The Bulgarian split squat and the lunge are two fantastic lower body exercises that work the quads, glutes, hips, and hamstrings. However, there are certain times where you’d want to incorporate one movement instead of the other into your routine.
So what are the differences between the Bulgarian split squat and the lunge? Both movements are unilateral exercises that work one leg at a time, but the Bulgarian split squat is a static movement while the lunge is more dynamic. Both exercises also require a lot of balance and mobility, but Bulgarian split squats demand more of each because more of your body weight is balanced on one leg.
I love to hate both movements, but I alternate between them frequently.
I prefer to do both exercises as an accessory to my main lifts, but there are certain times where it’s appropriate to do them as your primary strength movement. I also prioritize lunges if I want to work on functional strength and Bulgarian split squats if I’m in a hypertrophy block.
Because it can be difficult to determine whether you should add Bulgarian split squats or lunges into your routine, I’ll discuss the following in this article:
- The differences between the Bulgarian split squat and the lunge
- The pros and cons of Bulgarian split squats and lunges
- How to perform Bulgarian split squats and lunges
- Bulgarian split squat and lunge variations
- When you should do the Bulgarian split squat, the lunge, or both
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: An Overview
If your quads are weaker in relation to other muscle groups in your lower body, or if your dominant side is disproportionately stronger than your non-dominant side, you’ll want to spend more time doing unilateral — or single-leg — work.
You don’t have to be a competitive athlete to incorporate single-leg movements into your routine. Anyone can benefit from the improved balance and lower body strength that both Bulgarian split squats and lunges offer.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a form of split squat in which you elevate your non-working leg. It’s a static exercise because you stay in the same position throughout the duration of the exercise.
While a traditional Bulgarian split squat is considered an advanced exercise, there are several ways to make it easier for beginners, such as starting with bodyweight only or not elevating the back leg. You can even make it more challenging by elevating both legs or adding tempos.
A lunge is a dynamic movement in which you step your working leg forward, backward, or to the side and bring your feet back together before moving on to your next rep. It’s an excellent functional movement that can help improve your athleticism and make every day activities easier.
Lunges can be done by lifters of all experience levels, but they require a great deal of balance and coordination. Because of their dynamic nature, proper technique is also important. Lunges can get fatiguing quickly, and it’s imperative to concentrate on using correct form even when you’re tired to prevent injuries to the knees, hip flexors, and other areas of the lower body.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: Pros vs Cons
Bulgarian Split Squat Pros
- You can do it with or without equipment. Bulgarian split squats are versatile because you can do them with just your body weight or with dumbbells, a barbell, a weight vest, or kettlebells.
- It can help correct imbalances. Unilateral exercises like Bulgarian split squats are excellent for addressing strength and muscle asymmetries between your right and left legs.
- It doesn’t put a lot of pressure on your lower back. Bulgarian split squats are a fantastic squat alternative if you’re unable to put a barbell on your back. Doing them with dumbbells or kettlebells doesn’t put pressure on your spine.
- You can use it as a substitute for squats. In addition to putting less stress on your lower back, the Bulgarian split squat is an excellent way to continue training your lower body if you don’t have access to a barbell for traditional squats.
- You can make simple adjustments to your stance to target your quads or glutes more. When the foot of your working leg is further out in front of you, you’ll feel it more in your glutes. If you bring your front foot in closer, you’ll feel it more in your quads.
Bulgarian Split Squat Cons
- They require a lot of balance. Placing the majority of your weight on one foot is tough for people who don’t have the coordination to balance on one leg for an extended period of time.
- It may be difficult to do an even amount of reps on both legs. You may find that you can do a set of 10 reps on your dominant side with no problem, but you can only do six reps on your non-dominant leg before you fail. This makes it a frustrating exercise for people with significant strength asymmetries between each leg.
- They’re tough on your quads. Even when I’m going through a cycle in my training where I do Bulgarian split squats weekly, I still get sore from them because of how much they isolate the quads. Even if you bring your front foot out further to emphasize your glutes more, your quads are still heavily involved in the movement, and it can impact the rest of your leg day exercises.
- It’s versatile. Like the Bulgarian split squat, lunges are versatile because you can do them with or without weight. Since you don’t need a sturdy surface to elevate one of your legs, you can also do lunges anywhere.
- It helps improve your proprioception. Lunges require a lot of coordination because you have to concentrate on staying balanced and stable while working one leg at a time. As such, they help to improve your proprioception, or your body’s ability to know where it is in space.
