Single-Leg: Split Squats

Bulgarian split squat (contralateral load)

As discussed previously, I go with four fundamental movement patterns:

  1. Push (horizontal/vertical)
  2. Pull (horizontal/vertical)
  3. Squat
  4. Hip Hinge

Coach Dan John includes loaded carries. Some trainers also include single-leg movements, but to me those are just variations on squat or hinge. However, I’ve recently been reminded of the importance of single-leg work as I experienced disc-related pain. (Note that just because it's important that doesn't make it a fundamental movement pattern. Words have meaning.)

Muscular imbalances or weakness in the legs and/or hips can cause excess stress in the lumbar region (lower back) potentially leading to disc issues. We don’t know if that was the cause for me, but it’s been a good reminder to get back to doing some exercises I’ve set aside, often because I have a problematic knee.

One is the Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS) sometimes pretentiously referred to as “rear-foot elevated single-leg squat”. (Maybe the same folks call the bench press “torso-elevated horizontal press up” or something.) There is some spirited debate suggesting these are superior to standard two-legged squats but who cares? Do both! Actually this one’s kind of advanced so lets start with the simple split squat.

Split Squat

Unloaded split squat

A split squat is just like a lunge except your feet don’t move which makes them easier to do correctly. Get them into the position where you’d lower to the floor and keep them there for a series of reps. You can do these with no weights or with dumbbells, kettlebell, or medicine ball. They’re sometimes done with a barbell on the shoulders but that’s a bit much. You can use dumbbells or kettlebells hanging at your side (most common) or in the rack position (by your shoulders). You can also use a weight in only one hand, next to your forward "work" leg (ipsilateral) or on the other side (contralateral).

Split squat with rack load

All single-leg exercises challenge your lateral stability in a way two-legged exercises don’t. That’s one of the things that makes them particularly valuable.

Your feet should be far enough apart to allow you to descend with your torso upright and your front shin remaining close to vertical. If you press through your forward heel (mostly) rather than the ball of your foot, you should keep good position. (This is better than “don’t let your knee go past your toe” which is a lousy cue, in my opinion. Have these people ever walked down stairs?)

Unloaded split squat

If you have trouble with balance, go ahead and hold onto the back of a chair or something to help keep you stable until you get strong enough to go without. It’s nice to have something soft under your back knee (like a mat or small pillow) in case things go bad and you drop to the floor a little too hard. It’s also good to have a target down there, something you can touch with your knee to ensure you’re getting a full range of motion (ROM).

Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS)

When you’re ready to level up from the standard split squat to the BSS, use a bench, stool, or chair behind you and put the instep and lower shin of your rear leg on it. (Some people, like the woman in the video, put the ball of the foot on it what works best for you.) The hard part is getting your front foot positioned right so you can keep good form as with any split squat. It’s good if you can always do them in the same place and mark the floor where your lead foot should go.

Bulgarian split squat (ipsilateral load)

These challenge your balance more than a regular split squat so be careful. Try them without any weight first and use a chair or something for balance if needed. It’s a little easier if the rear foot isn’t elevated too high. Experiment to find what works for you. You can also hang onto something if you only load one side.

If you find yourself leaning forward (a video of yourself can help), you may have insufficient hip flexor flexibility for this one. But again, experiment with different bench heights and foot positions to be sure.

BSSs really work the glutes so be prepared for some butt soreness in a day or two. But if you stick with it, that will go away or at least be reduced.

Wrapping Up

By the way, you'll notice that "split squat" has the word "squat" in it. So I'm not sure why anyone would consider it a separate fundamental movement pattern just because it's using one leg at a time.

There are other split squat variations. Jumping split squats are interesting (but don’t try to do a jumping BSS!) although they require your foot position to change on each rep which kind of disqualifies them as split squats. But don’t nitpick. They’re good for developing explosive power. However, they’re also easy to do badly because it’s hard to get your feet in the proper position on every rep, especially as you fatigue.

There are also plenty of other single-leg exercises you can do. I’ll cover some in a future post.

And going back to the disc problem: single-leg exercises are no panacea for lumbar pain. They just address one potential problem. Others can include core weakness, weak glutes, hip weakness, hip flexor tightness, and more. But single-leg work—including split squats—can help us in lots of other ways too. But then, getting stronger always does.

Be seeing you.


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