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September 20, 2022
The split squat is one of those exercises that is universally loved and hated. It works so well but hurts so good!
It's easy to see why people love them. They are one of the most effective lower body exercises. However, make no mistake about it. Split squats are brutal. But if you want to have big, strong, and functional legs, the split squat needs to be part of your training routine.
In this article, we will discuss:
We'll also provide you with some great tips for programming this powerful lower body move. Let's go!
A split squat is a unilateral lower body exercise that trains each leg individually. It is a versatile movement and one of our favorite dumbbell squat variations.
As the name implies, you perform a split squat with your legs split apart.
Split squats and lunges are very similar exercises. Both are excellent single-leg exercises to include in your workouts. But despite looking virtually identical, there are a few key differences.
The most significant difference is a split squat requires less balance and coordination. With split squats, both feet remain stationary and on the ground during the set. On the other hand, with lunge exercises, one leg is moving during the rep, always finishing with the feet together.
Since split squats require less balance and coordination, you can typically lift heavier than lunges. That said, if coordination and functional fitness are what you are after, a lunge is a better option.
If you'd like more details on the differences and benefits of each, check out our article comparing the split squat vs. lunge.
Unilateral exercises, like the split squat, are some of the most underrated activities you should be including in your workout split.
From a functional standpoint, our legs are the foundation of the body. All human movement starts on one leg - walking, running, jumping, balancing, and changing directions to name a few.
Don't get us wrong, the barbell back squat is the king. Nothing is better for maximizing strength and size in the lower body. However, back squats are not an excellent option for everyone.
For example, suppose you have lower back pain when squatting or a history of lower back problems. In that case, loading the spine with boatloads of weight is not a good idea. However, heavy squats are not the only way to make lower body gains. Split squats offer a safer alternative.
The split squat is a fantastic movement that trains multiple muscles across the lower body. The primary muscle activated is the quadriceps, making it an ideal quad exercise, but the split squat also trains the hamstrings, adductors, and glutes. Your abdominal muscles will also work to keep your upper body upright and stabilized.
To build muscle, we must introduce the body to high tension levels. In terms of lifting weights, tension is the stress applied to a muscle from external resistance, which is one of the main factors in building muscle.
The good news is that as long as an exercise can apply enough tension, it is capable of producing muscle growth. There are two ways to use tension: lift heavy weights or lift lighter weights close to failure.
Lifting heavy weights generates high tension right from the start. For example, doing back squats for five reps with 85% will be five high tension and demanding repetitions.
On the other hand, you can lift lighter weights but go close to failure. This is where split squats come in. The tension increases the closer you get to failure, even with light weights.
For example, if you do 10 to 15 split squat reps, mechanical tension will be high enough by the last few reps to elicit muscle growth. At that point, the weight used will be irrelevant if the set is challenging and you're still getting close to failure.
Since split squats isolate one leg at a time, they are excellent at improving strength and muscle imbalances.
Split squats are also effective for strength development in untrained, injured, or weaker lifters. However, trained or stronger individuals tend to exhibit bilateral facilitation, where single-leg strength is less than 50% of two-leg strength. Because of the apparent bilateral facilitation in trained individuals, unilateral exercises are not great strength-building exercises for the experienced lifter1.
For this reason, leave the one rep max testing to back squats, and perform split squats for higher reps.
From being easy to learn to improving your range of motion (ROM), there are plenty of perks that come with performing this muscle-building exercise. Here are 5 of the best split squat benefits.
One of the most significant advantages to a split squat is how easy they are to learn. Unlike the back squat, most people can figure out how to do a split squat relatively quickly.
If you are traveling or don't have access to your standard equipment, split squats are a great bodyweight leg exercise.
As mentioned, we love back squats. However, not everyone is meant to squat heavy. A split squat is a safe alternative for people who experience back pain after squatting.
If you have tight hip flexors, the split squat will help improve your range of motion and allow your hips to move better. A better ROM will help with other big moves, like the sumo deadlift.
When an exercise is self-limiting, you don't need as much weight to get the same effect. Some may think this is a negative, but the split squat is usually not the main exercise. It's a great accessory movement. Anytime you can use less weight to get the same effect and save your joints, it's a good idea.
The first step is to determine what equipment you want to use. For our purposes, we will go over the setup for both dumbbell and barbell split squats.
The most challenging part is finding the proper stance. The distance between your feet will depend on your height, but a general rule is that both thighs should be bent 90 degrees at the bottom of the move.
How to do the Dumbbell Split Squat:
How to do the Barbell Split Squat:
Perfect form will help you get the most out of this move, so make sure you avoid these two mistakes with this squat variation.
The most challenging part of the exercise is finding the correct foot position. You don't want your front foot too far forward or too close. The key is to have both knees bent roughly 90 degrees at the bottom of the movement. Once you find the perfect foot placement, use a 2.5-pound plate or a piece of chalk as a placeholder to mark the spot. This makes the setup for each subsequent set easier.
Due to the nature of the exercise, split squats have a short range of motion. Because of this, we want to ensure we are not cutting the rep short. Make sure you go all the way down and up on each repetition.
Both barbells and dumbbells are great options for split squats. However, each has advantages and disadvantages. No matter which equipment you use, the split squat is still going to be an effective lower body exercise.
There are two big benefits to barbell split squats. One, with a barbell squat, you can use a heavier weight, which is ideal for muscle hypertrophy. Two, it provides more carryover to one of our favorite compound lifts: the barbell back squat.
