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Try This Squat Variation for Stronger Hamstrings and Glutes

The rear-foot-elevated split squat is more effective than the traditional squat at firing up certain stabilizing muscles and improving balance.

By Renee CherryMarch 14, 2024

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If there’s one lower-body exercise that strength training enthusiasts love to hate, it’s the rear-foot-elevated split squat (aka the Bulgarian split squat). Completing a set of the exercise can leave your legs feeling like jello.

Plenty of people regularly include rear-foot-elevated split squats in their workout routines in the name of strength gains, even if they anticipate that they’ll wince their way through the final few reps. In case you’re wondering whether the temporary discomfort is worth it, here are the benefits of rear-foot-elevated along with form tips, variations, and advice on how to incorporate the exercise into your routine.

Why Are Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squats So Hard?

Rear-foot-elevated split squats are exactly what they sound like: a squat where your back foot is elevated on a raised surface. During setup, you shift most of your weight onto one foot, placing the other foot behind you on a piece of equipment like a bench or box. From there, you perform a squat with your standing leg. 

Rear-foot-elevated split squats—also referred to as Bulgarian split squats—are more difficult than regular squats and standard split squats, due to the distribution of your weight. “In a standard split squat your foot is planted on the floor, and you can still use this foot to balance and push the weights,” says Peloton instructor Andy Speer. “With the back foot elevated, almost all of the work, both to stabilize balance and push the weight, is directed to your front leg.” More specifically, research suggests that the working leg supports around 85 percent of the load during a rear-foot-elevated split squat, compared to 75 percent of the load during a standard split squat, according to a 2017 article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (JSCR)

By the same token, single leg squats (which require you to keep your non-working leg hovering off the ground in front of your body) offer an even greater challenge, since your standing leg is doing all of the work. A rear-foot-elevated split squat with little to no weight can be considered a progression to the single-leg squat, according to the JSCR article. 

Benefits of Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squats

If you’re up for the challenge, adding rear-foot-elevated split squats to your workout routine can benefit your body in multiple ways. These are four of the main perks of performing the lower-body exercise.

Train Multiple Muscles

Rear-foot-elevated split squats can promote increased strength and muscle growth, and they target multiple muscles of your lower body at the same time. “It’s a fantastic exercise to build muscle size and strength in your glutes, hamstrings, and quads,” notes Andy. The exercise also fires up muscles in your core which function to help you maintain stability during the movement. Your erector spinae and multifidus (core muscles that maintain stability of your spine) and your obliques all get involved.

These are all important muscles that you don’t want to neglect, for a multitude of reasons. For example, your glutes function to keep your pelvis stable, and strong glutes may encourage proper knee alignment during walking and running, according to a 2022 article in the Journal of Experimental Orthopaedics. Similarly, maintaining strong quads (which allow your knees to extend) and hamstrings (which allow your knees to bend), may help prevent issues like knee osteoarthritis, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science

Fix Strength Disparities

Rear-foot-elevated split squats fall under the category of unilateral exercises, which are exercises that mainly or solely work one side of your body. A 2020 article in the JSCR confirmed that while the back leg produces some force during rear-foot-elevated split squats, the muscles of the standing leg take on the majority of the work. This differentiates rear-foot-elevated split squats from regular squats; traditional squats are considered a bilateral exercise, meaning they work both sides evenly.

Both unilateral and bilateral exercises have their advantages. Bilateral exercises may be more effective at increasing bilateral strength compared to unilateral exercises, a 2022 study published in Biology of Sport found. In other words, you’ll more efficiently become stronger at regular squats by performing regular squats compared to working each leg separately with split squats at the same intensity.

However, incorporating unilateral exercises in your training may help you reduce or prevent muscle imbalances. During bilateral movements, one side may take on more work than the other, causing one side to become weaker over time. In theory, completing sets of unilateral exercises on both sides can ensure that both sides take on the same load, which can help strengthen the weaker side. With that in mind, trainers can compare a client’s five repetition maximum (the maximum amount of weight they can complete five reps with) for rear-foot-elevated split squats on each leg to assess for leg muscle imbalances, a 2019 article in the JSCR noted.

Improve Balance 

Whether you want to set yourself up for success with running, strength training, cycling, or another activity, maintaining balance abilities is key. “The stronger your balance, the greater your ability to move forward for longer without possible pain or injury,” Peloton instructor Becs Gentry previously told The Output

If you’ve ever fallen off-kilter when attempting to do rear-foot-elevated split squats, it’ll come as no surprise that the exercise is especially useful for improving balance. “The back leg gives very little help (compared to a split squat or lunge) when trying to maintain balance,” says Andy. “The adductors [inner thigh muscles], glute medius and core muscles are all working much harder than a standard squat, assuming loading is comparable.” Holding onto a stable object can be a helpful modification if you have difficulty finding your balance during the exercise.

