When it comes to building muscle one leg at a time, the Bulgarian split squat, also known as the rear foot elevated split squat, usually gets all the praise and attention. But the real ones know how underrated the front foot elevated split squat truly is.
The unfairly overlooked front foot elevated split squat is gaining quite the popularity surge, especially from its use in rehab and athletic settings. This upgraded split squat variation is typically a little more comfortable to set up than the rear foot elevated option and it can skyrocket your lower body muscle, strength, and athleticism. Here’s a closer look at this unique exercise.
Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
The front foot elevated split squat, or FFESS, requires a high-level of stability across a long range of motion, which can make the exercise difficult to master. Follow these technique cues to tackle this single-leg exercise.
Step 1 — Set Up Your Platform
You will notice a massive benefit from even the slightest elevation. Any platform that is at least two to four inches high will be sufficient. A small aerobic step or one or two weight plates work nicely. Use bumper plates, if possible, to prevent sliding. If your gym has an Olympic lifting platform with a raised edge, that can work too.
Form Tip: A staircase might seem like a convenient option, but it’s likely too high to start with and can make the movement too awkward. It will end up feeling more like an indecisive hybrid between a split squat and a step-up while delivering the results of neither.
Step 2 — Elevate Your Front Foot
Having a strong and stable front foot is, obviously, key to the front foot elevated split squat. Stand upright and set one foot flat on the platform. Keep your entire foot in contact throughout each repetition. Don’t raise up onto your toes or heel.
Form Tip: Supportive shoes can play a surprisingly significant role in your mobility, stability, and force production. (1) Old school Chuck Taylor sneakers, dedicated weightlifting shoes, or any stable-soled shoe is preferable. Super-floppy, extremely cushioned running shoes are not ideal because stability will be compromised as your foot compresses into the cushioning.
Step 3 — Set Your Back Foot
Your back foot should be as secure and stable as your front foot. Keep your front foot in place and step back a comfortable distance for you, depending on your leg length and general mobility.
Depending on your ankle mobility, your back foot will likely be on the ball rather than flat on the ground. This is acceptable because this foot is primarily for support and balance, and will not be producing much force into the floor.
Form Tip: For maximum balance and stability, make sure your back foot is in its own “lane,” not directly in line with your front foot. You shouldn’t feel like you’re perched on a thin balance beam. You should feel stable and grounded.
Step 4 — Lower Yourself With Control
Take a deep breath and feel both feet securely in place before descending into the rep. Feel your lower body and your core being still before descending. Keep your upper body upright with your shoulders pulled back.
Bend your front leg and lower yourself with control. Descend as low as possible, ideally reaching your back knee to the ground.
Form Tip: Depending on your mobility, your back knee should gently graze the ground — with an emphasis on gently. Some lifters fail to pay attention during the descent and quickly smash their back knee into the ground. Don’t do that.
Step 5 — Drive Up to the Starting Position
When you’ve reached the deepest position your hip and leg mobility allows, push through your front leg to drive up to a standing position
Keep your upper body close to vertical as you drive up. Don’t allow yourself to bend forward at the waist. Repeat all repetitions with one leg before switching sides.
Form Tip: It can be tempting to bounce out of the bottom by leveraging the stretch reflex — a muscle’s ability to “rebound” during the transition from a stretched position to a full contraction for increased momentum and power. (2) Avoid it to allow your glutes and quads to do all the work. This will build more muscle by increasing the time under tension, while keeping you safer by reducing ballistic forces.
This exercise can feel tricky, especially when you’re awkwardly setting up for the first time. Here are some common mistakes to avoid.
Not Being Mobile Enough
While this exercise can be great for building mobility, if your hip and ankle mobility resemble the Tin Man, you will struggle to go deep enough to reap the muscle- and strength-building benefits. (3)
If you’re unable to descend near full-depth, the exercise won’t be any different for building size or strength than a standard split squat, but it can still be beneficial as a mobility drill if you focus on improving your depth instead of adding reps or weight.
Avoid it: To perform the exercise efficiently, do a dynamic warm-up prior to your leg workout to ensure your hips and ankles are thoroughly mobilized and prepared for training. Over time, this should help to get into the deeper positions of knee flexion and hip flexion needed to reach the bottom position.
Not Going Low Enough
The purpose of the platform elevation is to increase the range of motion. It lets you get into degrees of knee and hip flexion that you couldn’t access with other exercises.
