Split Squat vs. Bulgarian Split Squat: Which Is Best for You?

In an earlier article I discussed the distinct differences between three main lower body unilateral movements and how lifters and athletes can better choose which is right for them. In this article, I am taking a deeper look at two extremely similar movements, the split squat versus the Bulgarian split squat, and addressing everything you need to know when deciding how to program and execute each of these movements.

The Split Squat

The split squat is very similar to the lunge and Bulgarian split squat, however it does not require the lifter to move dynamically under load or balance on one foot. In the below video, note how the lifter is still able to maintain both feet on the ground.

This is a good exercise to progress from step ups and lunges, yet prior to Bulgarian split squats, as it teaches proper ankle, knee, and hip joint mechanics under load while in a stationary movement since the lifter is still able to have both feet fixed on the floor. Additionally, the lifter is still able to transition load between both feet, rather than placing most of the load on the lead leg (see below).

The Bulgarian Split Squat

In the below video note how the back foot is elevated, either on a bench, step, or stable object.


This will increase the stability, balance and single leg strength necessary to complete the movement (in the lead leg), furthering the unilateral demands placed upon a lifter.

Complexity of the Split Squat vs. Bulgarian Split Squat

Unlike squats, these movement are unilateral lower body exercises, meaning that they will stress one leg at a time. Given that it is performed with one main leg, both of these lifts place more demand on balance, stability, coordination, and single leg strengtt. (Yes, the split squat has both on the ground, however one leg is asked to take a higher amount of loading.)

The split squat may be slightly less complex than the Bulgarian split squat in that the lifter is able to tradition some of the loading percentage to the back leg, whereas greater amounts of loading percentages are on the lead leg in the Bulgarian split squat. Either way, both lifts can be used to increase single leg strength, enhance bilateral deficit, and bulletproof a lifter’s ankle, knee, and hip mechanics.

Loading

Both of these movements fall within the assistance lift category and are generally not advised to train with near maximal loads, especially since it is a unilateral movement. That said, many lifters will train these movement with light to moderate loads for increased volume and speed to stress individual leg strength, movement patterning, muscular endurance, and hypertrophy.

Application to Sport

Because both of the movements are classified as assistance lifts, they both are generally good options for most power, strength, fitness, and athletic sports. The benefits of unilateral training are immense with both, however the Bulgarian Split Squat version can place more emphasis on balance and single leg strength (single one leg is up), making it potentially more beneficial for athletes recovering from injury or looking to challenge single leg strength and endurance.

Muscle Groups

Both of these movements target the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and quads, and can be altered to further isolate (for example, lengthening the distance between the front foot and the back will increase loading on the hip, glutes, and hamstrings.) For lifters looking to target specific muscle groups, there is not a large difference between these movements. To best bulletproof your joints, muscles, and movement patterns, I suggest cycling each into your regular unilateral leg training workouts.

Final Words

Unilateral exercises can be simple modifications from common bilateral movements. Coaches and athletes can implement them within most formal training programs after main lifts to ensure optimal development. By understanding the proper progressions and demands of both (balance needed, single leg strength, etc) coaches and athletes can properly challenge and progress necessary movement patterns and mechanincs to ensure optimal performance and injury prevention.

Featured Image: @ginger.doc on Instagram

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.