Upon reading a recent SimpliFaster article about the hand supported split squat and its cousin, the hand supported rear foot elevated (HSRFE) split squat, I was excited that others were finding outcomes similar to mine. I’ve recently added the HSRFE as a staple for my collegiate ice hockey team.
I’ve used the Rear Foot Elevated (RFE) split squat as our primary lower body push exercise for about a decade because I see tremendous benefit to unilateral strength development. Along with a few colleagues, I’ve probably been more aggressive than most when programming absolute loads with this movement–it’s our chief maximal strength tool for the lower body.
Evolving Past Dumbbells for Single Leg Training
Until the past year, we almost exclusively used a combination of dumbbells and weight vests to acquire load in the RFE. We did this as a safety measure; early in my career, I had a near catastrophic incident with an athlete under my direction who was performing the lift in the classic barbell back squat position. I vowed never to use a barbell with this lift again.
The nature of the lift when performed with a traditional barbell puts the load very far away from the center of mass. This means that any slight lateral deviation of the bar becomes almost impossible to correct, and a complete loss of balance may ensue. It’s particularly dangerous with high loads, especially if the loss of balance loss occurs toward the side of the lead leg. Even if the athlete can get their back leg quickly onto the ground, momentum takes them in the other direction. It’s a recipe for disaster.
At the time of the near catastrophe, we were able to continue progressing load with other tools in a much safer manner. Heavy dumbbells allowed us to adequately load the exercise while keeping the weight much closer to the body. They also provided an easy “out” if the athlete lost balance by simply dumping the dumbbells.
Fast-forward eight to nine years. Logistical concerns, not the athletes’ physical abilities, were constraining progress in the lift. Performing the exercise with 300+lbs was now somewhat routine with our higher training age hockey players. It had become unwieldy, however, to combine enough vests with heavy dumbbells. Grip strength also started to become an issue.
The undertaking of putting on five 20lbs vests, or one of our big 80lbs monsters, along with picking up and positioning 135lbs dumbbells became so cumbersome that it took away from the effectiveness of the lift and the flow of the training session. Naysayers focused on these limitations, along with stability demands, to minimize the RFE’s effectiveness.
Cue the Safety Squat Bar
Admittedly, and somewhat embarrassingly, I’d never used a safety squat bar (SSB). As luck would have it, our Olympic Sports facility had recently purchased a few, specifically for our baseball players. I began to play around with the SSB, experimenting on myself. (I also played around with the Pit Shark and an RFE set up–that was interesting!)
Lo and behold, the SSB worked pretty well with my RFE training. Balance, however, was still a concern. The center of mass was certainly more favorable with this bar, but the load was still higher up and further away from the body than our normal set up with dumbbells which made stabilization a major limiting factor to the lift.
Switching to the Hands Supported RFE
That’s when I started to use the hands supported variation, otherwise known as the Hatfield Squat. Again, another revelation–balance and stability concerns were now almost non-existent. Loads that were previously outside the realm of possibility for myself were becoming easily achievable. I started to wonder where this could progress from an absolute strength perspective.
Of course, as I discussed my thoughts with friends and colleagues, questions began to arise about the efficacy of performing the lift in this manner:
- “What about the stability demand of the RFE? Isn’t that part of the point?”
- “Are the spinal loads we wanted to get away from now back in question?”
- “Are these loads exasperating hip and groin stress potentially implicated in sports hernia problems prevalent in the ice hockey population?”
All good questions. And more will certainly come, but my current thinking is as follows:
- We are not using this lift to challenge stability. It’s our maximal strength tool. We challenge stability elsewhere so minimizing the stability demand is not a problem in this scenario.
- While it’s always dangerous to assume relevance to a study of N=1, my personal experience was very eye-opening. I have a history of low back and hip problems. While performing this lift, however, I had a complete lack of back pain and hip dysfunction after very aggressively, and very consistently, loading beyond any relative or absolute measure of intensity at which I’d previously trained. Also, by the end of the summer’s “experiment,” we did not have a single issue or problem reported by any of our 29 players–even those with previous incidents of back pain. I believe these results are due in large part to the posture one assumes using the SSB. We maintain a fairly narrow stance, with a vertical back femur in the bottom position, so that the knee, hip, and shoulder are all aligned. The stance allows the force of the bar to be almost entirely compressive with very little, if any, shear force at the lumbar spine.
- Regarding spinal loading and potential injury or dysfunction, we reached the same conclusion about the added anterior hip and adductor stress; this has not been a concern or complaint from our players whatsoever, so long as we maintain a proper setup. I also think that using the hands as points of balance helps create trunk stability, which leads to proper and appropriate hip mobility. It becomes easier to get into a “ribs down” position, and the lats can engage to facilitate a cylindrical stability effect on the spine. All this combines to create a very stable position for the prime movers to optimally create force without limiting performance and without injury creating energy leaks.
