Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat – Full Guide

woman doing rear foot elevated split squatThis article is about the rear foot elevated (rfe) split squat and the split squat – the variations I use with my clients, how I use them, and the reasons I use them.

I hope you will take plenty away from this article, but do bear in mind that there are many other variations and reasons/goals for the split squat in its various guises.

Who am I working with?
My clients are normal folks who want to get stronger. They enjoy lifting weights, and many of them are keen to improve performance in the big lifts like squat, deadlift, clean & jerk or snatch – regardless of whether they plan to compete or not.

Most people come to me with weak or inactive glutes and quad dominance. Some people have tight hamstrings; some people are lordotic (lower back is overly extended). Some people are a bit wobbly when working on one leg. Most people have a noticeable discrepancy in leg strength between one leg and the other.

I use the split squats and rear foot elevated split squat because:

  • I want to strengthen the glutes in particular
  • It shows up weak areas in each leg that don’t show up in squats and deadlifts – and allows those weak areas to get stronger
  • For olympic weightlifters, it imitates the jerk split position

Below, I’ll go through how to perform a split squat and a rear foot elevated split squat. I will also discuss common errors in form and how to correct them.

Split squat – glute emphasis

This is what I usually start people off with. Both feet are on the floor. You can start with light dumbbells in each hand or even just bodyweight, to get used to the exercise.

The feet should be hip width apart or slightly wider for stability.

A common error is to have the feet too close together – as if the lifter was walking a tightrope – which makes it difficult to stabilise.

Because I want to emphasis the glutes for most people, I have people set up so that the front knee does not travel forward past the ankle. Another way to put it is that the front shin stays vertical. This puts more emphasis on the glutes that if the knee were allowed to travel forward.

Split squat glute emphasis
Split squat – glute emphasis
Split squat - even position
Split squat – even position

In the bottom position, the legs should be bent at roughly 90 degrees. You can check your stance by going into the bottom position sideways on to a mirror and looking to see that the legs are bent at the right angle.

Slowly lower the rear knee to the floor and stand back up. Perform all reps without moving your feet from the split position.

Contract the glute of the back leg to stabilise. Keep good posture throughout – chest up and shoulders back.

Pull your shoulder blades into your back pockets (i.e. back and down) and keep them there.

I tend to touch my knee to the floor, but I often place a pad underneath the knee for my clients, to prevent the knee smacking the floor too hard. You can also just hover over the floor without actually touching it, to prevent any knee bruising.

Note: if you struggle to do this movement keeping the knee vertical, you can regress to the normal version where the knee travels a small distance forward of the ankle. This is a good exercise, which works the quad more but still works the glutes. It’s an all-round leg exercise.

Rear Foot Elevated (RFE) Split Squat – High

I’m going to discuss the high foot version of the rear foot elevated split squat first, so you know what the end result is. This is not what I usually start people off with. I usually start people off with the Low foot version, provided they can competently do a split squat.

The rear foot elevated split squat is also known as the bulgarian split squat. The RFE split squat is more challenging in a number of ways:

  • It is less stable because back foot is raised on a bench
  • More of the bodyweight is on the front leg instead of being distributed evenly across two legs
  • The position requires decent mobility, especially in the hip flexors, to maintain (which also makes it a good dynamic stretch for the hip flexors!)

Getting into position
There are two ways to get into position (both are shown in the video above):

1. Pick up your weights, put your back foot up on the bench and then hop the front foot into position.
2. The bottom-up approach (advocated by Mike Boyle), where you get into the bottom position with your foot up on the bench, then pick up your weights and stand. No need to hop your front foot around as it should already be in the correct position.

Rear foot position
In the high RFE split squat, I advocate resting the top of your foot on the bench, not the ball of your foot. It reduces the range of motion and is more stable with heavier loads.

This position does take some getting used to. You may also need to use various props to get into the correct position at the correct height. For some people, the standard bench will be too high, so you can raise your knee on a pad or a couple of mats. This also provides a nice cushion for the back knee.

In the video above, I’m actually using the roller on the end of the bench, not the bench itself. The roller ‘fits’ my foot better and is lower, so more comfortable for me. Be inventive. I have seen people use the roller pad on the leg extension and leg curl machines, for example.

Torso position
In the raised position of the rear foot elevated split squat, the rear thigh is considerably more extended behind the hip. To counter this, it is necessary to incline the torso forward slightly so that you can maintain a flat back.

