Any fitness professional or enthusiast worth their salt and not living under an online rock for the last 5-10 years is well aware of the benefits offered from single leg training:
Multiplanar hip stability? Check.
Inbuilt mobility and flexibility work? Yep.
Reduced spinal loading relative to bilateral lower body exercises? You got it.
I don’t care if you’re a power lifter who places the big bilateral lifts far above single leg work in the order of priority, or if you’re a strength coach looking to reduce risk in a program for large groups of athletes and therefore prioritising single leg training above all else – much in the vein of Mike Boyle – or anything else in between.
Regardless of your stance (pun intended) including some single leg work in your or your clients’ training program on a regular basis is generally just an intelligent training ploy.
For the typical trainee, the single leg exercise of choice tends to default to lunges.
But what exactly is referred to by “lunges”?
In my experience this usually equates to the walking variety, á la Ronnie Coleman’s famed barbell variety in the car park.
Or, if lacking available space, forward lunges, i.e. lunging forward and returning back to the starting position.
As you’ll soon discover, this is greatly limiting the available variety to your lunge movement pattern. Also, it is likely not the optimal choice of lunge progression if we consider where most of the variations of lunges fit onto a continuum of complexity and physical demand.
First things first, let’s all get on the same page and start using the correct terminology.
Any time you see the word “squat” this denotes that the feet are in a fixed position. Not necessarily always the same position – there’s sumo squats, narrow stance squats, staggered stance squats etc. – but the feet aren’t moving anywhere throughout the movement. (And don’t say “What about squat jumps?” Yes the feet move off the ground, but they land back in the same place – they don’t go anywhere else).
Any time you see the word “lunge” it denotes that there is a stepping motion, in any direction, into that lunge followed by a return out of the lunge.
So when we get to the term “split squat” understand that this indicates the stance – split – and the movement, or lack thereof – squat.
A split squat is oftentimes referred to as a “stationary lunge”. There is no such thing as a stationary lunge. This is an oxymoron.
Semantics? Perhaps. But it’s important that we are all speaking the same language here, especially in this age of online coaching where the written word is often a coaching cue absent of a physical demonstration.
The Lunge Continuum
Here is what I consider to be the most optimal series of progressions in coaching the lunge pattern.
Half kneeling position ► Split squat ► Reverse lunge ► Walking lunge ► Forward lunge
A quick note: If you prefer to learn by watching video, most of what I have written in this article is explained in the longer, first video just a bit further below. So I suggest heading straight to that if a fairly lengthy how-to article doesn’t really do it for you.
If you enjoy the read, carry on.
And if you’re one of those blessed souls that just wants to hang on my every word, written and spoken, and prefers to cover all bases, then naturally I suggest reading on and watching the videos in the order they appear.
Half kneeling position
The half kneeling position has to come first on this progression. If you cannot get yourself into this position correctly – i.e. with the down knee, hip, shoulder and ear stacked vertically on a plumb line with the knees and up hip flexed to 90 degrees and the pelvis in a neutral position, aka the 90/90 position – then it is going to be impossible to perform any lunge variation optimally, as the static posture displayed in the half kneeling position is the bottom position of a split squat or lunge variation.
If you are unable to achieve this base level position you most likely need to spend some time addressing some limitations, primarily hip flexor length – usually rectus femoris, the only muscle of the hip flexor group to cross both the hip and the knee joint – through some means of stretching, mobilising, and soft tissue work.
Secondly, you may need to undertake some corrective strategies to address insufficient stability that is creating a “neural blockage”, if you like. This blockage can prohibit you from utilising all of the available mobility necessary to achieve this position. Essentially, your body is telling you that you don’t possess the requisite stability to control a posture, so it isn’t going to allow you to use all of your available mobility until you do. The specifics of correcting this, however, are well beyond the scope of today’s post.
If you have an inkling that this is of particular relevance to you, then I strongly suggest investigating further.
Summarising, the half kneeling position is the bottom position of any split squat or lunge, albeit actually resting the knee on the ground, rather than merely tapping it.
The back glute is “on”, but is not in a maximal, forceful contraction. It is used to slightly posteriorly tilt the pelvis towards a neutral position, not to drive the hip forward, which will really only be driving an anterior translation of the femoral head. For anyone that really wants to geek out over the finer details, I explain this further in the video below.
If you were to be photographed in a half kneeling position, the bottom of a split squat, or the bottom of any lunge, ideally you wouldn’t know which was which from merely looking at the still shots, aside perhaps from a slight trunk lean, also as explained in this video.
A handy coaching trick for the split squat, especially in the early learning stages of the movement, is to work from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
Assume the aforementioned half kneeling stretch position ensuring that the back toe is tucked under and ready to drive into a standing position.
Also, make sure that your base is set wide enough so that you don’t topple over as soon as you stand up. Having each foot in line with its respective ASIS (hip bone) is a solid guide.
Set the pelvis to neutral by tightening the back glute and the abs. Puff the chest out (thoracic extension) and do so without compensating with extra lumbar extension (lower back arching excessively). Pull the head into itself, aka “pack the neck”. That is, give yourself a double chin without looking down at all.
