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9 Split Squat Alternatives & Variations for Unilateral Training

You’re probably looking for a split squat alternative for one of 3 reasons:

  • Poor balance
  • Mobility- bad knees that hurt when squatting or lack ankle/ hips mobility
  • Equipment- no rack, barbell or dumbbells

Over my 35 years as a personal trainer, I have used dozens of variations with people of all shapes, sizes, and training goals.

Doing this has led me to find the best 9 exercises that exist.

So let’s dive into it…


How to do the bodyweight split squat

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and take a big step forward with your right foot.
  2. Lower your body by bending your knees, until your left knee nearly touches the ground.
  3. Keep your upper body straight, your core engaged, and your right knee directly above your ankle.
  4. Push yourself back up with your right leg to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then switch sides and repeat with your left foot forward.

Should you use a barbell or dumbbells for split squats

While it is a good idea to begin with the bodyweight version of split squats to learn the proper technique, you will probably want to add resistance before long.

This can be done in a range of different ways – barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbag, weighted vest etc.

Dumbbells and kettlebells can be easier to hold and balance. Holding weights in each hand can also help to improve grip strength and wrist stability.

Barbells can be a good choice for people who are comfortable with lifting heavier weights. Using a barbell can allow for greater resistance and can be an effective way to build lower body strength.

Sandbags and weighted vests are a functional way of training, and they can provide a ‘natural’ weight distribution that would mimic carrying a weight.


What are the benefits of split squats?

  • Improved lower body strength: The split squat targets the muscles of the lower body, including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. By challenging these muscles, the split squat can help to improve overall lower body strength.
  • Addressing muscular imbalances: Because the split squat is a unilateral exercise, it works each leg independently. This can help to identify and address any imbalances in strength or stability between the legs.
  • Improved balance and stability: The split squat requires a certain level of balance and stability, as you’re standing on one leg. By practicing this exercise, you can improve your ability to balance and stabilize your body.
  • Improved flexibility: The split squat requires a significant amount of hip and ankle mobility, which can help to improve overall flexibility in these areas.
  • Injury prevention: Strengthening the muscles of the lower body can help to prevent injuries, particularly in the knees and hips. By performing the split squat regularly, you can improve the stability and strength of these joints.

Split squat – muscles used

Split squat -  muscles used

Primary muscles used:

  • Quads
  • Glutes

Secondary Muscles Used:

  • Hamstrings
  • Lower back
  • Calves
  • Erector Spinae
  • Abs

How does the split squat differ from the lunge?

The split squat and the lunge are similar exercises that both work the muscles of the lower body, but there are some key differences between the two.

The main difference between the two exercises is that the split squat is a stationary exercise where your foot position does not change.

With the lunge, however, you are stepping forward and back, or walking as you do the exercise. Those make the lunge a more dynamic exercise than the split squat.

Another difference between the split squat and the lunge is the position of the feet.

In a split squat, one foot is placed in front of the other, with the feet in a staggered stance, and the majority of the weight is shifted onto the front leg. 

In a lunge, the legs are in a similar staggered stance, but the weight is distributed more evenly between the front and back legs.

The split squat and the lunge also tend to work different muscles to varying degrees.

Both exercises work the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. But research shows the split squat places more emphasis on the quads, while the lunge places more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.


Equipment needed for these exercises


9 split squat alternatives that replicate the same movement pattern

In the interests of variety, here are my favorite 9 split squat alternatives that allow you to train your legs unilaterally…

Split squat alternative infographic part 1

1. Lunges

Equipment needed for lunges:

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do lunges:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards).
  2. Take a big step forward with your right foot, keeping your upper body straight and your core engaged.
  3. Lower your body by bending both knees, until your left knee nearly touches the ground.
  4. Keep your right knee directly above your ankle, and ensure that your left knee is pointing towards the ground.
  5. Push through your right heel to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat the exercise for the desired number of repetitions on your right leg, then switch sides and repeat with your left leg forward.

Lunges muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

Knee problems preventing you from doing lunges? Check out our 7 favorite lunge alternatives


2. Bulgarian split squat

Equipment needed for the Bulgarian split squat:

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do the Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Stand with your back to a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip.
  2. Place the top of your left foot on the bench behind you, with your right foot planted firmly on the ground.
  3. Lower your body by bending both knees, until your right knee is at a 90-degree angle and your left knee nearly touches the ground.
  4. Keep your upper body straight and your core engaged, and ensure that your right knee stays directly above your ankle.
  5. Push through your right heel to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat the exercise for the desired number of repetitions on your right leg, then switch sides and repeat with your left foot on the bench or step.

Bulgarian split squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

Note: Is the Bulgarian split squat too hard for you at the moment?

