white woman wearing black tank top and maroon workout pants does a rear foot elevated split squat

4 Split Squat Variations for Stronger Legs

If your aim is stronger legs, adding the split squat to your lifting routine can pay off, big time!

Check out these 4 split squat variations to add in to your strength training plan.

white woman wearing black tank top and maroon workout pants does a rear foot elevated split squat

What is a Split Squat?

Split squats are a compound lower body exercise where you lower yourself toward the ground and come back to a standing position.

In a regular bilateral squat, your feet are in line with each other under the hips. However, split squats are done with one foot stepped forward and one foot stepped back. This creates a staggered stance.

Split squats place more weight on the front leg which makes them a unilateral exercise.

You can raise one foot up or keep them both on the floor. More on that below.

The Benefits of Split Squats

Split squats are a powerful way to increase muscle strength and hypertrophy as well as stability in the lower body. They work your quads, glutes and hamstrings. Your core muscles also work hard during a split squat because you’re working to maintain your balance.

Because this kind of unilateral movement challenges one leg at a time, split squats can help address imbalances in strength.

Compared to a regular squat, you’ll work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes with less involvement of the low back.

How to Do a Split Squat

Now, let’s see what good split squat form looks like.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Take a big step forward with your front foot.
  • Keep the front heel down and distribute your weight through your whole foot. Lift the back heel.
  • Engage your core muscles and angle your torso slightly forward.
  • Put your hands on your hips or keep them at your sides.
  • Slowly lower down, letting your front knee and ankle bend until your front thigh is parallel to the floor.
  • Once at the bottom of the split squat, drive your body back up using the strength of your front leg. Return to the start position.

For general strength and muscle growth goals, consider doing 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each.

white woman wearing black tank top and maroon workout pants does a rear foot elevated split squat

4 Split Squat Variations for You to Try

#1 Split Squat with Support

Use a broom stick to provide support or hold onto a chair for extra balance. If you feeling like you’re walking a tight rope and tipping over, be sure your feet aren’t too close together. Hip width apart (or slightly wider) can help provide a better base of support.

#2 Split Squat without Support

This is similar to the first option but without holding on to anything. You can put your hands on your hips if it’s more comfortable or of course, add weight.

#3 Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (aka Bulgarian Split Squats)

These are really challenging because they put even more emphasis on the forward leg muscle groups – the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

The rear foot elevated option puts your center of mass in a more forward position and requires a bit for a forward lean with your torso.

Select a bench or surface that’s about knee high or lower for your back leg.

#4 Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Here, your center of mass is positioned further back than in the rear foot elevated split squat.

Your torso will be more upright and the back leg should stay as straight as your flexibility will allow as you drive forward into the front leg.

How Else Can You Modify a Split Squat?

Add Weight

Once you’ve mastered the movement, make split squats more challenging by adding weight.

You can hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand. Or challenge balance even more by only adding weight to one hand at a time.

Or, you could use a band to provide resistance.

Another more advanced option is to hold a barbell across the back or front of your shoulders.

Challenge Balance Even More

For the rear foot elevated split squat, challenge your balance and stability even more by placing your back foot on an unstable surface.

Options include placing the back foot on a Swiss ball or in a TRX handle or ring.

Common Trouble with Split Squats

Feeling it More in Your Back Leg

If you’re feeling a lot of stress, tightness or strain in your back leg or range of motion limitations, chances are that your front foot is stepped out too far. Try bringing the front foot closer in to your body.

Your front leg should be what’s most actively working.

Pressure on Your Low Back

In the rear foot elevated split squat especially, it’s common to feel pressure in your lower back if your torso is too upright.

Trying a slight forward lean so that at the bottom of the split squat, your shoulders, hips and front leg make a straight line.

Tipping Over or Losing Balance

Because it’s a unilateral movement, a split squat will challenge your balance. If you’re falling over, be sure that your feet are hip distance apart or slightly wider.

white woman wearing black tank top and maroon workout pants does a rear foot elevated split squat

How Split Squats are Different from Lunges

Split squats and lunges are similar at first glance, but they have important differences.

In a split squat, you’re putting more emphasis on the front leg.

In a lunge, your weight is more evenly distributed between the front and back leg.

Also, split squats don’t involve stepping forward, back, or to the side during each repetition. That can reduce the level of complexity.

Some people find lunges to be harder because in addition to lifting and lowering, you’re also stepping one foot away from and back toward the body.

If you feel too unstable doing lunges, try integrating split squats instead.

What Can You Do Instead of a Split Squat?

It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your program.

If you’re building your strength as a novice and split squats feel too difficult, try a bilateral squat option like a bodyweight or goblet squat.

For different single leg options, you could try step ups or single leg squats.

Now you have some ideas of how to choose split squat variations that meets your need and level.

Which one is your favorite? Let me know below!

Looking for a Simple But Effective Lifting Program?

If you want to get stronger by lifting for 30 minutes or less, 2-3 times a week, get the Made Strong Program.

It’s based on the five main compound movement patterns: squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry.

white woman wearing black tank top and maroon workout pants does a rear foot elevated split squat

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2 Responses

  1. This is really a good article. I currently doing split squat without support and will try the rear split squat soon. Thank you for sharing these variations!

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Hi, I'm Steph!

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