When it comes to knees over toes/ATG exercises, the ATG split squat is the holy grail.
Ben Patrick calls it the ‘ultimate knee bulletproofer’ and today I’m going to explain exactly how to master this exercise.
The meaning behind ‘ATG split squat’ is simply that it stands for Athletic Truth Group which is Ben Patrick (knees over toes guy)’s company.
Although he didn’t invent the exercise, Ben certainly popularized it in recent years and it’s become a foundational centerpiece of his knees over toes philosophy.
In this article we’re going to take a deeper look at the proper ATG split squat technique, benefits, progressions, sets, reps, and alternatives.
ATG Split Squat Technique
When approaching the ATG split squat, the aim of the game is to go super slowly, be very deliberate, and to chase perfection in your form.
Start with your front foot a good distance out in front of you and then lunge down making sure your front knee tracks directly over your toes.
Knees Over Toes & Upright Torso
You want to get your knee as far over your toes as possible while maintaining an upright torso.
The upright torso is key. If you’re leaning too far forward, you’re cheating.
Avoid Lumbar Lordosis
If leaning too far backwards, you’re risking damaging the spine via excessive lumbar lordosis.
This is not a position we want to be in as it puts a lot of pressure on the lower back.
So do your best to keep as neutral and relaxed of a spine as possible.
Correct Leg Positioning
Your back leg should be close to straight if you’re doing it properly: a small bend is normal (see above)
Your front leg’s hamstring should be making full contact with your calf.
Work On Your Front Foot Heel Positioning
While you’re learning the ATG split squat, it’s perfectly fine if your front foot’s heel comes up off the ground and you end up on your toes slightly.
We’ll discuss more about progressions shortly.
Eventually, you’ll want to get that front foot completely flat on the floor.
Slow & Controlled Eccentric
Notice how slowly Ben descends down into the squat.
The eccentric movement should be very slow and you should take 4-6 seconds to completely lower yourself all the way down into the bottom of the squat.
Pause At Bottom
Once you hit the bottom, pause briefly and then focus on driving through that VMO to get yourself back up.
The concentric portion of the movement should be a lot quicker/easier since your tendons are acting like elastic bands and are ready to help recoil you out of the hole quickly.
Stretch The Rear Hip Flexor
Also really think about lengthening that back hip flexor.
This movement for a lot of athletes is as much about developing flexibility through the hips as it is strength in the VMO.
ATG Split Squat Progressions & Standards
Regardless of your starting point, there’s no shortage of regressions you can do to go from complete newbie to advanced super athlete in the ATG split squat.
1. Use Assistance, Front Heel Up, & Elevate Front Foot
The first progression of the ATG split squat is to start by using assistance such as a bench, chair, or dowel to help you balance, as well as reduce knee pain as you get used to this movement.
Assistance is used primarily when you lack strength and balance through the range of motion.
You can also try using a resistance band which can help take some load off when you’re in the bottom of the squat.
2. Elevate Front Foot
Now that you’ve developed a bit of strength, the next progression is to get rid of your assistance.
We use front foot elevation when the bottleneck is rear hip flexor mobility as it reduces the angle at the hips.
At this point both your rear hip flexor and ankle mobility should be starting to improve.
3. Bodyweight + Heel Up
The third progression is to do the ATG split squat with both feet on flat ground.
Your front heel can stay elevated as you continue working on developing that ankle mobility.
You should be striving to get your front heel to within 1cm of the floor at this stage.
This is the standard for the ATG Zero bodyweight program.
4. Add Load: Dumbbells
Ideally before you begin this progression, you’ll be able to do a bodyweight ATG split squat with your front heel flat on the ground.
This next progression is part of the ATG Dense program and involves adding some load in the form of dumbbells.
Some athletes will actually find that the extra load helps them keep that front heel down on the floor.
The goal here is to work up to holding 25% of your bodyweight in each hand as a really solid strength benchmark. If you weigh 100kgs, you’d be holding 2x25kg dumbbells so you’d be working with a 50% bodyweight load.
5. Barbell On Back
The next toughest progression for the ATG split squat is to use a barbell on the back.
This movement features in the ATG Standards program and is considerably more difficult than the dumbbell variation since the load is above the hips which will demand more from your quads.
6. Barbell On Front
The toughest version of the ATG split squat is to load up with a barbell in the front rack position.
This placement of load requires the greatest VMO muscle fiber activation to move the weight.
It also requires more thoracic strength and stability through the torso and is by no means an easy movement to master!
If at any point you experience pain in the back knee, this can be remedied long term by doing reverse setups/Patrick steps but in the short term can be alleviated by resting your back knee on the ground.
Use An ATG Split Squat Wedge
Ankle mobility will be a big issue for the majority of athletes while they’re learning the ATG split squat.
One of the best solutions is to use an ATG heel wedge or block which is effectively an extra large doorstopper that goes under your front foot.
I believe the FAE Slant Blocks are currently the best option on the market as they were designed specifically for this movement.
They’re super affordable and you can get yourself a further 10% off using the discount code “A1ATHLETE“.
Even for athletes with excellent ankle mobility, the elevated heel actually forces even more VMO recruitment than doing the ATG split squat with your front foot flat on the ground, so these are a great option for those looking to make the movement even tougher.
Check out my full list of the current best squat wedges on the market!
ATG Split Squat: Sets & Reps
Since the ATG split squat is a very slow movement (4-6 second descent on the eccentric), you don’t need to do a ton of repetitions since you’re still getting plenty of time under tension.
