Bulgarian split squats are one of the hardest single-leg exercises you can do and one that you need to make sure you’re doing with proper form.
I recommend them to clients because of their many benefits: improving single-leg strength, improving coordination, increasing core stability, and they can help reduce muscular imbalances.
In the following article, I’ll discuss the following:
- How to correctly perform the Bulgarian Split Squats.
- Muscles worked by the Bulgarian Split Squat.
- The benefits and drawbacks to the exercise.
- Common mistakes and how to correct them.
- How to include Bulgarian Split Squats into your program.
- Alternatives and variations to the Split Squat.
If you’ve had knee or hip pain while doing this exercise, some slight tweaks to your form and setup will likely be a game changer.
Let’s dive into an overview of the Bulgarian, or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat.
Bulgarian Split Squats: Overview
The first thing to know is that the Bulgarian Split Squat, sometimes called Bulgarian lunges, is a challenging exercise. Which means it’s even more crucial to perform the exercise correctly.
This exercise is like a combination of a squat and a lunge; it works similar muscles to both exercises. Your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, spinal erectors, and core will all be worked with this one exercise.
An important thing to note is that the Single Leg Bulgarian Split Squat is an exercise that requires some trial and error with the setup. So be patient with yourself in that regard. Find the foot placement that feels most comfortable for you – you might need to adjust closer or further from the bench.
How To Do Bulgarian Split Squats With Proper Form
- Set up a bench to use as your rear foot placement. Generally speaking, a bench lower to the ground will be an easier starting place.
- Remember that you may need to adjust how far your front foot is from the bench. This requires a little bit of trial and error. Ensure your foot isn’t so far forward that your hip mobility limits your range of motion. But also make sure your foot isn’t so close to the bench that your heel comes off the ground or there is knee pain.
- The back foot is propped up on the bench for stability, but most of the work should come from the front foot.
- As you dip down, keep your chest up. Try to get as deep into the squat, then drive through your front heel to stand back up. If your hip mobility limits your range of motion, scoot your foot back.
- To target more glutes and less quadriceps, lean your torso forward slightly as you perform the exercise.
Who Should Do Bulgarian Split Squats
Bodybuilding is a sport that prioritizes symmetry. So, this is a phenomenal exercise for bodybuilders in particular because you can work on your side-to-side discrepancies. For example, if your one quad is noticeably smaller in size, these are a great exercise to catch the other side up to speed.
Bulgarian split squats should be regularly included in most athletes' workout plans. They’re great for strength athletes like powerlifters or strongmen because they can be used as accessory exercises to help raise their other lifts.
They’re also good for more ‘traditional’ athletes. Mostly because improved balance and coordination, as well as stronger quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and abs, will translate to improved athletic performance.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats can also be used for those who can’t load their spine like in a traditional barbell back squat.
Bulgarian Split Squat: Muscles Worked
Your quads extend your knee, so they will be worked to some extent on any squat variation. However, the Bulgarian Split Squat puts a lot of tension on the quads in particular. So if your quads are a lagging body part for you, this is an excellent exercise to include.
Your glutes, among other actions, help extend the hip. To emphasize your glutes during a split squat, lean forward slightly. That forward lean will place your glutes more on stretch and lead to greater activation.
Any time you’re on one leg, your core has to do a lot of stabilizing. To further work your core, turn this into a Suitcase Bulgarian Split Squat, and hold a dumbbell only on one side.
Calves and Hamstrings
These muscle groups are worked secondarily and are mostly stabilizer muscles in the split squat.
Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats
Build Leg Muscle and Strength
The Bulgarian split squat is somewhere in between a squat and a lunge and will work similar muscles. But unlike an exercise like the barbell back squat, you won’t need anywhere near the same weight, and you won’t be loading your spine. This can be a game changer for someone with a back injury to still get good, quality leg work in.
Improve Muscular Imbalances
Typically, we all have a weaker side and a stronger side. Regularly performing unilateral (single-sided) exercises can help address and improve these imbalances.
Increase Core Strength and Hip Stability
Any time you’re on one leg or holding a single object, your core will be challenged. If it weren’t, you’d fall over. The Bulgarian Split Squat is a phenomenal exercise for improving both core stability and strength, as well as hip stability and strength.
Drawbacks of the Bulgarian Split Squat
Figuring Out Your Starting Position
The main drawback to the Bulgarian Split Squat is figuring out where your feet go – both the foot on the ground and the foot on the bench. This exercise requires some adjustment, and you might need to move your front foot further or closer to the bench. You might also need to adjust your foot on the bench – you can lay the top of your foot flat on the bench, or you can tuck your toes. Whatever position you feel most stable should be the one you default to.
Coordination, Balance, and Mobility Demands
This exercise does require a high level of coordination, balance, and mobility. You need adequate hip and core stability to help coordination. You need enough balance not to tip over setting your foot up. You also need mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles to get enough range of motion.
Tips for Bulgarian Split Squats
Figure Out Your Front Foot
This is an exercise that requires some adjusting to find your perfect foot placement.
- Too far, and you’ll likely be limited by your hip mobility.
- Too close, and you might be putting too much stress on your knee joint.
So, with that being said, take some time to figure out exactly where your front foot should be. Using chalk or placing something on the ground to note where your foot should be can help those newer to this exercise stay consistent with their foot placement.
