Fortunately, all squats are not created equal, and you needn’t sample every variation under the sun. The Bulgarian split squat is, bar none, one of the best overall leg exercises on the market. Here’s how to do it, why it works, and what you’ve been missing out on.
- How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat Sets and Reps
- Common Bulgarian Split Squat Mistakes
- Bulgarian Split Squat Variations
- Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Bulgarian Split Squat
- Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
- Who Should Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Before you get started with the Bulgarian split squat, you’re going to need a few things. A weight bench or plyometric box make for good options to suspend your foot on. You’ll also want a dumbbell or kettlebell to use as resistance.
If you train in weightlifting shoes, it would be wise to lace them up for Bulgarians as well, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.
Step 1 — Set Yourself Up
Stand a few feet in front of whatever surface you’re using to rest your foot on. From here, lift your non-working leg and rest it on the bench or box. You can hold your foot up on your toes, or let it rest flat.
Then, reach down with your arm to grab ahold of the weight (if you’re using one). Holding the weight on the same side as your working leg will generally be a bit easier than holding it in the opposite arm.
Coach’s Tip: The foot of your working leg should be planted a few inches in front of your torso, but not so far out that you feel like you’re doing the splits.
Step 2 — Sink Into the Squat
Once you’re split and stabilized, hold the weight loosely in your hand. Brace your core and then sink down and slightly backward into a squat. Descend as far as your mobility allows without pain or loss of balance.
Coach’s Tip: You can think about allowing the weight to physically “pull” you down into a deep squat.
Step 3 — Push Hard
Once you’ve reached the bottom of the split squat, reverse the motion by driving your working leg down into the floor. Push yourself back up to the starting position using only your working leg. Your non-working leg should do little more than help you balance yourself.
Coach’s Tip: Keep a vast majority of your weight fixed on your working leg. Don’t rely on pushing against the bench or box with your back leg to move the weight.
While the single-legged nature of the Bulgarian may somewhat limit its applicability, it’s still a highly versatile movement. Here are several different ways you can program the exercise to suit your needs:
- For Leg Strength: Go for 4-6 sets of up to 6 reps with a heavy weight.
- To Improve Balance: Try 2-3 sets of 10+ reps with a very slow tempo.
- For Muscle Growth: Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a moderate load.
Single-leg exercises are hard to perform exceptionally well. Not only are you tasked with properly stimulating the musculature of your working leg, but you have to balance yourself the entire time.
This makes the movement ripe with opportunity for screw-ups; make sure you’re staying away from the following mishaps.
Losing Your Balance
Any exercise that demands you suspend yourself on one leg poses a stability demand. However, if you find yourself chronically tipping this way and that during split squats, you might be messing up your setup.
To address poor balance in the Bulgarian split squat, try moving your working leg a bit closer to your torso. The further away your leg is, the harder it’ll be to balance. You can also try gently holding onto a stable object with your non-working arm, though this comes with its own risks.
Using Too Much External Support
The Bulgarian split squat isn’t exclusively meant to train your balance, but it’s one of the exercise’s biggest selling points.
As such, you can limit its efficacy in a big way by relying too much on an external support structure. This can mean putting too much weight on your back leg, or grabbing onto something stable and using it to help “pull” yourself up out of the squat.
If you’re using the Bulgarian to develop rock-solid stability, try to perform it without stabilizing your body on anything.
Trying to Stay Too Upright
An upright, vertical torso in the squat is generally considered a good thing. That said, you shouldn’t force yourself perpendicular to the floor during the Bulgarian split squat, especially if it feels unnatural.
There’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to lean forward as needed while you perform Bulgarians. Doing so will incorporate more of the musculature in your hips and lumbar spine into the exercise, which may or may not be appropriate for you depending on your needs.
There are a surprising number of variations to the Bulgarian split squat. You can try out some of these tweaks to see if one of them suits your body a bit better — rest assured, it’s still the same exercise overall.
Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
Working with the barbell allows you to load your body up with the highest amount of weight overall. Bulgarians with a barbell let you lift ultra-heavy in a relative sense; what may feel easy to squat on two legs becomes incredibly challenging on one.
However, split squatting with a barbell also demands the greatest amount of balance and coordination, since your arms aren’t free to move in space and counteract any side-to-side shifting that may occur.
Resistance Band Bulgarian Split Squat
If you have exceptionally poor balance but still want to perform a single-legged squat, you should consider grabbing a resistance band to kill two birds with one stone.
Performing your Bulgarians with a sturdy band under your working foot solves two problems simultaneously: It will provide a lot of tactile “feedback” to the movement, giving your body something to brace against in real time.
You may be keen on performing the Bulgarian split squat but find the mobility or setup too difficult (or easy, possibly). In such cases, turn to one of these alternatives. They maintain the spirit of the movement, but are distinct enough that one of them may better suit your goals.
Single-Leg Leg Press
If you want to train your legs hard one at a time but have poor balance, hit up the leg press machine.
You can perform the standard leg press with one leg resting on the floor. This puts all the tension on your working limb, without the external balance requirement of the Bulgarian.
Single-leg leg presses are great for those who prioritize muscle growth and strength above all else and who aren’t concerned about their hip mobility or balance.
The general movement pattern of the walking lunge is very similar to that of the Bulgarian split squat. It is, however, more dynamic and challenges your endurance to a higher degree.
You can apply the single-working-leg principle to an exercise like the step-up. Moving your body upward instead of downward may seem like a small adjustment, but most people will find it far easier on their balance, since both legs are generally stacked under the torso the entire time.
The hallmark feature of the Bulgarian split squat is that it elevates your back leg. It’s sometimes called the rear-foot-elevated split squat, which can be a bit of a mouthful.
