Unilateral lower limb exercises are currently a staple of just about every strength and conditioning program in some form or another. I have found, however, that bilateral hand-supported movements allow athletes to express intent and force development not attainable with heavy standard unilateral work. And this leads to enhanced adaptations and ultimately maximized performance. In this article, I explain why I’m a fan of the hand-supported split squat (HSSS) and will share how to coach and program this exercise correctly.
The Limitations of the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
The rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS), or Bulgarian split squat, is often prescribed to improve lower limb strength. Looking at the RFESS, any coach or athlete who has tried to load it significantly becomes immediately aware of its shortcomings. When the RFESS gets near loads similar to those we find in front or back squats, it’s an ordeal just to find a position.
It’s also difficult to stay stable in the position due to a mixture of instability from axial loading, a narrow support base, dumbbell movement, or even the athlete’s choice of footwear that day. Not to mention heart stopping moments when athletes readjust their rear foot position.
I’ve seen some coaches attempt to remedy these weaknesses by performing trap bar variants off the floor in a split or rear foot elevated position. This also can be problematic as lumbar overextension, grip strength, and unwieldiness become issues at high loads. Athlete safety is paramount as is their confidence under load. A moment of doubt can ruin a set as an athlete struggles to retain stability. Coaches still find they get more from bilateral work from the perspective of loading, safety, and intensity.
Fans of unilateral lower limb movements cite stability training as a reason for implementation. I find, however, most athletes learn to stabilize against light load pretty quickly. Stability is fine if the aim of training is to enhance that quality. We are strength and conditioning coaches, however, not stability and conditioning coaches.
To quote Carl Valle:
“Asymmetrical forces recruit areas that help stabilize the joints instead of helping create propulsive forces. Increasing the stability of joints is a great thing, but if the joint needs to have propulsive forces at specific time frames, stability is not what is needed. Stability is reducing unwanted motion, not providing the motion the athlete needs.”
Single leg exercises often suffer as a result of the sheer energetic cost of getting set and staying stable. The emphasis often moves away from quality movement to a gassy lactic grind. So we wind up stuck in an intensity vs. stability trap. We need to intensify movement to yield improvement yet are limited by the ability to stabilize movement under intensive loads. So we move back to the bilateral safety blanket we know and love.
Unilateral lower body work does present an opportunity to train a gross movement quality that applies well to sports with gross physical qualities. These limitations on loading exercises mean we aren’t extracting the potential of any movement. Put simply, the RFESS just can’t be loaded heavily enough to get the most out of unilateral potential.
I’ve had athletes who can perform split squats and RFESS with loads comparable to their front squat, but even they understand the rigorous stabilization effort steals from the movement’s intent and intensity. The question becomes: How we can load unilateral work to allow for greater loading, safety, and intensity? The well of unilateral work is potentially very deep, and we aren’t going far enough.
How Fred Hatfield and Cal Dietz Fathered the Hand-Supported Split Squat
The HSSS is a remedy to a number of the issues addressed above. Its origin, however, is from hand-supported squatting. The hand-supported safety bar squat from which it’s derived is not a new movement by any means. Fred Hatfield originally popularised it, and the eponymous Hatfield squat has appeared in a few circles, including body building. Hatfield justified the use of the movement in his classic article “I May Not Know Diddley…But I know Squat”:
“This problem is solved by use of the hands in the safety squat bar. When the ‘sticking point’ is reached, the hands can be used to help you through it. This unique feature allows you to work with heavier weights in the ranges of movement where you are strongest and gives you help when you are weakest. You are exerting closer to your maximum effort through the entire range of motion.”
His last point, the crucial closer to maximum effort, is what we strive for to derive training effect. Hatfield liked to use the movement to add volume at intensities higher than that attainable with conventional barbell squats. Hatfield also preferred the weight distribution the safety bar offered.
“Conventional squatting places the weight behind you, fully four inches behind your body’s midline. That caused you to lean or bend forward for balance. With the safety squat bar, the weight is distributed directly in line with your body’s midline, and eliminates the need to lean forward.”
In some far flung corners of Instagram, you can find powerlifters and strongmen still using the safety squat bar to overload the squat pattern.
It’s my understanding that it was Cal Dietz who took the Hatfield squat and started applying it to a split squat and has done so for a number of years, particularly with hockey players. Thus the HSSS was born. Cal is well known for his triphasic method which places special emphasis on eccentric and isometric components of movement. The HSSS lends itself well to supramaximal methods that present the greatest opportunity for overload.
The movement is certainly eyebrow raising as it is not conventional in a powerlifting or Olympic lifting sense. But the point here is “stress” not strength.
How to Perform the Hand-Supported Split Squat
The movement requires the use of a safety squat bar, which is a padded bar with handles and camber. If you don’t have one, they’re pretty inexpensive and have several applications other than the HSSS. Popularised by injured powerlifters and football players, this bar is often used by athletes with shoulder injuries. More often than not, however, it gathers dust in the corner of a weight room.
The bar’s shape effectively drapes over the shoulder, leaving the hands free to clasp the handles on the bar. The bar position is stable enough to perform the movement hands-free. By freeing the hands, we can use them for support. Traditionally, Hatfield suggested holding the rack but rapidly moved to handles.
