9 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative (With Pictures)

9 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative

The Bulgarian split squat is one of the most commonly used single-leg lower body exercises to target the glute and quad muscles.

However, there are alternatives to the Bulgarian split squat that can help make the movement more or less difficult, and activate different areas of the lower body.

The 9 best Bulgarian split squat alternatives are:

  1. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
  2. Heel Elevated Split Squat
  3. Toe Elevated Split Squat
  4. Wall Reference Split Squat
  5. Cable Zercher Split Squat
  6. Barbell Split Squat
  7. Contralateral Loaded Split Squat
  8. Ipsilateral Loaded Split Squat
  9. Lateral Split Squat

In this article, I will break down the best Bulgarian split squat alternatives, discuss what they train, how they differ and explain how best to perform them.

What Makes A Great Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative

A great Bulgarian split squat alternative should achieve the following:

  1. Target similar muscle groups as the Bulgarian split squat
  2. Train the legs in a unilateral fashion i.e. one leg at a time

Let’s have a look at what the Bulgarian split squat does.

Muscles Used In A Bulgarian Split Squat

Research shows that muscles worked in a Bulgarian split squat are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip Adductors
  • Glutes (Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus)
  • Calves (Gastrocnemius, soleus)

Therefore, when we select an alternative to the Bulgarian split squat we want to look for variations that use similar musculature.  

Some of the variations that we’ll discuss below may have greater activation in one area over another (i.e. use more glutes than quads), so you can pick the variation that best suits your training goals. 

Trains The Legs Unilaterally i.e. One Leg At A Time

A key component of the Bulgarian split squat is that it trains the legs one at a time. 

Whether you are training the left leg forward or right leg forward, the other leg will be placed in a different position.

This is an important consideration to make when selecting a substitute for the Bulgarian split squat, as exercises that place both feet on the same plane (like a barbell squat or deadlift) will NOT be a good alternative.  

9 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative

1. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

The front foot elevated split squat can be thought of as the opposite of a Bulgarian split squat. 

During the Bulgarian split squat, the rear foot is elevated to load the front leg more and keep the center of gravity near the front of the foot, which targets the quads and glutes more.

During the front foot elevated split squat, the front foot is elevated so that the pressure is closer to the heels of the front foot, and therefore load into the heels a bit more. This places more emphasis on the hamstrings and hip adductors, which are the groin muscles.

How To Do It

  • Choose an object to elevate the feet about 6 to 12 inches off the ground
  • Put the front foot on top of the box
  • Hold on to a pair of weights such as dumbbells or kettlebells, or hold no weight at all
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips, and back knee in a vertical line
  • Maintain a vertical shin angle of the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in both knees

Pro Tip

If you are not using load, try to raise the arm opposite to your front leg, and reach forward. You should be able to feel your hip muscles such as your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors more when you focus on rotating your pelvis forward towards the front leg.

2. Heel Elevated Split Squat

The heel elevated split squat requires placing an object such as a wedge or weight plate underneath the heel of the front foot. 

While you will still achieve muscle activation in the glutes and hamstrings, just like the Bulgarian split squat, this alternative will target the quads more. 

This is because as you elevate the heel you will place a greater load on the front part of the foot, and therefore, the knee is going to bend further forward to a greater extent.  The further the knee travels forward, the more the quads will activate. 

How To Do It

  • Choose an object to elevate the heels by about 1 inch
  • Hold onto a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells if loading is desired
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips, and back knee in a vertical line
  • Keep the pressure on the heel of the front foot
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in both knees with the front knee almost straighten

Pro Tip

Using a wedge is better than using a blocky item such as a small weight disc (5lb or 10lb plate). This is because you can feel your centre of gravity across your foot better which helps with balancing. 

When you stand up, think about pushing away from the front. You should be able to feel your quads more. If you feel your glutes more, you’re not bending into the front knee enough. 

If you don’t know what I’m referring to when I say “use a wedge”, then check out these lifting wedges.  These wedges can be used for the next variation as well.