Use Assistance If Needed
The Bulgarian Split Squat can help train your balance, but it can also be a limiting factor to getting the most out of the exercise. If balance is your main issue, feel free to grab something for support, or you can even use something like a foam roller or dowel rod to help stabilize yourself. Like so:
Bulgarian Split Squats: Common Mistakes
Losing Your Balance
This is an extremely common occurrence when doing this exercise. I’ve found that it’s typically when people have their feet too narrow like they're on a tightrope. If you widen out your stance slightly, this can make a world of difference if balance is something you struggle with here.
Putting Too Much Weight On Your Back Foot
Your back foot is propped up so that most of the work is done by your front leg. 90% of your weight should be on your front foot – and you should be driving off your front foot to stand back up.
Rising On To Your Toes
This common mistake is closely related to the previous two and is usually a consequence of being off balance or a poor starting position. This can usually be fixed by moving your front foot further away from the bench. Do your best to keep your front foot firmly planted while you perform the exercise and drive through the ball of your foot.
How To Program Bulgarian Split Squats
These are great exercises to build lower body strength, especially if exercises like barbell back squats hurt. The spine isn’t directly loaded, and typically, you’ll need a lot less weight than a traditional squat.
To program these for strength development, put them at the beginning of your workout. I’d stick to a rep range between 4-8 repetitions. I’ve found that any fewer than 4 reps is difficult to get set up. I’ll typically have the first set around 8 or so reps, the second set around 5-6, with the final set going for 4-5 reps. Build in weight as the reps drop, and get after it!
When I program this exercise for muscle growth, I’ll typically place them in the middle of the workout or even at the end as a finisher.
When discussing muscle growth, we need to rep it out. So I’ll use higher rep sets of 8-12 reps per leg. 3 to 4 sets should be all you need if you’re doing these right.
Bulgarian Split Squat Variations
Barbell Bulgarian Split Squats
Try using a barbell on your back instead of dumbbells down by your sides. I typically use this variation when trying to go heavy.
Suitcase Bulgarian Split Squats
This variation resembles the dual dumbbell split squats, but you’re only holding one dumbbell. This will challenge your core and hip stability more than the previous variations. This is a great option to prioritize balance and stability work.
Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat
Like a goblet squat – you’ll hold just one dumbbell out in front. This will challenge your core differently because you need to keep your torso up as you squat down. This is also a solid option if you’re training a group of people with sparse equipment.
This is just the start in regards to Squat variations. Here are some more ideas: 50 Squat Variations To Grow and Strengthen Your Legs
Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
Dumbbell Split Squats
These are a great place to start if the traditional rear foot elevated split squat is too challenging currently. It involves all the same muscles but is a little less demanding because you aren’t placing your back foot on a bench – it stays on the ground.
Step ups are an underrated exercise, in my opinion, and more people should have them in their regular programming. They’re similar to a Bulgarian split squat in that you’re improving your single-sided capabilities and working on balance. However, step-ups require less balance and less mobility than Bulgarian Split Squats.
Dumbbell Reverse Lunges
Another fantastic exercise to improve single leg strength, but one that is an easier starting place than the Bulgarian Split Squat. Everyone should be doing reverse lunges as long as they aren’t painful.
Want to learn more about the difference between Split Squats and Lunges? Check out this article: Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge
Dumbbell Single Leg Glute Bridge
This is a fantastic exercise that primarily targets the glutes and hamstrings and is probably the most user-friendly exercise on this list. So, if the other exercises seem too challenging, start here.
There are a ton of variations to the Bulgarian Split Squat. If you need more ideas, check this out: 9 Bulgarian Split Squat Progression Exercises
Sample Bulgarian Split Squat Workout
- 3 sets:
- Bulgarian Split Squat x 8, 6, 4 reps (increase weight each set)
- Banded Standing Abduction x 12-20 reps per leg
- 3 sets:
- Dumbbell Step Up x 10, 8, 6 reps per leg (increase weight each set)
- Banded Seated Abduction x 30 reps
- 3 sets:
- Single Leg Glute Bridge x 12, 10, 8 reps (increase weight each set)
- Banded Fire Hydrants x 12-20 reps per side
- 3-4 sets:
- Back Squats x 12 reps
- Hamstring Curls (machine) x 15 reps
- 3-4 sets:
- Bulgarian Split Squats x 12 reps per leg
- Leg Extensions (machine) x 15 reps
- 3-4 sets:
- Heel Elevated Goblet Squat x 12-15 reps
- Single Leg Deadlift x 10 reps per leg
Frequently Asked Questions
Can beginners do Bulgarian Split Squats?
Bulgarian Split Squats aren’t an exercise I’d recommend to a beginner. They require a ton of stability and coordination. Start with regular split squats.
How high should my back leg be?
1-2 feet off the ground should be sufficient for most people. If hip mobility is a limiting factor, use a lower bench.
The Bulgarian Split squat is the most simultaneously loved and hated exercise on the internet, and for good reason. They’re challenging but rewarding.
These should be included in your regular programming if you’re trying to improve muscle definition, leg strength, core strength, hip stability, balance, and/or coordination.
There are all sorts of variations and alternatives to the Bulgarian Split Squat. Make sure to try out the few I listed, but if you need more ideas, start here: The 9 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
About The Author
Kurtis Ackerman is a personal trainer residing in Southern California. He is the owner and head trainer of KB Fitness. He competed in powerlifting and Strongman in his younger years. Now he trains a wide variety of clientele but specializes in working around injuries. You can connect with him on Instagram or LinkedIn.