of these exercises with a dumbbell or added weight of your choice.
30-Day Squat Challenge
Start standing with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, clasp hands at chest for balance. Send hips back and bend at knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted. Press through heels to stand back up to starting position. Repeat.
2. Lateral Lunge
Start standing and shift your weight to your left leg. Step right leg out to the right, bend right knee, and send hips back to drop into a side lunge. Keep chest lifted. Press through right heel to return to starting position. Repeat on other side. Continue to alternate.
3. Hip Hike
Stand with your left foot near the edge of a step, box, or bench that’s a minimum of four inches high. Hang right foot off the box. Square shoulders and hips forward and level. Keeping left leg straight, lower right hip with control so right foot dips below the top of box. Return to starting position. Complete reps then repeat on other side.
4. Single-Leg Reach and Touch
Stand with your weight on your right leg with a microbend in right knee. Hinge at the hips to tip body forward so your chest is parallel with the ground, and your back is straight, your left arm reaching down while your right arm reaches out to the side. Return to starting position. Complete reps, then repeat on other leg.
5. Jump Squat
Start standing with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, clasp hands at chest for balance. Send hips back and bend at knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted. You can swing your arms back for momentum. Press through heels back up to explode up, jumping vertically in the air. Land softly and immediately send hips back down into a squat. Repeat.
6. Single-Leg Squat
Standing on right leg, lift left leg out in front of you. With chest lifted and shoulders back, extend both arms straight out. With control, send hips back and bend right leg to lower down like you’re about to sit in a chair. Keep left foot lifted and back tall. Squat as deep as you can go, but it’s okay to start shallow and work your way lower over time—this is a challenging move. Press through right heel to stand back up. Complete reps then repeat on other leg.
Images: Julia Hembree Smith and James Farrell DANIELLE ZICKL Associate Health & Fitness Editor Danielle specializes in interpreting and reporting the latest health research and also writes and edits in-depth service pieces about fitness, training, and nutrition.