When most people think of squats they think of the classic back squat. This compound exercise targets multiple muscle groups simultaneously, offering great benefits. But did you know there’s a squat variation that might do even more for your strength and mobility?
When it comes to getting the most bang for your buck it’s hard to beat the squat. The classic back squat engages your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, back, and abdominal muscles. Although the target muscles for squats are your glutes and quads, this compound movement is very much a full-body exercise.
The squat in itself is an extremely versatile movement. There are dozens of variations in the squat family. Squats can be performed with just bodyweight, free weights, kettlebells, or resistance bands. Squat varieties include plyometric jumping squats, one-legged pistol squats, Bulgarian squats, front squats, back squats, and more.
With so many squat variations, you’re probably wondering which one is best. Choosing the best squat variation comes down to your goals and equipment. The traditional weighted back squat is a great exercise, but it requires expensive equipment and space. It’s also not the most functional squat movement.
On the other hand, the split squat can be performed with bodyweight, resistance bands, or free weights and is probably the most functional squat exercise you can do. What’s not to like about a functional movement that builds just as much leg strength and mass as a traditional back squat?
In this article, we take a deep dive into the split squat and uncover why it’s hailed as the best functional squat movement for most people. We look at the history of the split squat, how to perform the exercise correctly, and the best split squat equipment for at-home use.
What are Split Squats?
The split squat is a lower-body exercise that’s a type of hybrid between the squat and the lunge. Your feet stay in one place like a squat, while you work your leg independently like a lunge.
You might also describe the split squat as a single-leg squat, although it’s not to be confused with pistol squats—which float one leg in front of you. With one leg grounded behind you, the split squat targets many of the same muscles as a traditional squat, but with slightly more emphasis on the quads.
Along with your quads, this single-leg exercise strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, and calves. And because it’s a single-leg exercise, your core is forced into maximum engagement to help maintain your balance.
While traditional squats put sizable loads onto your lower back—potentially causing injury—the split squat better supports your lower back, putting more emphasis on your lower body.
The split squat has been widely adopted as the squat of choice for young and old because of its lower back-protective benefits. But aside from safety, it’s one of the best exercises for building muscle mass and strength.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Split Squat
While a split squat is similar to a Bulgarian split squat, they’re not the same thing. People often use the terms interchangeably, which is a mistake. There is a difference between the bulgarian split squat and a traditional one.
What defines a Bulgarian split squat is the placement of your back foot. To perform Bulgarian split squats, your back foot must be elevated. Try a bench, step, or another stable object.
When performing a standard split squat, your back foot remains planted on the level floor behind you. As a result, the split squat is more stable than the Bulgarian split squat and lets both the front and back leg contribute to the work more evenly.
Whichever you choose, Bulgarian Split squat or traditional split squat, both movements effectively activate the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
What are the Benefits of Split Squats?
Split squats bring all the benefits of traditional squats, plus some functional benefits that better translate to everyday life. Loading a barbell with three hundred pounds and going deep is impressive, but it’s less functional outside the gym—unless your job requires heavy lifting. The various benefits of the split squat translate directly to the movements you need for a healthy everyday life.
Split Squats Engages Core and Improves Balance
Front and back squats recruit your core muscles to some degree, but not as much as the split squat. The split squat puts you into a more unstable position, forcing core engagement and greater muscle recruitment as you attempt to keep your balance. Most people don’t do enough unilateral exercises, leaving them with huge quads, but a weak core.
Corrects Lower Body Muscle Imbalances
Most of us are not symmetrical from a strength standpoint. Because we tend to use our bodies in the most comfortable way, one side is usually stronger than the other. Split squats are a great way to address lower body muscle imbalances because they isolate each side. You might always have a dominant leg, but there are big advantages to performing movements that alternate between your dominant and weaker side.
Saves Your Spine
The back squat is a great exercise, but it does place stress on your spine. This is not always a bad thing, as performing this movement with proper form will strengthen your spinal erectors. However, many people have lower back issues or poor mobility, preventing them from performing a back squat without leaning too far forward or overarching the lumbar spine. The split squat reduces the risk of injury by keeping excessive loads off the lower back.
Amazing Glute Activation
Some people worry that split squats will not activate their glutes like a traditional squat. This is nothing to worry about. Numerous studies have shown muscle activation between the split squat and regular squats is similar. One study even found that the split squat activates the gluteus medius more than the back squat.1 Not to be confused with the gluteus maximus, this hard-to-target muscle contributes to hip functionality.
Improved Sports Performance
If you play sports, you’ll benefit from adding split squats into your strength-training routine. Athletes are forever bearing partial or full weight on one leg. Whether you’re jumping off one leg, landing on one leg, or balancing and pivoting on one leg, strength and balance lead to speed, ease of movement, and less risk of injury. The split squat builds the foundation for improved athletic performance.
