As in turns out, I’ve come to be known as a ‘leg guy’ at my gym. From what I’ve been told, I only like to train my legs, and that’s simply not the case; It’s just that nobody else trains their legs very hard. Walking lunges with 50lbs, 6 plates on the leg press, and 4 sets of 10 on the leg extension and leg curl isn’t what I call a good ‘leg day’. Maybe if you tried some box jumps, deadlifts, and some dedicated single leg work, you’d get stronger while building muscle and burning fat. That could be nice, right?
Getting stronger should be a universal fitness goal; strength is advantageous in any situation. However, it’s not always about getting under a barbell and moving the heaviest weight you can. In fact, the carry over of this maximal strength to the world outside of strength training may be limited. It’s also important to train for the best functional carry over into your daily lives. Let me pose you a question: How often do you generate force against a symmetrical load? The only real answer I can come up with is when you’re in the gym. Outside of standardized weights, you’ll run into unbalanced objects countless times during the day. It could be carrying your trombone to class, walking 18 holes with your golf bag, or carrying groceries into your home. In all of these cases, you’re dealing with unbalanced objects, and asymmetrical loads. These unbalanced loads demand core stability, which requires strength in the abdominal muscles. Specifically, we’re talking about the obliques.
From the pictures above, you can see that each set of the obliques run in opposite directions. The internal obliques tend to run down and back, while the external obliques tend to run down and forwards. Based on their orientation and line-of-pull, we know that the internal oblique on one side and the external oblique on the other side can create significant rotational forces. We also know that when all of the obliques are contracting, they stabilize the spine and prevent movement between the pelvis and rib cage. With traditional symmetrical loading, these muscles are all required to working together. This is never a bad thing, but it doesn’t train the obliques to resist forces of lateral flexion. Developing strength in the obliques, specifically the ability to resist these forces, is important for daily activities, such as those mentioned above. While ‘direct’ abdominal training is extremely important (Read: You should probably do more of it.) it’s equally as important to develop core stability during compound exercises. Here’s a little picture which shows the orientation of these muscles:
Let’s get back to the legs: If it’s possible to add a core stability component to a lower body exercise, which would allow you to get more bang-for-your-training-buck, wouldn’t that sound like a good idea? I totally agree! Now, after that geeky anatomy stuff, we can get into the training ideas for the split squat. I’d like to focus on the core stability aspects of the asymmetrically loaded split squat, so we’ll only be focusing on using a single weight; in this case, we’re going to use a single dumbbell. There are two things we need to discuss when it comes to placing the load: Vertical placement of the load, and horizontal distance from the work leg. Without explanation, the greater these distances measure, the more difficult the exercise is. Based on this, I can tell you the easiest variation I’ll show you involves holding a dumbbell on the same side of the leg that’s in front, and the hardest variation will be the opposite side with the dumbbell over head. With further explanation though, you’ll be able to decide on appropriate variations for you, as well as seeing a progression through 6 variations of the exercise. Let’s look at three loading variables: Load, vertical placement, and horizontal placement.
Load – Load may be the simplest variable to adjust. After the exercise can be performed with good form with a given amount of weight, progress to a heavier weight. It’s that simple! I’ve seen people who can split squat with over 100lbs symmetrically be limited to 20lbs asymmetrically, because their form goes out the window. In any of the variations that you see below, the easiest variable to change is load. As you get stronger, make sure that you keep choosing progressively heavier dumbbells. (You too, ladies!)
Vertical Placement – By vertical placement, I mean how high the load is off of the ground. I consider three ‘heights’ to use in a progression, from lowest to highest. As the weight moves higher, the center of mass moves higher, and the exercise becomes more difficult. The lowest placement is to suspend the dumbbell at your side. It will sit below your hip, and you’ll find the demand on your obliques is the easiest. Next, you can move the dumbbell to your shoulder. You can hold it in front of your chest as you would prior to an overhead press, but I like to place one end of the dumbbell flat on my shoulder. I find it does two things: It negates any influence that bicep strength/shoulder stability has on the exercise (holding the weight against the chest, and it forces your elbow up, similar to a front squat position. This helps to heel the chest a little more upright, so that torso position doesn’t change through the three placements. The third and final position is overhead. This position is the most difficult, and you certainly won’t be limited by your leg strength. In fact, the limiting factor may very well be shoulder stability; unless you have a strong (standing) military press, you’ll find that the stabilizing muscles in the upper back work a little more than the obliques, and much more than the legs. This is okay because the shoulder is part of the core, but if your shoulder stability is too far behind your obliques and hips, you may want to stick with a lower placement. In my opinion, the overhead split squat is the most fun variation, and this is directly due to the demand at the shoulder. The shoulder limits the exercise, so you can work this in as a core specific exercise on either an upper body day OR a lower body day.
