An ideal exercise for hitting your lower body, with minimal equipment required so it can be done either at the gym or home.
This article delves into the benefits of this simple but effective movement along with how to undertake it safely and effectively, and why it should be incorporated into your training routine.
A Bulgarian split squat is an exercise to target your lower body and is undertaken by elevating one leg behind you and squatting down on the front leg.
HOW TO PERFORM A BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
- First off, ensure you have a suitable platform which stands approximately 4 to 6 inches high, any higher and you’re going to be limiting the range of motion during this exercise. A common apparatus is the single leg squat stand.
- Standing around three feet in front of your chosen platform, extend one of your legs behind you and rest the ball of your foot on the platform.
- Keep facing forward at all times and your torso straight.
- Slowly squat down making sure your knee doesn’t go over your toes. Once you have reached your desired depth (this will vary depending on flexibility and strength) return slowly back to your starting position.
When you first start doing this exercise you may feel slightly off balance but the great thing about the Bulgarian split squat is that as well as hitting your lower body, it also works your core muscles so overtime and with repeated training this initial instability will start to improve.
Once this happens you can begin to incorporate some freeweights to push yourself even further. To do this, undertake the movement in the exact same way whilst holding onto to either a dumbbell or kettlebell.
IS A BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT EASY TO DO?
At its core, it’s a simple exercise but it’s important to avoid common mishaps to prevent injury.
Be sure to choose a platform that is not too tall. Ideally you want something around 4 to 6 inches. This will ensure stability when performing the exercise and ensure you have full range of motion. If your back foot is too high, you will find that as you perform the movement, the lower you drop the more your spine will begin to curve thus creating a higher risk of injury.
When it comes to correct foot placement, make sure your front foot is not aligned with your back foot. Doing this will make any instability increase and creating the potential for injury when doing the movement.
As you perform the exercise, make sure to keep your body upright and resist any urge to lean forward. Doing this will put unnecessary stress on the knee, you want to lower your body straight down and then back up again. By keeping your body as straight as possible throughout will mean you have better glute activation.
WHAT MUSCLES DOES THE SPLIT SQUAT WORK?
The primary muscles activated when doing a Bulgarian split squat are the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. As mentioned above, this exercise is also great for improving core strength and a strong core is vital for general day to day activities and overall back health.
You will reap the benefits of this exercise whether you undertake it with just your bodyweight or by incorporating a freeweight.
IS THE BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT BETTER THAN REGULAR SQUATS?
A regular barbell back squat is a fantastic compound movement that builds both muscle mass and strength but if you’re wanting to do something that alleviates some of the stress placed on your lower back then the Bulgarian split squat is an ideal alternative.
One of the main differences between the two movements is that a regular squat is a bilateral movement. This means that limbs are used in unison, in this case that would be the legs. In respect of the split squat, this is what is known as a unilateral movement. By contrast, that is to use one of your limbs.
With a bilateral movement you can go significantly heavier with the weights, this is because the weight load is being equally distributed across both limbs. When it comes to a regular back squat, it’s important to remember that much of that weight is also being loaded on to your spine.
Unilateral movements will allow you to address any weaknesses that you may have. You may have muscle dominance in one leg over another, and a regular squat won’t address that. However, a split squat will ensure all the weight is placed squarely on the one limb allowing you to focus improving muscle strength and to build equal muscle symmetry.
With a regular squat you would typically undertake heavier weights and fewer reps but the opposite is true of a split squat where the emphasis is on much lower weights and higher reps.
A low weight split squat is typically done in a slow and controlled way allowing for greater muscle activation with a heavy barbell squat being a more explosive, powerful movement.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO THE SPLIT SQUAT
There are a number of suitable alternatives to the Bulgarian split squat. These include the following:
- Bodyweight walking lunge
- Goblet squat
- Single leg glute bridge
- Regular split squat
BODYWEIGHT WALKING LUNGE
A bodyweight walking lunge is a unilateral movement that can be done pretty much anywhere, all you need is a suitable amount of floor space. If you’re doing this at home, a long hallway or lounge could be the ideal place. As with the Bulgarian split squat this can be done as a bodyweight exercise or by incorporating a pair of dumbbells.