However, standard split squats work pretty well as a beginner-friendly alternative. You can simply split your legs and perform a loaded squatting movement that won’t demand as much of your stability, but does limit your range of motion at the hip.
As a unilateral leg-builder, the Bulgarian squat places an extreme amount of mechanical tension on just about every major muscle in your leg at once. Here are the big players in the Bulgarian split squat.
Your gluteal muscles are tasked with extending, or straightening, your hip during all manner of squat or hinge. If you sink deep into a Bulgarian split squat, your glutes have to contract hard to pull you out of the bottom of the range of motion.
You may also be able to get more glute activation during Bulgarians by leaning forward as you squat.
Your quadriceps extend your knee; something required of you no matter how you squat. If you allow your knee to travel forward during the Bulgarian split squat, you’ll generally get more quad activation than if you sat back and down.
The Bulgarian split squat may be a leg movement first and foremost, but the unilateral nature of the exercise challenges your core as well.
You have to maintain a rigid, isometric trunk while you squat to avoid falling over. This becomes doubly true if you’re also working with a contralateral (held on the opposite side) implement — think of holding a dumbbell in your left hand while squatting on your right leg.
The Bulgarian is one of the best exercises out there for developing robust athletic qualities. It also happens to be a killer leg movement for beefing up your quads and backside — but that’s not where the benefits end.
Trains Hip Stability and Control
If you squat on two legs exclusively, you may not be training your hips and pelvis to an adequate degree. Bilateral squatting is fantastic for strength and muscle growth, but it’s easy for a two-legged squat to mask potential imbalances in strength or mobility on one side.
The Bulgarian split squat demands that you control and stabilize your hips in order to execute it properly. If you can’t, you’ll simply topple over.
Targeted Muscle Growth
You can use the Bulgarian split squat to bring up lagging body parts. For example, if your left quad is larger and stronger than your right, performing Bulgarian split squats on your right leg first may help balance the scales.
Develops Multiple Athletic Qualities at Once
Being short on time is no reason to skip leg day, but it may cause you to tell yourself “oh, I’ll just do abs at home” — easier said than done.
In the event you need to get as much high-quality work in as you can in a short period, an exercise like the Bulgarian split squat comes in clutch. It may not be the best tool for any one dimension of athleticism, but it covers a lot of ground.
Bulgarian split squats strengthen your legs, challenge your abs, tax your cardiovascular endurance, and help mobilize your hips all at once.
Frankly, single-legged training belongs in nearly every gymgoer’s repertoire in some form or another. You probably have a good reason to plug Bulgarians into your workout routine if you fall into one of these camps.
Muscle growth is the name of the game for bodybuilders — as such, they need the best tool for the job.
If you want to target your glutes and quads without loading up heavy squats, or need to address a muscular imbalance, the Bulgarian split squat is just about as good as it gets for hypertrophy.
It may not be a tested discipline in powerlifting, weightlifting, or strongman, but strength athletes need to eat their proverbial vegetables all the same. Accessory work is meant to fill in the physiological “gaps” left open by training for a specific sport.
Since nearly all of your training as a strength athlete takes place on two legs, it would be wise to use the Bulgarian split squat as an accessory movement no matter what sport you practice.
Contrary to a powerlifter or weightlifter, traditional field-and-court athletes spend a lot of time working on one limb. Think of everything from striking in kickboxing to sprinting down the field in football to shooting in basketball.
As such, you can use the Bulgarian split squat as a controlled means of training the muscles that affect your sport. Stronger glutes, quads, and improved balance should translate well to general athletics.
Getting into the gym is all about building a solid base. It doesn’t matter if your goals involve deadlifting 500 pounds or just being strong enough to perform yard work on the weekends: In any case, you need to develop a robust array of athletic qualities. Namely, balance and stability.
Single-leg training with the Bulgarian split squat will serve you well both in and out of the gym. Your stability and posture are taxed to varying degrees any time you do anything physical.
If You’re Injured
This is far from a medical prescription, but the Bulgarian split squat may work well if you’re coming back from a knee injury.
Not only is it a commonly-prescribed rehabilitative exercise in sports medicine practices, but research suggests that the Bulgarian split squat is a great way to safely train your legs if you’re hurt. (1)
The posture of the exercise plus the (relatively) limited loading potential should reduce the amount of force acting on your knees, while still allowing you to squat relatively deeply.
Build Bulgarian Beef
Despite its namesake, the Bulgarian split squat won’t change your nationality. It will, however, help you build incredibly muscular and strong legs.
You’ll also test your posture, stability, and core strength. Oh, and you can get a bit more flexible in your hips as well. There’s also the cardiovascular benefit on offer if you choose to use high reps.
The benefits go on, and on, and on still. Bulgarians are performed by rank beginners and world-class squatters alike for good reason. Plug it into your next leg day and see for yourself.
If you’re still wondering about the Bulgarian split squat, look no further. These are several common questions, unpacked and answered.
Can beginners do Bulgarian Split Squats?
Yes, however, there needs to an emphasis on form. The rear foot elevated (Bulgarian) split squat requires a base level of balance and strength, so those need to be dialed in before beginners tackle this movement. A great place to start is with the traditional split squat.
What muscles does the Bulgarian Split Squat work?
Bulgarian split squats primarily work the quads and glutes. In addition, they work the hamstrings, calves, adductors, and require some core work depending on the variation being performed.
How high should my back leg be?
Back leg placement will vary slightly, however, a good rule of thumb is keeping the back leg between 1-2 feet of elevation. This will change based on what you’re placing the leg on, but this is usually the norm. If mobility is a concern, then start lower.
1. Mackey, E. R., & Riemann, B. L. (2021). Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. International journal of exercise science, 14(1), 533–543.
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