If you’re a lover of leg day and you’re on a mission to create strong and shapely pins, then you’re not going to want to skip this exercise. The Bulgarian split squat is a brutal lower body exercise that is well known and loved and practiced consistently by those who love a challenge.
In this article, I’m going to be sharing with you 9 Bulgarian split squat benefits and how to perfectly execute this movement. There are many questions that are commonly asked about this exercise – you’ll find the answers to them in this article too.
- What Is a Bulgarian Split Squat?
- 9 Bulgarian Split Squat Benefits
- 1. Great for Working on Your Balance
- 2. Perfect for Developing Single Leg Strength
- 3. Will Improve Your Core Strength & Stability
- 4. Can Be Adapted to Suit Your Training Goals
- 5. Can Enhance Your Hip Mobility
- 6. A Superior Lower Body Strength & Shaping Exercise
- 7. They Burn a Lot of Calories
- 8. Can Be Loaded in Multiple Ways
- 9. A Good Alternative to Squats
- How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat
- FAQs About Bulgarian Split Squat
- Is a Split Squat the Same as a Lunge?
- Are Split Squats Better Than Lunges?
- Are Split Squats Bad for Your Knees?
- How Do You Balance a Split Squat?
- How Many Split Squats Should I Do?
- Are Split Squats a Performance Enhancing Exercise?
- Can You Do Split Squats Numerous Times a Week?
- I’m a Beginner, Can I Do Split Squats?
- Over to You
What Is a Bulgarian Split Squat?
I’ll start off with a fun fact, which is: this exercise has little to nothing to do with Bulgaria. The whole ‘Bulgarian’ part is a bit of a fairy-tale. It has something to do with various ideas the assistant Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach (in the 80’s) had on squats and little to do, specifically, with this exercise. Yes, I am as disappointed as you are.
The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral strength building leg exercise that is abundant in benefits. It somewhat resembles a standard lunge but presents twice the challenge. Whilst it is a difficult exercise, in terms of the burn you’re going to feel, it is safe to perform when the correct technique is followed.
This exercise is an all-around leg exercise, targeting your glutes and quads as well as your hamstrings and calves. There are ways to intensify the load on different areas of your legs by tweaking the technique you adopt, which I will get into further down in this article. Like any good leg exercise, your core is going to get a hammering too!
9 Bulgarian Split Squat Benefits
In my opinion, this exercise is one of the most beneficial lower body exercises you can do! Let’s look at why.
1. Great for Working on Your Balance
Unlike traditional squats, the positioning of your legs in this exercise requires you to use your stabilizer muscles significantly as to not keel over. In the beginning, you might find it tricky to be perfectly stable whilst you perform this exercise. But as with anything, practice makes perfect!
Doing this exercise consistently will provide you with the opportunity to work on your balance. And consequently, the improvements can be felt across all other exercises that require balance.
Another benefit of the balance element is that it will increase the load on your legs, with the need to be constantly stabilizing. And after all, that’s what we’re here for right?
2. Perfect for Developing Single Leg Strength
As mentioned previously, this exercise is a unilateral movement. This means you’re, effectively, working one side of your body/one limb at a time.
Though both legs have their designated tasks, regardless of which side you’re using at the time, they perform these tasks ‘individually’. For example, whilst your back leg is experiencing stretch, your front leg is experiencing load and contraction, and vice versa.
This allows you to focus, with intention, on each leg and develop well-rounded, balanced strength, mass and mobility through both sides of your lower body.
3. Will Improve Your Core Strength & Stability
I’ve already covered the fact that your stabilizers will come into play during this exercise and your core is one of those major stabilizers. This exercise recruits the muscles throughout your trunk, to a large extent. Performing Bulgarian split squats will contribute massively to your overall core strength and the stability it is able to provide you.
Whilst you can ‘forget’ about your core in other exercises, the positioning of your body, moreover your legs, in this exercise makes it impossible to NOT recruit your core. This exercise is as beneficial for your core as a ‘core’ specific exercise, if done correctly!
Get around it!
4. Can Be Adapted to Suit Your Training Goals
Bulgarian split squats are a versatile exercise that can be adapted to whatever you are trying to accomplish from your training. Looking back over my different phases of training, this exercise has rarely not been included, regardless of what I was trying to achieve at the time.
They’re great for building strength, shape, size and are also a great weight loss exercise depending on the amount of weight you use, repetitions you complete and rest times you adhere to.
Slight changes in the width of your stance (i.e. the distance of your foot that is on the floor from your foot that is elevated on the bench) whilst you complete Bulgarian split squats can also shift the load considerably from your glutes to your quads. So, you can tailor them to your needs in that way too.
5. Can Enhance Your Hip Mobility
One of the most effective ways to improve your range of movement is through movement itself. People spend a lot of time in static stretching positions in hopes of moving better. Whilst increasing the length of your muscles through ‘holds over time’ is a contributing factor to overall mobility, the ultimate remedy is in dynamic stretches.
