Do Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats Cause Back Pain?

I just got back from speaking at the Perform Better Summit in Chicago. In between my talks I took in Stuart McGill’s talk ( he is always one of my favorites and has greatly influenced me).

Recently Dr McGill has been vocal about Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats potentially causing back pain, particularly SI joint pain and as he calls it “pelvic ring” disruption.

We probably use the rear foot elevated split squat as much as anyone and, have not had any increase in SI joint pain or back pain in general. In fact, we switched to the split squat variations in response to back pain from heavy back and front squats.

My theory on why we don’t have back pain from the rear foot elevated split squat is three fold.

1- We use a relatively short stance. A lot of the videos I’ve seen have the rear leg quite extended.

2-  We rarely do more than 30 reps per week per leg. A big volume week for us would be three sets of 10.

3- We never put the bar in a back or front squat position. Positioning the bar this way causes a great deal of lumbar extension which could increase back stress and anterior hip stress. We always use dumbbells of kettle bells.

I think this “idea” is just that and has very little basis in fact. As much I’m reluctant to disagree with Dr McGill I have to one this one.

Early in the week I polled members and couldn’t find one who thought that rear foot elevated split squats had resulted in either them or their athletes having an increase in back pain. Coincidence? I think not.



6 Responses to “Do Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats Cause Back Pain?”

  1. mboyle1959 Says:

    Thanks Steve. I obviously agree.

  2. mboyle1959 Says:

    Clem- I do think I’m correct but, it’s getting some other opinions that has really solidified mine. I haven’t heard one person yet who actually uses the lift say they have had an increase in back pain.

  3. I think you’re spot on here Mike. Obviously both sides of the argument are basing thoughts purely on anecdotal evidence but I have found relief from my own bout of back issues when going to RFE split squats and single leg work in general. I have also yet to see this pattern result in back pain for any of my clients here in Scotland. Back pain is a very complicated topic either way. I personally think purposeful exercise tends to help it not cause it.

  4. I’m sure that the rear foot elevated split squat CAN cause back pain, but so can just about any exercise that loads the spine and involves flexion at the hips. One of the clear benefits however is that you are able to load the legs to the same degree and through a good range of motion while putting far less stress on the spine. Regardless of the exercise you will run into clients who’s structure does not agree with an exercise and this needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. That being said, I am a strong believer that your idea to move away from back and front squats and utilize elevated split squats was the right one, especially when dealing with athletes in a group setting. In my experiences when an athlete responds to an exercise program with pain then the squat variation is one of the first that has to be re-evaluated as the possible problem. The elevated split squat does add a possible element of rotation to the pelvis during movement, but with good coaching the rotation should be similar on both sides, and the position of the back foot allows the athlete to maintain a proper lordotic curve with minimal effort versus a back or front squat. Rotation can also be an issue with a traditional back or front squats but I feel that it is much harder for the athlete to feel and correct their movement with the traditional bilateral lifts making it more likely to be a source of pain or injury down the road. There is an inherent risk of injury with just about any exercise when someone is pushing themselves, and while we always want to minimize that risk and maximize results through exercise selection and solid programming we can’t just start taking all of the options off of the board because they “might” cause pain.

  5. Personally I have SI joint pain and have been doing RFESS with no pain. In fact, single leg exercises were recommended instead of any other squat variation. I keep my sets and reps to around 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps once or twice a week.

  6. Dear Mr. Boyle,

    My respect for Dr. Stuart McGill, but you are totally right, and I will be short because no dilemma about rear foot elevated split squat.
    Definitely, no pain, weights in hands, elongated spine, stomach pull in….or ‘ bracing ‘ and go for it.
    Amazing exercise and for sure safe for back.

    Marko Beljaković

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