3. Toe Elevated Split Squat

The toe elevated split squat is an alternative to the Bulgarian split squat that requires elevating the toes of the front foot so that they point upwards slightly. 

This places more loading onto the upper hamstring, and hip adductors more (inner thigh). You can use a small plate or wedge to elevate the front foot.

To do this variation, you need to have greater mobility in your ankles.  If you lack ankle mobility, you’ll find that you can’t squat as deep as you would without your toe elevated.  If that’s the case, I wouldn’t do this variation until you develop better ankle mobility. 

How To Do It

  • Choose an object to elevate the forefoot of the front foot by about ½ to 1 inch
  • Hold onto a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells if loading is desired
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips, and back knee in a vertical line
  • Keep the pressure on the front foot more than the back foot
  • Rotate your pelvis forward so that the middle of your hips point toward the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Allow the front shin and knee to go forward over the toes
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in both knees

Pro-Tip

When performing this variation, you may feel like your back leg is bending more compared with a normal Bulgarian split squat.  This is normal and will feel like you’re squatting “straight up and down” more rather than moving your body forward like a lunge.

It may also help to push away from the back foot more to lean the torso over the front leg.

4. Wall Reference Split Squat

A wall reference split squat is a substitute to the Bulgarian split squat that is performed by placing the rear foot into the bottom of a wall with an effort to push away from the wall slightly. This is a great way to push more of your body weight onto the front leg. 

The wall reference split squat is considered a “progression” to the Bulgarian split squat.  In other words, before mastering the Bulgarian split squat, you should be able to do the wall reference split squat.  

It’s also a great exercise to do if you struggle with balance as the rear foot against the wall helps stabilize the back leg. 

How To Do It

  • Put your back foot against the bottom of a wall with the toes almost touching the ground
  • Gently push away from the wall with your back leg so that you load it into your front leg
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips and back knee in a vertical line
  • Keep the pressure on the heels when you are at the top
  • Rotate your pelvis forward so that the middle of your hips point toward the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Allow the front shin and knee to go forward over the feet
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in the front knee

Pro-Tip

If you do choose to load this variation, hold a weight in the arm that is opposite to the front leg. Otherwise, just reach forward horizontally with this arm. This will help you stay balanced during the exercise while only one foot is on the ground.

5. Cable Zercher Split Squat

A cable Zercher split squat is a Bulgarian split squat replacement that requires using a cable machine and a straight bar handle that is rested in the crooks of your bent elbows, which are kept close to your torso. 

This variation encourages you to push yourself away from the cable machine, at the same time that you’re thinking about pushing into the floor to stand up. 

Because you’re pushing both “down” and “away”, this can encourage engagement in the quadriceps more compared with the Bulgarian split squat.

How To Do It

  • Set up a cable machine with the handle to stem from the bottom of the column
  • Use a straight bar handle and hold onto it in the crooks of your bent elbow
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips, and back knee in a vertical line
  • Keep the pressure on the heels when you are at the top
  • Rotate your pelvis forward so that the middle of your hips point toward the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Push up and away from the cable column as you ascend
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in the front knee

Pro-Tip

If you’re new to this exercise, you may feel like you’re falling forward.  This might also cause your heels to lift from the floor unnecessarily.  If that’s the case, think about pushing through your midfoot or forefoot, and really try to feel the tension through your quads more. Start light, and do more warm-up sets than usual to get used to the new mechanics. 

6. Barbell Split Squat

A barbell split squat is a regular split squat with both feet on the ground and the barbell on the back. 

The barbell split squat is a good Bulgarian split squat alternative if you want to lift more weight.  

This is because with both feet on the ground (rather than one foot elevated), you can typically use about 10-15% more weight than compared with a Bulgarian split squat.

How To Do It

  • Put a barbell on top of your traps with your shoulder blades pinched back and elbows pointed down
  • Keep the back flat, and shoulders, hips, and back knee in a vertical line
  • Take a deep breath through your nose into your core and brace tight
  • Rotate your pelvis forward so that the middle of your hips point toward the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Keep your shins roughly vertical and pressure over midfoot and ascend
  • Stand back up whilst maintaining a soft bend in the front knee

Pro-Tip

To balance better under heavier weight, make sure your back foot points forward or slightly inwards towards the front foot (slightly pigeon-toed).  You’ll want to avoid flaring the back foot outwards. 

