Progressing the Split Squat

Anyone that knows me knows that I am a huge fan of single leg exercises. There are reasons I like single leg exercises a little more than bilateral exercises. To me, single leg training is smart, it’s logical, it makes sense, and it’s more sport and life specific.

One of my favorite single leg exercises is the traditional split squat. The split squat has been around forever and is by no means reinventing the wheel. It’s an efficient and effective way for any athlete to develop the necessary single leg strength. It’s also a fundamental strength movement in any program that I would design, no matter the sport.

split squat

With the understanding that strength training always needs to be progressive, we need to gradually build to more intense exercises and repetition schemes as the program advances. As a coach, your strength training programs need to have a vision, an understanding of where you are trying to go with the actual exercise. The program is a process.

Because of this, it’s important to develop a progression for as many exercises you use in your training program as you can. When it comes to the split squat, a simple progression that I typically use would look something like this:

Phase 1: Goblet Split Squat Holds
In the first phase of the program would typically start with an isometric based phase, with the Goblet Split Squat Hold is the weapon of choice. Simply grad a dumbbell in the goblet position, lower into the bottom of your split squat, and hold the position for time. A simple progression over the course of three weeks would look something like this;

  • Week 1 = 2×10 seconds each
  • Week 2 = 3×10 seconds each
  • Week 3 = 4×10 seconds each

Phase 2: Eccentric Goblet Split Squat
In the second phase of the program, an eccentric based phase, an Eccentric Goblet Split Squat is used. As far as the setup is concerned, nothing changes from the previous phase. However, the athlete is now completing full reps with a 3-5 second eccentric (lowering) component.

  • Week 1 = 3×6 each
  • Week 2 = 3×8 each
  • Week 3 = 3×10 each

It should be noted that I typically have the athlete use the same weight from week to week for their sets. The increased intensity and volume simply comes from adding more repetitions each week at that same weight. Simply yet effective.

Phase 3: Front Split Squat
At this point the athlete is finally introduced to the barbell for split squats and there is no isometric hold and eccentric loading during each rep. The athlete is going to simply perform normal, controlled reps during this phase and from here on out. I also use the front squat position instead of back squat because of the carryover to this position with the hang clean and traditional front squat. Additionally, the front squat position allows for better posture and more core involvement.

  • Week 1 = 3×8 each
  • Week 2 = 3×8 each (increase weight from previous week)
  • Week 3 = 3×8 each (increase weight from previous week)

Phase 4: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (goblet)
Quite possibly my favorite single leg strength movement out there, the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat is added for the fourth phase of the program. Though the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat is still a supported single leg exercise like the front split squat, the back leg contributes less in the RFE Split Squat than Front Split Squat, making it a little more challenging for the athlete. Depending on the athletes strength, we can use the goblet position, 2DB suitcase position or even potentially a bar in the front squat position. However, most of the time the goblet position is going to be used with weight vests or chains added for someone that needs a little extra external load.

  • Week 1 = 3×8 each
  • Week 2 = 3×6 each
  • Week 3 = 3×4 each

Phase 5: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (2DB)
In the final progression of the program is by no means genius. During this phase, not a heck of a lot change. We have no moved away from the goblet position and moved to a double dumbbell position. This way of loading the exercise changes the demand on the core but is also a sneaky way to add some weight without the athlete knowing so all the time (same holds true when going from 1DB to 2DB SL RDL’s). In this phase we have also added some more intense rep schemes through plus sets.

  • Week 1 = 3×8/8/8+
  • Week 2 = 3×6/6/6+
  • Week 3 = 3×8/6/4+

The program incorporates everything that a good strength training program requires. It progressively builds the athlete by increasing either time, repetitions or weight each phase and each week. It also has a vision, a vision to be performing rear foot elevated split squats at heavy weights and with intense ‘plus’ sets.

In closing, having a set progression for exercises is crucial for continual progress in the weight room with your athletes. Creating, implementing, and sticking to your progressions can help make smart and logical transitions from one phase of the training program to the next.

I should also add that I still have my athletes perform bilateral exercises and that I am not anti-bilateral. Without a doubt, there are benefits to bilateral squats, deadlifting and other bilateral exercises and athletes still should be performing them. In a three day total body split, an athlete will perform one bilateral squat, one uni-lateral supported (various forms of split squats) and one uni-lateral unsupported (1-leg squat, skater squat).

Finally, this is by no means the only way to progress the split squat. For example,  I have played around with the idea of using the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat during the isometric phase as well as performing   slideboard lunge variations once an athlete masters the split squat for more of a dynamic movement. The key is to progress in a logical manner to always place the athlete in a position to succeed and adapt to more intense strength training.

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