A handy self-check to see if you’re in the right posture is to lift your front foot off the ground. If you can briefly lift the entire foot up without altering your posture, you are in a centred hip position. If you can’t lift the foot, you’re almost certainly driving the hip too far forward, as demonstrated here:
Now you’re set. Drive up through the back foot and front heel to a standing position, and do so without losing that neutral pelvis alignment.
Also, note the back foot. We want it to continue to point straight ahead. A common mistake is allowing that back foot to externally rotate, i.e. swivel outwards. This is usually due to those pesky tight hip flexors again – one of the functions of the psoas is to externally rotate the femur, so when that back leg pulls that hip flexor back to its end range, that’s something we may see as compensation. Fight this. Keeping that rear foot pointing straight ahead will often feel like you’re actually pigeon-toed. You’re not. Keep your foot there.
The other compensation you’re likely to encounter is an anterior migration of the tibia. In other words, the knee drifts forward.
There’s nothing wrong with the knees going past the toes!
Whether squatting, jumping, lunging or anything else, there is nothing inherently wrong or, heaven forbid, dangerous, about the knees drifting forward past the line of the toes. It is a completely natural biomechanical function, and the degree to which it occurs will depend largely on the lever length – femur and tibia – of the individual.
Now with that said, when it comes to a split squat pattern, we have a lot more scope to dictate how far that front knee will or won’t move as compared to a bilateral squat pattern. And when I’m first introducing a client to the split squat pattern, I see it as a great opportunity to exaggerate the deceleration portion of the exercise and thereby really hammer away at posterior chain strength.
The client’s initial instinct is almost certainly going to be to drive that front knee forward to take most of the load through their relatively stronger quadriceps, and get away from their relatively weaker hamstrings and glutes.
Given the importance of shoring up this strength imbalance and its role in reducing ACL and other knee injuries in athletes, I view this degree of form meticulousness as a worthy time investment.
Too, for the non-athlete, emphasising more posterior chain recruitment in this movement, and in general, can lead to myriad benefits from reduced general knee pain (anterior knee pain/patellofemoral pain syndrome/whatever else we’re calling a sore knee these days) to reducing low back pain, to running faster and jumping higher, to just flat out looking better through improved posture and actually developing some glutes, rather than the omnipresent arse-less physique whereby the hamstrings appear to run straight into the lower back.
If somebody is really struggling to achieve this vertical shin and vertical torso position while performing a split squat, my go-to coaching tip is to have them perform the exercise with a bench chocked against their shin, also demonstrated in the above video, and here:
In this position, the one escape they’ve got to compensate for their tight hip flexors is to bend forward into some hip flexion. Then, when instructed to get their torso upright, they’ll almost certainly substitute lumbar extension for true hip extension, which resultantly ends up looking something like this:
This clearly leaves you with a single, primary focus: Hammer that neutral split stance pattern. Aggressively attack hip flexor length, glute strength and anterior core stiffness (especially external obliques) until the preferred 90/90 position can be achieved.
Once this is accomplished, our options open up exponentially. We can now start safely adding external load, and we can start incorporating more variety with complex movement patterns.
That is, now we’re ready to lunge!
The reverse lunge is a go-to exercise for me as it is suitable for a broad cross-section of clients while still offering great bang for your buck, namely, almost all of the same benefits we get from a split squat. And while there is a little less time under tension (they won’t burn your legs like a split squat will) in its stead we get the added dynamic component that is part of any lunge variation, and with it the chance to train a more reflexive type of unilateral stability and, many would suggest, a more athletic movement overall.
The reason the reverse lunge is the first of our lunges is that it demands little deceleration of the body. With the momentum of the body moving backwards, the load on the front knee is fairly constant, and it simply flexes as the body is lowered towards the ground, then functions almost as a hinge – pulling through the hamstring and glute – to bring the body back to standing.
Walking lunges fit between the reverse lunge and forward lunge, simply because of the amount of deceleration required to perform them.
Where in the reverse lunge, as explained above, there is minimal deceleration required, the walking lunge will indeed place a significantly greater load on the front knee. This is because the step is going in a forward direction, and all of the bodyweight is going to follow it.
The obvious drawback of the walking lunge is the space required. While they’re a nice variation from time to time, and they do serve as a progression to go from reverse lunges to forward lunges, the reality is that if they aren’t practical to perform due to training in a small or busy facility, you’re not really missing out on anything special by neglecting them.
The forward lunge is at the end of our basic lunge continuum because, as alluded to in the reverse and walking lunge sections, this variation requires significant deceleration.
As described in the walking lunges, when we lunge forward the whole of our bodyweight is going to follow the step, creating a lot of shear force on the front knee.
But in addition to this, with the forward lunge, not only must we absorb and control this load as we decelerate, but we then must quickly produce force into the ground to reverse our whole body back to where we came from.
It is for this reason that some people may experience knee pain with the forward lunge, yet be fine with reverse lunges and split squats. If a client has the strength and mobility to control the amount of shear force placed on the knee – that is, they don’t allow the knee to drift forward excessively – they’ll generally be fine. But if they can’t perform them pain-free yet, or ever, the truth is that while the forward lunge is a nice athletic movement variation to have in our exercise arsenal, there is nothing essential about it, and we can do just fine without it if need be.
