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August 12, 2022
In the gym, there's an unwritten rule that any exercise named after someone is badass. Arnold press, Gironda dips, and the Pendlay row are just a few that come to mind. Now consider the fact that the Bulgarian split squat is named after a whole damn country.
More specifically, a country known for producing some of the strongest lifters in the world. Yes, the unilateral exercise is that good, and this article will explain all you need to know about the insane single-leg movement.
This post will discuss:
Let's take a deeper look and see what makes the Bulgarian split squat hurt so good.
Learning the history of this movement can teach us a lot. Let's go back to the 1980s in weightlifting history. At the time, every country was trying new and secret methods in an attempt to catapult their weightlifters to winning Gold in Olympic weightlifting.
During this era, the Eastern bloc reigned supreme, especially Bulgaria. Their weightlifters always had sheer strength that every other country, including the USA, wanted to emulate.
Enter, famed weightlifting coach Angel Spassov, who was the assistant lifting coach to the Bulgarian national weightlifting team. At this time, there was a rumor going around that the Bulgarians had stopped doing back squats (see the differences between front squat vs. back squats here) and replaced them with rear foot elevated split squats (If you've ever wondered what the Bulgarians call a Bulgarian split squat).
From a Western perspective, the Bulgarians were - and still are - the strongest around. So if the Bulgarian split squat was so good that they replaced the back squat with it, Western weightlifters felt they needed to do it too!
This rumor spread throughout U.S. weight rooms, and the Bulgarian split squat was born. In fact, Kim Goss, a co-worker of the famed weightlifting coach Charles Poliquin, played an integral role in introducing it in the U.S. and increasing its popularity.
As it turns out, the Bulgarians did not do away with back squats. They had just added another hardcore move to their training line-up. And when you think of it like that, the Bulgarians may have introduced this brutal single-leg squat to simply cause us pain rather than giving us insight into how they actually train.
Well played, Bulgarians. Well played.
The good thing is that either way, the Bulgarian split squat is one of the best exercises you can do to improve single leg strength and add layers of muscle mass to your quads and legs.
Let's go over what the Bulgarian split squat is in a little more detail.
At its core, the Bulgarian split squat is a variation of a traditional split squat. In addition, it could also be considered a single-leg squat variation as the front leg takes most of the weight.
To perform a traditional split squat, you take a step forward similar to what you do for a lunge. However, instead of bringing the legs together again, you stay in this position the whole time. Then you elevate the rear leg to mitigate its contribution. In effect, you are loading the front leg with the majority of your body weight.
Usually, when you see this exercise performed in health clubs and gyms, the individual will have their rear leg elevated with their back foot placed on a higher surface, with a bench being most common. As their feet are so high, they place their shoelaces on the bench to allow movement.
This is the most common way people will do them today.
However, this isn't the way it was originally taught. Spassov taught that the rear foot should only be elevated 4 to 6 inches max, so your back knee height isn't overly high. In fact, he mentions using higher elevations should only be reserved for high-level athletes who require extra hip mobility, such as speed skaters.
The Bulgarian split squat works every muscle in the lower body. Normally thought of as a killer dumbbell quad exercise, which it is, it's also extremely effective at training the glutes and hamstrings. This makes it stand out as being an effective total lower body exercise, at least one side at a time.
Located on the anterior of your upper leg, the quadricep group is composed of 4 distinct muscle groups.
Acting together, the quadriceps are the leg's primary extensor muscles. You'll see them hard at work at leg extension alternatives. In other words, they are responsible for extending the knee to straighten the leg. This makes them the primary muscle worked in the Bulgarian split squat.
The rectus femoris also crosses the hip and attaches to the ilium as well. Therefore, it also plays a role in hip flexion.
The glutes are the strongest muscle group in the human body. The glute group is composed of three different gluteal muscles.
Together, these muscles can perform just about anything involving manipulating the hip joint. In the Bulgarian split squat, they primarily help to extend the hip by way of pulling the front down into extension, which is why they consistently make the list for best dumbbell glute exercises.
The hamstrings are the antagonist to the quadriceps and act as the primary leg flexor. The muscle group is located on the posterior of the upper leg and consists of 3 muscles. In the Bulgarian split squat, they are used to extend the torso.
There are a few other important muscles that contribute to the move as well. While they may not be primary moves, they most certainly put in their fair share of work.