Ben Patrick recommends 5 sets of 4-6 reps.
Make sure each rep is super intentional, controlled, and that you pause at the bottom of the movement.
The goal is to ‘chase the perfect rep’ every time you’re doing these.
How Often To Do ATG Split Squats?
Ben also recommends doing ATG split squats once a week, although it would be perfectly fine to do these 2-3x per week especially if you’re just starting out and are working your way through the progressions.
ATG Split Squat Benefits
Let’s first run though a list of the reasons why you absolutely need to be incorporating this movement into your routine.
1. Ankle Mobility
Perhaps the most common area we see a lack of mobility in athletes is in the ankle.
Wearing shoes with a raised heel all day long cause the calves and Achilles to tighten up far more than was intended for us by mother nature.
In an ideal world we’d all walk barefoot and we’d have incredible ankle mobility.
Poor ankle mobility means you’re going to struggle to get as deep into a squat as you should be able to.
You’ll notice primitive humans tend to be able to sit in that ‘ass to grass’ squat position seemingly for hours!
Walking around barefoot all day, their ankle mobility is significantly better than ours!
The ATG split squat is one of the best tools for improving your ankle mobility, which will cause improvements in your overall athleticism as well as lifts like the back squat.
When you’ve got your front heel firm on the ground and your knees extend over your toes, you’re getting a super deep stretch through your Achilles which only becomes more pronounced if you add load.
2. Unilateral Movements Are Great For Balance & Reducing Knee Pain
If you’re an athlete, chances are you have some amount of muscle imbalance.
The basketballer usually favors one leg to jump off of, and the volleyballer heavily favors one shoulder.
If all you do is back squat all day, you could be favoring one muscle/side more than the other without even knowing it.
Unilateral movements such as the ATG split squat are great for ironing out muscle imbalances in your legs as you’re unable to favor your stronger side.
Improving your balance of muscle mass and strength has also been proven to reduce knee pain, which is a big plus for most athletes.1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35279020/
3. Full Knee Bend = Stronger Knees
In the past Ben Patrick has talked about how athletes who train with a full knee bend (i.e. Olympic weightlifters) enjoy 37% thicker tendons when compared to athletes from sports like basketball which don’t utilize that full knee bend.2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR7vaS3J2Cw
With this comes significantly more knee stability and less chance of injury.
Full knee flexion is another great way to help reduce pain because of the bloodflow/nutrients being driven into that knee joint.
4. Tibialis Development
The ATG split squat is actually magnificent at strengthening the tibialis anterior which is one of the most important lower leg muscles when it comes to athletic performance as well as knee bulletproofing.
Whenever your knee tracks over your toes, your tibialis is working overtime and so, after tibialis specific exercises, the ATG split squat is the next best movement for building this muscle.
5. Hip Flexor & Quad Lengthening
The ATG split squat is just as much about the back leg as it is your front knee.
When you’re deep in that split squat position, you’re going to get a really deep stretch through your rear hip flexor.
In many athletes, the split squat bottleneck is actually that back hip flexor being too tight.
The single best stretch for your hip flexors is to simply perform ATG split squats which open up your hips like nothing else.
While your back hip flexor is stretching, your front leg’s quad is getting a magnificent stretch as well when you’re in the bottom of the split squat.
Not only is your quad lengthening, but since you’re actually doing a squat, you’re also strengthening it through the full range of motion.
This is where you’re really going to notice exponential growth in your quadricep mobility.
ATG Split Squat Muscles Worked
The ATG split squat primarily works the VMO which is the teardrop quadricep muscle on the inside of your thigh.
You may experience some slight glute activation also towards the top of the movement, but the VMO should be doing almost all of the work.
Of course your back hip flexor is going to be working overtime as well, but that’s more of a stretch than anything.
ATG Split Squat Alternatives
I quite often see people comparing the ATG split squat to some other movements, so I’m going to briefly explain the differences between a couple of popular alternatives.
ATG Split Squat Vs ATG Lunge
The ATG lunge is structurally very similar to the ATG split squat with the only difference being the way you transition from rep to rep.
When you’re at the bottom of the ATG split squat position, you push upwards and backwards out of the hole to your upright starting position.
With the ATG lunge, you’re lunging forward which requires you to push off your back foot and maintain the knees over toes position to move forwards.
ATG Split Squat Vs Regular Lunge
The primary difference between the ATG split squat and a typical lunge is that the knees don’t track over the toes in a typical lunge.
There’s significantly more load on the VMO when performing the ATG split squat compared to the lunge, as the range of motion is less.
There’s also virtually no hip flexor lengthening going on in the lunge and it’s a far easier, more comfortable movement to perform.
ATG Split Squat Vs Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is another excellent way of increasing knee flexion and range of motion but it accomplishes this by elevating the rear leg, not by having the knees track over the toes.
Both movements are fantastic at getting that VMO working, but the BSS still doesn’t achieve that full knee bend position and doesn’t do a great job of lengthening the rear hip flexor either.
The ATG split squat is Everest when it comes to knees over toes movements.
The combination of hip flexor lengthening with full knee bend quadricep loading makes this one of the best ways to develop knee durability.
It’s definitely tricky to learn at first, but I was able to make really solid progress after just a couple weeks, starting with extreme tightness and knee discomfort.
I found that regular extended stretching of the calves and hip flexors were the best ways to develop the ankle and hip mobility necessary to perform this exercise without assistance.
Once you’re able to perform 5 sets of 4-6 reps with great control, it’s time to start loading up!