The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral exercise that builds strength and muscle mass in the lower body. But because it forces you to place most of your weight on one leg, it can be a difficult movement to master.
The Bulgarian split squat also requires good hip and ankle mobility, coordination, and balance that you might not have yet if you’re just getting started with lifting weights. As you become more experienced, you may eventually find the movement too easy and look for ways to make it more challenging.
Here are 9 Bulgarian split squat progressions from basic to advanced:
- Assisted Split Squat
- Split Squat
- Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
- Single Side Bulgarian Split Squat
- Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat
- Both Feet Elevated Bulgarian Split Squat
- Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat with Back Foot in a Ring
In this article, I’ll show you how to perform each of these nine Bulgarian split squat progressions. I’ll also discuss some of the most common mistakes of the Bulgarian split squat so you can ensure you’re using proper form regardless of which variation you do.
What Makes a Good Exercise Regression for the Bulgarian Split Squat?
Because not all lower body movements target the muscles in the exact same way, there are certain things you should look for when finding a beginner-friendly alternative to the Bulgarian split squat.
A good exercise regression for the Bulgarian split squat does three things:
- Allows you to practice balancing on one leg
- Allows you to find the foot positioning that works best for you
- Lets you isolate one leg at a time
1. Allows You To Practice Balancing on One Leg
Even though your non-working leg rests on a surface behind you during the Bulgarian split squat, it doesn’t do much to assist you through the full range of motion.
Having to stand with the majority of your weight on one leg is challenging for many people. A proper Bulgarian split squat regression will allow you to get used to the feeling of balancing on one leg.
2. Allows You To Find the Foot Positioning That Works Best for You
When you’re new to the Bulgarian split squat, it can take a while to find the ideal foot placement for your working leg. You can keep it closer to your body or step it further in front of you to target either the quads or glutes, but the exact distances will vary based on your limb proportions and what feels most comfortable to you.
Regressions that let you practice a split squat movement with your feet spread apart at different distances will help you find the positioning that works best for your body type and works the muscles you want to target.
3. Lets You Isolate One Leg at a Time
The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral movement. As such, traditional squats and any other variations of them are not ideal regressions for Bulgarian split squats.
You need to practice working just one leg at a time when you’re building up to a more advanced progression so you don’t worsen any existing muscular imbalances between your two sides.
Before You Start the Bulgarian Split Squat
If you plan on adding Bulgarian split squats to your routine regularly, you’ll need to work on your calf, ankle, and hip mobility. This will allow you to get the depth you need while maintaining proper form.
Calf and Ankle Mobility
All squatting variations, whether they’re bilateral or unilateral, require good calf and ankle mobility. Tightness in these areas can prevent you from squatting deep and can also cause knee valgus, or your knees caving inward.
Using a foam roller on your calves and shins and sitting in a deep squat hold are good ways to work on your ankle mobility. There are also several other drills you can try if calf and ankle mobility is an issue for you.
Hip mobility is also required for the Bulgarian split squat. In order to get the most benefits out of the movement, you need to be able to move through a full range of motion, which can be difficult to achieve if your hip flexors are tight.
Poor hip mobility can also result in inefficient movement patterns, and if you don’t address those issues, you can develop bad habits that may be challenging to overcome as you progress to more difficult variations.
9 Bulgarian Split Squat Exercise Progressions
1. Assisted Split Squat
The first progression to help you build up to a Bulgarian split squat is an assisted split squat. Your working leg is out in front of you, but your rear foot stays planted on the ground to provide some additional stability.
With this variation of the Bulgarian split squat, you also hold on to something sturdy with the hand on the opposite side of your working leg for additional support. You can also hold onto TRX straps or a set of gymnastics rings.
How To Do It
- Step forward by about two feet — if necessary, shorten or increase the distance based on your limb proportions
- Make sure the ball of the foot on your rear leg stays connected to the ground
- With the hand on the opposite side of your working leg, hold onto something sturdy like the back of a chair, the post of a squat rack, or gymnastics rings that are fastened to something secure
- Squat down slowly until your back knee either touches the ground or hovers about an inch above it
- If you touch your knee to the ground, avoid slamming it down with too much force
- Without coming up onto your toes or relying too much on your back foot, push through your front foot to stand back up
2. Split Squat
The regular split squat is performed just like the assisted split squat but without holding onto anything. This will allow you to practice squatting and standing up without any additional support.