If you don’t incline the torso forward, you could end up with an overly arched back (lordotic back) which is not good for the lower back.

When looked at from the side, your rear thigh and back should form a straight line – not a ski jump!

Rear foot elevated split squat bottom position with a flat back

Slowly lower the rear knee to the floor and stand back up. Perform all reps without moving your feet from the split position.

Contract the glute of the back leg to stabilise. Torso should be slightly inclined forwards – I like to tuck my chin down and look at the floor ahead of me to keep in a neutral line.

Either touch the knee to the floor or hover just above it.

Descend slowly and under control, drive up fast with power.

Note: the high version can be described as uncomfortable at the best of times. How you deal with this is a mark of how you are as an athlete and what your motivation is. For coaches, be aware that your clients may find this exercise unpleasant. Some of them will grit their teeth and get on with it – and feel proud that they have. Others will hate it and it may be wise to find another exercise for now and come back to this further down the line.

Most people can get a lot of benefit out of the Low foot version and may never need to progress beyond this.

Rear Foot Elevated (RFE) Split Squat – Low

This is how I usually start people with this exercise. The rear foot is raised on a low step or a bumper plate. In this case, I often have people use the ball of the rear foot but you could also use the top of the foot if you found a suitable surface that was low enough.

Performance is the same as for the RFE split squat high foot version, just less extreme!

Common form errors in the split squat and rear foot elevated split squat

1. Front knee drifting forward in the split squat
I like to keep the front knee over or behind the ankle in the split squat, to emphasis the glutes more. An easy way to self-regulate this is to use a bench as a blocker.

Simply set up with your knee up against the bench in the bottom position, then perform the exercise. The bench will prevent your knee drifting forward.

2. Poor posture in the split squat

It’s easy for posture to collapse when getting fatigued, so keep posture tall.

Poor posture in the split squat
Poor posture

When holding dumbbells, the weight of the dumbbells can cause your shoulders to round, so keep shoulder blades back and down at all times. You will gain isometric strength in the shoulder retractors.

3. Hips popping up in the split squat or RFE split squat

This problem is characterised by the hips rising too fast in order to take the glutes out of the equation. Take a look:

The first solution to this problem is to brace your core and focus on contracting the glute of the rear leg. If this does not solve the problem, your glutes are too weak for the variation that you are doing, and you should regress the exercise.

If you are doing the rear foot version, reduce the weight you are using or regress to normal split squat. If you are on normal split squat, reduce the range of movement for the back knee (i.e. depth) by using pads or plates. Work on increasing the range of movement over time.

4. Hyperextending the lower back in the split squat or RFE split squat

Split squat with hyper-extended lower back
Split squat with hyper-extended lower back

This one is common, especially in women who have a tendency towards a lordotic spine (overly arched lower back). It’s bad for your lower back, and also causes other muscles such as the abs to do less work.

This is a tricky one because it is hard to spot. At first glance, this might look like good technique. But I’m pushing my pelvis forward in an anterior tilt, and letting my upper body rest on my lower back arch. The glutes and abs are inhibited in this position.

The solution is to contract your abs hard and push the knee of the rear leg forward. This serves to slightly tilt your pelvis posteriorly (‘tuck your tail’) to counteract the temptation to tilt the other way. Focus on using the glute of the back leg.

How to use the split squat and rear foot elevated split squat in training

The split squat can be used as a supplementary exercise, or as the main lift in a session.

For general strength building, I will use reps of 5 to 10. I’ll tend to use the lower reps, such as 5s and 6s, with stronger trainees who can keep form and use a lot of weight.

For beginners, 5 reps probably isn’t enough as they are not able to do this exercise with a very heavy load. So I use 8-10 reps in that case.


You can use a variety of implements to load this exercise. I usually use dumbbells with my clients. The downside is that grip can become an issue. Of course, this can be an advantage as clients get good grip training from this. But it can be a problem too.

A solution is to use a barbell across the back instead. Be careful: if you are training on your own and pushing yourself, it is possible to get trapped by the barbell, i.e. you get stuck in the bottom position and can’t stand up without assistance. So make sure there is someone else around or you are in a rack with safety bars.

A weighted vest or a chain around the neck solves both of the above issues!

More articles like this:

Can’t squat below parallel? Try this simple tactic

Better ankle mobility for squats

How to improve pull-ups

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