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Why Front Rack Split Squats Are the Best Unilateral Leg Exercise For Weightlifters

Train your power, stability, and... your fascia.

Strength shows up differently in every single sport based on the demand of required skills and positions. While most can benefit from a general mix of squatting, pulling and pressing movements, Olympic weightlifting pretty much consists of all three of these already.

So when it comes to training the element of strength in this sport, using a wide variety of unilateral movements or isolated segments of both the snatch and clean and jerk are effective ways to improve positional strength.

A position that every weightlifter should spend time strengthening is the front rack position. Without a strong front rack, maintaining tension throughout your core while catching cleans or driving the bar at the start of a jerk will be infinitely harder.

The front rack position involves a little more than just “high elbows” and an upright torso. Being able to maintain the position while performing, let’s say, a front squat, jerk dip or push press is crucial in being able to achieve maximal strength. If your form starts to break down under fatigue, you might start adopting some bad habits that could affect your technique in the future. The more strength endurance you develop in the front rack, the greater your ability to handle volume and heavier loads becomes.

There are many muscle groups involved in the front rack position and while training these individually can be beneficial, weightlifters should practice training them as a whole unit. Prescribing a gymnast a ton of dumbbell shoulder presses won’t directly translate to better inversion skills. Training their core, back muscles and overhead stability goes hand in hand in order to achieve mastery of this skill.

[Related: 5 Drills to Improve Your Front Rack This Week]

j2fit weightlifting push press and jerk front rack

The Benefits of the Front Rack Split Squat

A great movement for weightlifters to incorporate into their strength training in the front rack split squat. This unilateral movement not only focused on quad development (which is crucial for the sport of weightlifting) but it also trains the stability and strength in your erectors, glutes, hamstrings, obliques, adductors and lats.

How these muscles work together can be best described as our body’s anatomical slings.

As much as you can train muscle groups individually, your body tends to rely on deeper muscle cooperation more so than just working the right and left when performing compound movements. Anatomical slings (or myofascial slings) consist of thick fascia that wrap around our muscles and interconnect with corresponding ligaments. They can run from the top or down or across our bodies, enabling us to produce power and force throughout an entire chain of muscles.

Training these slings harmoniously can help you improve overall strength, speed and power. However, any imbalances throughout the sling can cause unnecessary tension in other connected areas and can lead to misalignment.

In weightlifting specifically, every lift involves producing force beyond the origin of the muscle contraction. Learning more about how to train these slings can help highlight and eliminate weaknesses.

In the front rack split squat, you would be targeting the four slings of the core:

deep longitudinal and posterior oblique slings
Deep longitudinal sling (left) and posterior oblique sling (right)
  • Deep longitudinal sling – erector with opposing glutes and bicep femoris
  • Posterior oblique sling – latissimus dorsi with opposing glutes
anterior oblique and lateral slings
Anterior oblique sling (left) and lateral sling (right)
  • Anterior oblique sling – internal and external obliques with opposing adductor
  • Lateral sling – quadratus lumborum (or QL) with opposing adductors and gluteus medius

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Wow, all I feel is my left glute max and my right erector during X movement”, then you’ve already uncovered a weakness throughout this sling on the opposing side of your body. It’s not wrong (at all) to train each of these muscle groups individually but, in a sport such as Olympic weightlifting, ensuring both sides are working in unison is crucial to developing maximal strength, stability and longevity.

[Related: 3 Split Squat Variations for Stronger Quads]

How To Perform A Front Rack Split Squat

You’ll need:

  • A bench or stool
  • A barbell (with the option of adding weight)

At the start, it’s best practice this movement with an empty bar. This isn’t the kind of exercise where you’d use a percentage based off of your 1RM front squat.

It’s also important to set your feet up at an appropriate distance from the bench so doing a few reps with the bar can help you gauge how far you’ll need to step back (hot tip: you can draw a chalk line or box for your feet).

In your set up, you should have the top of one foot on the bench (think shoelaces) and the other planted right underneath your hips. If you’ve been blessed with long beautiful limbs, you might want your working leg’s foot to be a touch further forward. It’s important that you’re not stepping out too far or having your foot too close to the bench. Different distances will target different muscles and make it a little more challenging to maintain proper positioning as you increase the weight.

front rack split squat one
Image 1: Top of the foot rests lightly on the bench and the working leg is lined up right under your hips (or a touch forward depending on limb length). Image 2: Your working leg’s knee will drive forward slightly over your toes and your back leg’s knee will aim down towards the ground.

Here’s the best way to test out your set-up: do a single rep with the empty bar and your knee should be driving over your toes slightly (as you would for a front squat) while your non-working leg’s knee drives down towards the ground. Your chest should stay as upright as possible without any hyperextension through the back.

In terms of weight distribution, your back foot is there for balance and assistance. Think of maintaining an 80/20 ratio throughout your sets to avoid relying on your back leg for power.

front rack split squat two
Image 3: Having your foot closer to the bench will result in your knee driving too far forward. Image 4: Setting your foot up too far forward will put too much strain on both your hip flexors.

Front Rack Split Squat Cues

To get the most out of this strength exercise, here are a few cues to help you stay engaged with proper tension throughout the four slings of the core:

  • As you come down into the deepest part of the split squat, imagine you have a laser pointer on your sternum — keep it pointing up! This will help maintain the integrity of your front rack position.
  • Think of your working side’s foot as a tripod — apply good pressure through your big toe, plan the outside of your foot and keep a “heavy” heel.
    When you come up to complete the rep, think of “standing up” to minimize the tendency of your torso to want to come forward.
front rack split squat exercise
Image 5: The starting position of the split squat involves an upright torso and a neutral spine (no piking of the hips or hyper extension of the lower back) Image 6: The end position of each rep should look like this — back knee hovers slightly above the ground while maintaining an upright torso with most of your weight loaded in the front foot.

Perform 4 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps per leg at a fairly challenging weight (think RPE 7-8) to train all four slings in unison.

The Takeaway

Weightlifters need a strong front rack position — there’s no arguing that. Finding ways to improve confidence and strength endurance in the front rack will undoubtedly translate into a stronger clean, jerk, push press, snatch and front squat. Whether you’re in the middle of a mesocycle or a strength phase, add the front rack split squat to your training and feel the benefits for yourself.

Thea Lund

Thea Lund

From a very early age, Thea has demonstrated a strong passion in various creative endeavours. She began dance lessons at the age of 4 which played a big role in developing her work ethic and natural competitive edge. She has studied many disciplines of dance including ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, contemporary, modern, hip-hop and ballroom. She has won many awards, scholarships and titles for her dance performance, costume design and choreography at dance competitions in Canada and the US. Outside of the studio, Thea could be found either drawing, reading, journaling or behind the lens of a camera.After shifting her career focus in 2015, Thea decided to press pause on her 16-year relationship with dance to pursue her passion for health and fitness. She found CrossFit in April of 2015 and started training solely in Olympic weightlifting in February of 2016. She is now ranked as 2nd best female in British Columbia in the sport. With a recent 5th place finish in the 63kg female class at the Senior Canadian Weightlifting Nationals, Thea is eager to continue her journey in weightlifting as a 59kg lifter with hopes to compete for Canada Internationally.Still feeding her thirst for creativity, Thea looks to inspire others in the fitness industry by capturing her own experiences through writing, photography and other methods of artistic expression.

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