The barbell split squat is a popular unilateral lower body movement used by strength, power, and fitness athletes to increase muscle mass, strength, and injury resilience. In this article we will discuss what a split squat is, what muscles are worked, and the unique benefits coaches and athletes can expect from performing them.
The barbell split squat (not the same as the Bulgarian split squat) targets the below muscle groups. Individual emphasis can be given to a muscle group more by increasing the split, depth of knee flexion, or a combination of the two.
- Gluteal Muscles
In the below video the athlete properly demonstrates how to perform a barbell split squat. Follow the steps below in great detail to enhance muscle mass, strength, and injury resilience at the knees and hips.
- Unrack the barbell in similar fashion as you would a high bar back squat stepping slightly farther back than normal.
- Place one foot firmly in front of you, roughly 1-2 feet.
- Drop you back foot slightly behind you, allowing the knee the bend towards the floor into an almost kneeling position. The back knee should be slightly behind an imaginary line that runs perpendicular to your front heel. The feet themselves should be placed about hip width apart, similar to your squat.
- As you descend into the squat, allow the front foot to stay flat into the floor, with the front knee bending over the toes, making sure to keep the torso upright and not allowed to collapse forward.
- At the deepest part of the split squat, the front knee should be pointed in the direction of the front toes (never collapsed inwards or pushed excessively out).
- To come up, focus on staying balance between the feet and keeping the torso upright, using the front leg (specifically the quads and glutes to engage the movement).
- Come to an upright position with the front leg softly extended/locked, and repeat. Then switch legs.
Below are some of the key benefits coaches and athletes can expect by including barbell split squats into their training programs.
Generally speaking, unilateral training has the ability to address movement asymmetries, compensation patterning, and even increase muscle mass and motor unit recruitment rates, one limb at a time.
Additionally, unilateral training offers:
- Correcting Movement and Muscular Imbalances: Movements like the barbell split squat allow enhanced specificity on proper joint alignment, tracking, and muscular involvement in both specific and gross movement patterns. The ability to train the limbs independently can often uncover movement disorders or muscular imbalances.
- Application to Sport and Human Movement: Most sports require multi-directional movements, the ability to support oneself asymmetrically, and/or demonstrate balance and proprioception. By training unilateral movements, coaches can challenge athletes neuromuscularly to promote balance, awareness, and multi-planar movement abilities that can aid in sports performance and injury prevention at the knee, hip, and/or ankle.
- Improved Muscular Stimulation: In an earlier article I discussed the benefits of unilateral training on muscular stimulation and motor unit activity, stating that research suggests enhanced muscle activation during unilateral training, which can lead to increase performance, muscle mass, and athletic awareness.
While this movement is not a replacement main movements like the back squat, Romanian deadlifts, and other lower body strength exercises, it can be a highly beneficial exercise to be used in accessory and/or hypertrophy training segments to inspire new muscle growth and adaptation.
The importance of hypertrophy training for strength, power, and fitness athletes cannot be stressed enough. The additional benefits that unilateral training has on an individual (discussed above), specifically the ability to increase muscular activation during single leg movements, can lead to increased muscular hypertrophy and potentially even transferable strength and muscle tissue to larger based movements (deadlifts, front squats, back squats, etc).
Lastly, by increasing hypertrophy at a more muscle group specific level, coaches and athletes can increase training volume to the legs with unilateral movements like this one without overtaxing other muscle groups and potentially negatively impacting performance.
Maximal Strength Capacities
While this movement should not be programmed using excessively heavy loads (see above sections), the ability to train one leg with moderate loads can help to develop one’s “bilateral deficit”, which is explained here. By addressing this principle with unilateral training, coaches and athletes can develop stronger athletes and expect movement and strength transfers to main bilateral movements, such as squats.