- It’s a functional movement. Lunges have a lot of carryover to daily activities because they resemble actions such as walking upstairs or getting off the floor from a half-kneeling position.
- Lunges can cause knee pain. Many people develop knee pain from doing a lot of lunges. However, it should also be noted that this is often a result of poor mobility and incorrect technique, such as letting the knee of your working leg cave inward.
- Overstriding can lead to injuries. If you step too far forward or back in a lunge and don’t have good flexibility, you can overstretch and injure the groin muscles.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: Muscles Used
The Bulgarian split squat primarily works the quads and glutes, but you can adjust your stance to emphasize one or the other. Bringing your working leg further out in front of you will target your glutes more while keeping it in closer will target your quads.
With the Bulgarian split squat, the calves, hamstrings, and adductors also act as stabilizers, and your core works to keep you balanced.
The lunge works the same muscle groups. Different lunge variations also emphasize different areas of the lower body — for example, reverse lunges target the glutes and hamstrings more while forward lunges work more of your quads.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: How to Perform
How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats?
- Start by standing about two feet in front of a box or bench that’s at about knee height.
- Put one foot on the surface behind you. You can either set your toes on top or rest your ankle along the edge.
- With your core engaged and your chest tall, squat down until your back knee almost touches the ground. If you’re having trouble reaching the full range of motion, you can aim to touch your knee to an ab mat or stack of plates.
- Drive through the heel of your front foot to return to a standing position.
- Repeat until you’ve completed all of your reps, then switch legs and do the same number of reps on the opposite side.
How to Do Lunges?
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward.
- Step one leg forward about two to three feet and bend both knees at the same time. Try to keep your shin as vertical as possible and avoid slamming your back knee to the ground.
- Keeping an even amount of weight in your front foot, push off it to return to standing and step back to return to the starting position. Avoid using too much of your back foot to help you stand back up.
- You can either complete all of your reps on one side or alternate legs until you’ve completed all of your reps. Either way, be sure to complete an equal number of reps on both legs.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: Incorporating Variation
Bulgarian Split Squat: Variations
If you’re having trouble doing a standard Bulgarian split squat, you can do the simpler split squat instead. With a regular split squat, you keep your rear foot planted on the ground instead of on a bench or box behind you. This provides some additional stability that’s lost when you elevate your non-working leg.
Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
The front foot elevated split squat is another option for beginners who are still perfecting the Bulgarian split squat. By raising your front foot, you can get deeper into the movement, which is helpful if you have poor hip mobility.
Doing split squats with the front foot elevated is also a good movement for people with knee issues because it prevents your knees from moving too far past your toes — but if your knees are otherwise healthy, it’s generally safe for them to go past your toes.
The ideal height for a front foot elevated split squat is 3-5 inches. If you can’t find a low enough object to set your front foot onto, you can stack a couple of plates together.
Both Feet Elevated
With this variation, you elevate your front foot and your back foot. It increases the range of motion even more than the front foot elevated split squat because the back leg has to travel even further.
Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat
To make the Bulgarian split squat more challenging on your core, you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest just like you would do for a goblet squat.
You may find it easier to do goblet Bulgarian split squats because holding the weight in front of you acts as a counterbalance so you’re less likely to fall over. It can also prevent your chest from falling too far forward.
With the goblet Bulgarian split squat, you may not be able to go super heavy, but you can often do more reps. This makes it a good variation if you’re trying to improve your muscular endurance.
Plyometric Bulgarian Split Squats
A plyometric Bulgarian split squat is performed the same way as a standard Bulgarian split squat, but instead of keeping your front foot on the ground, you drive through your heel to lift the working leg off the ground as high as you can.
Adding in this jumping motion helps you develop more explosive strength, which is essential for football players, sprinters, basketball players, and athletes who participate in other power sports.
Related Article: 9 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
Bulgarian Split Squat Programming Considerations
I personally like to do Bulgarian split squats near the middle of my leg workouts. This way, I’ve already gotten my compound movements out of the way, but my legs and core aren’t so fatigued that it will affect my balance. I try not to do them on heavy squat days, but if I have to do that, I use less weight and follow a lower rep scheme.
I also very rarely do them as a strength exercise, but you can certainly do so, especially if you’re subbing them for other squat movements.
Here is how you can program Bulgarian split squats for strength:
- 4 sets of x 4 reps per leg
- 3 sets of 5 reps per leg
- 5 sets of 5 reps per leg
I’d recommend following this rep scheme if you’re looking to replace back squats completely, but you can also do them after your squat sets and before the rest of your accessory movements.
