Olympic weightlifting requires great amounts of leg strength to produce successful snatches, cleans, and jerks. Movements like back squats, front squats, and pulls are the main movements used to acquire strength and hypertrophy in weightlifters.
In addition to those movements, however, coaches should be integrating unilateral lower body exercises, such as lunges and split squats to further:
- Enhance muscle development
- Increase injury resilience
- Improve stability in non-bilateral positions (such as the split jerk)
In this article we discuss the importance of unilateral training (in the form of lunges/split squats) for Olympic weightlifters, offer common lunge/split squat variations, and discuss various ways to integrate such movements into weightlifting program.
Should Weightlifters Do Lunges/Split Squats?
Both lunges/split squats fall under the category of unilateral training exercise, which have been shown to increase stability, strength, and improve any muscle imbalances that may exist in bilateral exercise (such as back squats).
Most weightlifting programs get in their fair share of bilateral squatting (back squats, front squats, overhead squats, cleans, snatches, snatch balances, squat jerks, etc), however some may fall deficient in the inclusion of unilateral training. Below, we will discuss in deeper detail the benefits of including unilateral exercises within a weightlifting program and offer coaches/athletes practical insight in what exercise to include and how to include them.
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4 Benefits Lunges/Split Squats
Below are four (4) benefits of lunges and split squats that weightlifters can expect when integrating these unilateral exercises within their Olympic weightlifting program.
Improved Joint Stability
Unilateral exercises can increase muscle control, proprioception, and strength; all of which can help to stabilize the joint and help to assist the connective tissues in supporting a movement. Joints like the knee, hip, and ankle require great amounts of control and stability (as well as mobility, especially at the hip) in order to move properly under loads.
Minimize Injury Risks
In addition to increased stability, lunges and split squats (as well as the other unilateral lower body exercises below) can help to isolate and address any muscular and/or movement imbalances an athlete may have that would otherwise go undetected during bilateral training. Often, overuse injuries can occur due to these imbalances if not properly addressed.
Address Muscular Imbalances
As discussed above, unilateral exercise like lunges and split squats can address any movement imbalances that may be present. Many of these are masked by bilateral training, and therefore if present should be addressed to increase injury resistance and maximize overall muscular development and strength potential.
Increase Leg Hypertrophy and Strength
Increases in muscle activation due to unilateral exercises can result in greater muscle hypertrophy and strength acquisitions. Athletes can use lunges/split squats to target any deficiencies within muscle size/strength while simultaneously improving unilateral strength and performance.
6 Lunge/Split Squat Variations for Weightlifters
Below are six (6) lunge/split squat variations weightlifters can perform to increase unilateral strength, stability, and injury resilience.
Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat is one of the more commonly seen unilateral leg training exercises within Olympic weightlifting programs. It has the ability to mimic similar joint mechanics as the squat (both front and back), allows for a full range of motion, and can be done with higher amounts of loading (relative to single leg exercises).
Step ups, like the split squat and other lunges below, offer an athlete/coach the ability to strengthen a specific range of motion on a unilateral basis while also increasing joint stability and muscle coordination. This exercise can be helpful to increase quadriceps development.
In an earlier article we discussed why cossack squats and lunge variations are beneficial for Olympic weightlifters. In short, cossack squats/lunges offer lifters a way to strengthen the hips, increase lateral knee stability, and enhance hip, knee, and ankle mobility; all necessary for low, safe, stable, and strong squats.
Walking lunges can be done in a variety of ways (front rack, with dumbbells, kettlebells, overhead, asymmetrical loaded, etc), all of which offer unilateral strength and stability while increasing dynamic lower body performance. The balance and coordination that must be displayed during loaded walking lunges is very similar to positions assumed in split positions (split jerk); which also must be done with great precision, coordination, and strength.
Front Rack Lunges/Split Squats
Front rack lunges/split squats can be done to increase leg strength while incorporating positional strength necessary for movements like front squats and cleans. The front rack Bulgarian split squat is one of my personal favorites. Not only does the front rack position increase core stability and strength, it can help you reinforce proper movement patterning to the transition over to heavy front squats and cleans.
Overhead Lunges/Split Squats
The overhead lunge/split squat can also be integrated into most lunge/split squat variations, and can help to increase core stability and upper back strength (due to having to support the load overhead). This is also helpful for lifters who may need additional overhead stability work yet do not want to perform endless amounts of pressing and overhead squats.
How to Program Lunges/Split Squats in Weightlifting Programs
Programming lunges and split squat variations within an Olympic weightlifting training program does not need to be complicated, nor should it. In most programs, lifters are typically already squatting 2-3 times per week, in addition to performing the full lifts.
Integrating unilateral lower body exercise can be done at the end of training sessions to increase muscle hypertrophy and address any imbalances, and should not directly impede with primary squat/strength lifts in successive training sessions.
Another option is to incorporate lunges as the main strength lift for the day, swapping them for back squats or front squats once per week. By doing this, you can often recover from the volume and increase unilateral strength and hypertrophy.
For more on how to program exercise like the Bulgarian split squat into your current workout routine, be sure to read this programming guide covering proper sets, repetitions, and loading ranges.
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