Are stronger legs at the top of your wish list? The results from incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your routine could be a dream come true — sweat equity required!
A type of single-leg squat, the Bulgarian split squat is sure to deliver big benefits to your lower body.
With one leg behind you and elevated off of the ground, this exercise targets many of the same muscles as a traditional squat, but with an emphasis on the quads.
Benefits of the Bulgarian split squat abound.
As a lower body exercise, it strengthens the muscles of the legs, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
Also, as a single-leg exercise, your core is forced to work in overdrive to maintain your balance.
And although the Bulgarian split squat works many of the same muscles as a traditional squat, for some, it’s a preferred exercise.
A traditional squat puts a sizable load on your lower back — potentially causing injury — but the Bulgarian split squat largely removes the lower back from the equation, putting the emphasis on the legs.
If you have back problems — or even if you don’t! — this move could be a great option for you.
Although both the Bulgarian split squat and single-leg squat focus on the quads and require balance, there are some subtle differences.
In a single-leg squat, your stabilizing leg comes out in front of you. In a Bulgarian split squat, your stabilizing leg is behind you on an elevated surface.
A Bulgarian split squat also allows you to reach greater depth than a single-leg squat, requiring flexibility in your hips.
There are two variations on a Bulgarian split squat — one that’s quad dominant and one that’s glute dominant.
Your foot position determines this. If your foot is further from the elevated surface, you’ll place more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings; if it’s closer to the elevated surface, you’ll hit your quads more.
Both variations are beneficial! It ultimately comes down to your personal preference, as well as what feels more natural based on your flexibility and mobility.
Playing around with each variety can help you identify which works best for you.
To get moving:
- Start by standing about 2 feet in front of a knee-level bench or step.
- Lift your right leg up behind you and place the top of your foot on the bench. Your feet should still be about shoulder-width apart, and your right foot should be far enough in front of the bench where you can comfortably lunge — hop around a bit so you can find the right spot. If a closer foot position works, just ensure that when you lower down, your left knee doesn’t fall over the line of your toes.
- While engaging your core, roll your shoulders back and lean slightly forward at the waist, beginning to lower down on your left leg, bending the knee.
- If completing a quad-dominant Bulgarian split squat, stop before your knee falls over your toes. If completing a glute-dominant Bulgarian split squat, stop when your left thigh is parallel to the ground.
- Push up through your left foot, using the power from your quads and hamstrings to return to standing.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps on this leg, then switch, putting the left foot up on the bench.
If you’re new to Bulgarian split squats, start with 2 sets of 6 to 8 reps on each leg until you get acclimated to the movement and gain some strength.
When you can complete 3 sets of 12 reps on each leg comfortably, consider adding a light dumbbell in each hand for some additional resistance.
Add a Bulgarian split squat to your routine on a lower body day to bolster leg strength, or add it to a full body workout to mix things up.
Paired with 3 to 5 additional strength exercises, you’ll be on your way to a stronger core and legs in no time.
As with all strength workouts, ensure that you’ve properly warmed up beforehand with 5 to 10 minutes of low to medium intensity cardio, followed by some dynamic stretching or foam rolling.
While the movement of a Bulgarian split squat is easier to master than a traditional squat, there are a few things to look out for.
Your front leg isn’t in a comfortable position
If your front foot isn’t positioned correctly, you’ll spend a lot of time hopping around trying to find the sweet spot.
Remember that you don’t want your foot so close to the bench that your knee falls over your toes, but you also don’t want it out too far.
Once you’ve found the right placement, mark the floor with a dumbbell or small plate so you’ll have a guide for future sets.
Your torso isn’t tilted
Although a common cue for strength exercises is to keep the chest up, you actually want your torso to be tilted forward slightly for this move.
You’ll limit your range of motion if you stay in a completely upright position, forcing your knee to pop out before you’ve reached optimal depth.
If you notice this happening, bend your waist until your torso reaches a 30-degree angle, then try again.
Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight Bulgarian split squat on a bench, try adding resistance or other props.
Load a barbell on your traps and shoulders and complete the same movement.
Take care when placing your foot behind you, ensuring you don’t lose your balance with the added weight.
Dumbbell or kettlebell
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand while executing a Bulgarian split squat.
This weighted variation will be easier to execute than the barbell variety, although you will be limited to the strength of your grip.
Also known as an assisted squat machine, the Smith machine will allow you to safely test your strength in a Bulgarian split squat.
Position the bar at shoulder height, get underneath and unhook it, then complete the movement.
Adding an unstable surface like a gym ball (also known as a yoga or exercise ball) to your Bulgarian split squat creates an additional challenge.
Use the ball in place of a bench — you’ll need to work harder to keep your balance and stabilize yourself as you squat.
Position a resistance band underneath your front foot, bending the elbows and holding the handles up at your shoulders.
Squat down, maintaining your position with the resistance band handles.
Bulgarian split squats can deliver big benefits to your legs and core.
Plus, with less required of the lower back, this exercise may be preferred over a traditional squat for adding strength to your lower body.
Master the correct form and you’ll be on your way to added strength.
Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, WI, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife, and more.