There are very few exercises that can produce the results in strength, size, flexibility and structural balance that a split squat can, all at once.

At UP we rate the split squat so highly that it’s rare a client doesn’t have the exercise programmed into their first phase of training.

Whilst we love to squat, the nature of our personal training clients means very few can squat in a safe and effective manner. The split squat can, therefore provide the perfect alternative to training the leg musculature in the early stages.

“In fact, programming the split squat is one of the best ways to improve the required mobility for the squat, and progress a client onto a full squat later.”

However, this doesn’t make the split squat an easy exercise. Anyone who uses them regularly can attest to the tremendous lactic acid build up and shaky legs that only a few exercises are able to produce!

Pain tolerance is an important part of getting maximal results in minimal time. We need to be able to generate large amounts of intensity and withstand the pain long enough to reap the benefits. One of the lesser-known advantages of using the split squat, especially if you’re new to training, is its ability to raise your pain threshold. Consistently working through gruelling sets of 10-12 reps on the split squat will make most other exercises pale in comparison.

The ‘How To’?

The most common variation we use is the front foot elevated split squat. From our assessments, we notice that the majority of our clients are tight in the lower extremities (think glutes, hip flexors and quads). By elevating the front leg onto a step, we can remove the limitations of the exercise and allow the client to travel safely through a long range of motion, whilst opening up the tight musculature.

Here’s how to execute the exercise:

  • – Elevate front leg onto a step.
  • – Set your feet in a parallel stance, as though you’re standing on train tracks. You don’t want to be in a tight rope stance.
  • – Keep your back foot straight, with the heel raised up.
  • – Ensure your spine is in neutral. To help this, brace your core and squeeze the glute on your rear leg.
  • – ‘Pull’ down on your front leg (this will help engage your glutes and hamstrings) with your knee travelling forward until your hamstrings touch your calves.
  • – Push through your heel at the bottom and return to the top.

Once you can perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps with perfect form, start adding load via dumbbells.

As you progress through the weeks, you’ll notice improvements in your flexibility, strength and balance between your legs. At this stage, you may want to progress to more advanced variations.

Our absolute favourite here is the rear-foot elevated split squat, or more commonly known as the Bulgarian split squat.

Specific Uses

What makes the split squat such a great exercise is its ability to be programmed into any phase of training.

Fat Loss

Very few exercises can match the metabolic demand of the split squat. The unilateral nature of the exercises means to complete one set, you need to do double the work! This alone makes the overall muscle stimulation and calorie expenditure far beyond that of a leg extension, for example.

For best application, the split squat works great at the start of the workout for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

‘Long Limbed’ Hypertrophy

If you’re long limbed, and you struggle to feel your legs when squatting, with the emphasis commonly shifting instead to the hips and core region, try adding split squats. Placing them either pre-squatting as a method of enhancing mind-muscle connection, or after, to directly trash the legs, works great.

Glute Development

Due to the versatile nature of the split squat, the technique can be adjusted to really destroy the glutes. For example, on a Bulgarian split squat, you can increase the stretch and demand on the glutes by leaning forward.

More simply, just by focusing on ‘pulling’ down with your front leg and driving through your heel at the bottom, you can increase the tension placed on the glutes.

For many women looking to improve glute development, using the Bulgarian split squat as an indicator exercise to progress on in the 8-15 rep range is very effective.

Injury Prevention/Safety

For many of our clients above the age of 40, or those with previous lower back issues, the split squat has useful applications.

Besides maintaining structural integrity and balance between the legs, it can be used as a ‘pre-exhaust’ movement earlier in the workout.

For example, you may choose to do front foot elevated split squats and leg curls as your ‘A’ series, followed by squats as your ‘B’ series.

At first there will be a reduction in the weight of your squats. If you’re used to using 100 kilos for 8 reps, you may need to drop down to 80 kilos. However, you should use your new weight as the benchmark, and aim to work back up to your old weights, albeit in a fatigued state. This will reduce joint stress and spare the spine whilst still working the leg muscles hard.

Unilateral training is almost always overlooked and programmed as an afterthought. This is a mistake, especially if your goals are more muscle, less fat and less injuries.