Start with feet hip width apart, take a relatively large step forward and make sure to bend both knees so they reach a 90 degree angle, this is the lunge position. The knee of your back leg should be almost touching the floor and make sure the knee of your front leg does not go over your toes. As you push back up, return back to the starting position with feet hip width apart, repeat the movement with the opposite leg.
A goblet squat is a bilateral movement. It’s a super simple exercise and all you need is a dumbbell or kettlebell.
To do this movement, stand with feet hip width apart and, using both hands, hold either a dumbbell or kettlebell to your chest. Keeping your chest up and face forward, squat down as low as you can go, keeping the weight to your chest at all times. Hold for a few seconds at the bottom of the movement for time under tension then, using the power of your legs, push back up to the starting position.
The movement is great to fire up your quads, glutes and hamstrings and thanks to the addition of the weight, you’ll also be improving your stabilisation muscles. The heavier the weight you are using, will mean you’ll also be activating your biceps, shoulders and upper back muscles making this a great all rounder which can be carried out anywhere.
SINGLE LEG GLUTE BRIDGE
The single leg glute bridge is a unilateral movement that will be targeting your glutes and hamstrings. No equipment is required for this one making it a great exercise to incorporate into your home training.
To do it, lie down on a comfortable surface (a yoga mat would be ideal for this one). Keep your hands down by your sides and bend your knees. Keeping your hips on the floor, extend one leg out in a straight line. Slowly raise up your hips as far you are you able to, squeeze at the top of the movement, make sure to keep your extended leg straight at all times. You should feel this across the hamstrings and to a lesser degree, the glutes. Slowly lower yourself back down and repeat for your chosen number of reps. Once complete, do the same on the other leg.
REGULAR SPLIT SQUAT
A regular split squat is very similar to the Bulgarian split squat with the only difference being that your back leg is resting on the floor as opposed to an elevated surface. Because of this, it would be classed as a bilateral movement.
You undertake the movement in the same way and can choose to incorporate freeweights if you wish. This is a great intro to the Bulgarian split squat. You won’t be using your stabilisation muscles as much with the regular split squat, this is due to your foot placement.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LUNGE AND SPLIT SQUAT?
Whilst both exercises on the face of it seem similar, there are in fact some fundamental differences between the two.
When performing a lunge, you step down and forward meaning your hips descend diagonally. Whereas, a split squat is performed with your hips dropping down in a straight line.
This has a direct impact on the muscles being activated during either movement. The lunge is a great exercise with overall lower leg development whilst the split squat is more focussed on the quads.
Because the split squat is a static movement, compared to the dynamic lunge, you’ll be able to incorporate a higher amount of weight. This is down to an increase in stability with the split squat. So, if you want to lift heavier and build more muscle then opt for the split squat.
By contrast, the lunge will offer a better cardiovascular workout and an increase in muscle endurance.
THE HISTORY OF THE BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
The Bulgarian split squat dates back to the cold war era. Back then countries had devised their own training methods when it came to weightlifting with Bulgaria being a known powerhouse for their weightlifting prowess.
Because of Bulgaria’s solid weightlifting reputation, many were keen to know more about their techniques. However, there was a degree of secrecy amongst the weightlifting community surrounding training methods and with no internet, knowing how competing countries were training was difficult, if not impossible, to find out.
In the late 80’s a renowned strength and conditioning specialist, Angel Spassov, wrote an article for Muscle & Fitness magazine. In this article he went into detail about the superior training methods of the highly successful Bulgarian weightlifting team and that how the team had favoured a combination of Bulgarian split squats and step ups over that of regular back squats.
Those claims in this article were later debunked by Ivan Abadjiev, who was the former head coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting Team. Ivan stated that his team always undertook regular back squats during their training and that he did not advocate either step ups or split squats. Why Angel Spassov made those claims in his article remains unknown!
The Bulgarian split squat, when done correctly, is a fantastic exercise for helping to build powerful legs. It can be undertaken by anyone irrespective of their athletic ability and offers benefits to all those that do it. If you are looking to add this exercise to your workout consider reading our article which offers some great tips on home workouts.