The split squat squat is a leg exercise that offers stability, improved coordination, and unilateral strength and hypertrophy. Exercises like the split squat can further improve joint stability and minimize injuries that may arise from muscle imbalances and movement asymmetries. Strength, power, and fitness athletes should integrate split squats and the various alternatives and variations to maximize potential.
We have set out to discuss everything coaches and athletes need to know about the split squat exercise guide, in which we will cover:
- Split Squat Form and Technique
- Benefits of Split Squats
- Muscles Worked by Split Squats
- Who Should Do Split Squats?
- Split Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Split Squat Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How to Do a Split Squat: Step-By-Step Guide
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the split squat, in this case the standard one (as opposed to the Bulgarian split squat, which is detailed in the variations section). Note, that using kettlebells or dumbbells (or any other type of equipment may alter the below steps somewhat, but the directions below can still generally apply to the split squat movement).
Set Your Split
Start with your feet hip width apart, with the legs about 3-5 feet apart (in a split position).
Coach’s Tip: You can use a barbell, dumbbell, or any other load placement. Be sure to have the core contracted and the pelvis facing forward. Additionally, the toes should both be pointing forwards, making sure to not allow the back hip to turn outwards.
Align the Torso and Descend
With the torso vertical, continue downwards into the split squat, ending with the back knee bent as it touches the floor. It is important to note that the back heel should lift, to allow for proper split squat movement.
Additionally, the balance should not shift forwards or backwards, but rather staying centered in between both feet.
Coach’s Tip: Descend under control, making sure to not slam the back knee into the floor.
Contract, Then Stand
The majority of the load should be into the lead leg. Once you have established that, stand up maintaining a vertical torso.
Coach’s Tip: Be sure to not lean forwards or let the hips shift backwards as you stand up. Rather, keep tension in the front leg. Once you have settled at the top of the movement, repeat for repetitions, then switch lead legs.
3 Benefits of Split Squats
Below are three (3) benefits of the split squat that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing this unilateral leg exercise into a training regimen.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Muscles Worked – Split Squats
The split squat is a unilateral leg exercise that increase lower body strength, muscle hypertrophy, balance, and stability. Below is a breakdown of the primary muscle groups involved in this exercise.
The glutes are active in the split squat movement, and are responsible for hip extension and stabilizing the pelvis during the split position. Athletes/lifters can manipulate the depth of the split to further isolate the glutes and hamstrings.
The quadriceps are worked in the split squat primarily due to their role in knee extension of the lead leg. The greater the knee flexion (less distance between the front and back foot), the greater the demands on the quadriceps.
The hamstrings are a muscle that is eccentrically loaded in this movement, offering balance, stability, and strength in the lowering phase of the split. This can help to increase hamstring strength and size and have direct application to movements like running and jumping.
The core muscles, such as the obliques and rectus abdominals are working to stabilize the core and support a rigid torso to allow the hips to function properly. Additionally, the core works to resist rotational forces on the some sometimes caused by inadequate balance and stability.
Who Should Do Split Squats?
Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing the split squat.
Strength and Power Athletes
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).
- Olympic Weightlifters: 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).
- Powerlifters: While the competition lifts are bilateral and closed-chain (stationary), unilateral training can be used to increase strength, hypertrophy, and minimize asymmetries. Many powerlifters can benefit from including unilateral training in correct, preventative, and accessory blocks.
- Strongman Athletes: Strongman athletes not only need to express high amounts of strength and power, they must be able to move athletically under loading, making loaded unilateral training key to sports performance and injury prevention.
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, and overall supplemental movement pattern with direct transfer to human location like cycling, running, and jumping.
Runners, Cyclists, and Endurance Athletes
Runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes rely heavily on unilateral leg performance. Split squats have the ability to not only increase muscle mass, strength, and muscular endurance, they allow an athlete to train similar angles and coordination/stability requirements often seen in their sport/fitness. Integrating the split squat into basic strength work or more volume-based workouts.
General Fitness and Movement
Aside from increasing leg strength, lower body muscle mass, and enhancing knee and hip stability, the split squat is a very functional movement pattern to strengthen movement patterns. Human locomotion, in the form of walking, running, climbing stairs, hiking, etc; all rely on unilateral leg strength and coordination, making the split squat a practical way to train functional fitness.
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How to Program the Split Squat – Sets, Reps, and Intensity
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the split squat into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program split squats.
Strength – Reps and Sets
For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.
- 4-6 sets of 3-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
- While some coaches may not program split squats and other unilateral exercises for main strength work, others may find it beneficial to program unilateral leg strength in place of back loaded squats during times where monitoring overall fatigue may be the goal (decreased loading needed to crease a metabolic stimulus).
Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets
Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.
- 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes
- Unilateral exercises like the split squat have been shown to have higher muscle activation and can stimulate new muscle growth.
Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
- 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
Split Squat Variations
Below are three (3) split squat variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a split squat variation that entails a lifter/athlete to perform the split squat movement with the back leg propped up onto a bench, box, or other elevated and stable object. In doing so, you increase the loading demands upon the lead leg, increase stability and balance requirements, and can allow for deeper ranges of motion in the knees and hips.
2. Front Rack Split Squat
The front rack split squat is a split squat (any variation) done with a load in the front of the body, which can be via a front rack position with the barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells (as well as many other objects). Front rack split squats increase the need for a vertical back angle, making it more challenging on the quadriceps, anterior core muscles, and upper back.
3. TRX/Suspension Split Squat
The suspension/TRX split squat can be done with TRX bands or even gymnastic rings, as the lifter must place their back foot into a stirrup/loop, very similar to the Bulgarian split squat. By using the suspension systems, you increase the need for unilateral stability and coordination, which can further the realreal benefits of the movement.
Split Squat Alternatives
Below are three (3) split squat alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy.
1. Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
The front foot elevated reverse lunge is a unilateral lunge variation that allows a lifter to train similar movement patterns and muscle groups as the split squat; with the added benefits of dynamic movement and increase knee flexion angles in the lead leg. This increase knee flexion leads to quadriceps development and can train the specific angles found in the deep squat.
2. Walking Lunge
The walking lunge is a dynamic version of the stationary lunge and split squat, increasing balance, coordination, and applicability to open-chained movements like running, jumping, and athletics.
3. Step Up
The step up can be done to increase quadriceps and overall leg development, much like the split squat, by having a lifter/athlete step into a box/bench/supportive object, you can also challenge stability and balance.
Featured Image: Mike Dewar