Split squats… I love to program them, my athletes hate them, specifically the RFE (rear foot elevated) split squat. At first glance they think it’s going to be cake, but after the first set of one leg they begin to respect this invaluable single leg strength exercise. In fact, most of them start to dread the exercise, but in a good way.
I love this single leg movement so much that I rarely program double leg squats for myself or my athletes. This movement can be used for mobility, concentric strength, eccentric strength, and proprioception training. You can regress and progress it in various ways to meet your goals or athletes goals. It is one strength training exercise that can elevate your heart rate to around 80% of your HR max. And when heavy enough weight is used it is nearly impossible to not take a break between sides. While, this is exercise is a quad/knee extensor dominant exercise of the front leg, the glute max is activated through hip extension and the glute medius is activated to prevent the knee from caving medially.
If you look closely the body weight split squat resembles the inline lunge of Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen, when we program the split squat we are training one of our very basic movement patterns. However, it is important to remember the split squat is not a lunge, because there is no displacement (no added step). Athletes or clients that do not score a 3 on the in-line lunge will have difficulty with the split squat, please make sure you take the corrective measures before adding weight or difficulty to this exercise.
The RFE Split squat is great for anyone, from athletes looking to building to stronger legs to people trying to lose weight. Unlike the bilateral back and front squats, the split squat does not add compressive forces to spine and allows you to lift more weight comparatively. Heavy loads can be added in a back and front squat positions, or with side loaded dumbbells and weighted vest. An eccentric component can always be added by a slower lowering into the bottom position.
The split squat can be used as a mobility drill for those with tight quads, hip flexors, and adductors. The RFE split squat will be significantly uncomfortable for someone with a tight anterior hip. Necessary, soft tissue work and mobility drills should be done before progressing the exercise to an elevated rear foot position. Progressions should start with a non RFE split squat, to a RFE on a lower height box, to a RFE on a bench. Shorter athletes may need to stay at a lower height. When performing any RFE split squats the antertior aspect of rear foot should be in contact with the bench, not just the toes, I like to say laces down. For athletes, that have a faulty squat pattern and are unable to add load to their squat, this is a great exercise to program for lower body strength.
The split squat and RFE split squat require a great amount of multi-planar core stability to perform the lift correctly. The spine most remain in a neutral position, resisting a flexion or extension bias. The spine must also resist lateral flexion and rotation to remain stable during the exercise.
Split Squat Progressions:
Split squat BW
Split Squat Goblet Hold (DB or KTB)
Split Squat Front Loaded (DB)
Split Squat Side Loaded (DB or KTB)
Split Squat Side Loaded with weighted vest
Split Squat Front Squat Position (Olympic Barbell)
Split Squat Back Squat Position ( Olympic Barbell)
Ground Up Rear Foot Elevated (start from bottom position)
Rear Foot Elevated BW
Rear Foot Elevated Goblet Hold (DB or KTB)
Rear Foot Elevated Front Load (DB)
Rear Foot Elevated Side Loaded (DB or KTB)
Rear Foot Elevated Side Loaded ( Weighted vest)
Rear Foot Elevated Front Squat Position (Olympic Barbell)
Rear Foot Elevated Back Squat (Olympic Barbell)
- Place airex pad under back leg and instruct the athlete or client to touch the pad with each rep to enforce ROM consistency.
- Do not allow the back foot to aid in the push.
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift. Athletes and clients tend to lean thinking they are in a neutral position, but they are actually going into hyperextension of the lumbar spine. Cue them remain neutral, not straight up.
Work these into your programs and you’ll be amazed by the results.
Questions, comments, suggestions, and ideas are welcomed below…