How To Do It
- Take a two- to three-foot step forward
- Lift the heel of your back leg so you’re on the ball of your foot
- Keep your hands at your sides or on your hips
- Squat and touch your back knee to the ground gently or let it hover just slightly above the ground
- Keeping the heel of your front leg planted on the ground, drive through the entire foot to stand back up
3. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Elevating the front foot for a split squat allows you to get deeper into the movement. By increasing the range of motion, you can work on your hip mobility, which you’ll need in order to progress to more difficult variations. It also makes the movement easier on your knees.
How To Do It
- Find a stable, low surface about 3-5 inches high or stack a few plates together
- If you feel comfortable enough at this point to use weights, hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides
- Place one foot on the elevated surface and step back with the other foot about 2-3 feet
- Squat until your back knee either hovers just slightly above the ground or touches it gently
- With your weight evenly distributed through your whole foot, drive upward to return to the starting position
4. One-Sided Bulgarian Split Squat
Once you feel comfortable with a split squat movement and you feel you have good hip mobility, you can progress to elevating your back leg. But if holding dumbbells in both hands makes you nervous, you can hold weight in just one hand.
As you’re getting started with elevating your back foot, you can play around with the height of the box or bench behind you. Finding something that’s about 10 inches high is a good starting point. You can always increase the height as you become more proficient.
If that’s not possible, you can also use whatever box or bench you have access to and touch your back knee to a stack of plates or an ab mat instead of trying to go all the way to the ground.
How To Do It
- Holding a dumbbell in one hand, stand about 2-3 feet in front of a box or bench
- Place the top of the foot on your opposite leg on the surface behind you
- Keep the arm that’s not holding any weight down by your side or lift your arm out to the side for extra balance
- Squat down until your back knee is touching or close to touching the ground
- Drive through your entire foot to stand back up
5. Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat
If you’re still hesitant about doing a Bulgarian split squat while holding dumbbells at your sides, you can do a goblet-style Bulgarian split squat and hold a weight at your chest.
Keeping the weight in front of you offers a counterbalance that can make it easier for you to maintain your balance. It also helps prevent your chest from collapsing as you get deep into the squat.
How To Do It
- Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest
- Stand about 2-3 feet in front of a box or bench and place the top of one of your feet on the surface behind you
- Squat down until your back knee is touching or almost touching the ground
- Keeping your weight evenly distributed through your front foot, push through the foot to stand back up
6. Both Feet Elevated Split Squat
Also called a deficit Bulgarian split squat, this variation requires you to elevate both feet. Your back leg has a greater distance to travel, which deepens the range of motion and works the quads and glutes a bit more.
This variation requires a significant amount of hip mobility, so you should only attempt this exercise once you’ve mastered the previous progressions.
How To Do It
- Place a low step or 45lb plate about two feet in front of a box or bench
- Set one foot on top of the plate or step and the other foot on the surface behind you
- Squat down until your knee touches or gets close to the ground. Aim for a couple of stacked plates or an ab mat if you can’t get all the way to the ground
- Keeping your front foot firmly planted on the elevated surface, drive through the foot to return to the starting position
7. Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
I recommend the barbell Bulgarian split squat for experienced lifters because it can be more difficult to get into the correct positions with a barbell on your back.
Furthermore, if you don’t have the balance and coordination necessary to do the movement correctly and you fail a rep, you can seriously hurt yourself if you have to drop the barbell.
How To Do It
- Position a box or bench several feet in front of a squat rack
- Load a barbell with your desired weight — I recommend starting with no more than 50-60% of your squat 1RM. You can always increase the weight if it feels too easy at first
- Center yourself under the bar and place the bar on your back in either a high bar or low bar position
- Step back, making sure you’re not too close or too far away from the box or bench, and place one foot on top with your shoelaces facing down
- Squat down, stopping when your back knee is at or just above the ground
- Drive through the front foot to stand back up
8. Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
When you do the Bulgarian split squat with weights in the front rack position, it brings your upper back muscles into the equation and becomes more of a full-body movement.
