Perform a simple google search for the “king of exercises” and you’ll quickly find a handful of links discussing why squats reign supreme. Deadlifts are usually a close second. Historically, both of these movements come to mind when people think of strong, powerful legs. And for good reason! They arguably trigger more gains in strength and hypertrophy than any other exercise.
But not everyone is destined to be a world-record powerlifter. Differences in injury history, training history, anatomy, and a host of other factors may limit your ability to progressively load these exercises the way you would like to in the gym. Modifications exist and should be utilized when necessary, but other viable options exist.
Enter The Split Squat
The split squat shares many similarities with stationary and walking lunges, but offers one unique benefit: both feet remain on the ground at all times. The decreased demand on balance often allows for the movement of more load with better control. More load means more gains. The increased based of support also means that you can manipulate the position of your body to suit your individual needs. Let’s look at some examples of how split squats can be useful in any training program for the purposes of rehabilitation or performance.
Low Back Pain/Injury
Since the split squat trains the quads and glutes in a similar manner to a regular squat, it is a practical alternative for individuals who currently cannot tolerate squatting secondary to low back pain or injury. If you have issues because of the forward trunk lean required in the squat, the split squat allows you to be more upright if you choose.
Additionally, some people become limited by their back rather than their legs. Let’s assume you normally perform sets at 200 pounds so that each leg is receiving 100lbs of stimulus while the back is being loaded with 200lbs. Assuming that the front leg is doing the majority of the work during a split squat, you might only need 100lbs on your back to achieve the same stimulus for each leg. Therefore, the load on the legs stays the same while the load on the back is reduced. It’s a simplified example, but hopefully it gets the point across.
Individuals with pain at the front of their hip often have difficulty with the bottom of the squat. Once again, the split squat can be performed in an upright manner to reduce the amount of hip flexion and therefore limit the sensitivity of the hip.
This one is almost the exact opposite recommendation of that for hip and/or low back pain. Letting the trunk lean forward and keeping the shin more vertical will help offload the knee and place more of the load at the hip instead.
Do you feel like you’ve been doing “ankle mobility drills” endlessly without seeing much improvement? Split squats can be performed with the intention of driving the knee forward while maintaining heel contact to drive home ankle dorsiflexion with a loaded movement.
The options for split squats are endless. Not only can you use various body positions, you can use different pieces of equipment: barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells are all fair game. Is grip your limiting factor? Use a barbell. Do you want more gluteus medius activity? Use a dumbbell in the opposite hand of your forward leg. Can’t get all the way to the ground? Use some pads or a mat!
No exercise is perfect for everyone, but the split squat comes pretty darn close.
By Dr. Marc Surdyka
Marc is one of our coaches on staff and is an amazing resource for those who are needing individualized coaching dealing with pain or injuries. To learn more about Marc, head here.