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What is a Split Squat?

By Jessica Gore
Updated May 17, 2024
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A split squat differs from a standard squat in that it is performed with one leg stepped forward. It is a complex exercise known to promote functional fitness because it works the body in ways above and beyond what is achieved by standard squats. Functional fitness exercises develop muscular strength, balance, and flexibility. These exercises are used not only to attain a perfect beach body, though they can certainly help, but also to condition the body in a way that is practical for daily life activities. Although this movement may seem difficult at first, its functional benefits make it a good choice even for novices.

That said, split squats can be a more difficult exercise than standard squats. During a standard squat, both legs share the load equally, and the feet are kept square on the floor. As a split squat is performed with one leg stepped forward, the entire load is lifted by just one leg. The need for balance during the exercise may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. As with many functional fitness oriented exercises, there is a definite learning curve involved in the split squat.

At their most basic level, split squats are an excellent choice for anyone wishing to improve functional fitness. With added modifications, split squats can be effective training exercises for sprinters, ballet dancers, and soccer players. Like a standard squat, a split squat will build and strengthen the hamstrings, quadriceps, and gluteus muscles. Additionally, a split squat promotes balance and flexibility by stretching the hip flexors and neurologically training muscle synergists to stabilize the hip area.

The starting position for the split squat involves standing with feet positioned directly below the hips. For most people, this is about six inches apart. Novices usually find it advisable to begin with only the body-weight for resistance, and perhaps one hand resting on a chair or bench for balance. For the more advanced, a dumbbell in each hand or a weighted barbell across the shoulders adds challenge to the movement. At all times, the torso should be kept as erect as possible, with the head in a neutral position and the abdominal muscles slightly tensed.

To begin the exercise, one foot steps forward just until a slight stretch is felt in the hip of the opposing leg. The hind foot should be extended, so the heel is off the floor and the point of balance is on the ball of the foot. The hind knee should bend just enough to allow mobility in the front leg, so the front foot is able to move as far forward as comfortably possible. This will typically bring the front knee to a near 90° angle, with the ankle in a neutral position so the calf remains roughly perpendicular to the floor.

Once the front leg is extended, the torso can be lowered by bending both knees until the hind knee nearly touches the floor. While exhaling forcefully, the torso is pushed back up. Keeping the feet in place, this simple down and up motion is repeated for the desired number of repetitions. Once the workout set is completed for one side, the footing position is switched to work the other leg.

To increase both the balance and flexibility component of the exercise, the rear foot can be lifted off the floor to rest on a weight bench or stability ball. This variation is known as the Bulgarian split squat. Alternatively, the movement can be performed with no added resistance, but with a broomstick held over the head. Known as an overhead split squat, this movement involves holding the elbows locked, with the arms extended to just beyond the back of the head. This adds a flexibility aspect to the shoulder region and stimulates the muscles of the torso required for thoracic extension.

As the exercise requires a great deal of concentration and balance, it is generally recommended that split squats be performed early in the workout. This way, both the mind and muscles are still fresh, to allow maximum benefits and safety during the exercise. If desired, the pre-exhausted muscles of the legs and hips can later be worked using isolation exercises to achieve a complete workout.

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