Building your lower body is a mainstay of your program. You deadlift and squat all the time. But training your lower body while making sure to training both legs equally may be something your program has forgotten. If your squat is getting wobbly because one leg is pushing more strongly than the other, it’s time to course-correct — and fast. Choosing unilateral exercises to even out your gains is a must if you’re serious about building major strength.
Fortunately for your strength levels, conventional squat has a ton of variations that can keep your workout well-balanced. One such variation is the split squat. Like the king of all lifts, the split squat helps you build some serious lower body strength and muscle mass —but the split squat tosses in the added benefit of ensuring that you’re building each leg equally.
But the classic split squat isn’t the only way to boost your leg and core strength unilaterally. Whether you need to up the challenge or a modification for the split squat — or a few new exercises to combat boredom — there are plenty of different split squat variations to include in your next leg day. Your legs will hate it, but your gains will love it.
Best Split Squat Variations
No matter your experience level, you can find the right split squat variations for your program.
Beginner Split Squats
Intermediate Split Squats
Advanced Split Squats
Beginner Split Squats
One of the characteristics of the split squat is that your body stays in a fixed position as you lunge up and down. The reverse lunge allows for a more dynamic, functional movement. You might find this one less challenging than a forward lunge since it tends to be slightly easier to control your body’s movement.
When you step backwards, it also puts less stress on your knee while emphasizing the work in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Because of this, it can be a good stepping stone for other lunge or squat variations. (1)
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
- This move may be more beneficial for people with balance or knee issues compared to forward lunges.
- Reverse lunges can help you progress to other lunge or squat variations.
- When you bring your back knee all the way to the ground, you’ll be improving your hip mobility.
How to Do the Reverse Lunge
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your chest tall. Keep your core tight. Step your right foot straight behind you until your feet are staggered. Bend both knees until they’re both at 90 degrees. Your back knee may gently touch the ground. Press through your front heel to stand. Reset your feet back in the middle. Repeat on the other side.
The forward lunge is similar to the reverse lunge in all things but one. Instead of stepping backward, you step forward. Many lifters consider this variation a step up from the reverse lunge because of the added balance and stability challenge of finding your forward footing.
This variation is also largely an eccentric exercise — you’ll focus more on lengthening your muscles through the movement than contracting them. That’s key for building muscle mass, more overall stability, and possibly even injury prevention. (2)(3)
Benefits of the Forward Lunge
- The forward lunge recruits your core to help with balance and stabilization
- It’ll help promote quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf hypertrophy.
- This move can be helpful in injury prevention and improving neuromuscular control.
How to Do the Forward Lunge
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your chest tall. Step your right foot forward until your feet are staggered. Bending both knees until they’re at 90 degrees. Gently touch your back knee to the ground. Press through your front heel to come back to standing. Reset your feet back in the middle. Repeat on the other side.
The core and the glutes seem to always be a big focus in the gym for folks chasing a particular aesthetic. Although the split squat is primarily a lower body move, certain variations are a two-fer because they’ll really fire up your core.
When you want to up your core involvement, the goblet split squat is a strong option. You’ll get your arms more involved in the movement, as your biceps and shoulders work to hold the weight in proper position. Because it’s front-loaded, you’ll majorly boost your core strength to keep yourself stable.
Benefits of the Goblet Split Squat
- This move requires extra upper body work from your core, arms, and shoulders to keep the weight in position.
- It can help improve posture by strengthening the muscles in your upper body that help keep you upright.
- Once you get a hang of the position, you can load up goblet split squats fairly heavily.
How to Do the Goblet Split Squat
Hold a dumbbell in your palms at chest height. Stagger your feet so you’re in a split squat position. Keeping your chest up and core tight, lower your body by bending both knees until they reach 90 degrees. Press through your front heel to stand all the way back up.
Intermediate Split Squats
Walking around the block or on a treadmill may not seem like it’s doing much for your body, but your cardiovascular health begs to differ. Similarly, walking lunges may look easy — but they’re absolutely harder than they look. They’re also a great split squat variation for jacking up your heart rate.
Adding a strength training element to your cardio routine targets your lower body strength, balance, coordination, cardio capacity, and hip mobility. All of these qualities can help you squat deeper, run faster, and move more efficiently. (4)
Benefits of the Walking Lunge
- Walking lunges help improve hamstring strength and running speed.
