Want to build lower-body strength and power? Looking to feel better and improve your performance in just about any activity — in and out of the gym? Then you need split squats in your routine.
Getting stronger on two legs is great, but unilateral (single-side) moves can improve your day-to-day movement, helping you stay mobile and injury-free. Learn more about all the benefits this lower-body exercise has to offer and try a few variations during your next workout.
- What is a split squat? A split squat is a lower-body pushing exercise where you rely on the strength in your front leg to stand up from a kneeling position. This is an essential human movement pattern that we all use to get up from the ground.
- What muscles do split squats work? Split squats primarily work your quads, glutes and hip muscles. They also secondarily target your core muscles, hamstrings and calves
- What are split squats good for? Split squats help you build a strong core and strong, muscular legs. They can increase balance and coordination, improving athletic performance and daily function.
How to Do a Split Squat With Proper Form
- Begin in a half-kneeling position with your left foot flat on the ground, knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Place your right knee on the ground, directly beneath your hip.
- Shift a majority of your weight into your front leg and press your left heel into the ground as you straighten your front knees and stand.
- With control, reverse the motion until your right knee gently taps or just hovers above the floor.
- Once you do all your reps here, switch sides.
Always strive to keep your knees in line with your toes during your split squat rep. Watch out for your front knee drifting in toward the midline of your body. If you're really struggling with this, you can use a light resistance band (more on that below) to provide external feedback and help you engage the right muscles.
5 Split Squat Benefits
1. It Builds Balanced Lower-Body Strength
Split squats target all the muscles in your lower body, making them a great choice for anyone who wants to build bigger, stronger legs and glutes. They are especially effective at building muscle in your quads and glutes.
Some people mistakenly believe they can't build much strength with single-leg exercises because they can't load them as heavy as bilateral (two leg) squats or deadlifts. But you can work your way up to split squatting some serious weight. This allows you to build impressive amounts of lower body strength, just as you would with other lifts.
Training on one leg also helps you even out muscle imbalances. Although a small imbalance between your left and right side is normal (and unavoidable!), large imbalances can lead to issues in and out of the gym. Performing single-leg exercises like split squats is a great way to target and strengthen muscles on your weaker side.
2. It Keeps Your Back Safe
Back pain is a pretty big hindrance in the gym, especially for lifts like squats, where you rely on your back muscles to help stabilize a weight. But split squats can help solve that problem.
If you suffer from chronic or acute lower-back pain, it's often difficult to perform bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts. Single-leg exercises (like split squats) allow you to still strengthen your legs without irritating your spine.
That's because it's much easier to avoid excessive spinal movement when only one of your hips is bent. Additionally, split squats are usually performed with dumbbells, as opposed to a barbell, which places less compression on your spine.
3. It Helps Improve Balance
Split squats can help improve your balance, as they force you to put most of your weight and balance into your standing leg. As a result, you strengthen your hips and feet, while improving the connection between your lower body and core (a big part of balance).
Split squats, specifically, are a great place to begin balance training, as both feet remain on the ground, making them a little safer than true single-leg moves. As your balance improves, you can begin to rely less and less on your back leg for stability.
4. It Can Improve Athletic Performance
If you want to be a fast, powerful and resilient athlete, it's essential to build strength and stability using single-leg exercises. Nearly all athletic movements take place on one leg, so it's important to include unilateral exercises in your strength training workouts. These moves help prepare your body for the demands of running, jumping and bounding.
Unilateral training provides the foundation from which explosive power can be developed. And more stability means better landings with less risk to your joints.
5. It Can Help Prevent Injury
Balanced strength is crucial, as we don't perform many daily movements with both feet flat on the floor. Without balanced strength on your right and left sides, you're at a higher risk of injury as you perform your day-to-day tasks, like picking something up off the ground.
By helping improve your balance and muscle imbalances, split squats can help you move with more safety and confidence in your daily activities.
5 Common Split Squat Mistakes
1. Your Feet Are Too Close or Too Far
It's common to set up with your feet too close together or too far apart. But both of these mistakes can limit your ability to do the move properly, especially with heavier loads.
To fix this issue, begin your split squat rep from a half-kneeling position with your back knee on the ground. It's much easier to find the correct foot position when you are on the ground. Your back knee should be on the ground beneath your hip and your front foot should be positioned so that your front knee forms a 90 -degree angle (or slightly less.)
2. Your Front Heel Lifts
It's crucial to keep your front foot flat on the floor throughout each rep but allowing your front heel to raise can be tempting. But doing this places extra stress on your knees and prevents you from effectively engaging your hamstrings and glutes.
