Deconstructing the Split Squat – one of the most misunderstood exercises in todays training world
The Split Squat is to weight training what Fish Oil is to supplementation. Its great – just overused and misplaced most of the time.
The Split Squats is a great exercise when applied and programed at the right time with the right volume and intensity. Split Squats do carry many disadvantages though and are overall inferior to Back Squat and Front Squat variations. I do extensively speak on the Split Squat and its variations, their application and the programing at the YPSI Semi Private Internship and the YPSI Movement Analysis & Injury Pre-/Rehabilitation (Module 5). As the topic of Split Squats is very complex I have decided to publish this article to deconstruct the exercise, its advantages, its application, its programming and its misconceptions.
To dig right in, the most common Misconceptions about the Split Squat are…
The Split Squat is a unilateral exercise – that’s NOT true
The word „unilateral“ comes from the latin words unus „one“ and latus „side“. In case of a unilateral exercises this means only one side of the body is activly trained. Like in a unilateral leg curl, a unilateral step up or a unilateral biceps curl. The Split Squat isn’t unilateral as you train both sides of the body in a split stance. The rear leg works and it works quite a bit. Try to do a Split Squat putting no pressure on the rear leg. It doesn’t work. Especially the Rectus femoris of the works over to quite upper body in place and provide stability for the knee flexion and knee extension of the front leg. Basically the only two unilateral Squats are Pistol Squat – where the passive leg his held with a flexed hip and extended knee in front of the body – and the Shrimp Squat – where the passive leg his held with a extended hip and flexed knee beging the body. Both are highly advanced Squat variations and can’t be compared to a Split Squat.
The Split Squat is a great exercise to improve mobility – that’s NOT true
One of the prime tasks often promoted with the Split Squat is the stretch at the bottom, primarily on the hip flexors. Yes, there is a great stretch. But no, its not an efficient way to stretch and results from stretching. Its simple math. Lets say you do 4 sets of 10 reps with a 4010 as a A1 A2 Superset with 90s in between the exercises. You will have a stretch in the bottom fifth of the range and the main stretch at the turning point of eccentric to concentric. Thats about one second per rep. If you are lucky. That is 10s per set. That is 40s in for sets over a time soon of 20-24 minutes depending on if the exercise you alternate with is a unilateral exercise like unilateral leg curls or a bilateral exercise like 45° Backextensions. So its 40s stretch within 20-24 minutes. Is that efficient mobility work? Sure not. Use a Rectus femoris or Psoas Stretch and you 40s stretch out of 40s time invested. Use the YPSI Tool and it will be even faster. Yes, the Split Squat does provide a stretch on the various muscles of the hip, knee and ankle. Its just not efficient at all at improving mobility. Doing 40s of stretching twice a week won’t change much at a fast rate. You need mobility? Use modalities like like Stretch to Squat, use the YPSI Tool or any other modality to leads to fast and efficient mobility improvements. You will get much faster and more efficient results.
The Split Squat is a great exercise to improve stability – that’s NOT true
Stability requires strength. Looking at injury statistics one sport with the most injury free and stable knees is Olympic Weightlifting. How so? The two primary stabilizers of the knee are the quadriceps and the hamstring. Both are very effectively trained with Back Squat and Front Squat Variations. Olympic Weightlifters possess very stable knees – based on the Klatt Test – as they have very strong quadriceps and the hamstring build by Back Squat and Front Squat variations, where its normal amongst high level olympic weightlifters to move two to three times their bodyweight. And they basically do zero unilateral work on weightlifting. The base of very strong quadriceps and the hamstrings are not only Back Squat and Front Squat Variations, but also a strong lower back, as you won’t build them without a strong lumbar erector spinae. Split Squats don’t train the lower back and lumbar erectors. Back Squat and Front Squat variations do so. Want to improve full body stability get a strong lower back. Want to get stable knees get strong quadriceps and the hamstrings. How? By doing Back Squat and Front Squat variations.
