Any trainer worth their weight in overpriced dumbbells will tell you the importance of mastering the basics. Whether your goal is athletics, aesthetics, or overall health, you can’t accomplish any of your goals without a solid foundation.
However, the “basics,” in the strictest sense, only works for so long. After you reap the benefits of a great program, your body will eventually adapt. Following the same program over and over, with the same basic exercises, you’ll no longer make any progress.
Including variation and progression is a basic tenant of sound exercise programming precisely to avoid these plateaus. You add more weight or do more reps. This is basic progressive overload.
However, that’s not the only way to go about spurring new progress. You can mix up the tempo, rest periods, perform exercises as supersets, and more. You could even do entirely new exercises altogether. And that’s what we’re talking about today.
How to Spot a Gimmicky Exercise
“But, David, I thought it was all about sticking to the basics.”
Look, I’ll be the first to throw scorn and disdain at the heaps of Instagram trainers doing God-knows-what exercise. Probably on a BOSU ball or with their eyes closed or whatever.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to do the same exact exercises month after month. You can, and should, take time off from the old standbys like barbell squats, traditional deadlifts, and barbell bench press.
But don’t replace them with something absurd you found on Instagram. Rather, replace them with a variation of those main movements.
And there inlies the difference, in most cases, between a gimmick Instagram exercise designed to attract attention, and a new exercise designed to spur progress in some direction. Appropriate new exercises are variations of the basic movement patterns, rather than something else entirely. Yes, there are exceptions to this. Some trainers have invented entirely new categories of exercises, but in most cases, innovation is just variation of the tried and true.
Today, we’ll talk about two leg exercises you probably haven’t seen before. However, they aren’t particularly inventive, either. They just involve a few changes to compound exercises that are a staple of just about every training program.
I’m not suggesting these exercises replace the main foundational exercises permanently, but for a 4-6 week phase, they can provide new stimulus (with new benefits) that can allow you to break your plateau, whether your goal is hypertrophy, performance, or fat loss.
Front Foot-Elevated Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat (also called the rear-foot elevated split squat) has ascended in popularity over the last decade. This popular exercise isn’t much more than a slightly different take on a lunge movement, which is just a unilateral version of a squat.
The front foot-elevated split squat is also a variation of a basic lunge motion. As the name implies, rather than elevating the rear foot like in a Bulgarian split squat, you elevate the front foot a few inches higher than your back foot.
But, this slight change causes a few unique benefits. First of all, there are the benefits common among all single-leg movements, most notably the phenomenon of bilateral deficit. The bilateral deficit phenomenon explains that the sum of the strength of each leg is stronger than the two legs together. Thus, many (like me) argue that single-leg movements like lunge and split squat variation are more effective for building strength than double-leg exercises like traditional squats.
Greater Hip Flexor Range of Motion
Specific to this front foot-elevated split squat, though, is the range of motion required to fully perform the exercise. Because the foot is elevated, when the back knee taps the ground, the front hip will exceed 90 degrees of flexion.
With greater hip flexion, the quad muscles will be in a more shortened position (because hip flexion is one of their main jobs). If you can then engage your quads effectively in this deeper range of motion, you’ll be training the quad muscles in a way you haven’t before, requiring them to adapt and grow.
In fact, a deeper range of motion is why many trainers encourage people to squat “ass to the grass.” However, this is always a controversial topic because squatting into deep hip flexion often leads to compensations such as an overactive low back. But, in a single-leg variation like this with the back hip back, it’s easier to maintain a neutral posture as you get into deep hip flexor. And, you won’t need as much load to get a training effect compared to a back squat.
Improved Hip Mobility
With the front leg in more flexion than a standard lunge or split squat, the back leg enters into deeper extension. So, as you strengthen the front leg, the back hip flexors are getting a likely much-needed deep stretch. In fact, I include this exercise with just bodyweight as part of a comprehensive warm-up.
How High to Elevate Your Front Foot
How high you want to elevate your front foot depends on how much hip flexion you want to and can comfortably move in. A good place to start is by stacking two standard 45 lb plates. A standard plate is 1.3 inches thick, so two plates are 2.6 inches. However, I’ve seen most people go up to 4 inches. Ideally, if your gym has bumper plates, use those so there’s little chance of the plates sliding.
Obviously, you can also just use any elevated surface. For example, a lot of gyms have Olympic lifting platforms that rise up a few inches from the rest of the gym. If you’re training at home without plates, you can elevate your foot onto a staircase. However, you likely won’t get your knee all the way to the ground (unless you have great hip mobility), so you will only go as deep as you comfortably can.
You can load this exercise the same way you would any other lunge or split squat. I tend to stay away from barbells, because it can be a bit awkward to set up. To start out, I recommend holding one dumbbell in a goblet position. Then, for maximal load, holding two dumbbells in the suitcase position works best. Most people start out using less weight with this exercise than they do for a Bulgarian split squat, so you won’t need to go crazy heavy. Here’s a video of one of my clients FFE split squatting with 60 lb dumbbells in each hand. This is someone who can Bulgarian Split Squat with 100+ pounds in each hand.
Feet-Elevated Glute Bridge
Yes, this is just a glute bridge but with your feet up. To understand this exercise, think of the difference between this variation and a normal glute bridge like the difference between a flat bench press and an incline bench press. Just by shifting the angle of your body, the weight will place tension on different parts of the working muscles. In an incline bench, the emphasis shifts to the upper chest and front deltoids. In this feet-elevated glute bridge, the emphasis will shift more towards the hamstrings and away from the glutes.
The hamstrings, along with the glutes, are one of the body’s main hip extensors. The other job of the hamstrings is to flex the knees. However, there are very few exercises that place these hamstrings into both knee flexion and hip extension at the same time. Deadlift variations use the hamstrings to extend the hips, and leg curl variations emphasize knee flexion. When placed together, as in this exercise, you get a maximal hamstring contraction rarely found.
For this exercise, just like all bridging exercises, it’s essential to engage your core to keep your spine in a neutral position. If your lower back is excessively arched, the low back muscles will do the extending, not the hip extensors. So, make sure your core is engaged.
Loading The Feet-Elevated Glute Bridge
Unlike a normal glute bridge, you won’t be able to place a barbell on your waist because it will slide down. A dumbbell is a bit easier to keep in place. This exercise is also deceptively difficult with just your bodyweight. Start with your bodyweight and work up to sets of 20 (don’t worry, it will be difficult enough at first), and then once you’re cruising through them, you can perform them with one leg. Then you can go back to two legs with dumbbells, then progress to one leg with dumbbells.
This exercise I also program as a regression before teaching complex and difficult leg curl variations like slider leg curls. So, this exercise can easily be done in place of either glute bridge or leg curl variations in your program. And you don’t need any weight to make it difficult, making it one of the best hamstring exercises you can do at home without a gym.
Gym or no gym, these are two fantastic and underused leg exercises that you can add to your program today. Insert them in place of similar exercises for a 4-6 week phase and reap the benefits of training the fundamental, basic movements at different angles and ranges of motion.
David Rosales is a writer and personal trainer, certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He's the co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems, and the head editor of prohockeystrength.com, the official website of the NHL strength coaches. He has worked with athletes and coaches from beginners all the way up to NCAA Division 1 and professional ice hockey and been featured in some of the top fitness publications in the world from Muscle & Strength to Livestrong and AskMen.
Originally from Vermont, David lives in New York City. He loves books, pop-punk music, Vermont maple syrup, and heavy split squats.
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