These muscles include:
The calf muscles work primarily through an isometric contraction to help stabilize the body. Your balance will dictate to what extent you engage these muscles.
The core muscles include both the abs and erector spine. Activation of these muscles occurs primarily to support the torso and keep it upright, as well as to protect against and help cure back pain.
As mentioned, during the Bulgarian split squat, the quadriceps see the highest muscle activation of any split squat¹. However, when compared to other split squat variations, it has the highest hamstrings to quadriceps ratio.
This means that the hamstrings and quadriceps activation were most similar in the Bulgarian split squat when compared to other split squat variations. However, we should note that the use of a higher box could increase activation seen in the hamstrings, making it even more of a hamstring exercise. This is because trainees tend to lean farther forward when using high boxes for the Bulgarian split squat, as seen in this study².
Further, you can see this in real life when watching people perform these. This excessive leaning forward causes greater hip flexion, which in theory should demand higher activation in the hamstrings.
So if you're performing Bulgarians split squats to target the quadriceps, keep your torso upright.
Adding Bulgarian split squats into your leg workout will bring a plethora of awesome benefits. If they didn't, no one would do them, because they are intense (but in the best kind of way).
Here are some of the best reasons to use the Bulgarian Split Squat in your training.
All effective resistance training programs should include some unilateral training to identify and fix muscle imbalances. Unilateral exercises, as opposed to bilateral exercises, are exercises that use one limb at a time.
In this case, the Bulgarian split squat is a variation of single-leg exercises. This allows you to compare the strength of your left and right leg interdependently.
What many trainees will discover is that one of their legs is considerably weaker than the other. If you discover this, you will be able to remedy the situation rather than continue training.
The first thing new trainees notice when performing Bulgarian split squats is they can't balance enough to even do them! And if you're not incorporating balance exercises into your routine, it's important you start.
Balance is needed as you are effectively only standing on one leg. This is because your back leg is straight behind you, eliminating your ability to use it for balance.
To top it off, you're raising up and lowering down while your body position is moving due to your anchored rear leg. This consistently alters your center of gravity.
Combined, all these aspects can cause a balance challenge.
Aside from true one-leg squats, the Bulgarian split squat is one of the hardest squat variations to perform with bodyweight only, if not the hardest.
Because the front leg takes the majority of your weight, you are squatting a large percentage of your body weight. This means that performing the Bulgarian split squat requires no equipment for an intense leg workout routine.
This makes it perfect for any at-home workout plan!
The Bulgarian split squat is incredibly easy to load, which is a complimentary benefit to being able to work out at home.
The Bulgarian split squat can be loaded effectively using various loading implements. You can use body weight alone, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, milk jugs - anything!
If you're at home and want to add weight, merely grabbing some books will do the job.
Using the correct form is crucial to optimize the benefits of the Bulgarian split squat. In addition to strengthening your muscles, using proper form will also mitigate any chances of injury.
As mentioned, there are two "versions" of this exercise, and they come down to how high you keep your rear foot elevated. This will only affect a few points, which we will point out.
The Bulgarian split squat's form can take some time to learn, mainly due to the lack of balance the exercise provides.
Be patient your first time doing this exercise, and don't rush. Also, it might help to have a sort of object to hold onto at first. Concerning your hand placement, it depends on if you're using bodyweight only or if you're loading with equipment.
Here are a few equipment approaches you can take.
This is the standard way many people perform Bulgarian split squats. It doesn't matter where you place your hands as long as you don't put them on your knee. However, people generally let their hands fall to their sides. And for those of you scoffing at the idea of performing a bodyweight exercise, we assure you calisthenic workout plans are no joke!
The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is performed with the same movement, except you're holding dumbbells.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let them hang by your side. Depending on how heavy they are, it can be easier to put them on the ground and pick them up from there. To continue building muscle, make sure to use progressive overload week to week.
We actually don't recommend doing Bulgarian split squats with a barbell. It takes much longer to set up while leaving more room for problems to occur.
Further, because you're probably not using that much weight anyway, we find doing a Bulgarian dumbbell split squat to be much more suitable.
Perform these in the same manner as a dumbbell Bulgarian split squat. Hold a kettlebell in each hand. There's not much else to say with this one, other than prepare to build muscle mass with kettlebells!
Goblet Bulgarian split squats are performed holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in a goblet hold. These will boost core strength as holding the weight in front further exacerbates the desire to lean forward.