Then check out our Bulgarian split squat alternative exercises and switch the Bulgarian split squat up with an adequate alternative.


3. Goblet split squat

Equipment needed for exercise:

  • Kettlebell

How to do exercise:

  1. Hold a kettlebell with both hands, cupping the weight close to your chest.
  2. Take a big step forward with your right foot, keeping your upper body straight and your core engaged.
  3. Lower your body by bending both knees, until your left knee nearly touches the ground.
  4. Keep your right knee directly above your ankle, and ensure that your left knee is pointing towards the ground.
  5. Push through your right heel to return to the starting position.

Exercise muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

4. Front leg elevated split squat

Equipment needed for the front leg elevated split squat:

How to do the front leg elevated split squat:

  1. Stand facing a platform that is 6-12 inches high, with your feet hip-width apart and a pair of dumbbells held at your sides. 
  2. Assume a staggered stance and place your front foot on the platform.
  3. Lower your body down towards the ground by bending your front knee, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
  4. Continue lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, and your back knee is hovering just above the ground.
  5. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your front foot to rise back up to the starting position.

Front leg elevated muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hip adductors
  • Hamstrings

5. Cable Zercher split squat

Equipment needed for the cable Zercher split squat:

  • Cable machine

How to do the cable Zercher split squat:

  1. Attach a straight handle to a cable machine and set the pulley at its lowest position.
  2. Stand facing the cable machine, about two feet in front of it, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Hold the cable handle in the crook of your bent elbows.
  4. Take a long step back with your left foot and raise the heel so you are resting on the toe.
  5. Lower your body down towards the ground by bending your front knee, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
  6. Continue lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, and your back knee is just above the ground.
  7. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your front foot to return to the starting position.

Cable Zercher split squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hip adductors
  • Hamstrings

Split squat alternative infographic part 2

6. Unilateral leg press

Equipment needed for the unilateral leg press:

How to do the unilateral leg press:

  1. Begin by selecting a weight that is appropriate for your fitness level, and adjust the seat so that your back is comfortably supported.
  2. Sit down on the leg press machine and position one foot on the platform, with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle.Place the other foot on the floor. 
  3. Push the platform away from you using only the foot that is on the platform, until your leg is almost fully extended.
  4. Pause for a moment at the end of the movement, then slowly lower the platform back down to the starting position.

Unilateral leg press muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

7. Leg extension

Equipment needed for the leg extension:

How to do the leg extension:

  1. Sit down on the machine and place your feet under the leg pad, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Grip the handles on the side of the machine for support, and begin to extend your legs, lifting the weight towards the ceiling.
  3. Continue lifting the weight until your legs are almost fully extended, and hold the position for a brief moment.
  4. Slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position, stopping just short of your feet touching the weight stack.

Leg extension muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps

8. Cossack squat

Equipment needed for the cossack squat:

  • Kettlebell

How to do the cossack squat:

  1. Begin by standing with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing outwards. Hold a kettlebell at chest level, keeping it close to your body.
  2. Shift your weight onto the right leg, and move into a side lunge. Lift the left toe so that you are resting on the heel. 
  3. Begin lowering your body down towards the ground by bending the right knee, while keeping the left leg straight.
  4. Continue lowering your body until your thigh is parallel to the ground, and your other foot is fully extended to the side.
  5. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your right foot to rise back up to the starting position.

Cossack squat muscles worked:

  • Hip adductors
  •  Glutes
  •  Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings

9. Pistol squat

Equipment needed for the pistol squat:

  • None

How to do the pistol squat:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms extended in front of you for balance.
  2. Lift your left foot off the ground, keeping your right foot planted firmly on the ground.
  3. Lower your body by bending your right knee, and shifting your weight back onto your right heel.
  4. As you lower your body, extend your left foot out in front of you, keeping it off the ground.
  5. Lower your body as far as you can, ideally until your right thigh is parallel to the ground and your left foot is pointing straight up.
  6. Push through your right heel to return to the starting position.

Pistol squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

Split squat alternatives: The bottom line

The split squat is a variation of the traditional squat that allows you to work each leg separately. We recommend adding it to your routine, ideally after doing a few sets of regular barbell or cable squats. 

In this article, you’ve also been presented with 9 split squat alternatives that allow you to train your legs unilaterally.

Some of them, like the pistol squat, are more advanced than others. Give each of them a try and select your favorites to add variety to your lower body workout.

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Hi, I'm Steve. I'm a personal trainer, current home gym owner, former gym owner, and copywriter. I joined my first gym at age 15 and, five years later, I was managing my own studio. In 1987, I became the first personal fitness trainer in New Zealand. My work has been featured on Muscle and Brawn, Gymaholic, Fitness Volt, and many other places.

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