How do you train legs? Most people perform some type of squat at some point during their lower-body workouts. But the popularity of the squat doesn’t answer that question; it poses new ones.
If you’re dead-set on squatting to develop your legs (a wise decision), you then have to determine which kind of squat is right for you.
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 why you should do more Bulgarian split squats.
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.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
- Step 1 — 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.
- Step 2 — 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.
- Step 3 — 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.
Why Do It: Both your hip mobility and lower body strength and stamina will benefit tremendously from this deceptively challenging lift. You’ll build plenty of grit, too, as this is a very mentally taxing lift for most athletes.
Check out BarBend’s video deep-dive into all things Bulgarian split squat, including tricks and tips for maximizing this powerful lift.
Bulgarian Split Squat Variations
There are a surprising number of Bulgarian split squat variations. 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. In the battle of the split squat vs Bulgarian split squat, your legs are still the ultimate winner.
Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
- To do the barbell Bulgarian split squat, set up a barbell in a squat rack with the box or bench behind you. Unrack the bar in a high-bar back squat position (or set up in a front rack for a barbell front-rack split squat) and set up for a Bulgarian split squat as normal.
- Proceed as you would with a dumbbell or kettlebell split squat, but with the barbell on your back.
- Carefully step back off the box and re-rack the barbell. Switch sides and repeat.
Resistance Band Bulgarian Split Squat
- Set yourself up for a Bulgarian split squat as normal. Step on the middle of a resistance band securely with your forward foot and hold the ends evenly in your hands.
- Perform the split squat as normal.
- Carefully remove the band from underneath your foot. Switch sides and repeat.
- Set up as you would for a Bulgarian split squat, but without any rear foot elevation. You can hold weights at your sides for a dumbbell split squat or perform this with just your body weight. Simply step one foot out and one foot back at a distance that will allow both knees to reach about 90 degrees when you sink down.
- Keeping your chest tall, sink into a split squat.
- Press back up through the floor to come to standing. Complete all your reps on one side before switching.
Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
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
- Set yourself up in a leg press machine. Place one foot in the center of the sled plate with the other on the floor.
- Unrack the weight with your hands. Find stability, then bring your working leg all the way down to your chest slowly.
- Press back up — don’t lock out your knee fully — and repeat for reps. Switch sides to keep things even.
- Grasp a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward.
- Step forward and sink into a lunge such that both your knees reach approximately 90 degrees. Keep your chest tall, your shoulders back and down, and your core tight.
- Press through your feet to rise back to standing. Either step right into your next step or pause for a moment in the starting position before descending again.
- Keep your reps even on both sides.
[Read More: Should Weightlifters Do Lunges/Split Squats?]
- Set up a step-up platform or plyo box near your squat rack or power rack. Unrack the barbell (or press the bar up then carefully settle it on your back) and position yourself in front of the step or box.
- Step securely onto the box with your left foot. You can slowly drive your right knee up toward your chest as you stand tall, or you can let your right leg remain more neutral.
- With control, step back down from the box and land gently with soft knees. Switch sides and repeat.
Who Should Do Bulgarian Split Squats
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 program if you fall into one of these camps.
- Bodybuilders: 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. Try a loaded-up dumbbell Bulgarian split squat for an extra challenge.
- Strength Athletes: 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.
- Traditional Athletes: 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.
- Beginners: Getting into the gym is all about building a solid base. It doesn’t matter if your goals involve how to deadlift 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.
- Athletes Recovering from Injury: 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.
Bulgarian Split Squat Sets and Reps
- For Leg Strength: When programming Bulgarian split squats for strength, go for four to six sets of up to six reps with a heavy weight.
- To Improve Balance: Try two to three sets of 10 or more reps with a very slow tempo.
- For Muscle Growth: Do three sets of eight to 12 reps with a moderate load.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat 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
It’s all too easy to develop an imbalance in muscular hypertrophy. No one is perfectly symmetrical from side to side, and minor discrepancies in muscle size are common.
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.
Muscles Worked by the Bulgarian Split Squat
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.
- Glutes: Performing the Bulgarian split squat for glute development is a solid choice. 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.
- Quads: 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.
- Core: 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.
Common Bulgarian Split Squat Mistakes
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 opportunities for screw-ups; make sure you’re staying away from the following mishaps. Here are the best Bulgarian split squat form pro tips.
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.
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 rep sets.
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.
Yes, however, there needs to be 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.
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.
Back leg placement will vary slightly, however, a good rule of thumb is keeping the back leg between one to two 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.
The primary qualifier in the reverse lunge vs split squat debate is the position of your feet. In the reverse lunge, you will return your working foot to the starting position — regular standing position — between each rep. With split squats, your feet will stay static the entire time, with you simply sinking up and down into the movement.
The same difference applies for the forward lunge vs split squat — in the former, your feet move positions, but in the latter, they don’t.
- 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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