The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for opening your hips, oiling your hip flexors and creating length through your quads whilst simultaneously strengthening these areas.
6. A Superior Lower Body Strength & Shaping Exercise
The Bulgarian split squat is often dismissed early in the piece because it is hard to do. It requires balance and takes a lot of getting used to. For that reason, it often doesn’t go together with heavy loading when you’re learning how to do it.
The thing is though, this is one of the few lower body exercises that is all-encompassing when it comes to hitting all the muscles in your legs. The positioning of your legs during this exercise is demanding on your glutes, quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors and your calves!
This exercise allows you to progress fast – your stability will improve noticeably with consistent performance in as little as 2 to 3 weeks. It is at that point you can start to load this exercise up. Sure, you might not ever load it as much as your back squat. But you need to keep in mind that although both legs are working at the same time, your front leg is carrying 85% + of that load.
There is no arguing that Bulgarian split squats are amongst one of the BEST exercises you can do to get strong, shapely legs.
7. They Burn a Lot of Calories
This exercise will make you sweat and it’s going to get your heart pumping, hard! A lot of very large muscles come into play when doing Bulgarian split squats. It is a demanding exercise that will feel like it’s burning a lot of energy… because it is.
As great a strength exercise as it is, I have also used Bulgarian split squats in high-intensity circuit training for high reps during my weight loss/fat loss phases. I use this exercise, amongst others, to boost my overall workout calorie burn. It’s great for revving up your fat burn and helping achieve that lean machine look!
8. Can Be Loaded in Multiple Ways
I have already touched on the versatility of Bulgarian split squats in terms of how they can be adapted to your training goals. The way they can be loaded is another element of versatility that this exercise brings.
Let’s face it, Bulgarian split squats are challenging using just your bodyweight. But the ultimate challenge comes from loading these babies up. And the opportunities for loading this exercise are endless!
You can do so with a barbell on your back, a front racked barbell, front racked dumbbells, a dumbbell in each hand by your sides, a kettlebell in one hand by your side (opposite hand to working leg), a weighted vest, and even a weight plate or dumbbell/s held overhead.
9. A Good Alternative to Squats
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do squats. But for several reasons, ranging from lever length to mobility issues, squats aren’t optimal for everyone.
Bulgarian split squats make a fantastic alternative to the squat, following a similar plane of movement, albeit single-sided, and targeting the same muscles. In terms of unilateral squat alternatives, there is also the pistol squat, though this exercise is unable to be loaded like the Bulgarian split squat can be.
Whilst they have their different elements, the results you would ultimately achieve from performing squats, can be achieved from doing Bulgarian split squats. Should you not be restricted when it comes to doing squats and not have the need to replace them with Bulgarian split squats, you should certainly consider doing them anyways.
How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat
I’m sure after making your way through that list of all the positive things Bulgarian split squats can do for you, you’re dying to get stuck into them! So, here’s how to do them in a way that will generate the best results and prevent injury.
- Start by standing roughly one step width in front of a bench or stable raised surface. Your feet should be hip-width apart.
- Raise your back leg and put your foot on the bench or raised surface behind you. Note, keep the legs/feet hip-width apart. Otherwise, it will be impossible to balance! Think railroad tracks rather than a tightrope!
- Your raised (back) foot can either be on its toes, flexed, or you can have the top of your foot on the bench – this comes down to personal preference and whatever feels most comfortable for you.
- Engage your core and remain upright through your upper body, i.e. no collapsing through the chest.
- Initiate the movement by bending your back knee and allow your front knee to bend as you lower your body towards the ground into your split squat.
- Once the thigh of your front leg is parallel with the ground and you feel a stretch through the hip flexor of your back leg, hold for a second before exhaling and pushing yourself back upwards to be back in your starting position.
- Do all repetitions on one side before changing legs.
- Keep your weight concentrated in the heel of your front foot to encourage glute activation in your loaded (front) leg.
- Try to keep your back/raised leg free of excessive tension to ensure that it is your front leg that is carrying most of the load. Think of your back leg as a stabilization tool, for the purpose of this exercise, rather than a carrier of load. If both legs are feeling excessive tension, you’re creating more of a ‘lunge’ scenario that a ‘single leg squat’, as intended.
- Allow yourself a few repetitions to get your stance right. Once you have raised your back leg, you may need to hop around a bit on your front leg to find the sweet spot.
- Assuming a slightly wider stance will shift more load onto your glutes as opposed to a narrower stance that will hit your quads more.
FAQs About Bulgarian Split Squat
As a strength and conditioning coach, I have been asked many a question about this exercise. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions, and the answers to them.
Is a Split Squat the Same as a Lunge?
