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.
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.
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.
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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.
Lunge: shin vertical, 90deg angles
Squat: knees over toes, greater than 90deg angles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.