Squats are the king of functional exercises and one of the best ways to work your lower body. This versatile movement and its many variations can help you build a strong, defined lower body, and with so many ways to do them, you don’t have to become bored. Once you’ve mastered a standard squat, choose from a number of squat variations to work your muscles differently to maximize the results you get.
With most squat variations, you bear equal weight on each leg, but when you do a Bulgarian split squat, you elevate one leg on a bench or platform when you squat. This turns squats into a unilateral exercise. Let’s review how to do one:
- Place a low bench about 3 inches in height behind you. Your back should face the bench.
- Extend your left leg behind you and place the top of your foot on the bench for support.
- Your right foot should be in front of you and planted firmly on the floor.
- While bearing weight on your right or standing leg, descend into a squat. When you descend, your right foot should be below your knee at the bottom of the squat and your left foot still resting on the bench.
- Once the leg on the bench almost touches the floor, come back up.
- Do 8-10 reps and switch sides.
- Do 2-3 sets using good form.
Begin by doing Bulgarian split squats using no weights. Once you’re comfortable with the movement, try doing the exercise while holding two dumbbells. If you prefer, you can hold one kettlebell with both hands out in front of you as opposed to two dumbbells. When you become more advanced, substitute a barbell for the dumbbells or kettlebell. Also, make sure that you’re proficient with two-legged squats before attempting a split squat.
As far as the bench you rest your foot on, any stable surface will work. Some people even use a park bench to support the elevated leg to do outdoor split squats. How’s that for being resourceful? The lower the platform or bench, the less the range-of-motion of the exercise. So, choosing a higher platform will maximize the benefits of the exercise by giving a fuller range-of-motion but it will also make the exercise harder.
If you’re not comfortable elevating your back foot, you can do a standard split squat where you keep both feet on the floor but place one leg behind you when you squat. You’re still in a less stable position than when your feet are together but it’s more stable than having your foot elevated. The standard split squat with both feet on the ground is a good way to introduce yourself to the movement when elevating your foot makes you feel unsteady. Before adding a barbell to Bulgarian split squats, do split squats with a barbell on your shoulders so you can get used to the movement in a more stable position.
What Special Benefits Do Bulgarian Splits Squats Offer?
Can’t you just skip the split squats and do front or back squats instead? You could but you’ll miss out on these benefits:
Bulgarian Split Squats Offer a Greater Balance Challenge
When you place your foot onto a platform and squat off of your front leg, you’re in an unstable position. Therefore, one of the perks of split squats is they offer more of a balance challenge. Most people don’t do enough unilateral exercises or work on exercises that improve balance skills. Bulgarian split squats are a way to get the benefits of squats while upgrading your balance skills.
Split Squats Challenge Your Core More
Front and back squats recruit your core muscles to some extent but not to the same degree as Bulgarian split squats. When one foot is elevated and you’re in a more unstable position, your core muscles must work harder to keep your body stable as you squat. Work on core strength with exercises such as planks before doing Bulgarian split squats. Otherwise, plank strength could be a limiting factor.
Correct Muscle Imbalances
Not everyone is symmetrical from a strength standpoint. You might discover that your lower body is stronger on one side than the other. Bulgarian split squats are an ideal way to even out lower body muscle imbalances by allowing you to work the weaker side more than the stronger side. You can’t do that with front and back squats. You’re forced to work both legs equally at the same time.
Great Gluteus Medius Activation
You might worry that split squats fall short with respect to activating the muscles in your lower body. No worries! One study compared muscle activation using EMG when subjects did Bulgarian split squats at 50% of one-rep max and back squats at 85% one-rep max using a barbell. The muscle activation was similar, although the back squat elicited greater activation of the biceps femoris, the hamstring muscle that contributes most to hip extension. However, another study found that Bulgarian split squats activate the gluteus medius muscles more than the back squat. So, you can get similar muscle activation and greater activation of the gluteus medius by doing Bulgarian split squats. Plus, you can get the benefits using a lighter load.
Better Sports Performance
If you play sports, split squats are a good addition to your strength-training routine. The reason? With most sports, you spend a lot of time bearing partial or full weight on one leg. Plus, many of the functional activities we do throughout the day require weight-bearing on one leg more than the other. It’s a good idea to train under those conditions too.
The Bottom Line
Don’t give up two-legged squats but include some Bulgarian split squats in your routine for variety. Unilateral movements like this help with balance and require more core stabilization, so your core gets more of a workout too.
Plus, you still get the other fitness benefits that squats offer. Your body adapts to doing front and back squats over time, even if you use progressive overload. Working your posterior chain in this manner can jumpstart muscle growth by forcing your body to adapt to something new.
- Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 2010, 19, 57-70. (2010)
- International Journal of Exercise Science 7(4): 302-310, 2014.