Apr 27th, 2013
Author: PJF Performance
Category: Performance Enhancement
The Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat is an exercise that I have used as a staple exercise in my programs for the past few years. And no, I haven’t gone to the extent of completely taking bilateral back-squats out of my programs like Mike Boyle is known for doing. However, for moderate-advanced clients I use the RFESS as the main exercise and I do several different squat variations as assistance exercises. I have been using bilateral back-squats as more of a power exercise and have been seeing great results. I put together a list of 25 reasons why you should love the RFESS in hopes that you can either realize that: 1) It’s worth doing if the goal is strength, hypertrophy, better sports performance, or all around functionality. –OR- 2) It should not be used only as an assistance exercise.
1. Functional Strength
Functional strength has a pretty broad definition, and the RFESS complies with every meaning. We all know that sports are performed on one leg (running/cutting involves 1 foot on ground at a given time); the vast majority of sports require explosive movement from a split stance base while balancing on one leg—hints why we train like this.
2. True Overload of Knee/Hip Extensors
The lower back is the limiting factor in a bilateral back squat. Your legs might be able to handle 400 lbs., but your lower back cannot, which means that your knee/hip extensors aren’t truly being overloaded. The RFESS is great for leg strength because it takes your lower back out of the equation.
3. Allows Moderate-Advanced Trainee’s to Use Goblet Position
The Goblet position is very beneficial because of its core stiffening affect. Mike Boyle said it best at the Perform Better conference in LA this past spring; “The goblet position makes an exercise into a dynamic plank”. I have always loved the Goblet squat for teaching my beginners how to squat, but could never use it with my moderate to advanced clients because of the relatively light load. I mean, even a 100 lb. kettlebell/dumbbell wouldn’t be sufficient weight on a bilateral back squat for most advanced clients. The RFESS makes it possible for moderate-advanced clients to use the goblet position and still overload their legs. Of course, for some clients a 100 lb. RFESS in the goblet position isn’t even an adequate load, but most people have not yet reached this level and will be able to reap the benefits of being in the goblet position on a weekly basis.
4. Less Compressive Force on Spine
The RFESS is associated with far less compressive force on the spine than is the bilateral back squat. Even advanced clients performing the RFESS with a barbell on their back are experiencing far less compressive force considering they’re only using 50-60% of the normal back squat load. In my opinion, loading someone up with 400+ lbs. on their back isn’t necessarily making them a healthier athlete. Remember, the goal is producing healthy athletes.
5. Allows for Increased Frequency
Working your legs while limiting spinal load can lead to increases in training frequency. Anyone who has been on an intense strength program knows that performing multiple heavy back-squat sessions per week is extremely physically draining. The first thing that I noticed when I cut back on squats in favor of the RFESS was that I could train my legs 2-3 times per week without wanting to do a swan dive off of a cliff by Sunday. Yes, RFESS’s produce a good amount of soreness, but it’s an unrelated feeling to the joint stiffness/CNS fatigue associated with heavy back squats.
6. Better For One Leg Jumping
A major benefit to unilateral training is that it has a high carry over to single leg jumping as well as double leg jumping. Unfortunately, bilateral training only has high carry over to double leg jumping, but not so much single leg jumping.
7. Knee Injury Prevention
The RFESS not only strengthens the muscles surrounding the knee, but it also requires you to stabilize the knee in multiple planes. Exercises that force you to stabilize in the sagittal, frontal, and transverse plane are great for knee injury prevention and the RFESS does just that.
8. Active Stretch in Hip Flexors
One side benefit of the RFESS is that you get a great active stretch in the hip flexor of the non-working leg. After just a few weeks of using the RFESS as a staple in my program, I started noticing greater hip mobility/flexibility.
9. Explosive/Balance Hybrid
I have seen many people who are explosive from a bilateral base. I have also seen people with great unilateral balance but lack explosiveness. The ability to be explosive from a unilateral stance is a great quality for an athlete to have. The RFESS teaches you to balance while placing a high amount of force on the ground.
10. Better for Anterior Core
The RFESS has unique benefits on the core. Whether or not your using the Goblet position, there is high anterior core activation to prevent hyperextension at the lumbar spine.
11. Can Make it Knee or Hip Dominant
Maybe calling it “hip dominant” is an exaggeration, but moving the foot foreword can increase the glute/ham activation drastically. Yes, it’s still “knee dominant” but try moving your foot forward 6-12 inches and feel the difference in your level of soreness the next day.
12. Less Variability w/ Regard To Depth
Just about everyone is able to get the working leg down to about parallel in the RFESS. But getting parallel in a bilateral squat isn’t as easy for most people.
13. Variety of Loading
I love that there are so many different ways to load the RFESS. Even advanced athletes aren’t limited to only loading with a barbell. They can use the goblet position w/ DB or KB, DB suitcase, either of the previous in combination with a weighted vest or chains, or using a barbell in the back-squat position.
