How To Split Squat

The back squat, bench press, dead lift, lunges, and cleans are normal base exercises for most people’s free weight training programs, but I rarely see or hear anyone doing a barbell split squat.  Maybe it does not get much publicity because it has either been a forgotten lift or most individuals do not like doing them because of how intense they can be if done correctly.

“If done correctly”; yes that is what I said.  When done correctly, the split squat will cause tons of muscle activity in the legs because the tension is never relieved during the entire duration of the exercise.  This will make more sense after I give you a the specifics of this lift, or at least the way I coach it.

Barbell Split Squat:

  • Set up your squat rack just like you would if you were going to perform a back squat and make sure the catch rails (safety rails) are set up to the right height in the event you fail.
  • Position yourself under the barbell with it placed exactly as you would for your back squat, unrack the weight, and step back slightly while still being positioned within your catch rails.
  • Step one foot backwards as if you were going to go into a reverse lunge.  photo-11
  • Hold that position and make sure your feet are both facing forward with your front foot flat on the ground and your back foot raised with your heel off the floor and your forefoot and toes supporting.
  • Your front knee will now be slightly bent with the majority of the barbell and your weight distributed on the heel of the front foot.
  • Squat straight down, without your front knee going forward, until your knee forms a 90 degree angle.  This should give you about an inch or two clearance from the floor.  You do not want to touch the knee to the floor.
  • After you have reached 90 degrees, keep pressing the majority of the weight through the lead heel and stand up to the starting position in which your leg (knee) will not be locked out but still slightly bent.
  • This will keep tension in the legs throughout the entire movement for all the reps prescribed.
  • Your core and grip on the barbell with also stay tight and engaged just as it would if you were doing a normal back squat.
  • Through each rep, it is important to keep the lead knee positioned at 90 degrees and when your back foot is positioned properly, you should come real close to also forming a 90 degree angle in your back leg (at the knee) as well.  Again, the knee should not make contact with the floor.
  • I typically prescribe reps from 10-14 reps per leg and 2-4 sets in a lifting session.  It depends on how I am utilizing this lift in the workout as to how many sets I will have the athletes do.
  • Do all the prescribed reps on one leg, then stand up and bring both legs together.  Now do the same process but on the other leg to complete the set.

When first trying to do this exercise, keep the weight moderate to light.  By not being able to release the tension the muscle may fatigue quickly in the untrained athlete.  This is why it is important to be inside the catch rails in the event the athlete fatigues and can’t stand up or looses his/her balance due to fatigue or coordination issues.

I mentioned a few times about how the tension is not released throughout the entire exercise (if done correctly) and I know there is going to be someone out there that is saying right now-“well that is what is supposed to happen when you lift”.  Yes, but let me give you an example of how this is different.  If you are doing a standing barbell curl (please NEVER do this inside a squat rack or on a platform in a gym!  Do it in an open area!) and you do the curl, there will be tension in the flexion and extension of the lift; but if you straighten your arms the majority of the tension is released and you can give your muscles a bit of a break.  This will not happen in a split squat unless you fully extend the knee and lock it out (do not do).

In the “strength world” we know that “time under tension” causes the most muscle break down which would make this a great hypertrophy exercise.  I will use the barbell split squat as a muscle builder or to increase muscular endurance with my athletes.

I would look at this lift as more of an intermediate to advanced lift due to the strictness and coordination of the exercise while being performed.  I would not use this with a novice lifter who is just getting started with free weights.

I also call this a “love & hate” exercise because you will hate it while you are doing it because it hurts (and it generally will cause delayed muscles soreness, so you will hate it again for the next 2 days) but you will love the results it will give you!

Hope that helps!

To your health,


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About Jerry Shreck

Division 1 Head Strength Coach at Bucknell University, Specialize In The Art of Injury Prevention Training Techniques God Loving Family Man (Wife-Trina & 2 daughters-Alexis & Aleyda)

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