Split Squat Ultimate Guide

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

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).

Split Squat – Front

Step 1: Start with your feet hip width apart, with the legs about 3-5 feet apart (in a split position).

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.

Split Squat – Side

Step 2: Once you have found stability and balance, allow the back and front knees to flex, slowly descending into a lunged position. The front foot (heel down) should stay flat throughout the entirety of the movement.

It is important to note that the back heel should lift, to allow for proper split squat movement. Additionally, the lifters balance should not shift forwards or backwards, but rather staying centered in between both feet.

Split Squat – Side Bottom

Step 3: With the torso vertical, continue downwards into the split squat, ending with the back knee bent as it touches the floor.

Descend under control, making sure to not slam the back knee into the floor.

Split Squat – Front Bottom

Step 4: The majority of the load should be into the lead leg. Once you have established that, stand up maintaining a vertical torso.

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.

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.

Muscles Worked by 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.

Gluteals

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.

Quadriceps

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.

Hamstrings

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.

Core

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 spme 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). 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).

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.

How to Program the Split Squat

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.