One Leg Exercise for Strength and Mass Pt.1

One exercise that could arguably be called the “King of Exercises” would be the Back Squat.  It is one exercise that will use the whole body, get the heart rate up, and can draw attention from every eye when an incredible amount of weight is on the bar.  It is a measure of strength to compare yourself to others.

Some people avoid the squat at all costs, while others fall in love with it and its benefits.  Some avoid out of fear, or “bad knees” or low back.  I have found in my training experience that most people do not know how to squat correctly.  They are “knee dominant”, coming forward with the knees, rather than “hip dominant” pushing back with the hips.  Clients that are fearful or feel pain in the knees during squats are able to do them after being coached correctly and always seems to leave them happy, knowing that they can squat again.  But what about those that just can not handle the extra load on the spine?

However, this post is not about the back squat (tricked ya!).  I will be discussing the Split Squat.  So move over back squat there is a new sheriff in town.

So in this 3 part series I will cover:

  • benefits of the split squat
  • technique for the split squat
  • progressions for the split squat



The split squat is a great alternative for the back squat for those with lower back issues because the torso does not come as far forward, decreasing load on the spine.  Plus you can have the weight by side, keeping it off the top of the shoulders.  For those who want to increase the weight on their back squat or break through a plateau.  It basically breaks the exercise down into a single leg exercise to uncover leg strength discrepancies. It can also be used as an accessory exercise, and/or incorporate a very beneficial, challenging exercise to any routine that can be done without a squat rack.


The split squat is performed with the legs straddled, with one foot forward and the other back.  This will put the body's center of mass between the feet.  For those new to the split squat,  they will find that there is a balance component when performing.  Due to this, beginning with the back foot on the ground may be a good starting point.

So let's talk form... alright we covered the legs, straddled with one foot forward and other foot back.  Keeping the torso upright and tall, hinge back on the front hip as if you sitting back into a chair, (or just like you are squatting), your weight should go into your heel and feel tension in the posterior musculature.  Lower down under control to a comfortable range and push back up through the front heel to a standing position.  Now like I said, the torso should stay upright the whole time with the shoulders back (no rounding of the shoulders forward), chin level, and abdominals drawn in to prevent any lower back extension.  Knees should be 90 degrees on each leg in the lowered portion (if comfortable) and shin should be vertical without the knee coming forward past the toes.  Inhale through the nose on the way down and exhale through the mouth on the way up.

Beginning with  only body weight can be a beneficial start for some.  I recommend performing the eccentric (downward portion) slow and focused, sitting into the heel and pushing back through the heel on the way up.  This will make the movement more dominant and get more activity in the glutes and hamstrings.  Once the desired rep range is achieved with good form and control, then resistance can be added.


This is where things can get varied and a little more fun.  The two most conventional ways of loading are to hold a dumbbell in each hand at the side or have a barbell on the upper traps, just like a conventional back squat.  Now to make things a little more challenging, we can hold the weight in other positions.  These positions will challenge your ability to maintain proper form by moving the weight away from the center of mass of the body.

Dumbbell in each hand --  This is fairly self-explanatory, hold a dumbbell in each hand while maintaining the form as presented above.  Focus on keeping the shoulders back and tight to prevent the weight from just pulling your shoulders into a depressed position.

*BONUS:  hold only one dumbbell in one hand on the side of the back leg to create a unilateral force forcing you to resist lateral flexion and throwing some more core engagement into the mix.  Hold the dumbbell out to the side to get a more challenging effect.

Barbell on upper traps -- Hold a barbell across the upper traps, and perform just like a traditional back squat.  Following the proper technique stated above, keep the core tight to prevent excessive lumbar extension and pull down on the bar to engage the lats.  This may require some assistance such as a squat rack or partner depending on weight.  


Weight on top of shoulders -- This can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.  Hold the weights with the arms bent and near parallel to the floor.  The weight will be held up by the shoulders, but not resting on them.

Weight out in front -- Holding a dumbbell, weight plate, or kettlebell out in front of you with straight arms.  Keeping the shoulders, upper back and core tight is imperative since the weight is in front and away from the body.

Weight overhead -- Hold a dumbbell(s), weight plate, kettlebell(s), or barbell overhead.  This is very advanced even with the foot on the floor since we have major weight above the center of mass and in an off balanced foot position.  Raising your arms overhead may cause you to go into excessive lumbar extension.  Core strength and focus is of extreme importance here.  If you can not raise your arms overhead without arching the back without weight, then definitely do not try this. You need to do some releasing and thoracic extension exercises before attempting (another blog post).

These variations should give you enough to play with for a while.  When adding resistance, be smart and always use a weight that does not cause you to lose control, especially overhead.  (remember the balance aspect is in play)  Stay safe so you can train another day.

In part 2 we will progress up to a more challenging position and I will try to not have "bed head" in the pictures (but not promising).


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About The Author

Kevin Fulton

Kevin Fulton is personal trainer in Pittsburgh, PA. His goal is to help his clients look, feel, and move better. In his spare time you can find him under a barbell or practicing jiu jitsu.

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