I suggest one of two set-ups. When using a second bar below the safety bar for the athlete to hold onto, it’s important for the athlete to push the bar back into the rack or down into the J-hooks to ensure the bar doesn’t shift. Preferable to this is the use of custom hand holds, or in the case of my set-up, repurposing detachable weight storage pins as handles.
The athlete holds the bar and the handles for the entire execution of the movement. Preferably, the athlete places the foot to achieve a roughly 90-90 position with both knees at the bottom of the movement. The athlete then drives off their lead leg as hard as possible. A stance that is too narrow takes away the base of support. If it’s too wide, often the athlete has excessive lumbar extension.
I suggest using warm-up sets to find the preferable foot placement (“finding your feet”) because doing so under high loads is potentially risky. When using the handles, the athlete wants to focus on staying tall to reduce axial stress. The athlete also wants to avoid touching the floor with the knee because this can deload the movement slightly and then displaces the hip position when attempting to drive back up.
The athlete uses the arms to assist during the concentric portion of the movement, especially if the intent is to overload the eccentric or isometric components. Increased support and the use of the arms allows for more weight than a barbell split squat would allow, applying more stress to the entire body.
The hands-assisted aspect also better supports, and takes pressure off, the back. The back is usually the weak link in squatting exercises and is one of the main rationales behind using RFESS. How much hand assistance an athlete uses will be determined by the coach and athlete depending on the training goal.
The use of the arms, along with the increased load, stresses the core to an even greater extent than a barbell split squat. This effectively turns the movement into a full body unilateral exercise. After the first workout, I’ve had a few athletes complain of sore lats the next day. However, their main complaint is sore quads and glutes since the heavy unilateral loading induces so much greater stress than conventional unilateral work.
One could also argue that we could elevate the rear leg much like RFESS, but with very heavy loading it becomes important to make sure the back leg does not extend too much. If the leg becomes too extended, the athlete’s hips will begin pulling out of position, causing potential unnecessary stress. Cal suggests that to protect the hips, we should use the split position rather than elevating the rear foot on a bench. I’ve occasionally used RFESS position with lighter loads and high-velocity movements, especially when implementing timed sets or local lactate work.
When loads exceed the athlete’s squat 1RM, I suggest using spotters at the end of the bar. Spotters are a must during supramaximal work to assist the athlete on the way up. Even with spotters, the athlete must focus on pushing as hard as possible on the way up. This set-up also allows athletes to perform tempo based lifting alone rather than depending on a spotter–I suggest this for only those who are competent with the movement.
Practical Application and Programming the Hand-Supported Split Squat
It makes sense that high-stress movements like HSSS take early precedence in any training session. We will often contrast this movement with single leg jumps, plyometrics, and bounds or apply French contrast. I suggest a low-volume high-intensity approach in its application.
My implementation of the movement borrows heavily from Cal’s triphasic method. We follow an eccentric, isometric, and concentric sequence over several blocks. This means using 80%+ or even supramaximal loading. I have, however, made extensive use of the movement with standard concentric sequencing and the addition of accommodating resistance. We apply 80%+ loading to HSSS on the first day then integrate bilateral exercises on alternate days into a weekly training routine.
Programs I’ve used with athletes are listed below.
I avoid programming multiple days in a row with HSSS to due to the movement’s stressful nature. Repeated heavy unilateral days, especially with the greater loading HSSS offers, seems to be very demanding on trunk musculature. To get around this, I integrate a bilateral day using conventional loading between split squat days to help cover the unilateral and bilateral bases. I like to think of HSSS as offering tissue adaptations and bilateral work as covering neurological ones.HSSS offers tissue adaptations and bilateral work covers neurological adaptations. Click To Tweet
During off-season training, I prefer a 3-day sequence if possible to get most out of the movement. Soreness for the unwary can be profound, so I suggest minimizing applying this type of work with tactical and technical work. This is why I often apply a two-day model to Mixed Martial Arts fighters who have high tactical and technical loads year round but who can still derive benefit from the intensity this training brings. Using supramaximal loading does lead to a compressed training effect, so such blocks are typically short, usually four weeks. Athletes with longer off-season stints can run longer cycles of this movement.
Before You Start Using the Exercise in Training
Like many others, I initially grabbed onto the rationale of unilateral work, particularly the RFESS, which seems very appealing. But I found myself going back to bilateral exercises because unilateral benefits didn’t manifest, primarily due to loading and stability issues.HSSS allows maximum intent and force due to mitigation of instability. Click To Tweet
I find this movement allows athletes to express intent and force development not attainable with heavy standard unilateral work. Conventional single leg work comes with inhibitory deceleration due to the expectation of potential instability with high loads that could be potentially disastrous. Athletes are smart, and they will develop compensations in movements to mitigate risk. HSSS allows maximum intent due to mitigation of instability.
The strength coach’s main job is to apply stress at the right moments using the right movements. Some movements are derived from happy accidents, agreed contested exercises, necessity, and some come from the process through which we try and solve problems in the gym. HSSS does turn heads due to its unconventional set-up. Some of my athletes jokingly refer to it as “cheat squat”–understandable given the assist from the upper body.
The key point is that the hand-assisted safety bar split squat leads to maximized stress placed on the body during training, which leads to enhanced adaptations, and ultimately maximized performance.
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