However, it’s common to see people do the first few reps with a perfect deep reps but, when the pump sets in, they start to compromise the range of motion. Soon enough, the “front foot elevated split squats” appear to be using less range than traditional split squats with both feet on the ground.
Avoid it: Choose an elevation level that works for you and keep every rep consistent. Try to lightly touch your back knee to the ground each rep, or at least get close. Using a folded towel or padded mat under your back knee can serve as a reliable target as long as it allows your back knee to reach lower than your front foot.
Being Too Wobbly
The elevated front foot-position will make balance more challenging. The more wobbly you are, the less muscle-building force you can generate. Not to mention, you’ll feel self-conscious if you topple over while holding a pair of light dumbbells.
If you’re focused on maintaining balance more than you’re focused on actually training your legs, the overall stimulus will be reduced and you’ll waste energy.
Avoid it: Take your time to secure your foot position before doing a couple of warm-up sets. Even if your working weight will be relatively light, a warm-up set or two with only your body weight can be a game changer in preparing your nervous system and core musculature to stabilize the load effectively.
Consider including the FFESS in your program because it’s simple to progress. It also never runs out of progression because, if you do manage to run out of weights, your legs will be beyond elite status at that point.
Begin with Bodyweight
The bodyweight-only FFESS can be quite humbling. Even for some advanced lifters, the exercise can be challenging especially when done toward the latter part of a workout. Performing the exercise as a “finisher” when your legs are pre-fatigued from heavy training can be an eye-opening, leg-burning experience.
The bodyweight FFESS is also an excellent go-to exercise when you have limited equipment, like when you’re training at home or on the road.
Loading with Dumbbells
Once you master bodyweight FFESS, consider adding load via dumbbells. This is the easiest and most common setup for loading — simply hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
Using a narrow platform helps prevent the dumbbells from clashing with the platform, especially if you have longer arms and reach maximum depth. Controlling the weight and not allowing the dumbbells to hit the platform works fine, as well.
As the weights get heavier, and as you’re able to do more reps per set, your grip will likely fatigue quite a bit over the course of multiple sets. Once you feel it kick in, you should use lifting straps or some sort of assistance to eliminate your grip as a weak link.
Barbell Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Barbells allow for the most loading, but they are also the most time consuming to set up along with adding more instability. However, this is a necessary compromise once you get strong.
Make sure you have a strong, stable platform to support the added weight. Set up in a rack with safety pins, similar to performing squats. Progress like most barbell exercises, adding a little more weight and a few more reps from week to week.
This exercise has some unique ways of delivering its benefits. Here’s why you should incorporate the FFESS as soon as possible.
Hypertrophy and Strength
The front foot elevated split squat will produce single-leg strength and hypertrophy thanks to a long range of motion and unique positioning compared to other exercise options. The front foot elevation allows you to push your center of mass forward, bringing your hamstring against your calf without compromising torso position.
This stretches the muscles of the quads and glutes under load and increases mechanical tension compared to bilateral squat variations. The unilateral (single-leg) nature helps with addressing potential imbalances and also maximizes range of motion, which increases hypertrophy. (3)
The strength you gain from this exercise translates efficiently to many other exercises. You’ll notice your single-leg and bilateral (two-leg) lower body exercises getting stronger after focusing on the FFESS as an accessory movement.
One of the main benefits people explore this exercise in the first place is to find pain-free alternatives to barbell squatting. If your joints are achy, this exercise can be a perfect option.
It allows you to lighten the load while achieving ranges of motions you likely didn’t have access to. Over time, you achieve pain-free muscle building. In addition, the FFESS reinforces new degrees of hip, knee, and ankle mobility.
The FFESS prioritizes your lower body muscles — perfect for your favorite leg day. Some core stability and upper body stability is trained as well, especially when using added load.
The front foot elevated split squat primarily trains your quads. The front thigh muscle gets worked through a long range of motion as you get into deep angles of knee flexion (bending). With your front foot elevated, you have the opportunity to drive your knee forward for a deep weighted stretch in the quads.
Similar to many squat variations, your glutes are also going to get a significant stimulus during the FFESS, especially in the bottom stretched position.
You’ll likely feel more glute soreness, especially if you’re used to a relatively shortener range of motion from traditional squats and split squats.
The FFESS will also nail your inner thighs (adductors), particularly in your front leg. This muscle gets a high degree of stabilizing action during the exercise, along with some dynamic contraction to extend your hips at the top of the movement.
