There is probably no exercise I’d rather do than a barbell back squat. There’s something in the challenge of loading up a heavy bar, and using nearly every muscle in your body to get up.This movement is the foundation to strong and well developed lower body and has been a staple in athletic training programs in every sport for decades. That being said, there are several reasons I’ve been using the back squat less frequently, and prioritizing the RFE (rear foot elevated) dumbbell split squat in many of my clients programs. Here’s why:
- To work around mobility limitations. Putting even a lightly loaded bar on your back and performing a technically proficient back squat is actually a very difficult task for most people. With all of the shoulder, hip, and ankle mobility required – there is a good chance the squat won’t be pretty. In the split squat however, the low back is far less likely to round, and there exercise will actually serve as a mobility drill in and of itself.
- Better transfer to athletics. Powerlifting (squat/bench press/deadlift) is just about the only sport in the world that requires an athlete to produce force evenly though both legs at the same time in only the sagittal (up and down) plane. Running, jumping, skating, kicking, turning, and throwing are all much more dynamic than this, and require the power of one leg at a time. So if you’re hoping your time in the gym will translate to sport, you’d be wise to include split squats.
- Bypass the weak link. You’ve heard a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This saying is definitely true in the squat – and that weak link is almost always the low back. Imagine an athlete completing a set of back squats for an absolute max of 300 lbs for ten reps (equivalent of 150 lb per leg). Now ask them which body part stopped them from doing more. Nine times out of 10, it will be the low back. Compare this to split squatting a set of 75 lb dumbbells (still 150 lb/leg), but this is way less compressive load on the spine. Assuming the athlete can even complete the set, the limiting factor would be either glutes, hamstrings, or quadriceps.
So how can you take this information and apply it? If you enjoy squatting and have good technique, keep it in your programming and feel free to train it hard. However, I strongly recommend you don’t train it until failure. If you really want to go heavy or utilize intense methods such as drops sets, you’ll get better results and lower risk of injury by using the split squat for these sets.