Split squats. You might be doing them wrong.
It’s fair to say I have a bit of a love hate relationship with split squats and their variations. I love them because they are a fantastic way to develop single leg stability, strength and power (which can even carry over into squat and deadlift strength!). They place significant load on the lower limb, making the great for hypertrophy, and as they are a single leg exercise, they can eliminate and correct unilateral strength and stability differences. As a result, split squats can have direct influence on improving athletic performance, and as they also place a massive metabolic demand on the entire body, as such they are a fantastic exercises to use for fat loss.
The reason I hate them?
They are sheer brutality.
Try and punch out a couple of sets of 12 per side and feel good about life afterwards. It’s impossible (trust me).
Despite their brutality, I honestly think I would have put at least one split squat variation in 90% of the programs I have written. This is because not only are they great for athletic populations, they also have direct carryover activities of daily living (walking upstairs, standing up from a sitting on the floor etc.)
And recently, I have been seeing more and more people performing them in the gym. This in itself is fantastic – as I said, they are an awesome exercise that can be implemented effectively to meet almost any goal. The only issue with this, is that I have seen many (MANY) people performing them wrong.
Now, what do I mean by doing them wrong?
Well when people typically coach a split squat one of the most common cues that I hear is ‘chest up’. This cue is said with the intent to keep a nice neutral spine, saving load through the lower back, which is all well and good. The issue though is the resulting movement often looks a little bit like this (thanks google images).
Now while this doesn’t look horrible by any means, there is a couple of things that draws my eyes. While he is maintaining a nice upright posture (chest up, right?), it is actually causing two issues. Firstly, it is causing him to hyper-extend his lumbar spine, resulting increased extension forces on the spine. This is also most likely impacting his ability use his anterior abdominals to stabilise the spine (similar to anterior pelvic tilt position). Secondly, this hip and trunk position results in a huge amount of load placed on the anterior part of the hip capsule, causing unnecessary strain on the passive support structures (ligaments, cartilage) of the anterior hip.
To eliminate these issues I teach split squat variations with a slight forward lean of the torso coming from the hips, similar to that seen in the image of strength coach Jordan Syatt below (again, thanks google)
Now I realise that this is a different variation to the first image, but the same principals apply, and the differences are pretty apparent. There is no hyper-extension of the spine, ensuring a neutral spinal position, and as a massive bonus, by increasing hip flexion slightly, the glutes are put in a more advantageous position meaning they will work harder during the movement!
The focus should be on ‘sliding’ the hips back as you descend into the squat, whilst keeping the distance between the top of your pelvis and the bottom of your sternum constant throughout the duration of the movement. This ensures that you load through the hips correctly, and also makes sure you maintain a nice neutral spine throughout the duration of the exercise.
Have a go at this next workout and notice the difference!
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