7 Awesome Single Leg Squat Variations and Why You Should Be Doing Them
by Ben Bruno
When it comes to strength training, the hardest things are typically the most important. Not surprisingly though, these are also the things most people are first to leave out because, well, they’re hard. Single leg work is one of those things. When it comes to training for sports, single leg work is absolutely essential. There are lots of different single leg exercises out there, but for my money, if I had to choose just one, I’m picking the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS), more commonly known as the Bulgarian Split Squat. I cannot think of an exercise that does a better job of addressing all the things necessary for athletic development: balance, health, mobility, and strength. I am going to outline exactly why I think it is such an effective exercise and show 7 different variations that you may not have tried before to take your training to the next level.
Let’s first look at the benefits:
- Balance. In this context, balance takes on two different meanings. First, in the most literal sense, you have to balance on one leg. This may seem obvious, but its importance cannot be understated since balance is essential in virtually any sport. Moreover, the simple act of balancing will work the small stabilizing muscles like glute medius that are not activated as much during bilateral leg work. Secondly, in any single leg variation, you also develop balance between legs. Single leg work will make it abundantly clear if one leg is stronger than the other and allow you to address any disparities and even them out, which will not only improve performance but also help to prevent injuries.
Health. In addition to promoting balance between legs, single leg work does wonders for overall knee and back health. First let’s look at the knee. In the most direct sense, the stabilization required to keep the knee from caving inward (valgus collapse) does wonders for strengthening the vastus medialis (VMO), which is a common cause of knee problems. In an indirect sense, the RFESS is a fantastic exercise for strengthening the glutes, and strong glutes have been shown to protect the knees.
The connection to back health is again indirect but nevertheless very important. Low back pain is one of the most common complaints amongst athletes. This can make lower body training problematic do to the high compressive loads being used in traditional exercises like squats and deadlifts. The RFESS circumvents this problem to a large degree because the loads are not as high as they are during bilateral work, which means less spinal loading. For athletes with existing back conditions, this is golden.
- Mobility. The RFESS is about as good as it gets as far as building hip mobility, something that plagues most athletes. Tight hip flexors restrict running ability and power production as well as being a common cause for lower back pain. One of the most common ways to stretch tight hip flexors is to get into a lunge position. From there, if you want to increase the stretch further, you can elevate the rear leg on a bench. Sound familiar? It should; this is the bottom position of a RFESS. This means that while you are strengthening your legs you are simultaneously performing a dynamic stretch on the rear hip flexor. Talk about exercise economy and killing two birds with one stone.
Strength. The RFESS is also tremendous for building lower body strength. While the overall loads will undoubtedly be less than in a traditional bilateral squat, the comparative load on each leg will generally be much higher. In my experience, after some practice getting used to the movement, most athletes will use 65-85% percent of the loads they use in the back squat, and this is on one leg. The number is typically closer to 75%, and in some cases, the numbers are virtually identical with athletes with back squatting technique. Personally, I have repped out upwards of 275 lbs on the RFESS and could not come close to squatting 550 for reps, or even 405 for that matter. Of course, some people will argue that the rear leg provides some assistance during the RFESS, and I will submit that it surely does. Nevertheless, the disparity is just too large to ignore. To understand this phenomenon further, you may want to look into something known as the bilateral deficit (very interesting stuff).
Breaking It Down, Step by Step
Now that we have covered the benefits, let’s look at some of the progressions and variations. You typically see these loaded either by holding two dumbbells at the sides or by placing a barbell across the shoulders like in a squat. These are certainly ok, but I have found other ways to be more effective. Regardless of how you load it, however, there will be a brief adjustment period while you get used to it. You might find that balance is the limiting factor rather than leg strength. Do not worry, this is completely normal. You may also struggle with how far away to stand from the bench: too close and you will feel jammed, and too far away and you will feel as if your back leg is going to slip. I had this problem at first, but things changed when I made one simple adjustment. I put down a small pad in front of the bench and learned where I had to put my front leg in relation the pad so that when I came down into the squat I was in the proper position. This also had the added benefit of providing padding for my back knee so it did not bang the floor and provided a way to ensure I hit a consistent depth on each rep. It’s funny how little things like that can make such a big difference. I highly suggest you use this method yourself.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the different variations.
Goblet. Holding the dumbbell using the goblet hold forces you to keep your torso upright and get your form in check immediately. Using this method, the lift really teaches itself. If you lose your posture, you drop the dumbbell. I think a lot of people see goblets as a sissy exercise, but that is because most people only do them with very light dumbbells. Grab a heavy dumbbell and it is a whole different animal. After some heavy goblets, not only will your legs be smoked but I promise you your abs will be sore the next day.
Double Kettlebell. This is similar to the goblet hold but can be employed once you have maxed out the dumbbells in your gym. I got the idea for these from Smitty, who calls these “braced” split squats. This is a great name because in order to do them you will have to brace like crazy or else you will fall forward and the kettlebells will fall. These are much harder than they look.
Overhead. Another variation that can help you feel more comfortable with the form is holding a plate overhead. Even more so than the goblet hold, this ensures that you remain completely upright throughout the entire set. The problem with this variation is that it difficult to load heavy enough to stress your legs, but I do think it has merit in the initial learning phase to get a feel for the form. I also think in addition to a strength exercise, it may be able to be used as a warm-up to simultaneously work on hip and shoulder mobility.
Added Range of Motion. This is similar to a traditional RFESS only you also elevate the front leg slightly. The small elevation may not seem like much, but it dramatically increases the range of motion and difficulty of the exercise. If you don’t believe me, please try it for yourself and feel the difference (you will be sore!). In addition to making it tougher, the extra range of motion will also help with overall hip mobility, work the VMO even harder, and involve the ever-important hamstrings and glutes to a higher degree. Plus, when you return to the standard range of motion, you will be shocked with how easy it feels and your numbers will skyrocket.
“Speed Skaters.” This style is very similar to the above variation, only here you use “1.5 reps.” I got this idea from Joe Defranco, who coins these “speed skater” split squats. Essentially, you go down, come back up half way, go back down again and finally return back to the top. That’s one rep. Obviously, this is much harder than regular reps and burns like crazy. These can also be very effective for adding leg size due to the increase time under tension. Here it is in action.
Jumps. Jumps are a fantastic way to build single leg power. Most power movements are performed using a partial range of motion so this is also a way to develop power using a full range of motion. Weight can be added via light dumbbells, a small weighted vest, or even a barbell. Keep in mind, however, that the goal here is power development, not strength. As such, do not get carried away with the weight and focus more on speed and power production.
Zercher. Anything with a Zercher hold will involve the core and upper body to a high degree and essentially turn it into a total body lift. Warning: not for the faint of heart.
So there you have it, 7 great variations to make your training more effective. Have fun and get to it!
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