You Are Doing Split-Squats Incorrectly You Terrible Human 2.0
Many people who perform split squats do them incorrectly. This is limiting their gains and putting them at a greater risk of injury.
I see too many Personal Trainers allowing their clients to perform them incorrectly.
Grab another protein shake and/or coffee and prepare FOR THE GREATEST SPLIT-SQUAT ARTICLE EVER WRITTEN.
It's not the best, far from it. But I enjoy the fact you've made it this far.
Why do split-squats?
To list the benefits of split-squats requires a long list.
They build balance, ankle and foot arch strength to a greater degree than squats due to the increased balance demands of the exercise
They hit every leg muscle hard
Similar gluteal activation to barbell back squats
Less load-bearing than squats
If you perform them consistently well over a long period of time you'll have stronger legs than most people in your gym
They are easy to load up (once you've learned to balance)
Using a split-stance trains the hips in a different way to squats and deadlifts resulting in many positive adaptations
Interestingly split-squats show significantly more activation of the hamstrings compared to barbell back squat as you can read HERE
They are incredibly hard
They are incredibly hard
It can be difficult and frustrating to balance
Some people find them painful on the knees
Some people find it results in an increase in lower back pain
They are incredibly hard
Significantly less quadricep activation than the barbell back squat (or many leg press variations, but I have no science to back this up)
What mistakes do people make?
MISTAKE #1 EXCESSIVE ANTERIOR PELVIC TILT THROUGHOUT
The problem is poor core positioning or a lack of positional awareness.
Why is this a problem?
A lot of the time it isn't a problem, especially when people genetically have a very tilted pelvis.
However, not everyone is designed to be able to lift through many reps in a big anterior tilt so promoting a more neutral tilt generally helps people to get more from the exercise.
Many start the split-squat with too much of a tilt (with an overly arched lower back.)
If you are in a big anterior tilt at the top of the movement it will only be made worse at the bottom position of the movement where it is more difficult to control the pelvis.
Thanks to Coach J.P. Nestler for this image
In a big tilt as seen here the anterior core isn't stabilizing the lower back as effectively. There is more stress than necessary on the tissues of the lower back as well as on the front portions of the hip joints.
Simply speaking; injury risk is elevated.
What is this caused by?
MISTAKE #1 REAR FOOT TOO HIGH OR TOO FAR BACK
THE FIX #1 The top of the heel should be in line with the front knee (or lower)
Picture taken from stack.com
The rear foot should be no higher than the height of the shin. Slightly lower than this is usually the most comfortable.
In 2011, Mike Robertson said this of Bulgarian Split-Squats:
"When most people go deeper and deeper into a lunge or split-squat, they begin to lose control over their pelvis. In other words, they tend to fall into an anterior pelvic tilt.
The hip flexors are forced to lengthen, and the restraints to anterior pelvic tilt (your external obliques and gluteals) are forced to work incredibly hard to control it."
Lest you start worrying about your gluteals and external obliques in simple terms we want to learn to keep the pelvis more neutral and demonstrate enough stability to be able to perform the exercise with good technique.
Having your rear foot too high places more demands on your flexibility and cranks up the tension on your lower back and front of the hip. In short, we see an excessive anterior tilt at the top of the movement.
If your pelvis is already out of position at the top of the movement (which is the easiest part to control your positioning) how on earth can you be expected to be in a good position at the bottom of the movement where it's the most difficult to keep everything where it should be?
You can't. Make sure you use a foot position where you aren't in a huge pelvic tilt at the top of the rep.
FIX #2 Feet are the correct distance apart
When the stance is too wide (as pictured above) demands on your flexibility and pelvic positioning skyrocket and for most people, the range of motion becomes so small you might as well not perform the exercise.
In the top position (fully standing) the front foot heel should be in a line (more or less) with the front knee, front of the pelvis, belly button, shoulders, and nose.
Note how the trailing leg is nearly vertical. From here it will be much easier to have good pelvic/core positioning at the bottom of the rep so you can get on with making gains
The thigh of the trailing leg should be nearly vertical at the top of the movement as is pictured above.
To go back to Mike Robertson he had this to say about poor split-stance exercise positioning:
"If we allow most people to set-up in a position where their trailing leg is very extended (trailing leg past vertical to the ground), it’s going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, for them to go through any significant range of motion without losing their neutral pelvic alignment."
You can find the article this is taken from HERE
FIX #3 BRACE THE CORE
Correct form is a range of positions. We don't need to strive for perfection, we need to strive for "good form" or form where your positioning throughout the entire rep is within a healthy range of positions that don't injure you.
This means you can wobble a bit and not need to beat yourself up for being an utter failure.
To stay within those healthy positions requires you to have a good core position throughout.
If your core good at stabilising/controlling the position of your ribs and pelvis you are likely to perform the split-squat well.
One of the reasons why bracing the core is important is to position both the lower back musculature and abdominal musculature correctly as the split-squat places as much demand on these structures as barbell back squatting.
Split-squats were said to put less strain on the lower back and core because of the more upright torso position.
It seems that isn't the case!
You can read more about this HERE with a big thank you to everyone over at strengthandconditioningresearch.com.
An added benefit to this is if you can control your core (therefore your rib cage and pelvis) in this exercise you'll find it much easier to apply the same concept to many other exercises in the gym.
