A great deal of people who perform split squats do them incorrectly. This is limiting their gains and putting them at a greater risk of injury than necessary.
Unfortunately, I see too many Personal Trainers allowing their clients to perform them incorrectly too. As someone clearly in a position of authority and influence this simply isn't good enough.
But enough of my pontificating. My coaching is still far from perfect and the aim of this article is to help you to give your clients the best possible experience in your sessions.
This was meant to be a short, one-off article. Then research happened and as is ALWAYS the case there was so much more to this topic than I can possibly cover in any one article or even series of articles.
I'm going to do my best. Stay tuned for lots more split-squat related goodness!
So for today, 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 that you've made it this far.
Why do split-squats anyway?
To list the benefits of split-squats requires a long list.
They build balance, ankle and foot arch strength to a great degree than squats due to the increased balance demands of the exercise
They hit every single leg muscle incredibly hard
Your torso position tends to be much more upright than barbell back squats
Similar gluteal activation to barbell back squats
They are less risky and 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 easy to load up (once you've learnt to balance) depending on the variation you use
Using a split stance trains the hips in a very different way to squats and deadlifts resulting in many positive adaptations
Very 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 very difficult and very frustrating to balance at first
Some people find them quite aggressive 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?
EXCESSIVE ANTERIOR PELVIC TILT THROUGHOUT
Let me show you:
Simply put, the problem is poor core positioning.
Why is this a problem?
Well, 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 an anterior tilt so promoting a more neutral tilt to promote more core activation generally helps people to get more from the exercise.
Many start the split-squat with too much of a tilt (or a lower back that is arched to hell and 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 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 more than it should be.
These aren't areas we want to stress in this way. We want to stress them in a positive way.
What is this caused by?
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 entirely 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 have it demonstrate enough stability to be able to perform the exercise with good technique.
Having your rear foot too high immediately places more demands on your flexibility and cranks up the tension on your upper back and front of the hip. In short, we see an excessive anterior tilt at the top of the movement.
So 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. So make sure you are getting the foot in a position where you don't need to be in a huge 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 that you might as well not perform the exercise at all
In the top position (fully standing) the front foot heel should be stacked in a line (more or less) with the front knee, front of the pelvis, belly button, shoulders and nose and if you are being really picky the top of your head.
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 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
As we've said before, correct form is a range. There is no set point. We don't need to strive for perfection, we just need to strive for "good form" or form where your positioning throughout the entire rep and entire set are within a healthy range of positions.
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 because a core good at stabilising your ribs and pelvis is a core that can help you stay in a good position throughout the Bulgarian split-squat.
One of the reasons why bracing the core is so important is to position both the lower back musculature and abdominal musculature correctly as the split-squat places just as much demand on these structures as barbell back squatting.
I wondered for years why bulgarian split-squats set off people's back pain in just the same way as barbell back squats. Split-squats were always meant to put less strain on the lower back and core because of the more upright torso position.
It seems that isn't the case! Good core position and strength = Bad ass split-squatting ability (usually.)
You can read more about this HERE with a big thank you to everyone over at strengthandconditioningresearch.com.
As a side note this is why coaches are slightly off the mark when they say that Bulgarian split-squats take stress off the lower back.
An added benefit to this is that 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 and out of the gym.
Don't overthink this, we just need some core control to get the most out of the exercise and reduce the stress on your hip and back.
So how do you learn to control your pelvis and ribs?
During this exercise (and many others) it's about setting the distance between your rib cage and pelvis before you begin a rep and maintaining that distance throughout the exercise (or at least only allowing a small amount of movement, we probably don't need absolute perfection to not die)
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 progressively difficult core strength/stability exercises into your sessions (usually somewhere near the end of your workout usually) 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 absolute 1 rep max efforts we don't need to expend a great deal of energy worrying about a bit of valgus collapse.
With that being said, if it happens with most of your reps during the bulgarian split squat 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?
It terms of what causes valgus collapse it almost doesn't matter unless you really want to get into the nitty-gritty details.
From my experience it is usually caused by a lack of awareness of what good form actually 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.
One of the fixes is simply learning what good form is. Scroll down and you'll see our summary of that below.
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 each side work really well for grooving this pattern.
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 that allows the trailing leg to be near vertical at the top of the movement
Feet and knee stay in line
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 travelling 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 ;)
If you already have great form....well done! You are already winning and I apologise for making you read all that!
If not I hope it helped you out and didn't overcomplicate things or make you worry about this great exercise.
Remember, for most people training should be tough but enjoyable.
Get strong, it fixes many things.
Bulgarian split-squats are just another tool in your arsenal to achieve that goal.
See you next time!
By Chris Kershaw
Chris is a Personal Trainer, Strength Coach, writer, man of small stature and reader of The Discworld Series with a decade in the industry.
He trains everyone from beginners to high level athletes.
His favourite clients are people getting into the gym for the first time because they can make the biggest changes in their lives.
You can reach him through the email address email@example.com
His Instagram is Chris_Kershaw_Strength.
Thank you for reading!