Simple Single Leg Progressions, Part 3: Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats
I was hoping to get this, as well as Part 4, out all in the same few days. But, summer is the busy season for those of us who train hockey players. I have barely had time to open my computer for 20 minutes of Netflix and chill before bed, let alone to tackle non-pressing work things.
I caught a lucky break though – it’s Tuesday afternoon, and I’m sitting in my favorite neighbourhood coffee shop dog watching and enjoying a local beer. These chunks of time are rare so I’m enjoying the air conditioning and having no big time constraints today.
Numero 3 in our series is the rear-foot elevated split squat, also known as the Bulgarian split squat. This exercise is where we start challenging the stability a little bit more, as you’re getting much less assistance from the back leg.
It’s not literally for anyone and everyone. It definitely requires a certain amount of strength and hip mobility as a prerequisite, and if you experience knee pain in most single-leg exercises then this isn’t your place to start. As much as it can be nice to change up exercises and keep things interesting, doing an exercise that is currently too advanced can lead to a setback, and you won’t be getting as much as you can from that exercise.
Set up and basic execution
– You need a bench or something rigid like a barbell set up at knee-ish height
– Either rest the top of your foot on the bench/barbell or plant your toe on the bench (rear foot elevated), then sink down so that knee is on the ground (use a cushion/mat if necessary)
– Adjust how far your front foot is forward/backward – you want the front knee to be at 90 degrees with the ankle directly below the knee, and you want your back hip to be extended with no forward bend, but not so much that you’ve got a big arch in your low back
– Now you can stand up to the top position to start
– Keep your whole front foot on the ground, sink down to where your back knee just hovers above the ground and the front knee is at 90 degrees, just like when you were getting your position organized. Keep your chest slightly forward so that the majority of your weight stays on the front foot
– Drive your heel into the floor and stand up
Here’s a video covering all those steps:
Specific advice for beginners:
– Go slow and controlled
– You don’t need to use that set up every single time, but it helps until you get a feel for it. You can also use something to mark the front toe position after your first set
– Maintain a good “canister” position in your core so you don’t hyper extend the low back
– Common problems:
1. The front knee caves in
2. The front heel comes off the ground
3. Too much weight on the back leg – you’ll feel yourself shifting backwards instead of sinking down, and the back hip will be flexed a bit
Ways to make it harder:
– In late 2014, I found out I had separated my shoulder from a mystery series of events. I couldn’t hold weight in my hands whether goblet position or at my sides, place weight on my back, collar bone, etc. for a solid couple of months so I had very few options for training legs. I pretty much stuck to 2 exercises: bodyweight Bulgarian split squats and barbell glute bridges. Bodyweight lunges were too easy for me to get a training effect, barring lunging literally everywhere. In comes the Bulgarian split squat. How? Pauses. Slow eccentrics. Pauses and slow eccentrics together. It worked and I was able to train my quads to a relatively high degree with no added weight. The only reason I used lighter weights when I got the barbell back was to make sure my AC joint could take the pressure, not because my legs had gotten significantly weaker.
– I think a barbell loaded Bulgarian split squat can be good but for a pretty tiny population. I’ve seen some pretty close calls of people trying to get that back foot in position with a loaded barbell on their back and stumbling around… some people can handle it, but for some, the risk versus reward isn’t there. If you’re dead set on using a barbell, whether in the front or back position, start much lighter than you think you’ll be able to handle
– A double racked kettlebell is one of the harder variations I’ve tried without being super risky, and it really amps up your core engagement. If you have happy enough shoulders to hold kettlebells overhead, that also sucks (in a good way)!
– Add weight, and then slow down the lowering portion and/or add a pause
– Til failure (be smart on this one… well, all of them)
As a powerlifter, these generally fall towards the end of a workout for me. 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. With a client or athlete who doesn’t really barbell squat for various reasons, I will also put this towards the beginning of a workout so we can make it heavy and difficult while they are mentally and physically fresh. For those clients I’ll usually hit 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps. But it’s all context and client specific. In any case, get ready for those quads to burn! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Hit me up with any questions you have about the article! Here’s to your new found wonder thighs!