SEARCH RFS:

How To Do The Traditional Split Squat: Benefits, Technique, Variations

Never miss a glorious update - click here!

The exercise you love to hate

For as long as I have been a trainer, split squats have been the single lower body exercise that clients know is the most important for them, yet hate the most. Everyone has a love-hate relationship with split squats. Why? Because it works everything including strength, mobility, balance, athleticism, but this effectiveness comes at a cost: they’re hard as hell.

What is a Split Squat?

A split squat is a unilateral leg exercise that places heavy emphasis on the quadriceps of the front leg and utilizes the greatest available range of motion in the ankles, knees, and hips.

Split squats are often confused for lunges, which are another great exercise. Split squats more closely replicate a squat, are more quad-focused, and the feet do not move. Lunges are generally performed in a more vertical motion where the feet are moving each rep. Both great exercises, just different.

In terms of classification, the two defining differences between split squats and lunges is the feet stay planted in split squats, and the split squat involves a more forward shin angle.

Step by Step Instructions to Perform a Proper Split Squat

 

  1. Stand with one leg well ahead of the other and with your feet about shoulder-width apart. It shouldn’t feel like you’re standing on a tightrope.
  2. Rotate your front foot out slightly or keep it pointed straight ahead, whichever is most comfortable for you. About 15 degrees should do, but no need for a protractor. Either way, as long as the toes aren’t pointed inwards.
  3. Make sure your front foot is flat on the ground, but come up onto the toes of the back foot. This does not change throughout the exercise.
  4. Rotate the hip of your back leg inwards, so that your hips are square, and both feet are pointing in the same direction. (Note: at this point, your hips will be pointing in different directions and therefore you need to rotate the back hip inwards so that your body is pointed in the right direction. It would be like trying to walk straight with your toes pointed to the right. You could do it, but why make it so difficult? This will be better visualized in the video below).
  5. Bend through the front knee as your whole body moves down and forward. Think about moving in a diagonal line, like an escalator, instead of moving vertically like an elevator.
  6. As the front foot stays flat, continue to bend through the front knee as far as you can. The end goal is to go to the point where your calf is covered by your hamstring, and your knee is well past your toes.
  7. When you get to the bottom, press through the front foot as you move up and back – the opposite diagonal direction as on the way down.
  8. Squeeze the quad hard as you reach the top. And we go again.

Key Coaching Points

  • The front foot stays flat the entire time, the heel should not come up off the ground.
  • The back foot stays up on the toes the entire time.
  • Your torso can have a slight forward lean but you should stay upright as opposed to allowing your back to fold – especially important as you add load.
  • The back leg should remain almost straight throughout the movement.
  • The back leg should NOT touch the ground at the bottom. If you move in that diagonal pattern, it won’t.

In my opinion, the difficulty of the exercise is part of what makes it beautiful. You might get a wicked bicep pump after a set of curls, but you feel like you accomplished something after crushing a set of split squats.

 

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

A post shared by Daniel Yores | Fitness Coach (@danielyores)

Common Challenges

Lunge vs Split Squat

What’s commonly referred to as a split squat today is no different than a lunge in terms of angles: where the shin stays mostly vertical. And lunges are great, they’re just not split squats.

If we call something a split squat, it seems logical that the “split” refers to a staggered stance, and the “squat” refers to, well, resembling a squat. Now remember, in a lunge, the shin stays mostly vertical, and you create 90-degree angles through the ankles, knees, and hips. When you squat, your shin is angled forward where your knees pass your toes, such that the angles of your ankles, knees and hips are all greater than 90 degrees. Therefore, the split squat should resemble this squat pattern.

foot on plate lunge

Lunge: shin vertical, 90deg angles                            

barbell back squat

Squat: knees over toes, greater than 90deg angles

I can’t seem to keep my balance.

Start by supporting your body by holding onto something like a rack or a dowel rod. Use the support as little as needed.

Another nice trick that works after removing the support is to either ball up your fists and maintain some tension through the upper body, or add a small amount of weight, 5lbs in each hand, to help with balance.

My front foot can’t stay flat. My heel comes up every time.

Two possibilities here. Your feet might be too close together. Try lengthening your stance and test if that helps. Second is a lack of ankle mobility, which at this great range of motion is very common. Placing the front foot on a slightly elevated surface helps this. Put a 45lb plate on the floor, and the front foot stands on the plate, while the back foot is on the floor. In simple terms, this slight elevation gives more space for the ankle to work.

I can’t move that far, my knees don’t go that far past my toes and I can’t get my calf covered by my hamstring.

This is common. If you haven’t spent much time moving into this range of motion, of course it will be difficult to get to. Stick with the exercise and do it to the greatest, safest range available to you. Over time, your mobility will improve.

