The Split Squat is a great addition or alternative to lower-body exercises, with or without weights. It builds unilateral leg strength and stability and reinforces proper body positioning for movements like running and lunging. It hits the large muscles of the legs, like the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. It targets the core, recruits smaller leg muscles and decreases lower back loads for those with low back issues.
To perform a bodyweight Split Squat, assume a balanced split stance with one leg forward and one back. To begin the descent, maintain an upright torso, flex your forward leg at the hip and knee, and flex your rear leg at the knee. Keep your front and back knees at 90-degree angles, and align your lead knee above the lead foot. Your rear knee should come very close to the ground to increase depth, but it should not make 100-percent contact. Complete the Split Squat by returning to the initial standing split stance. You can place your arms at your hips or behind your head during these movements.
People tend to want to jump ahead and learn advanced versions of the Split Squat without building a proper base. Everyone wants to do Bulgarian Split Squats with big dumbbells, but jumping into that without solid technique will most likely end in harm.
Here are three ways to add challenging variety to the basic Split Squat, using one or two dumbbells.
1. Dumbbell Goblet Split Squat
The Dumbbell Goblet Split Squat activates the anterior core and is excellent for teaching squat depth. It's perfect when only one dumbbell is available.
- Hold a dumbbell tight to your body in front of your chest, from underneath.
- Position one leg forward and one back in a balanced split stance.
- Maintain an upright torso, flex your forward and rear legs to 90-degree angles, and keep your lead knee above your lead foot.
- Flex your abs and keep your torso strong, so as not to produce any forward lean.
- Do not move the dumbbell from its initial position. Again, don't let your rear knee fully contact and rest on the ground.
- Return to the initial standing split stance when done.
2. Dumbbell Front Split Squat
Dumbbell Split-Squats are usually done with the arms hanging at the sides and the hands holding two dumbbells. This variation requires holding dumbbells on the shoulders with your elbows up (one end of each dumbbell resting on the shoulders). This resembles a rack position of a Front Squat or a Clean. When done correctly, this movement teaches keeping an upright torso. The stability of each shoulder also gets tested by maintaining the dumbbells in position during the Split Squat.
- Rack two dumbbells atop your shoulders with your elbows up.
- Keep one end of each dumbbell on your shoulders. Make sure your elbows are high enough that your triceps are parallel to the floor, and try to stay in this position while split-squatting. Your elbows and arms should be parallel to one another, not wide.
- Assume a balanced split stance position with one leg forward and the other back.
- Maintain a vertical torso and high elbows, even when lowering into the Split-Squat.
- After the descent is complete, come back to the initial standing split stance.
3. Overhead Dumbbell Split Squat
This variation is the most advanced of the three. It involves an upper-body component as well. You do a Split Squat while holding a pressed dumbbell above your head contra-laterally (in the hand opposite your front leg). Holding the dumbbell overhead requires shoulder and scapular strength and stabilization, and the exercise activates the entire torso to maintain alignment. That means you should not do this Split-Squat movement with a heavy dumbbell.
- Hold a light dumbbell contra-laterally to your front leg in the split stance.
- Press the dumbbell above your head (as in a Shoulder Press), stabilizing your arm in this position.
- Place your other hand on your hip if needed. Posture is important during Splits Squats, but especially in this one, so avoid unnecessary torso flexion and rotation.
- Complete the Split Squat, keeping the overhead dumbbell high and your elbow locked.
- When you finish one side, change legs in the split stance and switch the dumbbell to your other hand.
These Split Squat variations are effective and beneficial for beginners and advanced athletes alike. They're great accessory exercises and can be added to most training programs. They are also good to use before progressing to Bulgarian, or rear-foot-elevated, Split Squat variations. Work these movements until you can do 3 or 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions per leg. Make sure to progress with weights, sets and repetitions reasonably to ensure proper adaptation and avoid injury!
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