Sometimes, simply moving your front foot forward a bit will help with this. If you're really struggling to keep your heel down, you may need to spend a little extra time working on your ankle mobility.
3. Your Front Knee Caves In
You don't want your front knee to shift too far in toward the midline of your body, as this can be hard on your joints and puts you at higher risk of injury.
Watch yourself in a mirror and try to correct your knee position visually. For some extra help, try the banded variation (see below).
4. You Lean Too Far Forward
A little bit of forward lean is totally normal with split squats, but lean too far and you may fall forward. A good rule of thumb is that the angle of your torso should match the angle of your front shin. If staying upright feels too challenging, you may be trying to use too much weight or your may need to focus on increasing your core strength.
Try this exercise with no weight at all or hold a lighter dumbbell at your chest, as opposed to holding dumbbells at your sides. This can help minimize your forward lean.
5. You're Not Squatting All the Way
Unless you do an exercise to its full range of motion, you don't get to enjoy the full benefit of the move. The same is true for split squats.
You don't want to crash your knee into the floor with each rep, but you do want to get as close to the floor as possible to maximize your quad gains.
Starting your split squats from a kneeling position can help reinforce how low you need to go for each rep. Taller athletes or those who experience joint issues can also place pads on the floor to find the range of motion that feels best for them.
5 Split Squat Variations
1. TRX-Assisted Split Squat
- Set up a TRX or rings so the handles are at or above armpit height when standing.
- Grab a handle in each hand with palms facing in.
- Get into a split stance, where your front foot is flat on the floor and your back foot is up on your toes.
- Lower yourself down the floor in a controlled manner, using the TRX straps to take some load off.
- Finish the rep by pulling yourself up and pushing your legs into the floor.
If you're struggling to perform split squats, you can use a TRX or another suspension trainer to assist you. Holding the straps allows you to take some load off your knees as you descend, and it also lets you use your upper body to help pull yourself up off the floor.
2. Split Squat With Resistance Band
- Attach a light resistance band to an anchor point off to your right side. Step through the band with your left foot. The band should be positioned so that it's pulling your knee toward the middle of your body.
- Get into a split stance, where your left foot is flat on the floor and your right foot is up on your toes.
- Lower yourself down the floor in a controlled manner.
- Actively push out against the band as it tries to pull your knee in. Try to keep your front knee in line with your toes throughout the exercise
- Finish the rep by pushing your legs into the floor and standing upright. Don't let the band pull your knee in.
Use this banded split squat variation if you're having trouble keeping your front knee in line with your toes. The band actively pulls your knee in, which means you must turn on the correct muscles in order to stay in position. This can strengthen your hip muscles and eventually help you perform the exercise correctly without the aid of the band.
3. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
- Begin in the half-kneeling position. Place your front foot on top of a small box or bumper plate. Your front foot should be out in front of you so your front knee forms a 90 degree (or slightly less) angle. Your back knee should be on a foam pad (or the floor) and your back toes should be flexed into the floor behind you.
- Drive your front foot into the ground to stand upright, keeping your knee in line with your toe.
- With control, reverse the motion and bring your back knee back to the ground (or hovering just above the floor).
Ready to make your split squats more challenging? Elevating your front foot increases the range of motion on your front leg, which can increase strength and muscle gains in your quads.
4. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (Bulgarian Split Squat)
- Begin in a half-kneeling position. Your front foot should be out in front of you so your front knee forms a 90-degree (or slightly less) angle. Your back knee should be on a foam pad (or the ground) with your back foot elevated on a bench or box.
- Drive your front foot into the ground to stand upright, keeping your front knee in line with your toe.
- At the same time, lightly push your back foot into the elevated surface to help you stand up.
- With control, lowering yourself all the way back down to the starting position.
Is a Split Squat the Same as a Bulgarian Split Squat?
5. Reverse Lunge
- Stand upright with both feet together.
- Step back behind your body with one foot. Take a big enough step so that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Land with your back toes pointed into the ground. Keep your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes.
- Bend both knees and drop toward the floor in a controlled manner. Keep lowering until your back knee is about an inch off the ground (or as low as comfortable). Keep your chest tall.
- Finish the rep by driving off the floor with your front foot and returning back to your upright standing position. Bring your back foot up to meet your front foot.
Split Squat vs. Reverse Lunge
Although split squats and lunges work similar muscle groups, these two moves aren't exactly the same. But split squats are the perfect stepping stone to eventually progress to reverse lunges. A reverse lunge looks like a moving version of a split squat. Instead of keeping both feet planted on the floor, you step in and out of position. This is the first lunge variation you should try after you feel confident with split squats.