One side feels WAY easier than the other.

This is one of the main reasons why we use single-leg training. If I could take a guess, the side that feels stronger is whichever leg would typically be in front if you were about to run a sprint from a dead stop. Nothing to be concerned about here. Over time it will balance out to a degree, but likely one side will always “feel” better than the other. For more on left/right asymmetry, read this article.

Unique Benefits of the Split Squat

Quad Emphasis

Most lower body exercises incorporate the quads, hamstrings, and glutes to a degree, and the split squat is no different. All these muscles of the leg play a role here, but it is the quads that disproportionately do most of the work. The primary role of the glutes is hip extension, and you will notice that due to the split stance and diagonal path of movement, there is very limited hip extension in the split squat. The glutes work to stabilize the hips. The primary role of the hamstrings is knee flexion. Since this is a knee-dominant movement, the hamstrings don’t produce any notable amount of concentric force here; they might help stabilize on the way down a bit, but that’s it. So that leaves the quads to do most of the work, making split squats one of the most quad-dominant exercises.

Mobility

The first time you tried this, you probably felt quite challenged at how limited your range of motion was. It’s not easy to get the knees far past the toes and the calves covered by the hamstrings. You also probably felt quite a stretch through the front of your hips. So, while this exercise is an excellent strength builder, there’s also a large mobility requirement here. And trust me, keep these in your programming, and your mobility will improve. Mobility is not just about stretching. It’s about gaining actual strength through full ranges of motion. What good is it being able to move far if you have no strength in that range?

Balance

You might say “I’m literally never in a position that replicates that stance” and you’re probably right. But also, nearly everything we do happens on one leg. Even walking is only one leg at a time. So this goes back to all the benefits of single leg training to get strong on each leg individually while minimizing right-to-left imbalances. However I will give the split squat an extra point for the range of motion coupled with the balance. Picture this: you’re walking down the sidewalk in winter, you slip on some ice, you quickly step out to catch your balance. Where is your knee in relation to your toe? Perfectly a 90-degree angle? Didn’t think so. But since you’ve been doing your split squats, and working on building balance at the end ranges of motion, when you’re forced to move there (catching a fall) you will be able to find your balance, and continue on with your day instead of taking a detour to the hospital.

Lower Spinal Loads

I am no mathematician, but two legs are stronger than one. So when performing single-leg exercises like a split squat, it requires less overall load. Which means you can save some compression on your spine. Now, it’s not “bad” to place a significant amount of load on your spine (so long as you’re safe, don’t be a clown), but you also don’t want to place more stress on your spine than necessary. I want to be very clear here though: I am not saying to not use heavy weights with split squats. I’m simply saying that “heavy” on a split squat, is going to be a lot lighter than “heavy” on a barbell back squat for example.

Bilateral Deficit

For a variety of reasons we likely have one leg that is slightly stronger or more coordinated than the other. Training each leg individually forces each leg to do its own work, so that the strong leg is not compensating for the “weak” leg.

Easier than a Bulgarian Split Squat

Bulgarian split squats are amazing, but difficult. If you’re not ready for them yet, then a regular split squat is a great place to start.

Programming Split Squats

As a general recommendation, I would include some variation of split squats in every phase of your training. The sets and rep schemes will of course follow whatever the focus of your training is.

Variations

Regressions

  1. If you’re having trouble with nailing the split squat I’d start by doing them in such a way where you can hold onto something. Holding onto a rack, or a dowel in one hand are great ways to do this. The additional balance you gain by holding onto something will allow you to nail down the movement pattern and remove the balance component (for now). You should also be able to safely push into a greater range of motion like this, also getting your body comfortable being there.
  2. Once you’ve got the balance down, placing the front foot on a slightly elevated surface like a 45lb plate laying on the floor is the next step. Again, this gives a little more space to the ankle to be able to push into a further range of motion. Over time, this mobility will improve and you’ll be able to remove the plate from under your foot.

Progressions

  1. Loading the movement with weight is the first progression. This should be done by holding a dumbbell in each hand by your side (a suitcase split squat). Start small and work your way up slowly. This is not an exercise that requires an immense amount of weight. The suitcase split squat is generally easier at first than a goblet split squat because with the goblet hold it’s harder to maintain an upright torso as well as more difficult to maintain balance. Dumbbells are also better than kettlebells here because the kettlebells hang lower and may hit the floor at the bottom and that will throw you off quite a bit.
More ways to load the split squat:
  • Weighted vest split squat: a weight vest or draping chains over your shoulders works well which also shouldn’t challenge your balance or grip strength.
  • Dual kettlebell front rack split squat: hold two KBs in the front rack position.
  • Low cable split squat: set a pulley at the lowest height, held in the opposite hand of the working leg. The hand only holds on to the handle, it doesn’t pull. Move the cable using your legs
  • Barbell split squat. Front rack and traditional back rack both can work.
  • UBar Split Squat: a proper trap bar will get in the way but the UBar is open at the back so there’s enough space. The loading will feel the same as a DB suitcase hold, but because you’re using a single bar instead of individual dumbbells you should be able to hang on to more weight here.

