Starting now I’m going to be dedicating one blog post a month to a particular exercise that I value as part of my own training program. Keep in mind, this does not necessarily mean that I “like” the exercise. I think I can safely say that the majority of the exercises that I’ll be writing about I absolutely HATE… but I know the benefits that I’m getting from the practice of the movement, so I suck it up and do it!
This month’s exercise is the Split Squat. Before I get into the specifics though, I want to define what a Split Squat is NOT. A Split Squat is NOT a lunge. While various types of lunges and the Split Squat have a similar appearance, lunging motions are somewhat more dynamic. Lunges always incorporate a stepping motion either forwards or backwards while the Split Squat does not. From a staggered stance, a person performing a Split Squat will descend and rise without moving the feet.
Some trainers actually refer to the Split Squat as a static lunge, but I tend to separate the Split Squat from the family of lunging motions as the mechanics are somewhat different. While a lunge places the majority of work on the front leg during execution, a Split Squat uses both legs equally, hitting the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings in the lead leg while working the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings as well as the gastrocnemius and soleus of the rear leg.
Execution of the Split Squat is relatively simple. The stance should be about a shoulder width wide and the stance length should be long enough to make staying up on the ball of the rear foot comfortable… a little more than two shoulder widths in length is probably reasonable, but it will vary depending on the person. The back should be completely vertical and remain vertical during execution of the movement. Execution begins as both legs begin to bend, allowing the body to descend vertically towards the ground. The body should not go forward nor should it lean forward. I often tell my clients to think of pushing their rear knee towards the ground. At the bottom of the movement both knees should be bent at roughly 90 degrees. The knee of the front leg should be over the ankle or slightly in front but should not pass the line of the toe. The rear knee should be directly below or slightly behind the line of the hip. The weight should be focused in the heel of the lead leg and the ball of the rear foot. The body should still be vertical. To return to the starting position you must squeeze yourself up between the lead leg and the rear leg. Both legs should nearly straighten. Once you have returned to a full upright position, repeat.
There are several things to watch for during execution, both from the side and from the front. From the side as mentioned before, the body should remain vertical throughout execution. This ensures good glute recruitment. Leaning forward during execution indicates too much reliance on the quads of the front leg. When observing the Split Squat from the front you should be able to draw a straight line vertically from the hip to the toe with the knee falling directly on that line. This applies to both the front and the rear leg. If the knee buckles in (Valgus Collapse) or buckles out (Varus Collapse) these are usually indications of poor motor control; in which case the individual should be taught proper mechanics, possibly including some corrective exercises to strengthen weak muscles.
Loading the Split Squat can be done in a number of ways. The various methods and benefits are listed below:
TRX Assisted: This is great for those people who have never done the split squat and have progressed to the point where they are ready. While holding on to the handles of the TRX you’ll want to descend slowly into the Split Squat until the rear knee is nearly touching the ground. From there, push your way back to the starting position, using the TRX as an assist to maintain good form should you need to. Do NOT hang or lean on the TRX as it is there only to allow you to remove enough bodyweight to execute the technique properly.
Body Weight: This is the next progression I usually have my clients move to once the TRX assist is unnecessary. I usually use 2 positions. Most people I start with the hands on the hips while maintaining good upper body posture. Once this becomes easy, I have them place their hands behind the back of the head, spreading the elbows and pinching the shoulder blades. This not only helps to develop better posture by training the scapular stabilizers, but also adds a bit of a stability issue. People find it a little harder to balance in this position.
Dumbbells Held at Sides: A relatively safe way to load the Spit Squat but greater attention must be paid during execution as a lapse in attention can cause the back to round and the body to hunch. When done properly, the rhomboids and mid traps should be firing to stabilize the shoulder blades, the chest should be out and head held high. Holding dumbbells in this manner is also a great way to help strengthen the rotator cuff, the muscles which help to stabilize the shoulder in a similar manner that a Farmer’s Carry would.
Barbell Across the Back: This is a great way to load the Split Squat. Holding a barbell across the back, similar to a back squat, engages the muscles of the middle back such as the rhomboids, mid traps and spinal erectors; thereby helping to establish good postural habits. As with the hand behind the back of the head, this position can be more difficult to stabilize so be careful loading this one.
Off Center Kettlebell/Dumbbell Hold: By holding a kettlebell or dumbbell on the side of your rear leg, you’ll have to fight a little harder to maintain a square hip position. This is a great way to develop greater glute recruitment on the side of the front leg as well as getting the. Using a Valslide or a furniture mover on the rear foot also increases difficulty.
As an exercise the Split Squat offers a variety of benefits that standard squats do not. For one, Split Squats ensure that both legs are developing reasonably equal amounts of strength since they are both being exposed to the same loads. Standard squat, however, can allow a greater level of compensation since one leg can be used to drive through the motion harder. Another advantage is that Split Squats are balance and stability intensive. They require a person to be able to hold a balanced position while maintaining good hip, knee and ankle stability through the full range of motion. And speaking of range of motion, this exercise is excellent for maintaining good hip mobility as well.
Last, but not least, while I do not consider the Split Squat to be in the same family of movements as lunges, it is perfect as a bridging technique while working in a progression from standard squats to more demanding lunging exercises as it forces persons who are practicing them to develop a lot of the qualities they will need for the more advanced exercises.