The split squat, lunge, and step up are three movements that are common unilateral low body exercises to increase leg mass, enhance movement integrity, and bulletproof an athlete from injury; all of which can be specifically applied to sports performance needs.
Many coaches and athletes, however, may have some confusion as to what exercise should be performed at any given point during a training cycle. Therefore, in this article, I will go through the small, yet distinct differences between the split squat, lunge, and step up.
Split Squat vs Lunge vs Step Up: Unilateral Training
All three of these movements are considered unilateral lower body training exercises, in which coaches and athletes can use to address asymmetries, increase muscular development and activation, and further promote movement integrity. To learn more about what unilateral training is and how it can drastically improve injury resilience and performance, take a look at this previous article.
Below is the listing of the exercises, starting with the least complex, ending in the most complex. Complexity is determined by considering factors such as, proper ankle, hip, and knee tracking and overall balance needed.
The step is one of the most regressed unilateral leg exercises that can be programmed for nearly all ability levels. For starters, the step height can be changed to meet the exact abilities of a lifter, either for strength and sticking point purposes, recovery from injury/rehab, and/or to increase muscular development throughout the fullest range of motion.
The act of stepping onto a fixed object (a step or box) allows the individuals to find balance, as well as even gain momentum into this lift.
Split Squat (with or without bench)
The split squat is very similar to the lunge, however it does not require the lifter to move dynamically under load. This is a good exercise to progress from step ups yet before lunges, as it teaches proper ankle, knee, and hip joint mechanics under load while in a stationary movement.
Additionally, the lifter needs to have balance and coordination to properly execute this lift. This can be done with (Bulgarian split squat) or without a bench, both viable training options for leg development and unilateral benefits.
The lunge is one of the most difficult (yes, difficult) and complex dynamic unilateral movements around. Many lifters and trainees often perform this incorrectly, failing to properly track the ankle, knee, and hip flexion/extension patterning to best translate over to athletic sports and general movement.
The lunge not only requires the same balance and coordination as the previous two lifts, but also requires an athlete to have greater amounts of proprioception and stability while in a moving environment; therefore maximizing complexity.
The sport specific application of each of these movements is discussed below.
The step up is a great way to develop strength, muscular mass, and isolate specific joint angles (by changing the height of the step) to better individualize and meet a lifters needs. Because the complexity is slightly lower than the other two exercises, many lifters can use higher amounts of loading, making it well-suited for strength and hypertrophy development.
This is a good movement to transition towards lunges, or to isolate a specific split stance patterning to strengthening and stabilization; such as in the split jerk or staggered stances used in athletic events.
For example, weightlifters may prefer to perform split squats and presses in the split to better familiarize and strengthen the split stance and muscle needed during a certain lift, making this another option for increased complexity and/or great specificity to sport.
Additionally, the split squat can be performed with the back foot on a bench (Bulgarian Split Squat) to increase complexity and demand upon the lead leg.
The lunge is a very good movement for overall athletic development, hypertrophy, and real-world strength. Because lunging is very similar to other forms of human locomotion (uphill walking, sprinting, sports, etc) it can have a strong correlation with movement and performance, making this a very common staple for most athletes at all levels (assuming they have properly been progressed to meet the demands of this complex movement.
Targeted Muscle Groups
While all of these exercises are great lower body assistance options, there are slight differences in loading placed upon the quads, hamstrings, and glutes; all of which are discussed below.
Depending on the degree of knee and hip flexion (done by altering the box height), coaches and athletes can easily manipulate what muscle groups will be primarily working.
For shorter heights, knee flexion will be the primary mover, making quadricps and some glute to be active, whereas deeper steps will increase glute and total leg development, very similar to squats.
I have found the split squat to target the quadriceps muscle dramatically, with increased loading done when the front foot is elevated. Split squats will have a slightly limited range of motion depending on the height and depth between the lifters back knee and the floor, however this can be manipulated (a wider stance, where the front foot is stretched out further in front) to better target and elongate the hamstring and glutes.
Depending on the length of each step, a lifter can increase overall leg development, target the quads (shorter steps), or really isolate the hamstrings and glutes (longer steps). The lounge will also allow for a good amount of loading, making this a prime mover for some serious mass development. Beware however, that there is a very strong eccentric aspect to this lift, which can lead to high amounts of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
While each of these movements provide similar yet distinctly different benefits to athletes, coaches should not over complicate the selection of these within a training program. For most athletes, selection based upon complexity, availability, and application to sport and movement is a good starting point. Adjustments can then be made to better individualize programming.
Featured Image: @curry0531 on Instagram