The King of Lower Body Training?
You can’t go anywhere these days without people telling you how awesome Bulgarian Split Squats are. And that’s for a good reason: they’re simply one of the best lower-body exercises. And like other exercises with eastern European titles, just the name of it sounds intimidating. Today we’re going to break down why you shouldn’t fear it, how it can benefit your program to help you build muscle, improve performance, and shed fat.
The exercise was popularized in the western world in the 1980s when Bulgarian strength coaches like Angel Spassov came to the other side of the iron curtain (hence the name, Bulgarian split squat).
However, despite its inclining popularity, I think it’s still one of the most underrated exercises around. And more importantly, it’s one of the most butchered.
A Bulgarian Split Squat is when you elevate your back foot onto a bench, and perform a lunge motion with the front leg. For this reason, they’re also called rear-foot-elevated split squats, which I tend to prefer because it’s a more prescriptive title. In any case, the RFE or Bulgarian Split Squat refers to any split squat variation where the back foot is elevated.
Here’s a rather extreme version of the BSS.
Many of the advantages of the Bulgarian Split Squat over popular bilateral squats arise because the BSS is unilateral, meaning you place the load primarily on one leg at a time.
I’ve written in-depth about the benefits of single-leg training, but I will summarize them here.
1) Stand a few feet in front of the bench where you want your front foot to be planted with your feet about hip distance apart. The exact distance will depend on your limb lengths and some trial and error, but in general as you come to the bottom your spine should stay neutral, your torso upright or slightly shifted forward, and your front leg at 90 degrees.
2) Take a deep exhale and on your exhale engage your core. This protects your spine.
3) Place your back foot, laces down, on the bench. Your ankle will likely be right on the edge of the bench, but do whatever’s most comfortable. If you go too far back, you’ll realize it on your first rep because it will limit your range of motion.
4) Keep your eyes up and shoulders pulled back
5) Take another exhale and reengage your core
6) Keep as much weight on your front foot as possible, placed evenly from the heel to the front of the foot as you descend
7) When you reach your max hip range of motion (you don’t have to hit the bottom if you don’t have the range of motion), press through your front foot back up to the top, exhaling as you come up.
8) End your set first by removing your back foot from the bench so you regain stability on both legs.
Many people at first dig their toes into the bench instead of allowing their laces to go down. There are a few problems with this. Firstly, it’s harder to balance, setting yourself up for failure from the start. Secondly, as you get stronger in this movement and add weight, it will become more and more impractical. Your toes will hurt, you’ll be unstable, you’ll be holding back your strength. In an already unstable exercise, we want to create comfort and stability by allowing the back leg to rest comfortably on the bench. If it feels weird at first, stick with it.
The further you step out the more the back hip flexors are going to have to extend to allow you to sink into the bottom of the split squat. This inherently is not a problem, but what often ends up happening is the lower back extends to compensate for this because most of us have subpar hip flexor mobility. There’s NO benefit to stepping out further, it’s just a little more comfortable at first, which is why beginners (and advanced lifters, for that matter), make this mistake.
In any leg or core exercise, the position of our pelvis is crucial because it affects the activation of a whole host of muscles, including the glutes and low back. In order to keep the pelvis neutral, and therefore properly activate the core movers of this movement while saving the lower back, you should engage your core before you set. I couple this with a deep exhale, because exhales activate our deep abdominals.
If you’re weak, the knee will tend to cave in because the quadriceps aren’t strong enough to keep it in line. This is more common with women.
If you do this with load, it can (and likely will) lead to knee pain and all kinds of issues. To correct this, focus on shoving your knee outward (while keeping your arch down) as you squat.
More range of motion is only a good thing if you can actually control the range of motion. As soon as you start to arch your back or round your shoulders, you’re going too low. If you know your current range of motion, place a pad underneath you as an external cue. When you tap the pad, stand back up.
(I like the Perform Better balance pads, but not for balance. They’re usually the perfect height and firmness for this.)
Torso angle during Bulgarian split squats is hotly contested. In sports you accelerate at an angle, so the argument is that lower body training should mimic that. At top speed however, your torso is upright. For the everyday person, none of this matters, so go at a reasonable torso angle that’s comfortable for you. If you want to stay upright or if you want to angle forward, both are fine. Play around with what works for you.
Often you can consciously know what to do, but the movement just takes practice. Luckily Bulgarian split squats can be made easier by starting with a regular split squat, where your back foot is on the ground. This is easier to balance and distribute load. Beginners should start with the split squat for at least three weeks while you learn the technique and improve your stability. The Bulgarian Split Squat will still be there when you’re ready.
Our body is not symmetrical. Our heart, liver, lungs and more all cause our weight to naturally shift to the right. This causes effects like weaker left abs, and hamstrings and more. Just because this is a one-leg movement, you won’t magically balance your body out. You can still do a one-leg movement in an unbalanced way.
If you feel one leg much more strongly than the other or just in different muscles (like more right hamstring and more left quad), then evaluate your frontal plane posture. Your weight is likely shifted to the right.
For more on why this is the case, check out this article on restoring frontal plane posture.
While the Bulgarian Split Squat can be fine for beginners, the regular split squat with the back foot on the ground is usually an easier place to start. The regular split squat will keep more of the load on the back leg, but you’ll still get a great training effect on the front leg.