It’s more difficult to keep yourself balanced when you hold weights this way, so this variation should only be done if you already have good balance and coordination. You can do this movement with a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells.
How To Do It
- Hold a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or a pair of kettlebells at your shoulders
- Stand two to three feet in front of a box or a bench and place one foot on top of it
- Squat until your back knee is touching or almost touching the floor
- With your weight evenly distributed throughout your front foot, drive through the foot to stand back up
9. Bulgarian Split Squat with Back Foot in a Ring
Placing your non-working leg on an unstable surface provides an even greater challenge to your balance and stability. Because the back leg isn’t resting on a hard surface, more of your body weight has to balance on your front leg.
When doing this variation, you may need someone to help you get the foot of your non-working leg through the ring while you’re holding on to weights.
How To Do It
- Secure a set of gymnastics rings or TRX handles to a rig
- Place one foot through a ring and take a large step forward with the other leg
- Resisting the urge to swing the non-working leg out to the side, squat down until your back knee touches or almost touches the ground
- Drive through your front foot to return to the starting position
Common Mistakes With The Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat can take a while to perfect. As you work on mastering the exercise, there are several mistakes you should avoid to prevent injuries and ensure you’re getting the most out of the movement.
Many of the mistakes below are common regardless of which variation you choose. If you’re just starting out with the Bulgarian split squat, it’s best to address these issues right away so you don’t carry over bad habits into more difficult variations.
1. Letting Your Heel Come off the Floor
When the heel of the foot on your working leg comes off the floor, it puts more stress on your knee. It also makes you feel less stable during a movement that already challenges your balance.
2. Chest Falling Too Far Forward
It’s easy to let your chest collapse if your core isn’t strong enough to keep you more vertical at the bottom of the movement, but you should do your best to maintain tension in your upper body and keep your shoulders straight.
You don’t need to be completely upright — in fact, a slight forward lean is recommended to achieve a full range of motion — but you shouldn’t let your shoulders hunch or your chest collapse. This puts extra stress on your lower back and can cause you to fall over.
3. Spreading Your Feet Too Far Apart
With a Bulgarian split squat, you can move your front leg further out in front of you to target your glutes more. But it is possible to put it too far forward. This can not only overstretch your groin muscles if you don’t have good flexibility but it can also cause you to extend your knee too far past your toes.
4. Keeping Too Much Weight on Your Back Foot
If your quads or glutes aren’t strong enough to support your front leg, you may find that you’re overcompensating by relying too much on your back foot as you return to the starting position. This prevents you from effectively targeting the muscles in your working leg.
5. Knees Caving Inward
Knee valgus, or your knees turning in, can cause patellofemoral syndrome, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, and in rare cases, ACL tears. This is more likely to occur if you’re using a weight that’s too heavy or you have significant weaknesses in your glutes.
6. Not Putting Your Back Foot Straight Behind You
If your rear foot is off to the side even by a little bit, it can put your hips out of alignment, throwing off your balance and prohibiting you from achieving a full range of motion.
Even if you elevate one or both of your feet, you should imagine keeping them no more than hip-distance apart. This will help keep you more stable and allow your hips to move through a more natural movement pattern.
Other Exercise Progressions
- 10 Bench Press Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
- 8 Deadlift Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
- Pistol Squat Progression: From Basic to Advanced (Full Guide)
- 11 Squat Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
- 10 Overhead Squat Progression: From Beginner To Advanced
The Bulgarian split squat is a difficult exercise because of the balance, coordination, and core stability it requires, but there are several variations you can try to make it easier. As you become more experienced, you can incorporate more advanced progressions to introduce more of a challenge.
Whenever you progress to a more difficult variation, I recommend taking several weeks to perfect that version before moving on to the next progression. This will allow you to get in an ample amount of practice so you don’t become injured or discouraged by trying a movement that’s beyond your current abilities.
Other Bulgarian Split Squat Resources
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.