Obviously, a lot is going on with performing the Bulgarian split squat. One leg is up, the other is out in front, and you're trying not to fall on your face - whew.
As a result, there's a lot that can go wrong. And not only does this put you at injury risk, but it can also sabotage your muscle hypertrophy goals. Therefore, we want to go over some of the more common mistakes seen in the Bulgarian split squat as well as tips to perform the Bulgarian split squat correctly.
The Bulgarian split squat is an awesome exercise in its own right. That said, you need more than just one exercise in your training plan to build muscle.
There are a ton of great exercises to use if you feel the need to ever shelf the Bulgarian split squat. Here are the best variations and alternatives to use in its place.
Instead of elevating the rear foot, just elevate the front foot instead. Other than that, the basic setup is the same. Ironically, the front foot elevated split squat also targets the quadriceps, albeit using different functions.
The elevation of the front foot allows the body to sink lower. As a result, it increases the range of motion and flexion in the knee. As a result, the quads will have to work more.
This is a brutal split squat variation! A front rack split squat is performed by holding a barbell in the rack position.
This requires the same grip position as the front squat in which you hold the barbell up high on the upper chest/clavicle with your elbows thrown under the barbell. Once the barbell is in the rack position, you perform a split squat. And what makes these really stand out is the stress it places on the core muscles.
So in addition to being a great lower body exercise for strength and mass, the front foot elevated split squat will also drastically increase your core strength.
The skater squat, also known as the curtsy lunge, is a true single-leg squat and a staple in calisthenic programs. It basically looks like the Bulgarian split squat with the front leg forward and the rear leg back. The only difference is that the rear foot is not resting on anything.
From a standing position, you pick one foot up and pull it behind you. From there, you lower yourself, moving toward the rear, which gives the impression of a skater. You go down as far as you can and then pop back up. Easy! Don't fret. You can progress into a full skater squat by letting yourself hold onto a brace.
Something like TRX straps work amazing, or you could take a resistance band and attach it to a brace. If all else fails, you can simply hold on to a table or wall.
Your rear foot stays on the ground for slider lunges. Well, technically it is sliding across the floor. To perform these, you will need a hard, smooth surface and some sort of sliding material. They do make sliders specifically for the gym, but even something like slippery socks or a towel work.
With legs starting together, push one leg backward or forward while staying on the ball of the foot. Push back until the back knee touches the ground and then pull yourself back up to the starting position. Don't forget to research what to eat after a workout - your muscles will need it after this move!
Steps ups: One of the most basic movements there is.
Interestingly, going back to the Bulgarian training methods, high step-ups were another exercise used to increase the strength of the lower body. However, the step needs to be high. For example, women often use a height of 30 inches. It causes more hip flexion and forces more work from the glutes.
While you need to go high, you should only use a height that allows proper form. The main concern is maintaining an erect torso and not pushing off excessively with the rear leg.
The Bulgarian split squat is generally best used as an accessory movement and is considered a "quad" exercise. For example, if you're following a push-pull workout and doing a lower body push day, you'd want to perform Bulgarian split squats then.
Due to the Bulgarian split squat's difficulty, explaining a loading scheme is a bit nuanced. For new trainees, since the Bulgarian split squat is extremely difficult, it should be performed at the front of the program. In reality, they may only be able to do 2 or 3 good reps. And that's okay!
On the other hand, a more advanced trainee may be able to knock them out quite easily only using body weight. In fact, some advanced trainees will use them as burnout sets or leg finishers. So when looking at strength training vs. hypertrophy training, it can be used for both.
While it’s an “accessory”, a lot more is going on than just extending the knee. We don’t want to be tired when we’re about to stand on one leg and balance. Ideally, put them toward the beginning-middle of a workout with a rep goal of 6 to 8 reps. If you can't get to 6, use a brace of some sort to assist.
Whatever the real story is for how the Bulgarian split squat has become so popular, one thing is for certain: It's a brutal exercise to train the quads.
It's also extremely versatile as you can perform it with just your body weight in your at-home leg workout due to the aforementioned brutality. Or, you can add some dumbbells at the gym. Putting the difficulty factor aside, the form can be a bit funky and take some time to get used to.
They can also be very challenging balance-wise. That's why we urge you to go slow. You'll likely be surprised by how few you can actually do to begin with! But once you get it, Bulgarian splits squats will likely be one of your favorite new quad exercises.
More Squat Variations:
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