The Split Squat: How to Master This Powerful Lower-Body Exercise

By Mitch Gill

The Split Squat is a powerful exercise due to its ability to build stability and strength in a unilateral stance. These are key components of athletic performance, as movements like sprinting and jumping are dependent upon strength in a unilateral stance.

Some top strength coaches (such as Mike Boyle) have even scrapped traditional bilateral Squats from their athletes’ programs in favor of the Split Squat and its variations, specifically the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat (RFESS). Though the Split Squat is often considered safer and more user-friendly than traditional Squat exercises, there’s still a right way and a wrong way to introduce it to an athlete.

Here’s why the Split Squat deserves a place in your routine and how you can go about mastering this powerful movement.

Why Should The Split Squat Be In My Workout?

I consider the Split Squat to be the base or fundamental exercise in the progression towards more advanced RFESS and lunge-based exercise variations.

 Playing sports often requires the athlete to be on one leg or in a unilateral position. Building strength and stability in these positions will increase your performance on the field.

The Split Squat and its variations are also considered to be safer by some experts than their bilateral counterpart, the Back Squat. Many coaches have switched to the Split Squat because they feel it’s friendlier on the lower back than the Back Squat or Front Squat.

But for all the Split Squat’s benefits, it’s still a movement that needs to be progressed to help an athlete learn the proper form of the movement pattern. The rest of this article will detail a simple progression to help teach or learn the Split Squat before giving you some advanced variations that can take your training to the next level.

Starting From The Bottom

One of my favorite ways to to help an athlete learn a new movement is to get them into the “bottom” position. So for the traditional Squat, that may simply be starting at the bottom of a Bodyweight Squat and learning to stand up from that position. We can also use this “bottoms-up” approach for the Split Squat.

Half-Kneeling Position Holds

The half-kneeling position helps to teach the athlete the proper positions and postures you want them to attain within the execution of the exercise. The half-kneeling position is often utilized in core exercises like Chops, Lifts and Pallof Presses. These are all great exercises to help “own” the half-kneeling position.

For the sake of progression to more advanced elements of the exercise, we will just focus on attaining and mastering the position without any outside resistance.

Here are the basics of the half-kneeling position, which can be seen in the above photo:

  1. “Down” knee is at 90 degrees and directly under the hips and the shoulders.
  2. “Up” knee is also at 90 degrees with hip also flexed to 90 degrees.
  3. Focus on “ribs down” and pelvis underneath you.

Split Squat Isometric Holds

Once you’ve mastered the half-kneeling position, it’s time to increase the demand by removing the stability of the “down” knee. To do this, apply force into the ground through the heel of your front foot and raise your body up just enough to lift the downed knee off the ground. Now hold that position for a prescribed period of time. These are known as Split Squat Isometric Holds.

A hold of 10 seconds can be a real challenge for some people, but athletes must learn to own and control this bottom position of the exercise. Remember to maintain proper core alignment with your “ribs down” and pelvis underneath you.

Dead-Start Split Squats

Starting the exercise from a dead start can eliminate some of the stretch reflex that people will tap into to “bounce” out of the bottom of the exercise. Therefore, Dead-Start Split Squats can be a true test of one’s strength.

Just like with the iso holds, one will assume the half-kneeling position and apply force into the ground. This time, you’ll continue to straighten your legs until you reach the top of the movement. Then you’ll slowly lower yourself back down into the resting position, ensuring every rep begins with a “dead start” from the floor.

Bodyweight Split Squat

Now you’re ready for the real exercise! This is where the fun and further variation can begin, but only after you’ve mastered the Bodyweight Split Squat.

The athlete is going to start at the top and lower into the bottom of the exercise. I like to use a pad below the down knee to prevent it from banging on the ground, and this also gives a good indicator of the depth being achieved.

From here, you can load this exercise in a number of ways. For instance, you can perform Split Squats with a goblet hold or while holding dumbbells by your side in “suitcase” fashion. You can even put a barbell on your back if find you want to get heavier than dumbbells allow.

Advanced Split Squat Variations

I prefer to divide Split Squat variations into two categories: Split Squat variations and Lunge variations. The big delineating factor between the two is whether you’re stepping into the movement or remaining in a more static position throughout the exercise. The Lunge adds a step, which enhances the stability and balance challenge of the exercise. The Split Squat and its iterations are static in nature.

Below are a few of my favorite advanced variations for use in training programs.

1. Reverse Lunge

2. Forward Lunge

3. Goblet Rear-foot-Elevated Split Squat

4. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

Photo Credit: starush/iStock

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Mitch Gill (Website: is a high school athletic trainer and a private strength coach in the Atlanta area. He is a certified athletic trainer (ATC), certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and FMS Level 2 certified.