As for cons, it loads the spine, making it tougher for those with back pain, and it can be harder to maintain good form.
The dumbbell variation is easier to learn and a better option for beginners. The downside, however, is that you're unable to use as much weight as barbell split squats. In addition, it's always harder to make small jumps in weight with dumbbells, so you may see slower gains overall as it will take you longer to progressive overload.
In addition to barbells and dumbbells, you can perform split squats with kettlebells, sandbags, or your bodyweight.
We know we must use proper technique, work hard, and challenge the muscles beyond their capability. But that alone does not guarantee progress. The next step is using the programming variables to understand how split squats fit into our training routines.
Volume, or how many sets you do for a given muscle group per week, is critical for building muscle. Research shows that when it comes to how often to train each muscle, you need at least ten weekly sets for each muscle group to maximize muscular development2.
Although the split squat trains multiple muscle groups, it is primarily a quadriceps exercise. In the totality of the training program, count split squats as quad volume. In addition to back squats and leg extensions, 3-4 weekly sets can come from a unilateral lower body exercise like split squats.
Perform split squats once or twice weekly, depending on how many lower body workouts you have programmed. For example, if you perform a full-body workout plan twice weekly, you could do split squats during both of those workouts or just one of them.
As mentioned, split squats are not a tremendous low-rep strength exercise. You are better off using back squats and deadlifts for lower body strength work.
However, as an assistance exercise to build muscle or work on muscular endurance, split squats are great. Use a moderate weight for 10-15 reps to get the most out of the exercise.
A double progression scheme is the best way to build progress into split squats.
Double progression is simple and effective. You pick a rep range, 10-15, for example, and use the same weight for as long as needed until you can do more than 15 reps. Once you can do more than 15 reps, increase your weight by 5 to 10 pounds, and repeat the process. First, increase reps, and then increase the weight when possible.
Training to failure was once thought essential to building muscle and gaining strength. However, over the past few years, it has been shown there is not much difference between training to failure and stopping just shy.
With split squats, push yourself hard, but keep 2-3 reps "in the tank."
When setting up a workout, you want to start with the most demanding exercises and end with your isolation moves. Split squats are not as challenging as a back squat or a deadlift, but they require more effort than leg extensions or curls. For this reason, split squats should be programmed in the middle of your leg workouts.
However, if you are using split squats to replace back squats, you can prioritize them at the start of the workout.
How much rest between sets is a common question. For heavy compound exercises, you want to extend the rest time to ensure you are recovering enough between sets for optimal performance. Conversely, you can get away with short rest periods with isolation exercises because the movements are not as demanding.
Split squats fall somewhere in the middle. Rest for 1-3 minutes between sets of split squats. Do all of the reps for one leg, immediately followed by reps for the other leg. After training both legs, take a rest.
This leg workout provides everything you need to build muscle mass. Great compound exercises plus hitting all of the lower body muscles equals serious lower body gains.
For best results, perform this workout once or twice weekly. If you do this workout only once weekly, make sure for optimal growth you have another leg day planned as well, ensuring you have 2 leg workouts each week.
The split squat, aka single leg squat, is a highly versatile exercise. Here are five different variations to add to your training.
Bulgarian split squats, also called the rear foot elevated split squat, are the most popular split squat variation. You can do several Bulgarian split squat variations, including the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat or the barbell version, or you can just perform the Bulgarian split squat using bodyweight. Get into your split stance and then elevate your rear leg for some serious lower body muscle burn.
Unlike the BSS, the front foot elevated split squat is underrated. The unique aspect of this exercise is that the front foot is elevated, so when the back knee is on the ground, hip flexion is greater than 90 degrees.
The goblet split squat is similar to other split squats, except you hold the dumbbell in front of you in a goblet squat position. It's a slight difference, but how you hold the dumbbell may change your feelings about the exercise. If this feels more comfortable than holding two at your sides, you're going to be more likely to do it.
Following the form used in the Zercher squat, this split squat variation requires holding the barbell in the crooks of your elbows. The barbell in this position increases the upper back and arms demands, essentially turning the split squat into a whole body lift.
Although the pistol squat is not a split squat variation per se, it is a prevalent single-leg exercise worth mentioning. Due to the high mobility and stability required, most people need to start with something more manageable. Begin with a box pistol squat and spend time mastering it before working up to a full pistol squat.
There are several great lunge variations to try that will add variety to your routine while emphasizing different lower body muscles. If you have bad knees, we recommend checking out these lunge alternatives as well.
Between the different variations of split squats and lunges, there are countless options for single-leg work. You could pick a new variation each month and not need to repeat one for over a year. You can even use bodyweight only for almost all squat and lunge variations for great at home leg workouts.
With that said, here are some options to replace split squats that are not simply variations.
As a whole, unilateral lower body exercises are not done frequently enough. We all love squats and deadlifts, but there are many benefits to training each leg individually.
The bottom line is this: As much as you may hate the move and want to skip it, don't miss out on the benefits of split squats. They play an important role in lower body muscle hypertrophy. And whether you're looking for a squat with resistance bands or a kettlebell squat, the different ways to perform the split squat truly are endless.
Besides, if you have been in the iron game for a while, and your lower body workouts are feeling stale, a new exercise might be just what you need to spice things up.
Author: Kyle Hunt, Hunt Fitness
Related: What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
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