Since we’ve included the SSB and the HSRFE into our training program, we’ve seen some astonishing results. All of our veteran players reached at least double bodyweight for a true 1RM. I pulled the plug on testing for our two players with the highest load at 515lbs. We have a team record number of players over a 30” counter movement jump. Although there are many elements in our program that contribute to explosiveness and power output, our maximal strength development is most likely a major contributing factor.
Video 1. This video shows the typical mechanics of a rear foot elevated split squat while holding the rack for safety purposes. Heavy loads are possible with hand support, thus increasing force production.
In addition to the counter movement jump, we also improved our RSI (Reactive Strength Index) scores and non-counter movement scores. We look at these three tests to develop a jump profile, which helps us bucket players into slightly different categories and progressions within our plyometric program. Certainly improvements in all these areas are multifactorial, but I can’t say that changes this widespread across the board have been typical in the past.
Maximal Strength Gains with HSRFE
We’ve seen the biggest improvement in maximal strength numbers from our HSRFE training (RFE data shows as load relative to body weight, i.e., a 400lbs 1RM at 200lbs body weight would show a 2.0 in the following chart).
I’m not typically a big number chaser in the weight room. I believe wholeheartedly that my primary role is to train our athletes to remain as healthy as possible. That’s not to say that strength isn’t important; just that strength is the means to reducing potential injuries, not an end unto itself.
From a performance standpoint, I want to see our various vertical jump metrics improve. Again, strength numbers by themselves without a steady progression in jump performance are not my priority. If we have low “man games lost” statistics and high vertical jump numbers, the loads on the bar in our Hockey Performance Center don’t matter much to me. That said, if we can safely increase lower body strength, we know this will have a positive impact on injury potential and rate of force development. In that sense, the HSRFE has been a huge improvement for us.
Video 2. The safety squat bar creates comfort and mechanical efficiency with the split squat when the rear foot is elevated. Multiple athletes have broken 500 pounds using full-range split squats, and their other measures have improved with those changes.
Off-Season Power Training
We take a modified Triphasic approach to training in the off-season, using two lower body training days out of a five-day schedule (four training sessions and a regen day). This summer, we chose RFE’s for both our Tempo day and our Max Effort day.
The following are the Day 1 and Day 2 templates over the course of five phases of off-season training. Athletes performed P1 on campus at the end of the last academic year. They performed P2 and P3 mostly at home where they may or may not have had access to SSBs. The final two phases were performed back on campus during our team off-season training period. Loads are the percentage of the previous 1RM, last assessed in the middle of this past year’s in-season.
To describe the rationale for this portion of our program, you can see we essentially ran through two blocks of ECC/ISO/CON work on Day 1. The initial block was performed at lower overall loads since we were coming off a long in-season period. We designated the start of the off-season as a reconditioning phase. One of the points we emphasized during this time was anatomical adaptation.
During the last portion of this block, in Phase 3, we descended loading and increased velocity. We did this partly to transfer to a higher rate of force development (RFD) and also to deload tissue to some degree as we prepped for the second half of summer when we focused on true maximal strength.
On Day 2, we followed a pretty basic high to low volume approach, finishing with some self-testing in Phase 3 before the athletes came back to campus. We wanted to develop strength at higher volumes, make hypertrophic improvements, and allow some flexibility for the athletes to self-adjust while on their own.
During the second half of the summer (P4, P5), the athletes were on campus. Day 1 again followed a basic Triphasic approach, maintaining volumes and intensities, while varying the contraction types (ECC/ISO/CON). This progressed through the pre-season period with the peaking phases of the Triphasic methodology, decreasing loads, increasing velocity, and realizing improvements in power output. Meanwhile, during Day 2, we aggressively loaded the RFE movement in a true accelerative strength phase, culminating in a legit 1RM.
During Phase 5, what you see on the Day 1, Week 2 schedule highlighted in yellow is a post-test of average velocity at 80%, or 1RM. We performed the pre-test on the first day of Phase 4 (not shown) and were simply looking to see if the speed at the same load would improve over six weeks. It did.
Smart and Aggressive Loading: the Perfect Combination
The addition and implementation of the SSB into our unilaterally focused lower body strength work has been hugely successful. The HSRFE split squat has become a staple for us. It’s exceeded all expectations and all preconceived notions of what was possible with this lift from a loading standpoint. Much more important are the performance improvements that came with the ability to load so aggressively with zero negative consequences from an injury perspective.
Before this off-season, I considered double body weight for one rep as very strong and perhaps the upper limit for realistic maximal strength development in the RFE. It appears, however, that the 400lbs threshold is akin to the 4-minute mile of Roger Bannister fame–impossible until it wasn’t, and somewhat routinely achieved at this point.
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