Deadlifting and squatting are great.
But remember, they’re movement patterns, not necessarily exercises.
Deadlifting can be done with a barbell, a trap bar, or kettlebells. They can also be done from the floor, from blocks of various heights, or from safety racks. You could also use bands or chains for accommodating resistance.
You can squat with your bodyweight, with a dumbbell in the goblet position, with a barbell on the front of your shoulders or the back, with one kettlebell or two, or a myriad of other ways.
The point is, finding the right exercise for you to train each of the fundamental movement patterns is crucial to getting stronger, building muscle, and getting more athletic. There are no sacred cow exercises that you have to do in particular, but you need to make sure you hit all 8 patterns and attack any weak links you have in order to keep progressing.
With that being said, while the squat and deadlift movements are important, the lower body pattern that most people can and should train the hardest and heaviest is the split stance.
And the best way to do this is with split squat variations.
Not only do split squats help to work out imbalances between legs, but they’ll also help you build a big set of wheels because the stress stays on the legs the whole time without your lower back being the limiting factor, as is often the case with back squatting and conventional deadlifting.
On top of this, they’re an easily loadable exercise, and you can do so in a multitude of ways. This high level of load-ability also makes them such a great muscle and strength building exercise.
There are 5 other significant benefits which make split squats uniquely qualified to be the staple lower body movement in your training programs:
- While you can and should load the holy hell out of them, you’ll still be using half the weight that you’d use for traditional 2 legged squat or deadlift exercises, so you put less stress on your spine.
- They will help to bulletproof your body by training the muscles of your lower body and trunk how they were designed, particularly your adductors and glutes.
- There’s a low learning curve to split squats, allowing you to hammer them hard without thinking about form too much.
- Hip flexor length. You sit in the car on the way to work, sit at a desk at work, sit in the car on the way home from work, just to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Training in a split stance stretches the hip flexors of the back leg, while forcing you to maintain a neutral pelvis. This helps to keep your back healthy and your trunk strong.
- Big toe mobility. When you lose mobility in your big toe, everything up the chain is impacted. Split squats make you dorsi flex the big toe of the back foot, keeping it from stiffening up and causing you issues.
If you want big, strong legs that not only help to keep you injury free but also keep you progressing in the gym and performing at your best when you’re out kicking life’s ass, split squats need to be a priority.
With all that being said, the training effect you get from split squats can radically change, depending on how you load them.
I’ve split them up into 4 categories:
- Strength Focused: These options are best for pure strength building as they allow you to load them up the most.
- Core Challenging: These variations feature offset loads, which make them great core training exercises as there’s an anti rotation and anti lateral flexion component.
- Increased Range of Motion: By increasing the range of motion of any of the variations shown, you can elicit an even bigger training effect as you are moving the weight a further distance. Work=Force x Distance, so by increasing the distance, you do more work, meaning more strength and muscle gains.
- Quad Focused: By elevating the front foot, you can shift the emphasis to the quads a bit more.
Here are the top 42 split squat variations. Choose which one to use depending on your ability, goals, and focus of a given training program.