If you really want to overload the legs doing traditional squats, you’ll need a barbell, plates, and a squat rack. Do this at home, and you’ll be spending a lot of money, and using up a lot of real estate. The stronger you get, the more plates you need. Split squats on the other hand are designed for maximum isolation and efficiency. Even the strongest athletes can perform the exercise, and reap benefits, using dumbbells, kettlebells or resistance bands.
Traditional squats work your lower body, but there are natural points in the movement when the load is released, and muscles become far less active. When standing at the top of your back squat, for example, there’s almost no tension in your muscles, as the weight rests on your bones and joints—not where you want a heavy load.
In a split squat, your back leg is pushed back slightly, and your front leg is providing an equal and opposite reaction forward, creating constant tension on the front leg. It’s not easy, but it’s efficient and triggers faster results and gains. If you really want to take your split squats to the next level, perform them under the constant tension of resistance bands versus free weights.
High Intensity Compatible
Beyond failure, techniques are not really barbell back squat friendly. Training to failure with a barbell on your back is low reward, high risk, especially for your lower back! What are you going to do when you can no longer complete a rep? It’s a great way to do serious damage to your body. Split squats, on the other hand, allow you to work to failure safely. If you’re using dumbbells or kettlebells, you just drop them to the ground. Split squats with resistance bands make training to failure even easier and safer.
How to Do the Split Squat
Compound exercises like the split squat are the best exercises you can do to spark new muscle growth. Targeting multiple major muscle groups in one movement provides your muscle fibers with stimulus to increase in size, and elevates levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).
- To do the split squat, start from a standing position with your feet under your hips.
- Take a long step back as if performing a lunge.
- Keep your back heel lifted, with your weight on the ball of your foot. All ten toes face forward.
- Now that you’re in a split stance, keep your torso upright with your shoulders over your hips.
- Bend both knees to slowly lower your hips to the ground until your back knee almost touches the floor.
- Maintain an upright, neutral spine as you lift and lower.
- If you notice your front knee extending forward past your front toes, take a shorter stance.
Complete all your reps on one leg before switching to the other leg and repeating. As you squat, it’s important to keep your front knee from extending too far past your front foot. Too much knee flexion puts unnecessary pressure on your joints, without any added benefit for your lower body muscles.
That’s the split squat. It’s a simple, safe, and extremely effective lower body exercise. By activating your balance response, recruiting more muscles, and keeping your core engaged, it outperforms any other squat movement.
Split Squat Variations
Split squat variations include split squats performed with bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands. You can also vary the split squat by raising a back or front foot. Depending on your fitness goals, and your current strength and mobility, there’s a perfect split squat variation for you.
Bodyweight Split Squat
To perform a bodyweight split squat, all you need is yourself. How convenient. No weights are necessary as your body provides resistance. The bodyweight split squat is perfect for beginners, while stronger athletes might use it as a warm-up. Depending on your body weight and your current level of fitness, a bodyweight split squat may be all you need for some time.
Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat is popular enough to revisit here. The Bulgarian split squat can be performed with just your bodyweight or a pair of dumbbells. This movement targets the same muscles as the split squat, but puts more load on the front leg\ and requires greater core engagement for balance. The form is the same as the regular split squat; just elevate your back foot by placing it on a stable, raised surface.
Dumbbell Split Squat
The Dumbbell split squat is performed holding a dumbbell in each hand. The nice thing about dumbbells, as opposed to a single barbell, is that you can safely drop them if you lose balance or get too fatigued. Adding weight to your split squat with the use of dumbbells will help you build greater strength.
Barbell Split Squat
If you have a gym membership, or the space at home for a full squat rack, the split squat can be performed with a traditional squat barbell across your back. With the bar on your shoulders, the exercise is performed like any other split squat. As you can imagine, the challenge here is safely exiting the movement once you’re tired or if you lose balance. A squat rack or a spotter is recommended.
Goblet Split Squat
In a goblet squat, you hold a single dumbbell or kettlebell with both hands in front of your chest while squatting. You can do the same thing with the split squat. One advantage of the goblet squat position is that it shifts your center of gravity forward, making it easier to target your quads, especially on the front leg.
Deficit Split Squat
As your flexibility increases, you can challenge yourself with a deficit split squat. Creating a deficit increases your range of motion, similar to going really deep on a traditional back squat. While the Bulgarian split squat raises your back foot, a deficit split squat places your front foot on a bench or a box. The result is a much deeper squat, as you lower your back knee toward the ground. This movement should be reserved for only the most advanced athletes, as it can easily stress the front knee joint, leading to injury.
