Back squats have long been considered an essential tool for making athletes bigger, stronger, and faster. By comparison, unilateral exercises like split squats have been relegated to the “assistance” exercise category, the inferior cousin of the almighty squat.
However, the tides might be changing. Recently, a groundbreaking new study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning demonstrated something that had never been shown before. Strength coaches in the United Kingdom examined the effects of unilateral squat training versus traditional back squats on strength, 40-meter sprint time and change of direction speed. The results were very interesting.
Eighteen rugby players were randomly assigned to two groups - rear-foot elevated split squat (RESS) or classic back squats - for five weeks of lower-body training (twice weekly) to put an old myth to test, are bilateral movements like the back squat truly the “king” of all exercises? The results showed, for the first time, that unilateral training could improve strength, 40-meter sprint time and change of direction to the same degree as back squats. That's right... split squats were JUST AS GOOD AS back squats!
Of course, if your squat movement pattern is very good, there maybe no need to modify your training. However, if you’re an athlete with poor ankle mobility or suffer from low back pain, the confirmation that unilateral exercises like RESS can provide the same benefits as bilateral staples like squats may come as a big relief.
For athletes who need to jump a lot in their sport (i.e. basketball or volleyball players), whose low back are exposed to high torque (i.e. golf and tennis players) or anyone who struggles to effectively load their spine effectively (i.e. ectomorphs) without pain throughout the entire squat movement, this could be a game changer. Unilateral split squats may allow these populations to load their spine more effectively, without pain, thus minimizing risk of injury and achieving a superior training outcomes.
If you feel more pain in your back or neck when squatting, rather than your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps, a shift to more and heavier unilateral training may be your solution for improved strength and speed.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CSCS
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1) Speirs, Derrick et al. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. J. Strength Cond Res. Feb 2016. Vol. 30, Issue 2. p386-92.