Save Your Back - Squat One Leg at a Time
Last week I shared the three things everybody should know about squats. (1) If you need to reduce spinal compression, it's entirely appropriate to let the knees extend slightly beyond the toes. (2) There's virtually no difference in forces against your knee when performing a half or a full squat. (3) If you want to reduce the stresses on your lower back, split the weight between both hands instead of carrying it all together on your back or shoulders.
I also promised I would share a type of squat that's so safe and effective; I've used it to replace the standard barbell squat with every person I train. The exercise I'm talking about is called a Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) or a Bulgarian Squat. It's also called a Single Leg Split Squat. This is why it's so good.
In a traditional squat, the stronger you get the more weight you have to load up with. The greater the weight, the more your spine compresses and the more stress your hips go through. Often, the weak point isn't how much weight you can move with your legs, but how much weight you can support with your back.
Some people use the leg press to eliminate the spinal compression problem. Unfortunately, leg press machines can severely limit the range of motion and cause an unhealthy rounding of the spine. You're trading one problem for another.
The solution is to work one leg at a time. With the RFESS, one leg is elevated behind you while the other does the work. This allows you to use half the weight (saving your back), develop better balance and get the same resistance benefit as traditional squats.
Your legs get such an intense blast, it's not unusual for people to need a rest when moving from one side to the other. The key is performing each set with perfect form. Here's a step-by-step description of how to do it properly.
Step One: Stand 2 to 3 feet in front of a low bench or platform of approximately 12 inches in height. Rest the top of one foot on the platform behind you with a pad below that knee. Shift your body weight over the lead leg with the upper body hinged forward, hips tilting to maintain a neutral spinal position.
Step Two: Inhale, activating the core and slowly bend at the knees, dropping the body weight back and down while maintaining spinal alignment. Control the descent by activating the glute, hamstring and quadricep of the lead leg. Continue to descend until the back knee touches the pad.
Step Three: Hold at the lowest position, keeping the tension in the glute, hamstring and quadricep of the lead leg while stabilizing the trunk. Do not allow the weight to shift to the knee that's lightly touching the ground.
Step Four: Exhale, pressing through the heel of your lead leg, extend the knees and hips, while returning to the starting position.
There are a few key points to remember. Keep your head and neck aligned with your spine and choose a focal point approximately 5 to 7 feet ahead on the floor which will move closer as the body descends. Maintain a natural arch in the lower back throughout the entire exercise.
Don't fall for these common cheats. Avoid over-arching the back. Don't look at the ceiling. Do not allow the hips or shoulders to twist. Do not load the trail leg, it is there only for balance. Make sure to rest the top of your foot on the bench, not your toes or you risk becoming unbalanced.
A variation of this exercise is to lift the trail foot off the platform. It will challenge your balance and forces the front leg into handling the entire load. Add dumbbells when you want to increase intensity.
The first time you do the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, you'll curse my name. But your back, hips and leg muscles will all thank me.
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