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November 06, 2021 8 min read

The barbell split squat is a popular unilateral lower body movement that strength, power, and fitness athletes use to increase their levels of muscle mass and strength and improve their resilience to injuries.

We will take a look at what a split squat is and the proper form for doing it, as well as what muscles it works and the concept of hypertrophy. We will highlight some of the unique benefits you might expect when you start doing split squats regularly.


The Barbell Split Squat Technique

As with many exercises that require you to lift heavy weights, barbell split squats come with a considerable risk of injury to your back or to your shoulders.

Always make sure that you warm up for a long time before you start doing these advanced exercises and make sure to learn the proper form for doing barbell split squats before you actually start attempting them.

young man doing barbell split squats in a gym

Doing barbell split squats might seem awkward when you are just getting started. Keeping your upper body in an extended position (like this exercise requires) for a length of time can lead to massive improvements in the health and strength of your shoulders and your spine.

If you do these types of squats on a regular basis, you might find that the movement can help you experience less pain on a daily basis. Bodily pain becomes a serious issue the older you get, and you will need to take as many precautions as you can to minimise the pain and keep your body working in top condition.

Never hyperextend your lower back when doing these types of squats. This can put too much strain on your back and also on your lower body, and this can sometimes lead to all kinds of serious injuries. Later in this article, we’ll take a look at the specific steps you’ll need to follow to achieve the proper form for these exercises.

Muscles Worked in the Barbell Split Squat

The barbell split squat (which differs slightly from other squat variations such as the  Bulgarian split squat that allows you to reach greater depth than a single-leg squat, requiring flexibility in your hip flexors) mainly targets the quadriceps (quads), hamstrings, and gluteal muscles (glutes).

More specific emphasis can be given to any of these muscle groups especially by increasing the split, depth of knee flexion, or a combination of those factors.

If you are someone who experiences a lot of lower back pain, the barbell split squat should be part of your routine as a hyperextension exercise.

You can also take a look at some of the best  alternative hyperextension exercises that you can do in your own home, for those times when you cannot get to the heavy weights in the gym.

There are lots of compound exercises out there that strengthen the posterior chain in their own way, but the lower back is sometimes an overlooked muscle group. Many people have an underdeveloped lower back, especially if they have sedentary lives in general. One of the biggest benefits of hyperextension exercises has to do with back pain management and core strength.

Without a strong lower back, you can easily get injured not just from weight lifting but from other activities. If your back cannot support your body, then it might lead to later problems in life. The same can be said for your core muscles. Having a strong core is useful for challenging compound exercises.

Barbell split squats will really enhance your core strength and stability, because they activate muscles throughout your upper abs and lower abs, including the rectus abdominis (more commonly known as the six-pack ab muscle). While the barbell split squat is mostly used to build stronger legs, it is also great for shoulder stability.

Putting something heavy over your head can feel like a very uncertain place to be in. When you are lifting heavy weights, you really do not want to feel unstable, especially with a hundred pounds or more of heavy weights right above you. Having so much weight overhead can be scary.

But the benefits to the stability of your shoulders is well worth the precautions that need to be taken. Including barbell split squats in your workout program, along with single-arm exercises like dumbbells or things like the  standing Arnold press, can train your shoulders to work so much more effectively when you need them to.

To do barbell split squats properly, always rotate your shoulders and retract your scapulae. Be sure to keep your shoulders above your head when you are in this overhead position without hyperextending your spine or pushing your chest forward. This is the safest position you can be in when you are doing barbell split squats.

There are many reasons for being so specific about your positioning. For example, when you train your shoulders to remain in a stacked, tight position during full body workouts like barbell split squats, they are much more likely to stay more resistant to injuries that might result from other exercises. This applies to all of the muscles of your lower body as well.

Learning the Proper Form


In the steps below, we demonstrate in detail how beginners can perform a barbell split squat while using the proper form.

Follow all of the steps below very carefully if you want to start doing barbell split squats to build muscle and overall strength, and improve the injury resilience of your knees and your hips.

  • Unrack the barbell just as you would for a high bar back squat, but step slightly farther back for your starting position than you normally would.
  • Place your foot firmly in front of you at a distance of about one or two feet.
  • Drop your rear foot slightly behind you and allow your knee to bend towards the floor into an almost kneeling position.
  • Your back knee and back leg should be placed slightly behind an imaginary line perpendicular to your front heel.
  • Your feet should be set at about your hip width apart.
  • As you descend into the squat, allow your front foot to stay flat into the floor, with your front knee bending over your toes.
  • Keep your torso upright and do not allow it to collapse forward.
  • At the deepest part of the split squat, your front knee should be pointed in the direction of the front toes (not pushed excessively out or collapsed inwards).
  • To come up, stay balanced between your feet and keep your torso upright, using the quads and glutes of your front leg to engage the movement.
  • Come to an upright standing position with your front leg softly extended and locked in a lunge position, and then repeat the exercise.
  • Finally, switch your legs and do repetitions of the entire procedure.

