The Ultimate Barbell Split Squat Guide: Form and Tips

Written by Daniel Mesa
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The barbell split squat is a great lower-body movement that athletes of all levels can use to increase strength and muscle mass. The split squat’s unilateral form allows you to isolate and strengthen one leg at a time.

barbell split squat

In this guide will break down the form so you can perform this movement correctly and safely. We will also examine the many hypertrophy and strength benefits provided by the barbell split squat.

Proper Barbell Split Squat Form & Technique

Since this movement requires a bit more balance and coordination than other squat variations, it can be a bit challenging for beginners. Don’t worry though, just follow this guide and you should be able to master the form in no time!

Video Barbell Split Squat Guide

How To Split Squat With Proper Form

  1. You want to start off by getting the bar on your back as you would with a normal barbell squat. You can either use a squat rack or clean and press the bar onto your back. Since you will likely be working with lighter weights, either option should be fine. From this point on, your upper body should be rigid and tight.

  2. Next, you want to stabilize your body before you get into a split stance. Spread your feet apart so that you have a wide stance. Make sure your elbows are pointed down and the bar is firmly on your back.

  3. Now you want to get into your split stance. Drive one foot back while maintaining balance. Your foot should be far back enough so that the back knee is behind the hips when you squat down.

  4. Once you are in a split stance, go ahead and squat down by dropping your hip. At the bottom portion of the split squat, your back knee should be hovering just above the floor while the front knee should be at about a 90-degree angle. With your torso upright and abs engaged, this should position should feel stable.

  5. Drive up by focusing on pushing through your front foot. Once you complete a set with one leg, go ahead and switch your split stance so that your opposite leg is in front.

How Many Sets And Reps For Barbell Split Squats?

Since the split squat requires a high level of balance and coordination, I would not recommend going very heavy on this exercise. One-rep maxes and low-rep sets are better saved for more stable exercises like the back squat and deadlift.

For the split squat, I would go higher volume to induce hypertrophy. A simple setup of:

3 Sets of 12-15 Reps

Should see you make great progress.

Muscles Worked By Barbell Splits Squats

Barbell split squats heavily work the lower body. In terms of which specific muscles, the split squat will target the following muscle groups:

  • Quadriceps

  • Hamstrings

  • Gluteal muscles

Barbell Split Squat Benefits

In terms of weightlifting exercises, there are few with more real-world benefits than the split squat. While the split squat has the traditional benefits of macular gain it also works to combat imbalances and lowers injury risk.

Unilateral Training

Unilateral training generally speaking is any type of exercise that targets muscle groups separately in order to correct muscular imbalances and focus on one side at a time.

In the case of split squats, the advantage is that you can target each of your legs individually. We may not notice it but most people are plagued by muscular imbalances that limit their potential. By training each leg on its own, we can ensure muscular symmetry and prevent future injuries.

Athletic Movement

Compared to other leg exercises like the leg press or leg extension, the split squat has more application to sports and human movement. Athletes commonly find themselves in split stances so it makes sense to directly strengthen and train that movement pattern.

Aside from general strength, the split squat also requires a tremendous amount of balance and coordination. It is no easy task to balance a heavy bar on your back.

Muscle Growth

Thanks to the relatively lightweight and unilateral isolation, the split squat will allows you to heavily focus on developing a mind-muscle connection and really feeling the movement.

Many people who try this movement rave about the burn and pump they get in their legs compared to traditional barbell back squats.

Carryover To Other Lifts

The bottom line is that strength is strength. Any strength gained on the split squat will certainly transfer to any other leg movement.

In fact, I would argue that people struggling with improving their squats should use split squats as an accessory. The unilateral nature of this movement will allow you to isolate any weaknesses.

Common Split Squat Mistakes

Since the split squat can be somewhat technical, it is very important to recognize and correct the following mistakes:

Knee Buckling Inward

The most common mistake I see is letting your front knee cave inward while squatting. Repeated knee buckling can damage your knee.

Not Position Back Leg Properly

As we discussed in the form guide, your back leg should be moved far back enough so that your knee is just behind your hips at the bottom of the squat. However, you also want there to be some bend in the knee at the bottom. Your back leg should not be locked out.

Front Heal Raise

Due to mobility limitations, you may find that your front heel becomes raised of the ground. You want to make sure that you keep your heel grounded to maintain stability and muscle engagement.

Going Too Heavy

If you are going to do the split squat for the first time, it is important for you to take things slow and start out with little or no weight. Unless you can do a solid set of bodyweight split squats, you not using weight.

Even then if you find that the barbell is too heavy, you can start with dumbbells as these allow you to start with less weight.

Split Squat vs. Lunge

Upon first glance, the split will look very similar to a traditional lunge. While there is a fundamental similarity in the movement pattern, they are not exactly the same.

For one thing, the lunge involves training both legs at the same time during a set. Those performing lunges will move the back leg forward so that the leg doing most of the work changes after every rep.

This is the advantage of the lunge in that you can train both legs at once and do not have to do an individual set for each leg. However, split squats better allow you to reach muscular failure. Since you are repping it out with one leg and not exerting more energy by moving forward, you can better focus on pushing the individual leg toward failure.

Also, the problem with lunges is that you need quite a bit of runaway to perform them properly. This can be annoying, especially in a smaller, busier gym. Split squats only require a small amount of space and can be done in a squat rack.

Either way, both exercises are great. It really just comes down to preference.

Are Split Squats As Good As Back Squats?

Both the split squat and the back squat will do a fine job of strengthening and growing your leg muscles. Whether you think one or the other depends on your goals.

Those that value total strength will opt for the back squat. Thanks to the stable position, the back squat simply allows you to overload your legs with more weight than any other squat variation.

Meanwhile, the split squat allows you to target each leg individually and has more balance/coordination carryover. Split squats also allow you to get more out of less weight. Heavy squats can take some time to recover from.

You can even include both of these movements in the same program if you want.

Barbell Split Squat Alternatives

If you find that split squats are not for you due to mobility or balance limitations, there are a number of squat variations you could try

  • Bulgarian Split Squat: This is very similar to a split squat but will have your back knee elevated on a bench or platform of some kind. The elevation means that less hip mobility is required from your rear leg.

  • Barbell Back Squat: This is the most time-tested and proven leg exercise. If your balance is an issue, the back squat is more stable.

  • Goblet Squat: This exercise does not even require a barbell. All you have to do is hold some weight between your knees and squat down. Goblet squats are great for beginners.

  • Dumbbell Split Squat: If you find the barbell to be hard to get in position or too painful, dumbbells are another option. Just hold a dumbbell in each hand and perform the split squat.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking for an exercise to refresh your leg training, look no further than the split squat. The unilateral, athletic nature of the movement will allow you to correct muscular imbalances while still making steady gains week after week.

So go ahead and start split squatting!


What do barbell split squats work?

Barbell split squats will primarily work the muscles in your legs: glutes, quads, and hamstrings.

Are split squats as good as barbell squats?

Split squats have a number of advantages over barbell squats. You better develop balance and coordination and can target each leg individually. The only downside is that you cannot go as heavy.

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