Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats May be What You Need on Leg Day


There is no more feared word in the gym vernacular than Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS). The mere mention of it on the gym floor brings dirty looks from gymgoers and horror stories of taking the stairs after RFESS day. Neither is pretty, and it is best to speak this word with soft tones or else watch out.

Almost every time it’s in my program, a cold shiver goes down my spine all the way to my glutes and quads.

The RFESS is a sneaky exercise where the suck creeps up on you. The first few reps, you think you’ve got this, and after six or more, you’re close to calling 911. It can be brutal, but there is a reason to put yourself through the agony: muscular gains and improved performance in and out of the gym. Here, just in case you forget about the RFESS, we’ll get you reacquainted with one of the more feared exercises in the gym.

The regular split squat is a squat performed in a split stance where the back foot acts like a support or kickstand, and most of the load is on the front foot. The RFESS takes all this up a notch. Elevating the rear foot reduces your stability even further, increases the range of motion, and puts more demand on your hip mobility. In short, they are more challenging than the regular split squat.

How to Perform the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

  1. Place your back flat on the bench or other elevated surface behind you.
  2. Get your front foot comfortable, grip the floor, and find your balance.
  3. Drop your back knee to the floor while keeping your chest up, shoulders down, and a slight forward lean of your torso.
  4. Once you reach your ROM, drive through your front foot and return to the starting position.
  5. Reset and repeat for desired reps.

Muscles Worked By the RFESS Exercise

The RFESS is primarily a lower body exercise with the upper body playing a supporting role with good posture and holding weight. Here are the major muscles trained by the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat.

Glutes: If you have ever had trouble feeling your glutes, the RFESS is the answer. Due to the extended ROM, your glutes have to contract hard to pull you out of the bottom of this squat.

Adductors: The adductors are often forgotten with bilateral squats, but you will feel them with the RFESS. They assist with hip flexion and extension, keeping your knee tracking correctly and stopping you from falling on your face.

Quads: Your quads extend your knee with every squat variation. But if you allow your knee to travel forward during the RFESS, you’ll get more quad engagement, making it harder to take the stairs.

Core: The offset nature of the RFESS engages your anterior and posterior core to keep you upright so the lower body muscles can do their job.

Benefits of Performing the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

The biggest reason you perform RFESS is to improve the size and strength of your glutes and quads. It would be best if you remembered that when your muscles and lungs are burning, there are other benefits to recognize, which are listed below.

Improved Performance with Bilateral Squats And Deadlifts: When rising from the squat hole or the initial pull from the floor, both need leg drive, which is a make-or-break factor whether you make the lift. This leg drive comes from the quadriceps, and what exercise strengthens those? If you thought of the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, collect your gold star once you’ve finished reading.

Strengthen Imbalances: When performing bilateral lower body exercises, your dominant side can pick up the slack for the weaker side. Improving muscle imbalances (if they exist) on your weaker side will reduce your injury risk and help increase overall lifting numbers. It’s easy for a bilateral squat or hinge to hide potential strength or mobility imbalances. The RRESS will uncover these somewhat brutally.

Better Muscle Recruitment: RFESS will make you work harder and recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same squat movement. Performing a squat on one leg forces your abductors and core to stabilize your pelvis while performing the RFESS. It’s a case where you’ll be using less weight but working more muscle.

Improved Core Strength: Training unilaterally throws your body off-balance, and your anterior and posterior core kick in to keep yourself balanced and not falling flat on your face. RFESS will strengthen your lower body, legs, and core and improve hip mobility simultaneously.

Common RFESS Performance Mistakes

Besides losing your balance and using too much weight, both of which are easy, here are a few common mistakes that stop you from getting the best out of this exercise.

Elevated Surface Too High: Various tools are used for the elevated split squat, with the weight bench being one of them. Suppose you’re unable to get the working leg close to parallel, and the back leg is unable to drop down to facilitate this. In that case, the elevated surface may be too much for your hip mobility, or you lack the hip mobility to perform it well. If so, perform from a lower surface and work on your hip mobility.

Staying Too Upright: A vertical torso while squatting is not bad, but there is a tendency to force this with the RFESS, which may have your knee and back saying this is not on. You shouldn’t force your torso to remain upright, especially if it feels awkward, because there is nothing wrong with leaning forward with the RFESS, no matter what the form police say.

Not Staying Grounded: Losing your balance and hopping around while performing the RFESS happen, but besides setting up in the correct stance for you, there is a simple thing you can do to reduce this. Ground your working foot by either screwing your foot into the ground or gripping the foot with your toes. Both will provide the tension necessary for better balance and muscle engagement.

Programming And Loading Suggestions

There are multiple tools and methods to load the RFESS, including dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells. Generally, the further away the load from the legs, the harder it is. Dumbbells and KB can be held by your side, goblet, and the front racked position. The most challenging barbell variation is best held in either a high or low back squat position. Choose your suck wisely.

Here are a few programming suggestions depending on your goals.

  • Improved Strength: Three to six reps and between four to six reps work well; the best variation for this would be the barbell one.
  • For Improved balance: Three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps using either dumbbells or kettlebells work well.
  • Improved Hypertrophy: Three to four sets of 8 to 15 reps with a moderate load will have you gasping for air. The double-racked KB variation above works nicely for muscle and improved strength.

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