As well, if you’re doing this exercise to go heavy, be careful that your back knee doesn’t ‘smash’ into the floor. You can place a small mat under your knee in case this happens.  

7. Contralateral Loaded Split Squat

A contralateral loaded split squat is a Bulgarian split squat alternative where you hold onto a load on the arm that is opposite to the front leg. 

Since you’re only holding a weight in one arm, you’re going to feel more off-balanced compared to usual.  This will force you to engage your core muscles to a greater extent, and smaller stabilizing muscles in your hips and glutes.  

The contralateral loaded split squat should only be done if you’ve mastered the Bulgarian split squat, as it’s considered a more advanced progression.  

How To Do It

  • Get yourself into a split stance with your front foot flat and back foot on your toes
  • Hold onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or another load on the arm opposite to your front leg
  • Rotate your pelvis forward so that the middle of your hips point toward the front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Keep your shins roughly vertical and pressure over heels
  • Stand back up whilst keeping your knees slightly bent at the top

Pro-Tip

Allow the knees to go forward more if you want to focus more on the quads, or keep the shin vertical if you want to feel the tension on the upper hamstrings and glutes. Keep the pressure more on your heels.

8. Ipsilateral Loaded Split Squat

An ipsilateral loaded split squat is a Bulgarian split squat substitute where you hold onto a load on the arm that is the same side as the front leg. 

This variation is similar to the one I just explained, however, the hand that holds the load differs.

Whether you want to choose to load on the ipsilateral side or the contralateral side depends on what muscle groups you want to work on more. 

The contralateral side targets the hamstrings and adductors more, which may be more beneficial if you want to improve deadlift strength. Loading the contralateral side is an easier version than the ipsilateral side as it is easier to balance on your front foot.

Whereas the ipsilateral loading targets the tension onto the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and hip abductors more, which may be more beneficial if you want to improve squat strength more

How To Do It

  • Get yourself into a split stance with your front foot flat and back foot on your toes
  • Hold onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or other loads on the arm that is on the same side as your front leg
  • Descend in the split squat until your back knee almost touches the ground
  • Keep your shins roughly vertical and pressure over heels
  • Stand back up whilst keeping your knees slightly bent at the top

Pro Tip

One tip that I’ve found that really helps with balance is to think about “curling” or “clawing” the ground with my feet.  You should feel like you’re actively gripping the floor with your toes as you’re squatting down.  This squat cue can be used in combination with keeping your eyes fixed on an object in front of you to enhance your stability and balance. 

9. Cossack Squat

A cossack squat is a more hip dominant variation of a split squat meaning there will be more engagement around the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. The focus of a lateral split squat is sideways as opposed to forward and backward.

One of the downsides to this exercise is that it requires a lot of flexibility in the groin and inner thigh.  So make sure you try this movement with just your bodyweight first before moving into the loaded variation. 

How To Do It

  • Get yourself into a wide stance with feet pointed forward
  • Hold onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or another load on one arm, and allow it to hang in front of your hips
  • Descend by pushing your hips backward and sideways to the side opposite to the loaded arm
  • Allow the load to reach towards the opposite foot
  • Keep the shin of the side you moved your hips towards, vertical
  • Push away through your heels and reach back towards the center

Pro-Tip

The cossack squat is often used as a warm-up exercise for other movements like the squat and sumo deadlift, or any other exercise that requires the adductors (inner thigh) to be engaged.  I don’t actually recommend loading this movement too heavily.  If that’s your goal, I would use the barbell split squat instead.  

Final Thoughts

Choosing an alternative to the Bulgarian split squat will depend a lot on what you want to achieve and where you think your weaknesses are. You can also choose an alternative based on what your training day is more focused on.

Other Lower Body Exercise Alternatives

Check out our other articles that discuss alternatives to popular lower body exercises: 


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com