Generally speaking, it’s best to do unilateral exercises after heavier bilateral exercises to avoid fatiguing important stabilizers. You can program the FFESS after your heavy sets of squats, possibly as the second or third exercise of a lower body day.
However, the stimulus from the FFESS is effective and comprehensive for the quads, glutes, and adductors, so it’s can also be valid to program them as your first exercise. This is ideal, for example, for lifters with achy knees who don’t do well with heavy bilateral movements early in the workout. Prioritizing the front foot elevated split squat allows your hips, knees, and ankles to be more thoroughly warmed up before proceeding to relatively heavier lifting.
Moderate to Light Weight, High Reps
This exercise is best suited for moderate to light weight. This allows for less joint strain and connective tissue stress, and allows you to better control the weight which can give you a better mind-muscle connection.
Most people will prefer to do these with relatively light weight and higher reps to create a strong pump and an even stronger mind-muscle connection. With this approach, some lifters may even be able skip any warm-up sets, depending on how they feel and how their body responds. Pick a load you can do for at least 12 reps, and crank out two or three sets of 10 to 20 per leg.
Heavy Weight, Low Reps
If you do FFESS early in the workout, you can go heavier. Your nervous system will be fresh and you can stabilize heavier loads. Three or four sets of five to 10 reps (per leg) is already pretty heavy for this exercise. You will still need one or two warm-up sets, especially if you’re strong and plan on approaching your limits.
Using extremely heavy weights for very low reps is not advisable because the stability required for them may not be worth it. It’s not the type of exercise to test your one-rep max because the risk:reward just isn’t worth it.
There’s a couple of effective variations of the front foot elevated split squat for those that are more adventurous or want to progress beyond the standard movement.
Heel-Elevated Split Squat
Instead of just elevating your front foot, add an additional plate or ramp to elevate your heel even higher. This puts your foot into a steep angle, creating even more knee flexion and makes an already quad-dominant split squat even more quad-dominant.
This is great for those in need of serious quad growth or for athletes who want to get used to deeper ranges of knee flexion, including combat sports athletes, strength sports athletes, football players, or sprinters.
Double-Elevated Split Squat
If you want to maximize your mobility and range of motion, you can elevate both the front and back foot. Essentially, you are combining the FFESS with a Bulgarian split squat. More range of motion for both the front leg and the back leg can help to skyrocket your quad and glute gains.
Setting this up can be cumbersome and requires some extra space, but once you’ve determined a good set up and know an effective distance to set each platform, it should be pretty smooth each time you’re in the gym.
Depending on your structure and mobility level, the two exercises might not be all that different. However, most people will feel their quads more during the FFESS. You can think of the front foot elevated split squat as a more “quad-dominant version” of Bulgarian split squats.
FFESS are also easier to setup and generally feel more comfortable to perform. Elevating your back foot with Bulgarian split squats usually requires more hip and ankle mobility and can be a bigger challenge to maintain balance.
Bulgarian split squats are simply more popular in recent years. They’ve garnered a reputation for being painful — the “good kind” of pain from post-workout soreness — and more “hardcore.” They are a great exercise, but the front foot elevated split squat is starting to catch up in popularity thanks to the rehab world.
Many physiotherapists assign the FFESS as a way to train deep ranges of motion with reduced knee pain. Many people learn the movement and end up realizing, “Oh, snap, these are great even if I’m not trying to rehab my knee thanks to the gnarly quad pump.”
Single-leg training is often overlooked in many training routines. Performing exercises with an increased range of motion, even moreso. The FFESS is a straightforward solution to both of these deficiencies. This comprehensive exercise will payoff with more size, more strength, better mobility, and improved all-around performance. You just need to step up to the challenge.
- Legg, H. S., Glaister, M., Cleather, D. J., & Goodwin, J. E. (2017). The effect of weightlifting shoes on the kinetics and kinematics of the back squat. Journal of sports sciences, 35(5), 508–515. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1175652
- Seiberl, W., Hahn, D., Power, G. A., Fletcher, J. R., & Siebert, T. (2021). Editorial: The Stretch-Shortening Cycle of Active Muscle and Muscle-Tendon Complex: What, Why and How It Increases Muscle Performance?. Frontiers in physiology, 12, 693141. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2021.693141
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE open medicine, 8, 2050312120901559. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312120901559
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