The reverse lunge and split squat are two common and highly effective unilateral movements for coaches and athletes to implement into training programs to improve balance, coordination, muscular symmetry, and hypertrophy. At first glance, these two movements seem similar and simple enough, however some coaches and athletes may fail to see the distinct differences and specific applications each can have in a customized training program.
Therefore, in this article we will compare and contrast the reverse lunge and the split squat to determine which movement is best based upon the purpose and specific situation.
The Reverse Lunge
Note: In the above video, the barbell is held in the front rack. Bar placement and/or equipment can vary.
The reverse lunge is a unilateral lower body movement that can be done using bodyweight or with any external load. Above is an exercise demo on how to properly perform this movement.
The Split Squat
Note: In the above video, the front foot is elevated, which is a progression that increases the range of motion and difficulty of the movement.
Like the reverse lunge, the split squat is also a unilateral lower body movement that can be done using bodyweight or with any external load, and can even be progressed into the Bulgarian split squat. Above is an exercise demo on how to properly perform this movement.
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Both of these movements target nearly that same muscle groups, however the joint loading mechanics may be slightly different. Below are the primary muscles targeted while performing a reverse lunge and/or split squat (in no specific order).
- Gluteal Muscles
- Abductor Magnus (inner thigh)
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When determining which movement is best to target a specific area, joint mechanics and angles are key rather than which exercise. To increase quadriceps involvement, greater knee flexion is needed, which can be done via placing the front foot on a step or plate (see section below). To increase hamstring and glute involvement, hip flexion must occur, which could be done with bigger reverse steps or wider splits. Generally speaking, however, both exercises stress the same muscle groups.
[All split squats aren’t created equal! Here’s what you need to know!]
Complexity refers to the demands placed upon the lifter outside of the actual loading. This may be due to balance, coordination, unstable surfaces, unilateral exercise, etc.
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Both movements above are unilateral movements, which will increase the demands of the movement upon the lifter. When determining which movement to use, proper joint mechanics must occur. For some individuals, the reverse lunge may very well be a natural progression into the lunge world, with the split squat becoming much more foreign, as the feet do not move. Generally speaking, the split squat is a regression of a lunge since it has a lifter reinforce sound hip, knee, and ankle mechanics while in a fixed position, rather than having to find the exact positioning during a dynamic drop back.
Both movements can be used and alternated into training regimens. Progressions can then be made to increase difficulty, such as;
- placing the front foot onto a step or plate (increasing the range of motion),
- placing the back foot on a bench or box, referred to as the Bulgarian split squat
- Performing tempo repetitions, working to keep tension on the muscles and minimizing joint support
- Perform partial repetitions in specific ranges of motion to further isolate a muscle group (for example, only do the top half of the movement to increase quadriceps engagement)
Application to Sport, Training, and Human Movement
Both movements have high application to sports performance and daily life. Most sport athletes can benefit from the inclusion of general unilateral training exercises to enhance movement integrity, increase muscle balance and symmetry, and increase proprioception and joint control during motion.
The split squat can however be used is an athlete’s stance is known during a particular sport or lift. For example, split stance squats can be done with loads overhead to stimulate and strengthen the receiving position in the jerk. Furthermore, wrestling or combat athletes can take their staggered stance and pattern stronger leg drive and balance in the split. Additionally, reverse lunges can also be done to enhance single leg and hip strength, power, and acceleration for sprinting athletes or general fitness.
Unilateral leg training, such as with reverse lunges and split squats (as well as these other unilateral leg training superstars) can play a significant role in muscular development, movement integrity, and injury resilience in all athletes.
Choosing between these exercises does not need to be a difficult matter. Both movements offer similar benefits, however the complexity and situations specificity may make one better for you or your athletes over the other. As with most assistance lifts, I find it best to often diversify movements and complexities to challenge athletes to make them more adaptable and able to receive information, react with control and precision, and generate force and power.
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