How do you learn to control your pelvis and ribs?
Fix #4 Learning To Brace The Core
During this exercise, it's key to set the distance between your rib cage and pelvis before you begin a rep and to maintain that distance throughout the exercise allowing for as little movement/deviation as possible.
Once you can brace the core you can control your pelvis throughout the movement. As you develop more stability you'll be able be able to use more weight in this exercise becoming the hero you were always meant to be.
Adding in 1-3 core strength/stability exercises into your sessions is often enough to allow sufficient core strengthening to help you with this fix.
MISTAKE 2- Knee cave or valgus collapse
See how the knee is caving inwards?
Here we have another concept that will worry people senseless.
Let's be clear here, if your knee caves in a bit on the odd repetition or only during 1 rep max efforts we don't need to expend a great deal of energy worrying about a bit of valgus collapse.
If it happens with most of your reps, it is probably indicative of something that is or will be a weak link in your strength training.
The removal of weak links makes you stronger and more resilient.
Poor knee control can cause knee pain and injury. If we can reduce risk while making your technique better then I'm in!
Here's what Aaron Horshig of Squat University has to say about the matter (link HERE):
"If the body loses control of the knee and it starts to wobble or cave in during a lift, it causes the kneecap to rub unevenly against the femur and can lead to erosion of the smooth cartilage on the underside of the bone (similar to the athlete with EPPS compression syndrome)."
I'm off to google what EPPS compression syndrome is.
I'll be back in a moment.
(We probably don't need to cover EPPS today my friends)
What causes valgus collapse and how can we fix it?
From my experience, it is usually caused by a lack of awareness of what good form is, flat feet, 'tight' tissues of the lower leg, or a 'jammed' ankle where there is a restriction in the joint itself or weakness. Most often, it's a combination of these factors.
FIX #2 RNT Split Squat
If you see valgus collapse during your split squat something called an RNT Bulgarian split squat can be a game changer.
The aim is to keep the alignment with the foot at all times. Sets of between 10-20 on each side work well for grooving this pattern.
2021 Addition: MISTAKE #3- Staying too upright and putting too much weight through the rear knee
When you stay upright throughout the split squat range of motion, your weight is distributed evenly between your feet, and directly between your feet is your knee, directly above that knee is the majority of your bodyweight.
As you move towards the floor, following the line of gravity, all that force is going through the knee causing discomfort in some.
Over the past year, I've realised this is one of the most common split squat mistakes making it more difficult to have good core positioning and pelvic control.
Luckily, there is a simple fix.
FIX-Lean forward slightly to put weight through the front leg, actively try to put more weight front the front foot
Notice how the slight forward lean takes him in front of his rear leg as opposed to directly above it.
This places far less force through that knee, meaning it's far less likely to hurt.
This forward lean puts less of a stretch on the rear leg and makes it easier to position the pelvis comfortably without an extreme pelvic tilt.
2021 Addition: You struggle to balance
If you can't balance you can't perform the exercise effectively.
It makes the exercise frustrating, more dangerous, and less fun.
As you get older, the risks of falling over increase but we want to be able to do this exercise in our 40's, 50's, and beyond.
Fix #1 Use A Supported Version
John Meadows smashing with the supported split squat
Using a supportive pillar takes away the fear of falling. You can still add more weight, all you need is a heavier dumbbell, band, or vest.
You can stick with this version for as long as you need before progressing onto an unsupported version.
Fix #2 Pick a spot to look at
People don't know where to look.
By picking one spot to look at, your balance should improve as your head and eyes will be in the same position in relation to the torso throughout the movement.
Some magic happens in your brain and your balance should improve.
Fix #3 Know It's Ok To Adjust/ Occasionally Put Your Leg Down
This is a bit of an unusual one. I've noticed when people are told it's fine to put the rear leg down to save themselves from falling, their balance is better.
When someone knows they don't need to be perfect within a movement pattern, it gets them out of their own way, allowing them to perform the movement to a higher standard.
When you perform split squats, you might have to put your foot down and stumble. Most people do. Relax.
Building up the strength of your feet and building adequate strength and mobility of the ankles will go a long way towards setting you up for success in the Bulgarian split squat.
Having a good single leg squat or single leg box squat will also go a long way towards all of your single-leg exercise adventures.
With all this being said most movement problems are fixed with a reinforcement of good technique and the right coaching cues which I will hopefully provide below!
Putting It All Together- Performing The Split-Squat With Good Form
Here we see the Bulgarian Split-Squat performed with good form. It will look different from person to person and occasionally you won't get the rep perfect but in general, here are the rules:
Feet at a distance apart allowing the trailing thigh to be near vertical at the top of the movement
Feet and knee stay inline
The foot isn't higher than the front knee
At the bottom of the movement shin and torso angle should be similar
Use as much range of motion as you can without pain
Core should remain braced throughout to control the pelvis
Control the eccentric (where you are traveling towards the ground)
Explosive/Move as fast as you can on the way upwards unless you are performing a specific variation for a specific need
Feet grip the floor, arch of the foot isn't allowed to collapse
No falling over ;)
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach
Coaching for the overthinking powerlifter and those looking to build confidence in strength training.