Kettlebell Split Squat: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: January 1, 2022

Otherwise known as the kettlebell Bulgarian split squat, the kettlebell split squat is a compound exercise primarily focusing on the various muscle groups located along both sides of the legs, usually done for the purposes of physical rehabilitation or athletic training.

The kettlebell split squat is a highly variable exercise capable of inducing significant training stimuli to the majority of the legs, while also creating other forms of tension and training stimuli that can improve the general health and function of the exerciser’s body.

The kettlebell split squat is a lower body based compound exercise that may be incorporated into practically any exercise or physical rehabilitation routine alongside other bilateral leg exercises or certain leg muscle isolation exercises in order to impart a variety of benefits to the exerciser.

What is the Kettlebell Split Squat?

In a more technical definition, the kettlebell split squat is classified as a bilateral exercise due to its usage of both sides of the body, specifically that of the leg muscles, with one leg primarily contracting at the quadriceps femoris and the other experiencing more activation along the posterior chain instead.

the kettlebell split squat

This does not make the kettlebell split squat any less of a compound exercise, however, as evidenced by the fact that the kettlebell split squat activates practically every muscle located on either side of the legs, such as the gluteus muscle group and even the many smaller muscles located in the calves.

By the very nature of the exercise, the kettlebell split squat may also be considered a closed chain kinetic exercise, due to the fact that the legs being exercised remain firmly planted on the ground during the entirety of the movement.

How is the Kettlebell Split Squat Performed?

To begin, the exercise must first select an appropriately weighted kettlebell or pair of kettlebells, both of which are perfectly suitable for use depending on the biomechanics and grip strength of the individual.

For exercisers relatively new to the kettlebell split squat, choosing a single lower weight kettlebell is best, so as to better ingrain the movement pattern into the exerciser’s neurology as well as to reduce the chance of injury.

With the appropriate equipment now selected, the exerciser will stand erect with both feet pointed forwards, approximately hip width apart, the toes angled slightly outwards, as well as with their head facing forward so as to maintain a neutral spinal column.

The exerciser will then place one foot forward as if taking a rather large stride, with the other leg remaining firmly planted behind them and bending at the knee with the heel raising off the floor as is dictated by their biomechanics.

how to do a kettlebell split squat

Retaining an activated core and a neutral spine, the exerciser will then grip the kettlebell with both hands raised against their torso or otherwise the pair of kettlebells on either side of their body, prior to dropping their hips further while simultaneously pushing their chest upwards and out, bringing the leg behind them closer to the ground.

This completes the first portion of the kettlebell split squat.

The exerciser will then contract their hamstring muscles, gluteus muscle groups and abdominal stabilizers so as to draw themselves back to the initial stride position, kettlebells still firmly held against the torso or at either side of the body.

This is the concentric portion of the kettlebell split squat, and is the end of a single repetition of the exercise. If subsequent repetitions must be performed, the exerciser will remain in the half-stride position and once again lower themselves.

What Muscles are Used in the Kettlebell Split Squat?

Being a compound exercise, a multitude of muscle groups are involved in practically every section of the kettlebell split squat’s movement, with certain other muscles acting entirely in a stabilizing capacity while a few are tasked with generating the majority of the force required in order to carry out the exercise.

Therefore, it is found to be easiest to instead classify the various muscle groups involved by the method of which they are activated and the role they play during the performance of a kettlebell split squat, consequently also being classified according to the level of training stimuli they may receive.

Primary Movers

Responsible for both the eccentric and concentric portion of the kettlebell split squat, the absolute primary mover muscle behind the main force used in the exercise is the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus muscles, also simply referred to as the glutes.

Located along the buttocks region of the body, the glutes are responsible for the flexion and adduction of the legs in a striding, kneeling and crouching position, of which is the default stance of the individual while performing a kettlebell split squat.

Secondary Movers

Exerting somewhat less force though no less important than the glutes, the various muscles referred to as the hamstrings as well as the four heads of the quadriceps femoris also contribute a great deal to the performance of the kettlebell split squat, especially during the initial burst of force required to begin and stop a repetition.

If the exerciser is also choosing to raise their heels off the ground during the apex of the exercise, the various muscles located in the calves may also be counted as secondary movers, though this will depend on their particular biomechanics and whether they are utilizing proper exercise form.

Stabilizers

Being a compound exercise primarily focusing on the legs, it is by no stretch of imagination that various muscles not directly involved in the output of force during the exercise would still be activated in some capacity – especially that of a stabilizing sort.

This is done by the human body so as to reduce the chance of injury by overextension of a limb or tearing of connective tissues at joints or muscle insertion points. At a larger scale, stabilizer muscles also help the exerciser maintain their footing, preventing them from falling over or otherwise injuring themselves.

The primary stabilizer muscles used during the kettlebell split squat are the abdominal muscles, the various smaller muscle groups in the forearms as the individual grips the kettlebell, as well as the erector spinae, of which is activated throughout the exercise provided proper form is used.

What Benefits Does the Kettlebell Split Squat Give?

Though it is well established that the majority of exercises, whether resistance or not, can present a myriad of positive effects to any individual who repetitively performs them, certain benefits are specific to the kettlebell split squat itself and similar other exercises.

Considering the numerous benefits all types of exercise can impart to an individual, we have instead decided to only list the few benefits solely accrued from performing the kettlebell split squat on a regular basis.

Improved Muscular Activation

In comparison to other compound leg exercises, the particular muscular activation involved in performing a kettlebell split squat is found to be somewhat more significant, owing to the particular position at which the individual finds themselves, creating a variable exercise form that can be altered according to said individual’s personal biomechanics.

By extension, this increased level of muscular activation may also equate to improved training stimuli, of which is one of the most direct methods of achieving muscular hypertrophy and neurological muscle fiber recruitment, otherwise known as “gains”.

This particular benefit may be disputable, however, as a variety of factors may alter the level of muscular activation involved, and extrinsic factors otherwise unrelated to the kettlebell split squat itself may also affect an individual’s response to said training stimuli.

Flexibility Benefits

By the very nature of the kettlebell split squat and its specific form, simply being able to perform a single repetition is sufficient enough to establish some level of flexibility possessed by the exerciser, of which will only improve with subsequent repetitions as the hips and other joints are stretched.

As always, of course, it is best to warm up and utilize a dynamic stretching routine prior to performing the kettlebell split squat so as to avoid any incidence of injury or overtraining.

Reduced Chance of Injury

Because of the somewhat forgiving form utilized during the performance of a kettlebell split squat, individuals utilizing proper form, warm-ups and a stretching routine may find themselves at a noticeably lower risk of injury, especially persons who find themselves developing recurring strains or aches from other forms of leg exercises.

This may be due to their individual biomechanics, of which may be otherwise incompatible with other compound leg exercises such as the barbell squat or leg press machine.

References

1. Bishop, Chris & Tarrant, Joe & Jarvis, Paul & Turner, Anthony. (2016). Using The Split Squat To Potentiate Bilateral And Unilateral Jump Performance. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001696.

2. Aguilera-Castells J, Buscà B, Morales J, et al. Muscle activity of Bulgarian squat. Effects of additional vibration, suspension and unstable surface. PLoS One. 2019;14(8):e0221710. Published 2019 Aug 26. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221710

3. Graham, John F MS, CSCS*D, FNSCA Exercise Technique: Dumbbell Squat, Dumbbell Split Squat, and Barbell Box Step-up, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 5 - p 76-78 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181ebcf12

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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