July 11, 2013 by Katie
Split squats are a great exercise to add into your program. I use them often, as I see them as a 2 for 1 exercise. They stretch out the hip flexors and they work the lower body.
In this blog post I will teach you how to coach and perform the split squat. I will also show you what to look for when introducing them to clients.
Here are three pictures to show you the sequence of the split squat. One of the bottom (start), middle, and top position (finish).
This is how the split squat should look. Now, I would like to look at each individual position and talk about what you should be looking for.
Start Position: This is where the movement starts. You want to set up in this position so you can get into an appropriate stance. The best stance is one that will keep the knee directly under the hip, so you can keep an upright torso and the front knee must be at ninety degrees, so your knee doesn’t track over your toes. Basically, both knee angles should be at ninety. Another thing to keep in mind is to set your front foot out to the side a bit, so you have a wider, more stable base. This wider base will also directly reference your squat stance.
Here are a few pictures to help you find your strongest and most appropriate set-up.
This is an unstable position because your creating a small base of support for yourself. A more stable position is the picture shown below, in which you’ve widened your stance allowing for a bigger support base, creating more stability.
The squat can be a great tool for helping you to find your stable split squat position. If you start in your squat position, it is easy to see where you feel most stable. Usually this is when your feet are right outside the shoulders. From here, you can simply slide your foot forward, which will help to show you how wide your split squat stance can and should be.
After you’ve found your foot position and stance, the next thing to look at is your mid-range position.
Mid-Range Position: During this part of the split squat, you want to focus on squeezing your back glute, keeping an upright torso, driving the front knee out, and staying grounded through your front foot. Keeping the back glute squeezed is an important piece to the split squat as it helps you to keep your torso upright. An upright torso should be a priority when your performing split squats as it creates stability by lining up the shoulder joint, hip joint and knee joint. This stability is what will allow you to add load down the road. Driving the front knee out or externally rotating from the hip is important because it keeps your knee tracking correctly. It also prevents the knee from moving inward, which is an unstable position that can be damaging. If you have an upright torso, are squeezing the back glute throughout the entire movement and your externally rotating at the hip of your front leg, then you should be on the right track with weight distribution on your feet. You should be grounded through your entire front foot and on the ball of your back foot.
Finish Position: This is the part of the split squat in which you feel your quads start to burn. You should finish with both knees extended and the back glute squeezed. As you descend into the next repetition, remember to guide yourself back down with your knee, squeezing the back glute to extend your hip, so you start back in the most upright, perfect position that you can.
Now, lets look at how to coach the split squat and address faulty movement patterns.
Coaching Help: Shown above is the split squat and I’ve given you details on what to look for when your performing the movement itself. Even though this may teach you the movement and give you some tips, it may not help you to coach this movement to another. When coaching the split squat, I always start at ground zero. Here is the sequence that I go through when teaching someone.
Step 1- The first thing that I like to do is stretch out my clients hip flexors. Pictured below is one of the best stretches for the quads and hip flexors. Performing this stretch allows you to open up the hips, so you can keep the back glute squeezed during the split squat. Most peoples hip flexors and quads are so tight from sitting all day, that it will be hard for them to keep their rear glute squeezed during the split squat. This causes problems because if their hips are tight, they won’t be able to keep them open, which then causes a forward lean from the torso. This is what we want to avoid, so make sure your clients hips and quads are stretched out before you go into the split squat.
Step 2- Next, I like to get my clients on the ground into the start position. When I do this, I like to help guide their movement using a bench, or a table like I’ve pictured below. When setting up, make sure the clients front knee is at ninety degrees and snug up to the bench. This will keep their front knee tracking correctly and gives them a visual aid. Most of my clients track their knees forward during the split squat which causes shear forces on the knee, using a bench corrects this problem. After I’ve got them set up with the bench, I then like for them, without moving their back foot, to stand up to the tall position. This is when I’ll assess their split squat movement.
Step 3- There are a few things that typically happen when clients perform the split squat. Usually I see instability in the split leg position, an extreme forward lean of the torso, the front knee collapsing in, poor ankle and foot mobility, extreme burning in the quads, and too stretched out of a stance. There are a few things that can go wrong, so I like to start with fixing the motor control issues versus addressing the mobility issues. Usually this can be fixed by shortening the range of the movement. I do this by having the client start in the top position and then I have them lower down to as far as they can go while maintaining perfect positioning like I’ve mentioned and shown above. Most clients have very tight hips, so they will only be able to lower themselves a few inches before their torso drops or other wiry stuff happens. If this is happening to you or one of your clients, be ok with the shortened range. Over time you or your client will be able to get lower by practicing the split squat continuing to stretch those tissues. Note though, that it is of upmost importance to ingrain the proper mechanics right off the bat. After you’ve assessed the shortened range of the split squat, then you can venture out and address some of these issues:
*Forward torso lean- As noted above, this is usually from tight hips and quads. Stretch and foam roll, then re-assess the split squat. Also, keep cueing the client to squeeze their back glute, which will help the client to stay more upright.
*Front knee collapses in- This might be fixed with a simple cue to keep the knee driving out. If not, move the foot away from the midline a bit and see if that helps. If both of these pointers don’t help then there is probably a mobility restriction somewhere. Try stretching and foam rolling the adductors and glutes, which might be so tight that they’re actually pulling the knee in. See if the mobility work helps.
*Ankle and foot mobility- Sometimes clients will complain about their foot cramping or they will move their back foot around a ton while getting into the split squat. If this is happening, use a lacrosse ball to roll out the bottom of the feet and perform some mobility drills on your ankles to help with the extreme dorsiflexion that the split squat warrants.
*Burning quads- This is just part of the exercise, but making sure the quads and hips are stretched out sufficiently will help to minimize this.
*Stretched out stance- This is an issue if the client doesn’t have their knee directly under their hips. It’s important to point this out to the client, so they can fix it. If the client is too stretched out in the lunge position, usually this means that they’re compromising their rigid torso, by creating too much extension in their lower back. This can be an issue when load is added.
Step 4- Once these issues have been addressed and your client can perform a full depth, torso upright split squat, then you can tinker with load. You can load the split squat up a couple of ways. Below I’ve listed weighted variants from easiest to most difficult. I categorized them this way because the more challenging versions have a much higher torso demand.
*Hold dumbells at your sides.
*Hold one dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position.
*Hold dumbells in the front rack position, on your shoulders with your elbows high.
*Hold a barbell in the front rack position.
I hope this over view on the split squat helps you and/or your clients. Use them to build up unilateral strength and stability.