- This move will ramp up your heart rate, which can help boost your cardiovascular health.
- You’ll challenge your stability and balance while helping improve core strength.
How to Do the Walking Lunge
Stand up tall with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your core tight. Step your right foot straight forward. Lunge to the ground. Lift your left foot off the ground behind you. Step straight forward. Continue to walk forward, alternating feet. If you need more support, meet your feet in the middle before stepping forward again.
The Smith machine gets a bad rap because since the bar is fixed to the rack, you need to generate less stability than you do using free weights. Although that may not be good news for your stabilizer muscles — unless you’re trying to give them a break — it can be helpful in promoting muscle growth for the targeted area.
If your balance isn’t the best, the Smith machine is a great option since it does offer more support than working with a barbell. You can load up heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth and strength because of this much-needed assist with your balance. (6)
Benefits of the Smith Machine Split Squat
- The Smith machine can offer more balance support than a conventional loaded split squat.
- This move takes it easy on your stabilizer muscles, which can help muscle growth.
- You can load up heavier than you might be able to if your balance isn’t great, while developing the confidence you need to get more steady on your feet.
How to Do the Smith Machine Split Squat
Set the barbell on the rack at shoulder height. Place the barbell on your shoulders and upper back. Make sure you can stand up tall with it. Lift the bar to release it from the rack. Stagger your feet like you would with a normal split squat. Bend both knees to 90 degrees. Press back to standing once your back knee touches or nearly touches the floor. Repeat on the other side.
A popular piece of gym equipment — if not as popular as the barbell — is the hex bar. Just about any exercise you can do with a barbell or dumbbells, you can do with this type of bar, including the split squat.
Doing the split squat with a hex bar can help reduce the stress on your wrists, elbows, and biceps because your hand is in a more natural position. (5) Using a hex bar can also help you stay more upright, which can cause less stress on your back since the weight is more equally distributed.
Benefits of the Hex Bar Split Squat
- Potentially reduces risks of stress on your wrists, elbows, and biceps due to the neutral grip.
- Using a hex bar can put less stress on your back since the weight is centered with your body.
- You can load this variation up very heavily, which is a boon to your strength gains.
How to Do the Hex Bar Split Squat
Step into the middle of a loaded hex bar. Stagger your feet like you’re setting up for a normal split squat. Lower down to the ground and grab the handles of the hex bar. Before standing back up, make sure your chest is tall and your core is tight. Repeat for reps.
Advanced Split Squats
Split squats might not be the most dynamic move — with the exception of lunge variations, your feet will be planted the whole time. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get absurdly challenging.
When you’re ready to take your entire program to the next level, it’s time for the Bulgarian split squat. You’ll elevate your rear foot and perform a split squat as usual. But because your back foot is up on a bench or plyo box, you’ll go through a much bigger range of motion.
That means you’ll be building a lot more hip mobility while challenging your lower body strength in a whole new way, activating your glutes even more than traditional back squats. (7) Although the Bulgarian split squat is often a dreaded addition to your leg day, the added strength and mobility challenges make a few sets of torture worth your while.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
- This variation increases hip flexor mobility for deeper squats and better function.
- Bulgarian split squats promote even greater glute activation than a back squat, making it a great glute developer.
- With your rear foot elevated, this move helps improve your balance in a big way.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
Secure a weight bench or a stable surface behind you. Set your front foot on the floor, close enough to the bench so you can reach it, but far enough away so you can lunge. Place your rear foot on the bench. Adjust your front foot as needed. Keep your head and chest up. Descend by bending both knees. Once your front thigh is parallel to the ground, press through your heel to stand back up. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.
Commonly used with the front squat, you can use the front rack position to do exercises like lunges and the split squat. Holding a front rack position can be difficult without the proper shoulder mobility and core strength.
That’s what makes this version so advanced — especially because split squats combine all of that with the balance element. Opting for the front rack position loads your lower body while also improving upper body strength and skyrocketing your core stability.
Benefits of the Front-Rack Barbell Split Squat
- The front rack position can help improve core stability, which you need not just for gym performance, but for everyday life.
- This position helps build upper body strength while the split squat itself movement builds lower body strength.
- You can use this move to get comfortable in the front rack position even in off-balanced situations — in turn, you’ll likely have a much more stable front rack during bilateral moves like front squats.
