The split squat is one of the most popular lower body exercises performed at the gym. In the gym, you’ll see the split squat programmed as a staple in countless workout programs, and for good reason.
I regularly program split squats for myself and my clients when the goals are building lower body strength and packing on lower body mass. If you’re wanting to build your legs, then it’s a good idea to master the split squat.
In this split squat guide, I’m going to discuss how to properly perform them, their benefits, and cover some mistakes to avoid.
The split squat is an exercise that can benefit pretty much every lifter. Split squats are great for building lower body strength and mass, and they can be useful for improving athleticism and balance.
Establish your stance and setup
Setup with your feet offset from one another. If you need a starting point regarding your stride, start by placing the feet in a position that leaves the knees around 90 degrees of flexion.
This will typically be a great starting point for most lifters, then you adjust your stride length as you get more dialed in with your split squats and training goals.
Lower yourself down slowly
Once you’ve established your stance, you’ll then lower yourself down slowly thinking about breaking at the knees simultaneously. Lightly tap the back knee on the ground or hover it above the ground to ensure you’re getting the full range of motion.
As you descend, keep a 60/40 split of your weight into the front/back leg. Oftentimes lifters neglect the back leg, but by keeping pressure on the back leg as you lengthen the quad you can get a nice lengthened quad (rectus femoris) benefit.
Stand back up and keep weight balanced in the front foot
For traditional split squats, keep your weight balanced throughout the front foot and think about creating an “elevator-like” motion with the hips.
I like the cue, “Elevator hips”, because it’s a good reminder that we want the hips to travel up and down when performing normal split squats. Squeeze the legs and glutes at the top, then repeat this for your next rep.
Coache’s Note: There are other ways to sequence the split squat regarding the hips and legs, but for normal reps and sets with general goals I always suggest using the elevator cue.
Split Squat Benefits
There are countless benefits that come with performing and mastering the split squat. Below are some of my favorite split squat benefits that can be useful for all types of lifters and athletes.
1. Fundamental Squat Pattern to Master
Every coach has the fundamental movement patterns that they think lifters should know and master. For me and my coaching, the split squat and its movement pattern is a pattern that everyone should master.
The ability to move through space and time on one leg while managing different loads and staying balanced can be useful for performance in the gym and for daily life.
Plus, more single-leg work is never a bad thing and if you’re training for longevity long-term, then you’ll want to get great at exercises like split squats and lunges.
2. Great for Lower Body Strength and Size
Another split squat benefit is their ability to improve one’s lower body strength and size. The split squat is awesome for targeting the quads, glutes, and adductors.
In addition, you can easily manipulate split squats in multiple ways for strength and size. For example, you can:
- Use tempo to increase time under tension.
- Shift mechanics to bias different muscle groups.
- Change loading style to bias different muscles.
Since the split squat is a little easier to master than other lower body exercises and it can be a little less fatiguing than something like a back squat, it’s also a great and easy exercise to manipulate based on your goals.
3. Easy to Perform Everywhere
The split squat is also an easy exercise to perform in virtually every gym setting or home workout setting. Not every gym and home gym has things like a squat rack or leg press, so if you want a killer lower body exercise with little equipment the split squat is great.
You can perform split squats with your body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells, and sandbags — basically anything. This makes the split squat a viable travel-friendly lower body exercise.
For example, if you’re performing these with your body weight in a hotel room and want a higher stimulus, then you can manipulate tempo and volume and they’ll give you more bang for your buck than something like a bilateral bodyweight squat.
4. Great for Athletes and Beginners
Split squats can also be a great exercise for beginners and athletes. The split squat will challenge your balance which is great for gym newbies wanting to improve stability and for athletes that are constantly moving on one leg.
In the context of beginners, the split squat is a great exercise to master because it can serve as a stepping stone to rear-foot elevated split squats, walking lunges, and front-foot elevated split squats.
For athletes, the split squat can be a tool for training the legs in a calculated means and it can help expose weaknesses with balance or gaps in performance based on how one moves when performing split squats.
Split Squat Muscles Worked
The split squat is traditionally performed to target the quads and glutes. Muscles like the adductors, calves, and hamstrings will also be active when split squatting, however, they won’t be the prime movers in the exercise.
Keep in mind that how you load your split squat will also influence muscle activity and the “how much” you’re getting with your reps. For example, a dumbbell split squat can feel different than a front-loaded barbell split squat.
Split Squat Muscles Worked
- Gastrocnemius (calves)
*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement
Split Squat Mistakes
Throughout my coaching career, I’ve seen handfuls of split squats. Some are good and some are not so good. Below are three of the biggest split squat mistakes that I see beginners make.
1. Using Too Long of a Stance
The first and arguably most common split squat mistake that I see is using too long of a stance. While there may be a time and place for this type of split squat, it’s not the most productive for lifters wanting to build the quads and glutes.
When we use too long of a split squat stance we cut down on the range of motion we’re going to be working through. This cut down on the range of motion will decrease how much the quads are working on the front leg and it can also take away from the glutes.
Not to mention, this setup is often uncomfortable for most lifters which will take away from their ability to load this exercise AKA which leads to cutting down intensity and watering down effort.
2. Leaning Too Far Back
Another split squat mistake that I’ll see beginners make is leaning too far back. This backward lean will shift load away from the front leg and glutes which is counterproductive for split squats.
Ideally, we want the weight that we’re using to stay aligned with the hips to better load the glutes or a little over the front leg to bias the load over the quads.
Coach’s Note: Your torso angle during split squats should reflect what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re loading this exercise. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” position for every split squat.
3. Keeping the Feet In-Line With One Another
The final split squat mistake that I want to cover is keeping the feet too in line with one another. If it feels like you’re balancing on a tightrope while performing split squats, then you may be guilty of this.
Stagger or offset your feet slightly when performing a split squat to avoid this mistake. This will not only help you train harder with your split squats but it will likely feel more comfortable for most.
Plus, when we consider hip widths and anatomies, it doesn’t make sense to try and force the feet in line with one another as this will typically result in discomfort for lifters with wider hips.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q:What is a split squat?
Q:What muscles do split squats work?
Q:How to set up for a split squat?
The split squat is a lower-body exercise that I think every lifter and athlete should be proficient in. This exercise can be awesome for building the legs from both a strength and mass context.
In addition, the split squat can also be great for beginners and athletes wanting to improve their single-leg power and balance as these traits can have a positive carryover to daily life and sport.
If you have additional questions about the split squat, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).