A whole ‘nother animal
The half kneeling position through to the forward lunge makes up the lunge or split stance continuum. They take us from a static hold to a static foot position with a split squat action. Then we add the dynamic element and begin lunges, working from reverse to walking to forward variations.
But also sitting toward the end of that continuum, yet separate from the rest, is an entirely different animal.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (AKA Bulgarian Split Squat)
Again, let’s address the terminology here. While this exercise is probably most commonly referred to as the Bulgarian split squat – and I have no idea as to whether or not the Bulgarians should actually be credited with its creation – Mike Boyle has this somewhat quirky fixation on refusing to name any exercise after people or countries. While I personally couldn’t care less, Boyle is (unknowingly) one of the major influences on my training education and hence the term rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS) has stuck with me.
As to the exercise itself, it sucks.
Seriously, there are few more excruciating feelings in all of training than having your rectus femoris cranked back into full stretch on one leg, while the other leg in front supports most of your weight plus whatever external load you happen to be holding, and repping out, up and down, six, ten, maybe even twenty times for some masochistic bastards.
(Or 80 times for freaks of nature like Ben Bruno, but clearly he is not human like you or I)
And then knowing you have to immediately repeat the feat on the other leg.
But as foretold in the old cliché that nothing worth having comes easy, the payoff from diligently performing and progressing in the RFESS is substantial:
- Serious leg strength in a unilateral manner which may equate to more athletic and “functional” carryover than its bilateral counterpart
- Significant total leg development, with the quads, hamstrings and glutes all being hit hard
- Plus a few bells and whistles thrown in by way of postural/corrective/functional benefits in improved hip flexor length, frontal plane hip stability and, depending on the loading variety used, anterior core stiffness.
The most common mistake you’ll run into here, whether yourself or with clients, is simply jumping into this exercise before mastering the regular split squat and developing the requisite hip mobility, core stability and straight up leg strength.
To do it properly:
1) Start with basic split squats and get really, really good at them.
2) When progressing to RFESS start with a low step. Over time gradually raise the step or bench height. In fact, these can even be progressed to extended range or “deficit” reps, where the front foot is also slightly elevated on a low step. But that’s probably a little ways off yet.
3) Fight like hell not to slip into lumbar extension. Keep the abs and back glute tight. Beginning by loading the exercise goblet style aids this by automatically increasing anterior core stiffness due to the load being held in front of the body.
(Again, all this is detailed in the longer video way above)
Despite the fact that for many this exercise may initially seem absolutely brutal even with just one’s own bodyweight, being consistent with them and diligently applying progressive overload can lead to some pretty remarkable feats of strength.
Not by me. Hell no, I hate doing these.
But some of Boyle’s athletes have famously achieved some pretty stellar results in testing:
And then we can look once more at Ben Bruno who frankly makes me want to quit training altogether.
Even if you never achieve these stratospheric levels of single leg strength it probably doesn’t matter. Just be consistent with them, get stronger, and you will reap many of the same benefits.
The split squat, the reverse lunge, the walking lunge, the forward lunge, the rear foot elevated split squat.
These five exercises make up the bulk of the main varieties of our lunge or split stance options. These five lend themselves well to significant external loading and to the monitoring of progressive strength improvements.
The options of exactly how to load these are really as limitless as your imagination.
A few of my preferred methods include:
- Offset DB or KB by side
- Offset racked KB, contralateral (opposite side) or ipsilateral (same side)
- Double DB or KB by sides
- Double racked KB
- Bottoms up KB
- High/Low (one KB by side, one KB racked, as per the RFESS video of me further above)
- Barbell on back
- Barbell racked (front squat position, as per the reverse lunge video further above)
- Sandbags or Sandbells held anywhere
- Overhead, single arm or both arms, with DBs, KBs, Sandbags, Sandbells, Barbell, ViPR, etc.
- With bands – either to load the exercise vertically or horizontally, or to add a reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) effect for corrective purposes
I think I’ve made my point: There’s a lot effective methods for loading up the lunge pattern.
Further to this, we can tinker with the range of motion. As with the elevated rear foot to extend the range of motion in the RFESS, and as mentioned the option of slightly elevating the front foot also (as I did in the video of me above) we can apply this almost anywhere else:
- Front foot elevated split squats
- Reverse lunges from deficit
- Forward lunges from deficit
- Short or long stride
- Jumping variations
- One and a half reps
Once again, we’ve got several more variations at our disposal.
Start playing mix and match with the type of movement, the loading position, the range of motion, and then the set & rep scheme and you have more than enough variety to keep you from plateauing and from becoming bored with the same old split squat and lunge variations for a lifetime.
Lunges and split squats aren’t squats and deadlifts. I get it. But take the time to start at the beginning of the continuum and build a solid foundation of correct movement patterns as laid out in this article. From there you can start getting fancy and add more advanced techniques while watching your wheels grow and your athletic prowess soar.Thoughts, questions, anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, liking and sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.