Human beings have two legs. So, as a bipedal lifting creature, it’s mandatory for you to train the staple two-legged movement patterns — e.g., squats and deadlifts — if you want to log any sort of gains down below. But here’s the thing: As important as they are, these moves allow the larger, more dominant muscles to take over and control the lift, especially when you use heavier weights and pay less mental attention to muscle activation. This assertion of dominance can leave a lifter with some lagging, underdeveloped muscle groups, and that, over time, may impact not only aesthetics but also performance, and may lead to chronic pain and/or immobility.
The Skinny on the Split Stance
To assume a split stance you simply change your typical, hip- or shoulder-width two-legged stance into a staggered (split) stance, in which one foot is forward and one foot is behind your centerline. This completely changes your weight distribution, requiring each limb to move individually while also demanding more core activity. And once a limb is removed from the picture, your joints must then engage their stabilizing muscles more to execute an action; strengthening these smaller muscles can help prevent imbalances in the long run.
In terms of athletic performance, split-stance training translates to improved balance, reactivity and coordination. Since you’re rarely stationary in sports — standing still with two legs planted — being able to generate power and explosive force from one limb at a time in order to change direction, leap, jump or turn is a skill that every athlete should develop. Moreover, split-stance training helps improve mobility — especially at the hip joint — which is something bilateral-stance training does not do. More mobile hips can mean a decrease in back pain and tightness, relieving some of the stress from your lumbar spine.
Integrate these split-stance moves into your programming for six to eight weeks, swapping them out for the standard two-legged versions, and get a leg up on improved aesthetics and performance.
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Rear-Leg-Elevated Split Squat
Muscles Worked: Gluteus maximus, adductors, quadriceps
This move is instrumental in developing individual leg power, explosive jumping ability and improved stride length in sports like basketball, hockey and track. It also works the inner thighs and hip flexors and facilitates better hip mobility for healthier, stronger knees. Replace a standard barbell back squat with this version to move past strength plateaus and take your athleticism to a new level.
Hold a set of dumbbells at your sides and stand facing away from a flat bench. Extend one leg behind you and place it on top of the bench, laces down. (If necessary, hop forward a bit with your other foot so you’re a comfortable distance away.) Draw your shoulders back and lift your chest as you bend both knees, lowering until your rear knee touches or almost touches the floor. Extend both legs to stand. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Suggested range: Four sets of eight to 10 reps per leg, using no more than 20 pounds per arm
Tip: To increase glute activation, hinge forward at the hips a few inches so your torso inclines slightly over your thigh.
Exercise 2: Single-Legged Dumbbell Deadlift
Muscles Worked: Gluteus maximus, hamstrings, erector spinae
This move trains the all-important hip-hinge pattern while honing your balance and coordination. It also promotes a healthier spine: Holding a weight in one arm creates a contralateral load that requires your core muscles — notably the obliques and quadratus lumborum — to work harder and brace against that pull.
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your side and extend that same-side leg behind you, knee straight. Shift your weight into your opposite leg and reach your nonworking arm to the side for balance. Keeping your back flat and hips square, hinge forward from the hip and lower the weight toward the floor, simultaneously raising your rear leg behind you, leading with your heel. When your leg and back are roughly parallel to the floor, reverse the move and return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Suggested range: Four sets of 10 reps per leg using a moderate weight
Tip: If you struggle with balance, try making a fist with your unloaded hand. This creates tension through the arm into the shoulder, promoting stable scapulae and a more rigid spine.
Exercise 3: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
Muscles Worked: Gluteus maximus, quadriceps, adductors
Lunging backward negates the active involvement of the hip flexors of the leading leg in a forward lunge and requires the glutes and hamstrings to light up first in order to step behind you. It’s also a more joint-friendly lunge variation, since the deceleration capacity needed to stop momentum during a forward lunge places a significant amount of stress on the leading knee.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a set of dumbbells at your sides. Take a large step behind you with one leg, bending both knees and lowering straight toward the floor, keeping your torso upright. When your rear knee touches or nearly touches down, push off your rear toes and drive through your forward heel to return to standing.
Suggested range: Four sets of 20 alternating lunges (each side)
Tip: To make this move more challenging, perform on a raised surface, about six inches high, stepping back off the surface behind you. The glutes and quads of the working leg will have to put in more effort to return to standing.
Exercise 4: Half-Kneeling Split-Stance Landmine Press
Muscles Worked: Anterior deltoids, medial deltoids, triceps, rectus abdominus, obliques
This move offers a different upward path at a slightly different angle from a traditional barbell overhead press and a neutral grip, making for a more shoulder-friendly exercise — great for those with mobility restrictions. Here again you’re moving a contralateral load, which trains core stability and balance and improves athletic actions such as throwing, doing a layup or shot-putting.
Secure one end of a barbell in a landmine and load the opposite end. Assume a half-kneeling split stance in front of the loaded end and hold the bar at shoulder level with the hand opposite the forward knee. Brace your core and push the weight to a full extension above. Lower slowly and repeat.
Suggested range: Four sets of 12 to 15 reps per arm using 50 to 60 percent of your max
Tip: Squeeze the glutes of your opposite leg to achieve a deep stretch in the hip flexors and encourage the abs to engage.
Exercise 5: Dumbbell Push Split Jerk
Muscles Worked: Total body
The athleticism required to jump into a split stance engages both the upper and lower body explosively, firing up your central nervous system, activating fast-twitch muscle fibers and potentiating muscle development. And since you have to lower the weight down to the shoulders between explosive concentric reps, you get in some valuable eccentric training as well.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a set of dumbbells at your shoulders, palms neutral. Bend your knees and hips slightly to dip down, then extend them quickly, using that energy to drive the weights upward. As the weight travels vertically, quickly jump your feet apart — one forward, one back and slightly outward — so when your arms are reaching full extension, your feet are landing. Lower the weights slowly back your shoulders then step your feet underneath you before repeating. Continue, alternating forward legs.
Suggested range: Three to four sets of four to eight reps
Tip: Don’t jump upward, but rather underneath the weights, “catching” them as you reach extension.
Exercise 6: Half-Kneeling Woodchop
Muscles Worked: Rectus abdominus, obliques, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae
Athletes often lose their balance while on one leg or mid-stride. This exercise encourages the bracing of the core to help prevent falling out of position. This is also an important move for spine health, working the torso laterally as well as in rotation.
Secure a single handle attachment or a rope to a lower cable pulley and assume a half-kneeling split stance sideways to the pulley with your outside leg forward. Hold the handle with both hands close to the floor near the pulley with almost straight arms, hips square. Rotate away from the pulley and up as high as you can, moving your torso, shoulders and arms as one unit to pull the handle up and across your body. Slowly return to the start and repeat. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Suggested range: Three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps (each side), using light weight
Tip: Engage your glutes and keep your hips square so your rotation occurs at the mid- and upper back.