Split Squat Ultimate Guide

In earlier articles I compared and contrasted multiple types of lunges and other lower body unilateral exercises to showcase the need for them in your training. In this ultimate guide, I will lay out everything you need to know about the split squat, how to perform them, who should add them to their workouts, and why.

Split Squat Exercise Demo

Below is a video on how to perform the split squat from a regular position (rather than Bulgarian). In the following section we will also discuss a very similar yet distinctly different split squat variation, the Bulgarian Split Squat.

Regular vs. Bulgarian Split Squat

If a split squat is designated without the term “Bulgarian”, this means that the lifter will place one foot behind them on the floor, like in the video from the above section. In the below video, you will see how the athlete places their back leg onto a supportive structure (bench, box, step), aka, the Bulgarian split squat.

The Bulgarian split squat offers many similar benefits, however entails the lifter to place their back leg on a bench or box, increasing the need for better stabilization, balance, and increased range of motion. Additionally, this placed a great amount of loading on to the working leg, ultimately increasing the metabolic stress and muscular damage (at respective loads, tempo, and training volumes).

Who Should Do Split Squats?

Below is a list of training groups that would benefit from including split squats and other unilateral lower body movements into their accessory exercise program.

General Health Goers

Proper joint functional, balance, coordination, and unilateral movement are critical to ankle, knee, and hip health. Lack of such skills may result in injury as someone decides to become more active. Additionally, this could simply lead to muscle wasting, joint stiffness, and movement disorders if the patterning is not used on a regular basis.

Powerlifters, Strongmen, and Weightlifters

In addition to the general need for unilateral training as upright species, strength and power athletes are commonly performing lifts bilaterally (squat, clean, deadlift, snatch, etc). While weightlifters have an additional need to increase balance, coordination, and unilateral strength due to the split jerk, many strength and power athletes who lack these fundamental attributes can increase their risk of injury, increase muscle and movement disorders, and diminish their maximal lower body strength and hypertrophy potential (see below).

Functional Fitness and Sports Athletes  

Functional fitness goers and athletes need to have all attributes that the above groups (in some capacity), however also need to be able to run, move laterally, and have the ability to adapt to changing environments in an instant. Split squats can act as a great preventive injury exercise, unilateral strength and hypertrophy enhancer, and overall supplemental movement pattern with direct transfer to human location like cycling, running, and jumping.

Benefits of Split Squats

Below are a few reasons why athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike, regardless of sport or goal, should include split squats (and variations) into their training program.

Address Muscular and Movement Asymmetries

Increasing unilateral development and performance of each leg will not only increase bilateral (two legs) strength and performance, it can also minimize injury and overuse caused by one leg being more developed than the other. Often, lifters and athletes have a dominant leg, which could lead to muscle imbalances, movement compensation patterns, and overuse injury. Split squats are a great way to address such issues and keep those imbalances to a minimum.

Increased Unilateral Hypertrophy and Strength

Unilateral exercises have been shown to increase muscle hypertrophy and address bilateral deficit issues, which can lead to increased bilateral performance and strength. Increased muscle activation is a key benefit of performing movements such as split squats.

Application to Sport and Human Movement

Human locomotion (running, jumping, sprinting, cycling), and sports have a direct need for increased joint and muscular health, movement, and performance. Split squats offer us all the amazing benefits of unilateral training for the largest and most powerful muscle groups in our bodies.

Lower Body Must-Do Movements

Here are two articles you do not want to miss if you are serious about increasing leg strength, mass, and minimizing your risk for injury.

Featured Image: @achievefitnessboston on Instagram

Editor’s Note: Coach, Writer, and strength ambassador Nia Shanks had the following to say after reading this article.

“When it comes to introducing trainees to a single leg exercise for the first time, the split squat is my go-to choice. Because it’s a stationary exercise, it’s typically easier for someone to learn proper form when compared to something like a reverse lunge. It’s also a great alternative exercise for someone who can’t perform squats due to equipment, or a personal disdain for having a barbell on their back.”