We all know about the Bulgarian Split Squat (also called the rear-foot-elevated split squat). But the BSS has a neglected younger sibling, the front foot elevated split squat. Like many youngest siblings, it’s overlooked, underappreciated, and has a rebellious streak.
Well, today, let’s give the front foot elevated split squat some love.
As the name implies, the FFE split squat is when you do a split squat with your front leg on an elevated surface. In that sense, it’s the inverse of a Bulgarian split squat. Like any split squat, you keep your feet planted (unlike a lunge) and move your torso up and down vertically. It’s just a slight variation on a proven exercise, the split squat.
Firstly, the front foot elevated split squat taps into all the benefits of single-leg training. I’ve written about this in-depth, but I’ll summarize the main points here.
Because the front foot is elevated, when your back knee is on the ground your hip flexion will exceed 90 degrees, which is where lunges and other split squats stop. This shortens your quad more, placing it in a position where its weaker and doesn’t need as much weight to get a training effect.
Squat depth is also a controversial topic in the training world. It’s worse than arguing about politics, or which Marvel movie is the best. In one camp, you have those arguing that you should always squat “ass to grass” because that provides a deeper range of motion, therefore spurring more strength and hypertrophy gains.
The other side argues that as you move into deeper ranges of motion, you open yourself up to risks, especially when you have a barbell loaded on your back. Often when people try to squat deeper, they do so by arching their back rather than by sinking into their hips because of mobility restrictions.
The FFE split squat gets the best of both, because you have the increased range of motion in a safe position with less weight.
While the front leg gets deeper into the flexor, the back leg will get deeper into hip extension and stretch the hip flexors and quads at different angles. If you’re a living human in the 21st century, your hip flexors are almost definitely tight. Adding in exercises that improve your mobility even while you train can help prevent the problems with tight hip flexors. And let’s be honest, you’re not going to actually stretch after your workout, so you might as well incorporate mobility into it.
The easiest way to add load is to hold dumbbells in a suitcase (at your sides) fashion. Here’s one of my clients, a junior A hockey player, using 60lb dumbbells comfortably. Although he doesn’t tap his knee to the ground, at the bottom, he’s still at greater than 90 degrees of hip flexion.
A common misconception about single-leg exercises like split squats and lunges is that they can’t be “primary exercises,” as if for some reason you have to do them after a bilateral squat. But they can (and often should) be one of the main exercises in your workout.
You probably won’t do the FFE split squat for months on end. But it can be a great substitute for other quad-dominant leg exercises like lunges, split squats, or single-leg squats for 4-16 weeks.
This exercise works best for moderate (6-12) reps. Lower rep single-leg training is better suited for traditional or rear-foot elevated split squat variations. You can also go higher reps and use lighter weight, or even start with your bodyweight. I’ve included sets of up to 20 for those without weights and doing a bodyweight-only program.
If you hardly elevate your foot, then you’re performing more of a traditional split squat. If you elevate it too much, you won’t be able to get your knee to the ground (this might be okay). Ideally, elevate your foot so you can still comfortably touch your knee to the ground, but you feel a stretch in the back leg. For most people, this is 3-5 inches. As your mobility improves you can go further, and if you want to ease into these, your first few weeks you can use a small elevation.
Weight plates. From a practical standpoint, stacking two 45lb plates works best, or one 45lb bumper plate, which is much thicker. For most of us who train at normal gyms, this will make the most sense. If you have both at your disposal, use the bumper plates because they’re less likely to slide.
Staircase. If you train at home, you can use a staircase as well. Often this will be too tall, so you won’t be able to tap your knee to the ground, but that’s okay.
Olympic lifting platform. Yes, this is actually the perfect height.
DON’T use anything unstable. The BOSU ball is a terrible idea, do not even think about it, especially if you plan on using load.
If you’re an intermediate to advanced trainee, you know what it’s like to hit a plateau. If you do the same program for too long, you’ll stop making progress. Little shifts if your exercise like this can make the difference between being stuck at a plateau, and continuing to make progress, as you challenge your body in slightly new ways. Oh, and new exercises also make working out more fun, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
Should my knees not go over my toes? This is a complicated question, but in the context of this exercise specifically, the answer is no. Since your mobility is already challenged, you won’t even be able to bring your knee that far over your toe. So from a practical standpoint, I wouldn’t worry about it here.