Here is how you can program Bulgarian split squats for hypertrophy:
- 4 sets of 8-10 reps per leg
- 3 sets of 12-15 reps per leg
- 2 sets of 12-15 reps per leg, followed by a burnout or AMRAP set with half the weight you used in your previous sets
In a reverse lunge, you step backward rather than forward. The quads act as more of a stabilizer while the glutes and hamstrings do most of the work. The reverse lunge is considered a beginner-friendly alternative to the regular lunge because you can stay more stable throughout the movement.
Related Article: Is It Better To Do Lunges Forward or Backward?
The walking lunge is performed the same way as a regular lunge, but instead of staying in one place, you walk forward with each rep. Walking lunges help improve hip and ankle mobility, allow you to work on your core stability, and engage more of your glutes.
The curtsy lunge is a lunge variation in which you step your leg back and to the side instead of directly in front of or behind you.
By changing the position of the non-working leg, the curtsy lunge involves certain muscles that aren’t used in a standard lunge, such as your calves and hip abductors. But because it requires even more balance and mobility than a regular lunge, it’s a more advanced movement.
A lateral lunge is done by stepping your leg directly out to the side. It can help prepare your body for unexpected side-to-side movements, which many people don’t train for very often.
The lateral lunge doesn’t have as large of a range of motion as a regular lunge, but it uses more of a hip hinge. It also works more of the adductors and the vastus medialis, two muscle groups on the inside of the thighs.
Jumping lunges are often seen in HIIT workouts, but you can also use them during a strength training session to work on your explosiveness and get your heart pumping a bit.
It starts the same way as a standard lunge, but instead of stepping back into the starting position and pausing in between reps, you jump with both feet in the air before landing with the opposite leg in front.
Because they’re a high-intensity movement, jumping lunges should only be done once you’ve perfected the regular lunge.
Lunge Programming Considerations
Like Bulgarian split squats, I most frequently do lunges as an accessory movement instead of my main strength movement. But if you want or need to take a break from squats, you can do lunges for strength as well.
Here is how you can program lunges for strength:
- 4 sets of 6 reps per leg
- 3 sets of 5 reps per leg
If you’re doing lunges for strength, I’d also recommend doing all reps on one leg before switching sides.
Here is how you can do them as an accessory or for hypertrophy training:
- 3 sets of 12 per leg
- 4 sets of 10 per leg
- 2 sets of 12-15 per leg followed by an AMRAP set with just your body weight
Which Exercise Is Best for You?
When To Use Bulgarian Split Squats?
- You have a lower back injury.
- You don’t have access to a barbell for squats.
- You’re looking for more quad isolation but still want to work your glutes and hamstrings to some degree.
- You’re trying to improve your explosive power.
When To Use Lunges?
- You’re a CrossFitter, as many CrossFit WODs include lunges.
- You want to do more unilateral work but don’t yet have the balance and stability needed for Bulgarian split squats.
- You’re looking for a compound lower body movement you can do anywhere.
When To Use Both?
- You’re looking for different ways to train your lower body in multiple training sessions per week.
- You want to train for hypertrophy but you also want to incorporate functional movements into your routine.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Bulgarian Split Squats More Effective Than Lunges?
Bulgarian split squats are more effective at improving your balance and strengthening your lower body because you have to keep more of your body weight on one leg. They also isolate your quads more depending on how long your stance is, which makes them more ideal for hypertrophy.
Is the Bulgarian Split Squat Better?
While the Bulgarian split squat utilizes multiple muscle groups, it does place greater emphasis on the quads, which makes it better for hypertrophy. That said, it’s still a good exercise for building lower body strength, but the lunge is better for overall strength because it’s even more of a compound movement.
Related Article: 9 Bulgarian Split Squat Progression (From Basic to Advanced)
The Bulgarian split squat and the lunge are both excellent unilateral lower body exercises that work the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and adductors. With both movements, you can make adjustments to your stance or try different variations to emphasize different muscle groups.
Either exercise can be done to strengthen the lower body, build muscle, and improve your balance. But if you prefer to do more compound or functional movements, I’d recommend lunges. If your goal is hypertrophy, I’d go with Bulgarian split squats.
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About The Author
Amanda is a writer and editor in the fitness and nutrition industries. Growing up in a family that loved sports, she learned the importance of staying active from a young age. She started CrossFit in 2015, which led to her interest in powerlifting and weightlifting. She's passionate about helping women overcome their fear of lifting weights and teaching them how to fuel their bodies properly. When she's not training in her garage gym or working, you can find her drinking coffee, walking her dog, or indulging in one too many pieces of chocolate.