A squat is a compound, multi-joint exercise, which means you flex more than one joint and muscle to do it. This makes squats very efficient, since they work the quads, hamstrings, glutes and hips all at once. Squats also make you a faster sprinter because they increase your explosive power. They also make you a faster long-distance runner as leg strength improves endurance.
Explosive power is required for sprinting speed. To become a faster sprinter, you need to gain not only strength, but also power. Exercises involving standing up or jumping from a low squat help you increase your explosive power. Do the overhead squat by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms held firm and straight over your head. Slowly lower into the lowest squat you can, then quickly stand up straight without snapping or locking your knees. A slightly more challenging exercise is squat jumps, performed by exploding straight up into a high jump from a squat at a shoulder-width stance.
If you run long distance, your endurance affects your speed. Your endurance is determined by the combination of the strength of your muscles and your cardiovascular system. Strengthening your leg muscles, which are the primary muscles used in running, greatly improves your speed. Add weight to your squat by holding a barbell behind your head on the backs of your shoulders. Do the single-leg half squat standing on one leg at a time. Balancing on one foot recruits more muscles, making the exercise more challenging.
It Takes More Than Squats
Doing squats alone won't get you faster. Incorporate a variety of lower body exercises in your strength training routine to avoid a strength imbalance. An imbalance in strength between opposing muscle groups can slow down your speed and even lead to injuries. Besides doing weight training exercises, you should also incorporate plyometric jumps, hill runs and sprint intervals for a balanced speed training program.
Pay attention to using proper form as you perform your squats. Keep your spine and neck aligned and straight as you bend at the hips as well as the knees -- use a mirror to check on your posture. Squeeze your glutes as you do squats to make sure you're recruiting them. Vary the types of squats to gain more leg strength. Try squats with your legs spread at different distances; hip-width, shoulder-width and twice shoulder-width. Perform squats with your feet facing forward and drive your feet into the floor as you stand up.
Lindsay Haskell enjoys writing about fitness, health, culture and fashion. She is a contributor for "Let's Talk Magazine" and "The Wellesley News." Haskell is completing her B.A. in philosophy at Wellesley College. She's also a fiction writer whose work can be read online.