For a total beginner, I recommend programming a split squat for at least 6 weeks, but at a bare minimum for 3 weeks. After that time you can transition to the Bulgarian Split Squat. It’s also okay to stay with the regular split squat longer if you want and focus on adding load.
If that split squat is still too challenging, begin with bilateral squat variations like the goblet squat while you practice your balance with rack or wall-supported split squats.
One of the traits that make the Bulgarian Split Squat one of the best overall exercises for lower body strength is the fact that it’s easy to safely add load to in many different ways.
Start off with a goblet-style Bulgarian split squat with either a dumbbell or kettlebell. This will help you keep your torso upright and act as a counterbalance to help you sink into the bottom position.
After doing goblet split squats for a few weeks (3-6) or if the weight becomes heavy enough that it’s impractical to hoist up, switch to a suitcase grip, where you hold a dumbbell in each hand.
You can stick with this variation for months, even years, and keep getting stronger. If fact, think of it this way. If you work your way up to lifting 100lb dumbbells in each hand, that’s a single-leg squat with 200 pounds. This is possible with consistent effort over many months of training.
This variation is like the previous one, except you keep the load on one side. The benefit to this is postural, as it makes it easier for your weight to shift optimally over the working leg.
I recommend this variation for those who have a hard time feeling their glutes work or who feel pain in their low back. As you do this one, think about squeezing the abs on the side you’re holding the weight on. Preferably, you’d use a kettlebell, because the weight all going straight down (as opposed to a dumbbell which requires some balance) further supports this postural shift.
Here I’m doing it with a landmine version and a 60lb vest because I wanted to shift into a better posture while also challenging the weights. It’s one of my 8 favorite landmine squat variations.
While I love suitcase Bulgarian split squats, sometimes the hardest part for people isn’t leg strength but gripping the dumbbells. While your grip and forearms will get stronger over time, it’s okay to add a weight vest so you can challenge your leg strength and use lighter dumbbells. This also becomes necessary once you’re split squatting the heaviest dumbbells in your gym, or you can use the vest with a goblet grip before going to a suitcase grip.
You can also add chains to this mix, if you really want to look cool. Here I am doing 265 lbs total between dumbbells, a vest, and chains.
The landmine variation places extra emphasis on the quads because the weight comes down at an angle. While I wouldn’t use it all the time, for a 3-6 week phase it can be challenging and fun. Here’s a demo from one of the best trainers around right now, Ben Bruno.
This split squat variation places an emphasis on isometric strength. Isometric strength refers to how strong you are without changing the joint angles. I won’t dive into the benefits of this too much, but in a Triphasic Training model, in order to get stronger in a full range of motion, you spend phases focusing on eccentric, isometric, and concentric strength.
To set this exercise up, you have to set up the safety racks securely, then, using an empty barbell (in this video we used a 12lb bar), press as hard as you can into it from a split squat position. Start with 4 seconds, and over the course of a program move up towards 8 seconds.
This variation is as hard as you make it obvious. Because there’s no weight involved, you have to challenge yourself. As a safety tip, make sure the rack is securely set in the ground. Strong people will put hundreds and hundreds of pounds of upward force into the rack.
This is a variation that only truly elite athletes need. At an advanced level, challenging leg strength becomes impossible with dumbbells, but a bar can be the solution. I don’t recommend a straight bar and doing back-loaded Bulgarian split squats because this position can be compromising for the lower back, especially because the back hip is extended already. A front grip is better, but the safety-bar is ideal because it makes it easier to keep your ideal spine position.
If you want to become an absolute freak, this is the variation for you. When I worked with the Umass Lowell hockey team, we had players do up to 535 pounds.
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Here are some elite athletes making a preposterous amount of weight look like thirty-pound dumbbells. While this may seem intimidating, I hope it can empower you to challenge your strength capabilities with this exercise.
Here’s one from my boy James Manley aka J.Vibes. Easy to load up and provides a smooth, fixed bar path.
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Historically, Bulgarian Split Squats have been thought of as an accessory movement. This made sense in those initial programs because those coaches trained Olympic Lifting athletes and powerlifters, which are bilateral sports. However, most everyday people don’t need to bilaterally squat heavy weights. In fact, a movement like the Bulgarian Split Squat is a safer option, and therefore I think a more effective one.
With that said, do the Bulgarian Split Squat in place of your main squatting movement. This will allow you to challenge the load and get the most out of it. There’s no reason, unless you’re a strength sport competitor, to do bilateral squats like back squats and front squats, especially with a lot of weight on your spine.
Because there are so many variations, some kind of Bulgarian Split Squat can be in your program practicality year-round. Although you can also switch it out for exercises like regular split squats, one-leg squats, and other exercises which talked about in the article on single-leg training.
As an example, here’s a progression that can take an intermediate lifter to an absolute freak in 24 weeks. Keep the sets around 8 reps and your leg strength, hypertrophy, and explosiveness will skyrocket.
Squats are not bad for your knees. Bad squats are bad for your knees. The same goes for any split squat variations. Refer to the common mistakes section to check your form. The same goes for your lower back.
Instead of using a bench, you can use one of the stands made for Bulgarian split squats. These are great, and I’ve personally used them. They’re a bit more comfortable on the ankle which allows you to focus on the movement. However, they’re not necessary. I recommend investing in a split squat stand if you’re at a level where you’re using the safety squat bar. Besides that, it’s a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.
The Bulgarian split squat is great, but its often neglected siblings, the traditional split squat and the front foot elevated split squat also have their merits.