14. Greater Hypertrophy in Adductors
The adductors have high involvement in the stabilization of a squat. Since the RFESS demands more stability than the back squat, the adductors are called upon even more than normal. When I started using the RFESS I noticed hypertrophy in all of the muscles in my lower body, but none greater than the gains made in my adductors. By the way, if you want more “thickness” in your thighs, look no further than the adductor muscles.
15. Better Body Awareness
I use different cues with my clients when performing the RFESS and people seem to be able to respond quickly and make adjustments. For example, clients who position themselves in an anterior pelvic tilt receive the cue of– “bucket of water” (meaning your hips are a bucket of water and it will spill if you tilt foreword). What’s so great is that they can easily make the adjustment and continue the set with good form. Try cueing “bucket of water” to a client doing a bilateral back squat with 400 lbs. on their back and see what combination of curse words they come back at you with. Your body awareness is much better when you don’t have a 400 lb. barbell on your back.
16. Biomechanical Disadvantage Isn’t Prominent
I work with a lot of basketball players, which means that I’m constantly trying to find ways to train around their biomechanical disadvantage of being tall. Athletes over 6’5 aren’t usually good squatters because of their femur length. Fortunately, these tall athletes don’t seem to have much of a problem getting low on the RFESS. I don’t know what it is about the mechanics of the RFESS that makes it doable for tall athletes, but it works so I don’t really care.
17. Good Exercise For “Feeling the Burn”
If you’re the type of person who measures the effectiveness of your workout based on muscle soreness, then you’ll love the RFESS. The eccentric component of the RFESS produces a good amount of muscle soreness and will leave you feeling like you’ve worked hard. I appreciate that the RFESS produces so much muscle soreness while yielding very little joint pain.
18. Graduating Levels of The Exercise
I use this method of progression: bodyweight until you can perform 15 clean repsà goblet until you can’t hold the DB or KBà goblet w/ weighted vestà two DB’s or KB’s suitcase style until grip becomes limiting factorà suitcase style w/ weighted vestàbarbell in back squat position.
The RFESS becomes somewhat of a competition between people in the gym. What I mean by this is that you don’t want to be the person who is still on the bodyweight stage. Progressing through the stages of RFESS leaves you wanting more and gives you a little extra motivation to go up in weight so that you can graduate to the next level.
19. Grip Strength
The stage that people stay on for the longest period of time is the suitcase RFESS. Holding heavy DB’s at your side actually provides tremendous grip work. For example, I was stuck on 75 pound DB’s for a while and I was holding these heavy DB’s for 50 seconds per set, 4 sets per day, 2 times per week which puts me at about 6 minutes and 30 seconds of holding heavy DBs per week. Pretty sure your forearms are going to respond well to an extra 6:30 of holding heavy things per week.
20. Ankle Stability
Congruent with #7 (Knee Injury Prevention), the RFESS provides an opportunity to force the ankle to stabilize against all the planes of motion.
21. Better breathing
For whatever reason, the RFESS seems to be easier to control your breathing compared to bilateral back squats. It could possibly go back to the fact that heavy weight on your spine makes attention to detail pretty close to impossible.
22. Easy to Measure Depth w/ Use of a Pad
With use of an Airex pad it becomes very easy to measure depth. It’s pretty simple, touch the “non-working” knee to the pad. Consistent depth is very important and ensures that you’re not cheating yourself by cutting your ROM short.
23. Increased Plantar Flexion Mobility
Often times clients have a hard time getting used to the RFESS due to a lack of plantar flexion in the ankles. If the client lacks plantar flexion mobility they tend to have difficulty finding a comfortable position for the “non-working” foot. These clients will usually come up on the toes (which works for a while but not with heavy weights). Teach them to put the top of their foot on the bench and get used to this position. Eventually they will adapt to it and will be left with improved ankle plantar flexion.
24. Treat Imbalances
One of the greatest benefits of unilateral training is that it forces your weak side to work harder than normal. Often times when performing a bilateral exercise you will take over with the dominant side which in turn prolongs the asymmetry. To ensure that your body is functioning optimally and decrease the chances of getting injured, you need take care of any left/right asymmetries that are present.
25.Provides A Fresh View On Strength
I don’t know about you, but I get tired of hearing people ask the question- how much do you bench press? Especially because the people with the large numbers usually aren’t the best athletes. I’m a firm believer that the people who can RFESS the most weight with good form will also be a pretty strong/explosive athlete on the court/field.
There you have it, 25 reasons to love the RFESS. This exercise has produced a tremendous amount of results for my general fitness clients as well as with my athletes. If it’s not part of your program, add it. If you have always thought of it as an assistance exercise, try using it as a main exercise.
Train Hard – Train Smart,
Paul J. Fabritz, NSCA-CPT, ACE, FMS