While the back squat has been considered for decades to be the “King of Exercises” by many in the profession2, it is not always possible, especially during the season, to have access to a suitable squat rack, bar and/or appropriate amount of weight. Likewise, there is also the possibility that directly loading the spine might be contraindicated for one or more players. When this happens, you might want to consider using the rear foot elevated split-squat (RFESS), also called the “Bulgarian Split Squat.” The REFSS is an excellent unilateral exercise that promotes glute and quad activation in movement patterns essential for increasing strength, power, hip flexibility, joint stability, balance and performance.
Some authorities prefer the RFESS over the back squat. Boyle1, for example, believes that the RFESS is safer and more effective exercise than the back squat because the limiting factor in how much you can squat is not the strength in the muscles of the hips and legs, but the strength in the muscles of the low back. According to Boyle, “The squat isn’t a lower-body exercise; it’s a lower-back exercise. After a certain point, your lower back doesn’t allow you to transfer force to your bottom half. Your lower back is the weak link, stopping your lower-body muscles from producing maximum work capability. When this happens, it sets you up for injury. In order to complete the lift, your back may compensate by extending or flexing under the bar. Your spine should avoid extreme movement, because it’s meant to stabilize your body. If, e.g., you’re squatting 400 pounds, you’ve not only compressed your spine with an extreme amount of weight, but now you’re asking it to move in ways it shouldn’t. That’s a recipe for disaster, and your back will pay the price.”
Recently there is research to support Boyle’s theory. Scientists from the Welsh Rugby Union tested 18 to 19 year old Rugby players for 1-RM strength in the back squat, 1-RM strength in the RFESS, time in the 40-m sprint and time in the pro agility run3. Players were then divided into two groups. Group I trained two times per week using the back squat. Group II trained twice per week using the RFEESS. Resistance was 4x6x75% in week 1 and progressed to 4x3x92% in week 5. Players were re-tested after five weeks and the data indicated that both methods of training were similarly effective for improving 1-RM strength in the back squat and RFEESS, 40-m sprint times and pro agility times.
How to do it: Now that we have established that the RFESS is effective, let’s discuss how to do it. Start by standing in a split-stance in front of a knee-high bench, box or step with arms folded across the chest or holding DB, KBs in each hand. A weight vest can also be used as the sole-source or additional source of resistance. Extend the rear leg from the hip and place the foot on the bench or box so that the shoelaces are flat on the bench, i.e., do not place your weight on your toes. Shift your weight slightly forward so the front leg does all the work. Then, keeping the core tight, trunk erect, shoulders back and eyes forward, eccentrically lower your hips until the knee of your rear leg almost touches the ground in front of the bench. Keep your front foot flat throughout the exercise. To ensure that you are going deep enough and minimize stress to the knee cap, place an Airex pad on the floor under the rear knee and encourage athletes to touch the pad with their knee on each rep. Return to the starting position by extending the hip and knee of the support leg. Push through the heel of the support foot. Make sure that the front knee does not cave (valgus stress) in during both the decent and upward the movement.
- This is a single-leg exercise. The front leg should be doing all of the work. The back leg acts as a kickstand for balance.
- Shift your body forward slightly so the front leg does the work.
- The toe of the elevated foot should be relaxed and down. Don’t push with the tip of your toe as this causes you to push with both legs.
- The torso should be leaned slightly forward and flat to put pressure on the front leg, take pressure off the non-support leg and protect the knee. You don’t have to maintain a perfectly vertical back position because this increases pressure on the non-support leg making the knee vulnerable to injury through excessive shearing force on the patella.
- Go deep. To get the most out of the exercise perform a full range of motion and go down until you touch or come close to touching the Airex pad.
- Don’t let the knee of the lead leg go beyond the toes of the lead foot during the descent.
- Keep the front foot flat. Don’t elevate the front heel and push through the toes and forefoot as this increases stress on the knee.
- Lower the box. If you find the stretch of the quads and hip flexors is too extreme or uncomfortable, switch to a slightly lower box or step up.
- For variety, hold a MD ball or weight plate in front of the chest, rotate (twist) toward the lead leg on the way down and away from it on the way up.
Conclusions: Research indicates that there is a place for both single-leg and dual leg training in sports. If you prefer traditional back squats and find yourself without adequate equipment or working with players who for a variety of reasons, can’t squat, the RFESS can be another effective tool in your tool box. If you goal is to maintain exercise consistency throughout the season both at home and on the road, the RFESS is an effective option that requires very little equipment.
- Boyle, M. Advances in Functional Training. On Target Publications, 2010.
- Hatfield, F. C. Power: A Scientific Approach, Contemporary Books, 1989.
- Speirs et al. (2015) Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat training for Strength, Sprints and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. J Strength and Conditioning Res. Ahead of print.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.