Resistance Band Split Squat
Once you graduate past bodyweight split squats you have two options; invest in weights or use heavy resistance bands to keep building strength. To do a banded split squat, place a closed-loop band under your foot, or stand on a foot plate with the band underneath. Hold the band or loop it over your shoulders, and perform the exercise as you normally would. As you’ll see—this is much safer and more effective with a resistance band device, such as X3.
The Best Resistance Band Split Squat
The best split squat variation we’ve seen is the banded split squat—with the X3 bar. Not only is the split squat among the greatest strength training movements, but resistance bands are the most effective way to build strength and lose body fat.
Why Resistance Bands Are Best
Unlike free weights, dumbbells, or kettlebells, which all fall under the ‘static resistance’ category, resistance bands offer variable resistance. This means your joints are protected where they need it most—at the bottom of your split squat when your knees are deeply bent. Here, the resistance provided by the band is lightest. As you push and extend your joints, the bands begin to stretch, offering you greater resistance where your body is strongest.
Variable resistance means you’re no longer limited by how much weight you can move at the bottom of your lift, but instead, sufficiently challenged in your strongest position—mid squat as you’re pressing from the ground.
Heavy resistance bands in particular offer constant tension and when used to perform a movement to fatigue, cue the hormones necessary for muscular growth in the quickest (and safest) manner possible.
Why X3 Bar is Better
Yet while the theory of variable resistance is great, most bands just aren’t designed to be split squat friendly. They’re either too weak, the wrong length, slide off your shoulders, or just plain awkward to stand on. The X3 Bar Home Gym solves these problems, making your resistance band split squat safer, but also far more effective.
The X3 Resistance Band Bar is the perfect resistance band system for split squats. The X3 bar is designed for safely simulating familiar push and pull weight movements like squats, chest presses, and deadlifts. It’s the most versatile resistance band trainer on the market and has become a go-to home gym favorite for all types of individuals, from elite athletes to seniors.
The X3 makes the split squat easier in the following ways:
- A grip-friendly steel bar lets you ‘hold’ the resistance bands safely and securely
- A stable ground plate lets the band stretch underneath your front foot - without forcing lost balance
- The system is designed to allow for use of the heaviest, strongest bands—and therefore quicker gains
The X3 will strengthen your split squat, but also provide you with a total body workout and improved core strength, without risk to your joints.
Steel Workout Bar
The 21.5-inch workout bar is engineered from machined alloy steel. It’s capable of withstanding over 600 pounds of force. Each side of the bar has ball bearings with a hook attached which allows the bar to rotate, keeping the band’s orientation consistent and your grip secure throughout the full range of any movement. This is especially important when attempting to perform split squats with proper form.
The quality and strength of the bands set X3 apart from other resistance band systems. X3 comes with four resistance bands. X3 bar bands are designed to provide greater resistance and last longer than any other resistance bands available.
Each resistance band is made specifically for the X3 bar and features layered latex for unmatched strength. The four included resistance bands come in the following tensile ranges:
- Super lightweight: 10–50+ pounds as a single loop, 100 pounds doubled over
- Lightweight: 25–80+ pounds as a single loop, 160 pounds doubled over
- Middleweight: 50–120+ pounds as a single loop, 240 pounds doubled over
- Heavyweight: 60–150+ pounds as a single loop, 300 pounds doubled over
The X3 Elite resistance band is sold separately and provides 110–300 pounds of resistance as a single, closed-loop and over 600 pounds when doubled over.
When resistance bands are stronger and more powerful, anchoring them by standing on them becomes increasingly difficult. They dig into your feet and put an extreme amount of pressure on your ankle joints. It’s also unsafe—one slip and the band can snap back at you. The X3 Bar Resistance Band Home Gym System solves this common problem by adding a stabilizing ground plate.
The high-density polyethylene plate has a notched-out area on the bottom designed to keep the band in place while at the same time, allowing it to stretch. Using the ground plate makes any exercise safer and more comfortable, which also makes it more effective.
The ground plate is engineered to withstand over 600 pounds of force, allowing it to keep up with the heavy-duty resistance bands.
Squats are the darling of the weight lifting world, and for good reason. But a split squat offers more functional benefits than your standard back squat. The asymmetrical movement recruits more stabilizing muscles for a stronger core and makes the exercise safer by protecting the lower back.
A split squat performed with resistance bands is even better, as it takes advantage of the benefits of variable resistance. With variable resistance, the load is lightest where joints are most compromised, and heaviest when the body is in its strongest, impact-ready position.
With resistance bands, the split squat movement becomes even more effective than before.
The problem? Most resistance band sets aren’t split squat friendly. Bands are either too weak, too short, or too awkward to stand on and hold.
The X3 Bar Home Gym solves all this by providing a secure and familiar steel bar to hold onto, a solid and stable ground plate to stand on, and the world’s strongest resistance bands. The combination means your split squat will carry constant tension, recruit more muscles, and trigger the hormones you need to achieve greater gains, faster.