Increase Mobility

In general, maintaining mobility will not only benefit your workouts but your ability to move with ease when you’re not exercising. Rear-foot-elevated split squats help promote mobility of your quads and the hip flexor of the back leg, Andy says. “You’re basically moving in and out of the classic ‘couch stretch’ or half kneeling hip flexor stretch,” he says. 

Tight hip flexors commonly result from spending a lot of time running, cycling, or sitting without adequate stretching. The issue “might show up as an achy back, difficulty standing upright, or pain in your glutes or knees,” as Peloton instructor Kirra Michel previously told The Output. If your quads and hips are tight, you’ll have a limited range of motion during the rear-foot-elevated split squats, an indication that you may benefit from more mobility exercises in your routine. 

Peloton Instructor Callie Gullickson demonstrates a rear foot elevated split squat

How to Do a Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat

Rear-foot-elevated split squats can easily feel wonky if you haven’t learned how to use correct form. Here’s a breakdown of how to pull off the exercise:

  1. Stand a few feet in front of a bench, chair, or box that’s at knee height or slightly shorter. Pick up a weight(s) if you’ll be using one. Raise one leg behind you, allowing your foot to rest on the support. Adjust the positioning of your front leg forward or backward if needed until your back shin is parallel with the floor. There should also be a gap of a few inches between your front knee and back knee.

  2. Keeping your entire front foot planted on the ground, your chest up, and your front knee in line with your toes, sit back into a squat with your standing leg, descending so that your back knee dips down and back toward the ground until it hovers a few inches above the ground.

  3. Press through your front foot to drive up and out of the squat, straightening your front knee.

Other Variations of Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squats

Once you’ve become acclimated to the rear-foot-elevated split squat, you can out new variations of the exercise. Here are some examples of adjustments that you can make to the exercise to keep things interesting and challenge your body in new ways:

Change Your Foot Placement

You can adjust the distance between your front foot and the bench, chair, or box, depending on which muscle you’d like to emphasize with the exercise. “Placing your foot further out creates more of a hamstring and glute focus,” according to Andy. “Closer foot stance to your body focuses on quads.” Placing your foot midway between the two will work your glutes, quads, and hamstrings more evenly, he says.

Adjust the Loading Position

Bodyweight rear-foot-elevated split squats are challenging in and of themselves, and you can make the exercise more intense by using dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell, etc. When using weights, you can hold onto a weight in each hand or use a heavier weight in one hand, to different effects. “Using two weights balances the load on your body, but you don’t have a free hand to balance yourself, which comes in handy,” says Andy. “Using one weight forces your hips and core to maintain your posture and not shift or bend laterally.”

If regular rear-foot-elevated split squats start to feel easy, you can try performing the exercise with weights in a racked position at your shoulders rather than holding them down by your sides. “This is one of the most challenging exercise variations you’ll ever do,” says Andy.

Change Up the Tempo

Rather than taking the conventional approach to the exercise, you can slow down the eccentric (descending) portion of the movement. “Try lowering to a count of three, holding at the bottom for two seconds, and pushing up to the top in one second,” suggests Andy. You can also add pulses at the bottom of the squat (repeatedly descending and ascending a few inches) instead of the pause.

Slowing down the eccentric portion of an exercise is a common approach among people who want to maximize their strength and muscle growth benefits, according to a 2021 review published in Sports Medicine. Slowing down a rep increases muscles’ time under tension, theoretically creating a more distinct muscle-building response, the authors noted. Some studies have found that slowing down the eccentric phase of the exercise with a faster concentric phase is the optimal approach for encouraging muscle growth.

How Can You Add Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squats to Your Workout Routine?

When you’re ready to add rear-foot-elevated split squats to your full or lower body workouts, your best bet is to ease into the exercise to avoid excess discomfort. Rear-foot-elevated split squats have a high potential to make you sore if you haven’t been doing them on a regular basis, according to Andy. 

With that in mind, if you’re new to the exercise, it’s best to start out by using light weights or your bodyweight alone, Andy says. “Isometric holds at different positions are also a great way to gain confidence while minimizing soreness,” he says. The instructor suggests starting with two to three sets of eight reps during each workout.

Love or hate them, rear-foot-elevated split squats have a lot to offer. You can strengthen major lower body muscles, increase your balance and mobility, and prevent muscle imbalance, with one (admittedly brutal) exercise.


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