Question: I see women doing split squats all the time, but I rarely see men doing them. Are they strictly to develop the glutes, or do they work the quads and hamstrings too? What’s your take on them?
Answer: In the PICP courses, we spend a considerable amount of time not only discussing the value of split squats but also having my students perform many variations of these exercises in the practical portions of these classes, as they are seldom performed properly. Because there is some confusion about terminology, before I go any further, recognize that the difference between a split squat and a lunge is that with the split squat, you use a stationary stance where you go up and down on the forward leg.
Performing single-limb exercises is important to help athletes achieve what I refer to as structural balance, which refers to muscles being in balance with other muscle groups. This definition extends not just to agonist/antagonist muscle pairs (such as the hamstrings and quadriceps) but also to pairs of limbs (such as the right leg and left leg). It’s not enough just to have the appropriate strength ratio between the hamstrings and quadriceps; to achieve structural balance, the strength of the quadriceps and hamstrings on the right leg should be equal to the strength of those of the left.
Having structural imbalances between limbs is very common even among elite athletes., particularly if they come from a sport where an implement is held like in fencing, tennis, squash etc..And because imbalances increase the risk of injury to athletes, my initial workouts for new clients often include many unilateral exercises. For example, an athlete is at a greater risk of pulling a hamstring if the hamstrings on the right leg are stronger than those on the left. Further, I’ve found that beginning with a program of unilateral exercises for the legs often results in faster gains in the squat in the long term than if no unilateral exercises are performed.
Split squats (along with lunges) have been popular among women because they are promoted as being good for working the glutes. In the ’90s, one popular women’s program called Freestyle promoted split squats as one of the primary leg exercises for women. The program evolved into a book (which, I learned, sold close to 50,000 copies), a DVD and a certification course. The program even used special devices called “lunge poles,” which were basically two poles that came together with a base to provide stability during the exercise. Besides ensuring proper performance of split squats, especially by those with ankle and knee stability issues, the poles made it easier to perform higher repetitions in these exercises because the arms could assist in the movement. Although one major health club chain had experimented with lunge pole classes, the idea didn’t (sorry, can’t resist) “stick.” (Incidentally, I saw illustrations of lunge poles that were published in a physical culture book from 1897, so the 1990s version was not an original idea.) However, just as Freestyle and lunge poles are fading from the collective memory of the fitness community, along comes 3 Minute Legs™, which is a silly apparatus you straddle that gives you assistance to do split squats. Unbelievable.
In the weightlifting community, barbell split squats were heavily promoted by Angel Spassov when he lectured in the US in the late ’80s. In the variation he favored, the back leg is elevated on a low platform (about four inches), a position that puts greater stress on the quadriceps because there is more weight on the front leg. Spassov believed split squats were great exercises for athletes, and apparently they were used for a time by junior weightlifters in his country to develop leg strength for the classical lifts. Recently, one functional-training guru has been promoting a back split squat for athletes, but the back foot is placed on a platform that is much higher than either Spassov or I recommend. The result is that this type of squat places the lower lumbar vertebrae in extreme hyperextension, which should provide chiropractors with many new clients.
Regarding your question about the muscle involvement, properly performed split squats should make you sore not only in the glutes but also in the hamstrings, quadriceps and adductors. I have seen many sprinters, jumpers and bobsledders add inches to their already well hypertrophied legs by supplementing their squatting programs with lunges or split squats.
I also like to use them if the athlete’s lower back has not yet recovered from a squat or deadlift session. They provide plenty of leg training without overloading the spine In my opinion, in lower body dominated sports like soccer, and American football, they are the best prevention tools against groin pulls.
Regardless of the set/rep protocol you use with this exercise, always start with the weaker leg first to help correct muscle imbalances faster. And now, here is how to perform split squats properly:
Starting Position Setup
• Stand facing away from a barbell placed on a squat rack.
• Using your index fingers, set up a reference point on the bar (use the knurling to determine the width of the grip).
• Keep your index fingers as close as possible to the outside of the shoulders.
• Duck under the bar and place the bar on the thick area of the trapezius muscle.
• Keep your chin up slightly.
• Focus your eyes on the opposite wall at a point that’s slightly higher than your eyes in order to maintain proper neck alignment.
• Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
• Take a big step directly forward with your nondominant leg to reach the initial starting position.
• Move your front knee directly forward maximally before lowering your hips.
• Lower the hips, keeping your back as erect as possible and your chest up.
• Lower your body under control until your hamstrings come in contact with your calves.
• Make a conscious effort to keep your elbows under the bar throughout the movement. This will ensure that the load is kept as close as possible over the center of gravity.
• Make sure your knee travels forward and over your toes throughout the descent.
• Inhale through your mouth throughout the descent.
• First, raise the hips.
• Keep your torso as perpendicular to the floor as possible throughout the ascent, particularly at the sticking point.
• Exhale throughout the ascent.
• Keep your trunk as erect as possible throughout the movement.
• Keep the eccentric lowering under control.
• Do not lean forward.
• As heavy weights can be used and lateral stability is compromised, you should perform the exercise inside a power rack with the safety pins set at the appropriate height to catch the weight should you lose your balance. Of course, a spotter can also help you maintain control.
To change the resistance curve on this movement, you place the barbell on the clavicles using a front squat grip. You can also perform the exercise with dumbbells, or by holding a single-handle cable hooked to a low pulley using the contra-lateral hand.
Split squats are a versatile exercise that belongs in every athlete’s, strength coach, and fitness trainer’s exercise toolbox. And by the way, there are no female or male exercises.