The Split Squat is a great exercise to use if someone lacks mobility and strength for Back Squats – that’s NOT true
As covered in the last segment the Split Squat isn’t an efficient exercise in improving mobility. One reason is the low time under stretch. For other reasons, especially for the beginner is the high coordinative and cardiovascular demand of the exercise. First, what is more demanding from a coordination perspective a Back Squat or a Split Squat? Standing with feet next to each other or standing in a Split? Of course, its standing in a split. Every trainer can relate. Show your beginner client a Split Squat for the first time and the clients movement will be all over the place. They barely get depth. They bent over forward. Which not only leads to a decrease of the stretch on gluteus, hip flexors and ankles, it also leads to compensation patterns like leaning forward which also decreases the stretch, in the case of leaning forward primarily the stretch on the hip flexors and decreases the recruitment of the muscle you want to recruit with the Split Squat like the Vastus medialis. The second point is the cardiovascular demand. As covered in the first segment the Split Squat is not a unilateral exercise. When you do 12 reps on a Split Squat, technically you do 24 reps on the full body. Especially in the beginner trainee, which is usually quite unconditioned, you want to ensure and improve movement quality and get a good neural and local metabolic effect to ensure adaptions of the muscles trained, not a primary cardiovascular training effect by overloading yourself with volume thats way out of your comfort zone which always leads to a break down in movement quality and therefore lower muscular, neuromuscular and local metabolic adaption which are the base of strength and hypertrophy gains. In summary, you need to be fairly conditioned and coordinated to execute Split Squats properly and therefore get most out of them. For beginner it is much easier and much more efficient to use Squat variations like the heels elevated Back Squat to get and improve range and get faster and more efficient strength and hypertrophy gains. Which will get them much faster to whatever their goals is, then doing Split Squats huffing and puffing moving all over the place with minimal improvement from workout to workout.
The Split Squat is an exercise everyone should do before they do Back Squats – that’s NOT true
In certain cases this is correct as covered in the next segment. In most cases spending time early on Split Squats will lead to minimal increase and progression in strength, hypertrophy and conditioning with the Back Squat and its variations being the far superior choice, not only providing a greater stretch on ankles and glutes and recruiting much more muscle overall especially including the lower back but also enabling the client and trainee to make much faster and efficient progress in and out of the weight room. Which is the ultimate goal of exercise selection and programming.
So, after clearing up the major misconceptions about the Split Squats, lets look at what makes the Split Squat a great exercise.
The two scenarios to get the most out of Splits Squats
1. To regain full range of knee flexion during knee rehabilitation – The first goal of rehabilitation from a weight training perspective is to regain full range of the joint injured. In the knee that basically means get the joint to fully flex again. There is no other exercises group that will do that task better than the Split Squat variations. Every single client and athlete I have trained after a knee injury as used Split Squats as their primary tool to regain range. As soon as range is regained to focus switches away from the Split Squats to more efficient variations of the Squat.
2. To balance out a unilateral strength imbalance – Muscular balance is an absolute necessity for optimal and sustainable training progress. Not only in between muscles, also in-between sides of the body. If one leg is much stronger than the other this create many issues up and down the chain such as impaired ankle mobility, misaligned pelvis and scoliosis of the spine. If this is the case, the first choice is to even out the strength of both sides. Talking about strength imbalances one prerequisite that is overlooked most of the time is that for one side to be weak, the other has to be strong. If both are weak, there is no unilateral imbalance, its just weak. So if you Back Squat 40kg for 6 reps there might be a slight imbalance in strength between the legs, its not relevant though, because its just weak. The base of imbalance is that one side is much weaker than the stronger side. If you are not strong, imbalances are not the issue, strength is. Don’t fall into the trap doing all sorts of isolation exercises and unilateral movement trying to balance what is actually not imbalanced, but just weak. Sports I have used Split Squats extensively to balance out the strength of both legs a lot are Shorttrack Speedskating and Rugby. In Shorttrack Speedskating you go around the corner to the same side all the time. During high volume phases its hundreds of laps per week. At the same time Speedskaters are fairly strong athletes when trained properly. For example over the last 6 years working with Speedskating I have trained seven females to a 100kg+ Back Squat, that is over 1,5times bodyweight for all of them. For two of them it was even close to twice bodyweight. If you are this strong and you such a high volume of repetitive work in one direction imbalances will appear. Therefore up to 40% of the phases of the offseason leg training programs where built around Split Squats. Similar to Rugby, where athletes reach high levels of strength their will be imbalances as athletes will favor one side carrying the ball which will effect the chain all the way down to the ankle. If there is strength imbalances in the legs variations of the Split Squat and unilateral Legcurls are the primary exercises to recreate balance, as they are the most efficient choice.
For basically any other scenario there are other exercises like the Back Squat that are superior to the Split Squat.
Use the Split Squat at the right time for the right task to get the most out of your – and your clients – training. Don’t waste time on dogma and misconceptions. Ask questions from different angles. Get answers. Apply the answers. And get more results.
All the Best with implementing the Split Squat in your training & programming!
Picture: YPSI Coach Wolfgang Hattingen in the bottom position of a DB Split Squat with an elevated front foot, a variation that I like to use in the early stages of Split Squat programming as this variation provides a great stretch on ankles and gluteus as well as the highest recruitment of the Vastus medialis out of all Split Squat variations.