Horizontal Placement – Horizontal placement is a relatively easy factor to discuss, unless you plan on doing a lateral raise while you squat. Hopefully you don’t, so we can consider two placements just two placements. You can place the dumbbell on the same side as the ‘work’ leg (ipsilateral) or on the opposite side (contralateral). Ipsilateral placement is easier, due to the fact that the additional load tends to be over the front foot; this shifts the center of mass towards that front leg. Contralateral placement shifts the center of mass away from the front foot, increasing the demands of the core to stabilize. I should also point out, that ipsilateral loading stresses the oblique on the opposite side of the load placement and work leg. Contralateral loading streses the oblique on the opposite side of the load placement, which is the same side as the work leg. This placement also increases the demands of the hip stabilizers, due to increased external rotation forces on the front leg.
Using the final two variables, you can create 6 variations on the split squat to load with a single dumbbell. These positions are side, shoulder, and overhead placement of both same side and opposite side arms. There are two progressions that I’d recommend for these variations: You can either increase height and then shift the dumbbell horizontally, or you can progress through both placement options at each level before you increase the height of the bell.
The following two videos were just filmed this afternoon, to demonstrate all six possible exercises. In one clip, you see the 3 different placements in an ipsilaterally loaded split squat, and in the second you see the contralaterally loaded variations. I performed 3 repetitions of each version for the sake of brevity, but I’d rather see you perform longer sets of a single variation. (This will allow you to perform ‘cleaner’ reps with better form, as well as make progressing from one exercise to the next more meaningful. Also, don’t tip over like I almost did in the 2nd video.)
When adding the asymmetrical split squat to your workouts, you need to take into consideration the relationship between your ‘core’ strength and that of your lower body. If you’ve been a machinist (somebody who trains with machines) for a while, then the odds are that your core stability is atrocious, and you’ll find these exercises to be extremely taxing on your obliques. Since your obliques will be the limiting factor, it’s unlikely that this exercise will prove truly stressful for your lower body, and it will be insufficient to use as a main uni-lateral exercise. If this is the case, I’d suggest incorporating this as part of a superset, but this brings up the simple question of “How?” If you perform full body workouts, then I’d suggest you consider this a ‘core’ exercise, and preferably perform it after your heavier lifts. After you pull your trap bar deadlifts and finish your barbell reverse lunges, you may be wrapping up your workout with a mini-circuit of inchworms, asymmetrical split squats, and bodyweight rows. If you’re like me and prefer an upper/lower split, then you might consider using this exercise on either day. This depends on the variation you’re using, and here’s why:
Placing the dumbbell at your side or on your shoulder allows for the use of much greater loads then the overhead placement, which requires shoulder stability. If the overhead variation is being used, I’d suggest using this exercise on your upper body day, when your upper back is already warm and working. The use of your legs will be minimal compared to a leg day, so you won’t need to worry about recovery or loss of strength. Plus, moving your legs a bit will probably make you feel better! If you’re positioning the dumbbell at your side or at the shoulder, go ahead and keep this exercise on your lower body, but again after your strength and hypertrophy lifting. You may also want to include these in a warm-up progression; you’ll cue core stability while getting your legs ready for some action. (Of the two, this might be the better idea.) Whatever you do, make sure you choose an appropriate variation that allows you to maintain perfect form.
Depending on your training age and intelligence, you’re somewhere between a couch potato and a world class athlete. (Like what I did there?) Now, if you’re just beginning, you should start with the basics, including single leg work. However, as your body control increases and you desire/require more of a challenge, asymmetrical loading will help you develop core stability and functional strength. This will help you with your everyday activities, be it on the court or in the kitchen. Go ahead and give these lifts a try!