No. If it feels the same as a lunge whilst you’re doing it, then you’re doing it wrong. Whilst it looks similar due to the positioning of the legs, the loading of it is very different.
In a lunge, both legs are loaded. In the Bulgarian split squat, the front leg is for carrying the load and the back leg is to act as stabilization assistance. The split squat is more of a single leg squat and a unilateral exercise in which one leg is working (predominantly) at a time.
When doing this exercise, try to reduce tension in your back leg. A good way to check if your back leg is ‘relaxed’ is to give it a little wobble/shake. If it’s stiff and not moving, you’re loading it too much. Your back foot should be resting on the bench, not pushing into the bench.
Be soft on your back leg and load your front leg by concentrating your body weight and any added resistance through the heel of your front foot.
Are Split Squats Better Than Lunges?
The answer to this question depends on what your training goals are.
In terms of developing shape and size, I’d say yes, the split squat is going to deliver more than the lunge. Both exercises involve strengthening through the front leg and increasing flexibility through the back leg. But the split squat places greater emphasis on the strengthening element due to the extra loading of the front leg and the slightly narrower stance than in the lunge.
Are Split Squats Bad for Your Knees?
If done correctly, no. However, as with any exercise, failure to adhere to correct form and the inability to listen to your body may result in injury. The most common causes of experiencing knee pain during Bulgarian split squats (and the solutions for them) are:
- Overly tight quads and/or ITB bands: A solution for this is foam rolling them prior to your lower body workout to reduce tension through those areas. This allows for better patella tracking and overall knee positioning which should reduce discomfort in the deeper phases of the split squat.
- The knee of your front leg traveling excessively beyond the toes of your front foot: If you find this is occurring, chances are your stance is a little narrow. Try hopping your front foot forward slightly to allow your knee to stay behind your toes as you go into the deeper phases of the split squat.
- The knee of your front leg collapsing inwards: A great way to counteract this is to aim for slight abduction of your working leg though the hip – not enough to send your leg outwards, but just enough to pull it back to center, if collapsing inwards is where you naturally gravitate to.
How Do You Balance a Split Squat?
The balance element is what makes this exercise so challenging. Sometimes it just takes a lot of practice and building up the strength of your stabilizing muscles. However, there are a few things you can do to assist you from the get-go:
- Always keep your core solidly engaged.
- Pick a point on the ground somewhere in front of you to look at/focus on.
- Make sure your feet are hip-width apart once your back leg is raised. If you place them one behind the other, you have less ground over which to stabilize yourself.
- Adjust the height to which your back foot is raised – if you’re struggling with balance at the beginning, have your back foot raised on a step rather than a bench.
How Many Split Squats Should I Do?
The number of split squats you do will depend mostly on what you’re trying to achieve through your training.
- If you’re ultimately trying to increase your strength, you’d aim for +- 8 on each side and load them up with as much weight as you can manage.
- If you’re after mass gains, you could reduce the load and perform 12 to 15 reps.
- And if weight loss is the name of the game you could go bodyweight for 20 a side.
Are Split Squats a Performance Enhancing Exercise?
Yes! And I’m yet to meet a performance coach who says otherwise! Bulgarian split squats will improve your performance, across the board.
This exercise increases your functional strength significantly. It builds strength and power through your legs, develops your core strength and ability to balance, dramatically. All these elements transfer to other exercises very well, as well as general everyday movements.
Well-known speed coach Chris Korfist said:
What I have found is that the stronger athletes get at this exercise, the faster they run and the higher they jump. I have had athletes who could squat the house but couldn’t run or even hold their body weight in the position. But, once their body learned the position and strengthened this aspect of their movement, they ran faster and jumped higher.
Can You Do Split Squats Numerous Times a Week?
This would come down to what your weekly workout regime looks like in terms of volume and load. However, I’d say you can perform Bulgarian split squats more than once a week, in general, given you allow a few days for adequate recovery between doing them.
I’m a Beginner, Can I Do Split Squats?
A baseline of strength and balance is required to perform these without injury. Whilst it’s not an advanced exercise, it’s not really a beginner exercise either. A few weeks of working on glute activation and core stability will get you in a good position to be able to perform this exercise safely.
I’d advise that beginners start by using their bodyweight only and raising their back foot slightly. As you master the technique, you can look to add resistance and lift the height of your back foot.
Over to You
As you can see, there are so many benefits to doing this powerhouse lower body exercise. Personally, they have always been a key element of my weekly workout regimes, and I don’t intend on changing that any time soon.
The versatility they present means there is a version for everyone, regardless of their training goals. Unless you’re a total newbie, but even then – some basic conditioning will be enough to get you started with this amazing exercise.
Remember that minor adjustments such as how deep you go, how wide your stance is, where you position your torso and even how your back foot is positioned can totally change the exercise. Find the position that works for you!