Split Squat vs Squat – What’s the Difference, and Muscles Worked?

While many strength, power, and fitness athletes know all about the immense benefits of squatting, many are neglecting another fundamental movement that can not only aid in their overall squat performance, but also save their joints, increase movement patterning, and even add slabs of quality lean muscle to their lower bodies.

In this article, we will compare and contrast the split squat vs the squat, and discuss the importance of both movements for every athlete, regardless of sport.

The Split Squat

Generally speaking, many lifter’s refer to the “split squat” as an exercise that is done without a bench, in which the lifter takes a split stance (one foot back, one foot in front, much like taking a knee), lowers to one knee (back knee is usually in line with front heel or slightly behind) with the feet about hip width apart (maybe slightly closer).

[All split squats aren’t created equal! Here’s what you need to know!]

Common variations exist, such as the Bulgarian split squat and/or front-foot elevated, however for this article we will throw them all in one large category I’ll call “split squats” (as the complexities change based on the variations, however the general outcomes are generally similar).

In the above video, I am performing a few sets of split squats at the end of a squat training session. Split squats help to develop unilateral leg muscle, aid in proper hip, knee, and ankle tracking, and can increase a lifter’s performance via something called, the “Bilateral Deficit” effect.

The Squat

This movement is about as fundamental as it gets. Often, children, before they can even walk…sit and stand in this natural squatting pattern. Almost every athletic endeavor can be aided by a healthy diet of squats, which is why most of us here are very familiar with them.

The squat is often performed from the back rack position (low or high bar) or front rack, however in this piece I will compare split squats to the squatting movement in general (back squat).

In the above video, I perform a series of heavy squats with some good loading, demonstrating how these can be used to produce strength, hypertrophy, and sports performance outcomes on an athlete.

[Of course you need a stronger squat! Here’s how!]

Why You Should Do Both

Although the back squat may be a staple in your training program (if not, what are you doing?!), the split squat and it’s variances should find their way into your assistance sections of your training program on a weekly basis, if not more. If you neglect both movements, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and potentially injury.

Here’s why.

Maximal Strength

Without a doubt, the squat is one of the most strength-based movements around. Developing raw strength with this fundamental movement can have vast carry over to sport, drive hormonal and neural adaptations, and make the weak, strong…and the strong, stronger.

The split squat can definitely impact maximal strength capacities via the benefits of unilateral training, however is often not advised to do for maximal loading relative to one’s maximal strength, as the reward for heavy unilateral movements is not worth the potential joint-harming effects. Athletes can definitely attack unilateral movements with vigor and heavy loading, however I generally recommend keeping reps moderate to higher (no less than 5-6 reps per leg per set) with unilateral movements since they are best used for hypertrophy, sport specificity, movement integrity and injury resilience, and aiding in overall performance enhancement (ie strength).

Muscular Hypertrophy

Both movements provide great stimulus when looking to add quality muscle to your frame. Without hypertrophy cycles, athletes will stall out, ultimately limiting long term strength progress and increasing the likelihood of injury.

Granted, these are drop/reverse lunges, however the unilateral effect is present.

The squat can be performed with higher loads, and can be done in high volumes, making them great for systemic muscle growth and development. The split squat, as it is a unilateral exercise, can often produce a more pinpointed approach to quadricep and glute development, increase neural patterning, and be a great accessory exercise to increase muscle mass and overall squat performance.

Correcting Asymmetries

Unilateral training can play a huge role in performance and injury resilience. While squatting under full range of motion and control can help you with those as well, the split squat can really increase your odds of performing well and avoiding preventable injuries via the immense benefits of unilateral training.

The important of the split squat (and the many variations of single-leg squat exercises; lunges, step ups, Bulgarian split squats, etc) cannot be stressed enough, regardless of your sport. Increasing specific muscular hypertrophy, increase balance and stability of the pelvis, hip, knee, and ankle, and increasing neuro-patterning all can have immense carry over to athletic movements and yes, heavy squats.

Sport Specificity

The squat has vast application to powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman, CrossFit movements, functional fitness, running, and formal athletics. The foundational strength and movement patterning is a must for all athletes. Additionally, strength and power athletes may find adding lunges, split squats, and other unilateral movements can aid in overall movement, positional strength, and muscle mass development specific to their squat.


The split squat is also a must, as it helps to aid in injury prevention, build weak muscle groups, and increase muscle activity for stationary athletes (weightlifters and powerlifters). For athletes who move around (functional fitness, formal sports, runners, track athletes, strongman, etc) most of your sport is performed while in flight and contacting the ground on one foot (if you run, you do this). The need for balance and symmetrical movement patterning on both legs is critical to your success and health as an athlete.

Final Words

I am a huge advocate of including split squats and other unilateral leg exercises (step ups, walking lunges, front-foot elevated lunges, etc) into every training program at least once per week, if not more. The added benefits of movement integrity, muscular development, and balance and stability of the hips, knees, and ankles during dynamic movement are all too important to ignore.

Both the squat and the split squat (and the variances) are highly urged to be done so that coaches can not only advance their lifters and athletes, but also protect them from preventable injuries caused by neglect, muscle imbalances, and poor programming.

Featured Image: @thej2fit Weightlifting on Instagram