Benefits of Barbell Split Squats

Being better balanced on the ground is a very important life skill to know as you get older. Although you will probably never need to do any barbell split squats in your daily life, they can help you become more aware of your body so that you can recognize when you are feeling off balance and correct that type of imbalance as quickly and smoothly as possible. Below are some of the main benefits that coaches and athletes might come to expect when they include barbell split squats in their training programs.

Unilateral Training

Generally speaking, unilateral training is a type of exercise that addresses movement asymmetries and compensation patterning. It can even increase your overall muscle mass and your motor unit recruitment rates. These benefits can really be felt in both of your legs and arms when you are doing this type of training correctly.

Correcting Muscular Imbalances and Movement Disorders

Movements like the barbell split squat are able to offer you enhanced specificity on proper joint alignment, tracking, and muscular involvement when it comes to both specific and gross movement patterns. The ability to train each of your limbs independently can often uncover muscular imbalances or movement disorders in those specific areas.

Application to Sport and Human Movement

Most sports require multi-directional movements, the ability to support oneself asymmetrically, and demonstrate balance and proprioception. By using unilateral movements in a training routine, coaches can challenge athletes neuromuscularly to develop a better sense of balance and awareness. The exercises can also develop multi-planar movement abilities that can lead to improved sports performance. They can also prevent injuries to the knees, hips, and ankles.

Improved Muscular Stimulation

Unilateral training often leads to enhanced muscle stimulation or activation, which can really lead to better performance overall. Along with this, you can expect to see a drastic increase in muscle mass and you can expect to attain an even higher general level of athletic awareness, which can translate well into many daily situations you might need to face.

Increased Mobility and Strength

Doing barbell split squats can sometimes relieve some of the mobility and stability issues that might arise in older people, such as tight, overlifted pecs that pull the shoulders and upper back forward, a rigid thoracic spine, or inflexible hips, knees, or ankles. Better mobility and stability can lead to a better quality of life overall and a healthier body.

A Look at Muscle Hypertrophy

While this movement does not replace other helpful exercises like the back squat, Romanian deadlifts, and many other lower body strength exercises, it can be used in combination with these exercises as well as a wide range of hypertrophy training segments as a way to inspire new muscle growth and muscle adaptation.

The amazing importance of  hypertrophy training for strength, power, and fitness athletes cannot be stressed enough.

The additional benefits that unilateral training has on an individual, such as the ability to increase muscular activation during single leg movements, can lead to increased muscular hypertrophy and possibly even transferable strength and muscle tissue to larger based movements (deadlifts, front squats, back squats, etc).

Also, by increasing the amount of hypertrophy at a more muscle group specific level, coaches and athletes can increase their training volumes to their legs with unilateral movements like this one without necessarily working any of the other muscle groups too much and potentially negatively impacting the body’s overall performance. This is especially helpful when other muscle groups are still healing from injuries that occurred earlier.

Barbell split squats will certainly help you create high levels of hypertrophy throughout all of your muscle groups. If you plan to do this workout correctly on a consistent basis, you will usually experience a very deep muscular burn and this means that many of your muscles should start becoming noticeably bigger.

Maximal Strength Capacities

While this movement should not be programmed using excessively heavy loads, the ability to train one leg at fairly moderate loads is something that can help to develop your “bilateral deficit”, which is a pretty simple principle when it comes to doing single-leg exercises. By addressing this principle with unilateral training exercises, coaches and athletes can develop stronger muscles and expect a large number of movement and strength transfers to main bilateral movements, such as squats.

Start Doing the Squats

Now that you know more about these incredible exercises, it is time to start doing some squats. Always start with basic positioning and practice the proper form. Never just arrive at the squat rack, throw a few plates on a bar, and expect your body to be able to handle the heavy amount of weight, especially if you have ever had any other injuries. Barbell split squats can be some of the best exercises for making you a lot stronger, but they can also cause debilitating injuries if you start too quickly and carelessly without fully understanding the fundamentals.

Doing barbell split squats with the proper form can lead to some impressive results, especially in terms of increased leg strength.

Other than following all of those helpful tips, you might want to invest in your own weightlifting equipment for home use. Keeping a few weights at home can be a good idea if you like to train your arms with a few reps while you are watching TV.

Having your own personal trainer to consult with is also an effective strategy to have when you set about designing your own personalized training routine and workout regimen.