 

  • Safety Bar Split Squat: the safety bar is a great tool if a regular bar is uncomfortable for you
  • Hand-Supported Safety Bar Split Squat: you can move some serious weight like this. The safety bar balances on your back without your hands. Your hands are on the rack and they assist you in pushing up. Hatfield Split Squats are another name for this variation.
  1. Rear-foot-elevated. I would start this by again placing a 45lb plate of the floor under the back foot this time. This is much more difficult because now we’re demanding better joint range of motion, and with the forward lean putting even more emphasis on the quads. As you get better at this, you can increase the height of the rear foot elevation up to a point where it’s on a bench, at which point the exercise becomes a Bulgarian Split Squat.
  2. Front-foot-elevated split squat. While adding a small front-foot elevation can be a regression and nice way to get comfortable with the exercise, increasing that elevation can add a whole new challenge. Stack 2 45lb plates on the ground and start there. You can continue to progress this by stacking more plates, or eventually getting the front foot up on a bench, box, or step-up platform. The higher the step, the more you will challenge the front leg quad in it’s shortened position.
A note on loading the Split Squat:

For non-advanced trainees, I would avoid ever really loading up with a barbell on this exercise. It can certainly be done, however you should be able to get a sufficient load by holding heavier dumbbells in your hands. The reason I don’t like loading this with a barbell is there’s no easy way to bail out of the exercise should you need to. With the dumbbells, you can simply drop them.

With the barbell, because of the split stance, you can’t dump it off your back like a regular squat, you’ll just get pinned underneath it. If you get to a point where you’re doing hand-supported (Hatfield) Bulgarian split squats in a rack with a safety squat bar, that would be the exception, but also do this with caution (and you’d have the safety bars anyways in this scenario). Bottom line is that the suitcase split squat can get pretty heavy, and proceed to barbell-loaded variations with caution.

Split Squat Training Program

If you’ve never done split squats like this before, it will feel a bit awkward for the first couple of workouts until you get the hang of it. Then after that, well, it doesn’t ever get easy but you’ll be comfortable doing them… and then it’s time to push the intensity.

Here’s how I’d program split squats over 12 weeks:

Week 1: Hand-Supported Bodyweight Split Squat with small front-foot elevation. 3 sets x 8 reps per leg.

Week 2: Bodyweight Split Squat with small front-foot elevation. 3 sets x 10 reps per leg.

Week 3: Suitcase Split Squat with small front-foot elevation. 3 sets x 10 reps per leg.

Week 4: Suitcase Split Squat with small front-foot elevation. 4 sets x 10 reps per leg.

Week 5: Suitcase Split Squat. 3 sets x 12 reps per leg.

Week 6: Suitcase Split Squat. 3 sets x 15 reps per leg.

Week 7: Weight Vest Split Squat. 3 sets x 12 reps per leg.

Week 8: Weight Vest Split Squat. 3 sets x 15 reps per leg.

Week 9: Dual KB Front-Rack Split Squat: 4 sets x 6 reps per leg.

Week 10: Dual KB Front-Rack Split Squat: 4 sets x 8 reps per leg.

Week 11: UBar (Suitcase if you don’t have the UBar) Split Squat: 4 sets x 6 reps per leg.

Week 12: UBar (Suitcase if you don’t have the UBar) Split Squat: 4 sets x 8 reps per leg.

The first four weeks here are what I like to call “learning weeks”. Followed by 4 weeks of higher volume where you’re “greasing the groove” with lots of repetition. The next 4 weeks are working in the lower rep ranges using greater loads, to start to build some serious strength with the movement. As a very general rule of thumb.

Your programming should alternate phases of higher volume (accumulation) and higher intensity (intensification). Naturally this should be adjusted according to whatever your individual goals are. This basic programming outlined here would be a great way to progress from never doing a split squat, to becoming proficient at this exercise.

I’ve not yet met a person who doesn’t have a strong love-hate relationship with split squats. But at the same time, everyone I know who does these has great quads. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

About the Author

Daniel Yores is an online fitness coach and wannabe philosopher. His focus is coaching people to build more muscle, more strength and become leaner and healthier. He believes fitness can be the foundation to build one’s best life. He also hosts a podcast, The Daniel Yores Podcast, where he speaks to experts on how they use fitness and health to improve lives. You can check it out on iTunes or Spotify.

Leave a Comment