How to Do the Front-Rack Barbell Split Squat
Hold a barbell at your shoulders with your elbows high. Keep your core tight. Maintain this position without slouching your shoulders. Instead, pull them back and down with high elbows. Perform the split squat as you normally would. You can also opt to use front-racked kettlebells or dumbbells here.
The Bulgarian split squat has a less well-known cousin named the front foot-elevated split squat. Elevating your front foot allows the range of motion that would otherwise stop at 90 degrees in a regular split squat to go even further. This helps stretch your hamstrings, hips, and glutes more.
This greater ROM can help increase your conventional squat depth as well as your hip mobility. If you find yourself hitting a plateau in your lower body, add the front foot-elevated split squat into your routine.
Benefits of the Front Foot-Elevated Split Squat
- The increased range of motion allows for more stretch in your lower body muscles, which can help improve mobility and flexibility.
- This move engages your quadriceps more without having to pack on extra weight plates.
- You’ll be able to improve your hypertrophy potential because of the added stretch on your muscles.
How to Do the Front Foot-Elevated Split Squat
Set up a stable surface like a bumper plate or a secure bench in front of you. Place your right foot on the elevated surface. Put your left foot behind you like you would in a normal split squat. Keep your core tight and chest up. Slowly bend your knees to lower toward the ground. Stand all the way back up when your range of motion is tapped out. Repeat for reps. Switch sides.
Muscles Worked by the Split Squat
Like the traditional squat, the split squat helps build your whole lower body. You can emphasize different muscles depending on the variation, but the main muscle groups are still working with each move.
You use your quads when you walk, run, and squat. Building up your quads evenly — as with split squats — can help you squat more efficiently and therefore lift heavier. They are one of the primary muscles worked by the split squat.
Although conventional squats do work your glutes, the split squat and other lunge-like variations can help activate the glutes more — especially the Bulgarian split squat. (7)(8) Strong glutes can help increase stability in your hips, as well as contribute to a stronger lower body overall — think better deadlifts, squats, box jumps, and more.
The split squat helps place a lot of emphasis on your hamstrings, especially during the eccentric — AKA, lowering — phase when this muscle is lengthened. Having stronger hamstrings don’t just help boost your deadlift numbers. They’ll also help you get better at running and jumping.
Although you’re not directly targeting it, your core acts as a stabilizer during the split squat. Any variation of the split squat or the lunge requires balance and coordination to stay upright and steady. That recruits your core automatically. But some variations — like the front rack split squat — challenge your core even more.
How to Program Split Squats
There’s no one way to incorporate split squats into your program. But in general, there are some guidelines for how you can slide these muscle-builders into your routine.
Add Splits Squats to Your Warm-Up
Because they’re a mobility-based activity in addition to a strength-builder, split squats are excellent additions to your warm-up routine. They activate your glutes — big time — and prime your hips for deep squats. As part of your warm-up, do one to two sets of 15 reps per side with a variation of your choice, depending on your goals for your day’s session.
Use Split Squats as Accessory Work
But split squats are a fantastic accessory exercise to help you iron out side-to-side imbalances that might be preventing you from progressing your heavier moves. Program split squats after your main lift of the day — generally, that will be squats — and do three to four sets of eight to 15 reps per side.
Incorporate Split Squats Into Finishers
Split squats lend themselves very well to high-intensity training, including EMOM (every minute, on the minute) and AMRAP (as many reps/rounds as possible) workouts. Since you won’t have to constantly change your foot position, you have the capacity to load up heavy or just bang out a lot of speed reps in a limited time frame. This makes them perfect for incorporating into finishers and stand-alone bodyweight workouts.
Program 10 split squats (per side) into your EMOMs or use them as an all-out lower body finisher by seeing how many split squats you can perform in two minutes. Rest as needed, then match that number on the other side.
Change Up Your Split Squat
Split squats fall in the category of those things you don’t want to do but need to do. Like eating your veggies, getting regular checkups, and going to bed early, you know split squats are good for you — but you probably need a push to get them done. When you see them in your program, you might swear under your breath a little — or a lot — but the strength and functional benefits are worth the effort.
But doing the same exercise everyday can make you lose motivation — especially when the exercise is difficult to begin with. Having variations of the split squat on hand helps keep your workout interesting while allowing you to access the same side-to-side, muscle-building gains.
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