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The Definitive Guide to the Bulgarian Split Squat (and the Best Variations!)

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If you want to know what the Bulgarian split squat is, which muscles it works, and how to do it properly, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Bulgarian split squat is one of the best exercises you can do for developing your quads, hip flexors, and posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back). It’s easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.
  2. Unlike the barbell squat, the Bulgarian split squat is a single-leg exercise, which can help prevent and correct muscle imbalances.
  3. If you don’t like dumbbell Bulgarian split squats for whatever reason, you can always choose from one of a number of variations.

There are a lot of opinions out there on the Bulgarian split squat.

Some say that it’s a middling exercise for people who can’t do a proper barbell squat.

Others disagree and claim that the Bulgarian split squat is safer and better for gaining muscle and strength than the back squat.

Others still say it depends on your anatomy—that which style of squat will work best for you depends on factors like the length of your legs, the ratio between your thighs and shin, and the degree of tilt in your pelvis.

Who’s right?

Well, the truth is this:

The Bulgarian split squat isn’t an all-around better exercise than the barbell back squat, but if you incorporate it into your plan intelligently, it can help improve your leg development while reducing your risk of injury and muscle imbalances.

And in this article, you’re going to learn why. Specifically, you’re going to learn…

  • What the Bulgarian split squat is (and how it got its name)
  • Why it’s such an effective lower body exercise
  • How it differs from other kinds of squats and single leg exercises
  • How to Bulgarian split squat in 3 simple steps
  • 5 ways to improve your Bulgarian split squat

And last but not least, you’re also going to get a simple, effective, and challenging Bulgarian split squat workout routine that you can start using today.

Let’s get to it.

What Is the Bulgarian Split Squat?

The Bulgarian split squat is a single leg exercise that targets your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, there are three key parts to the Bulgarian split squat:

  • You balance on one foot, with your rear foot on a bench or box.
  • Your back stays more or less straight throughout the whole movement.
  • You usually hold dumbbells to add weight, instead of using a barbell.

There are also several variations of Bulgarian split squats that you can do, including the barbell Bulgarian split squat and the goblet Bulgarian split squat. We’ll go over each in a few minutes, but they all follow the same general movement pattern.

You may also be wondering why it’s called the Bulgarian split squat.

Well, no one knows exactly who created this exercise, but it was popularized by a Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach named Angel Spassov.

Olympic weightlifters live and die by the snatch and clean and jerk, which is why they’re always looking for more effective ways to develop lower body strength.

Spassov visited the U.S. in the 80s to share what he’d been up to on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and one of the exercises he was particularly enamored of was a single-leg squat. Word spread quickly, and soon after, Olympic lifters everywhere were doing Spassov’s “Bulgarian split squat.”

(The Romanian deadlift has a similar origin story.)

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What Muscles Does the Bulgarian Split Squat Work?

The Bulgarian split squat is generally considered one of the best exercises you can do for training all the major muscle groups in your body, and for good reason.

It emphasizes the quadriceps, which is the group of muscles on the front of the thighs, including the…

  • Rectus femoris
  • Vastus lateralis
  • Vastus medialis
  • Vastus intermedius

Here’s what the quads look like:

bulgarian split squat quads

Like all good compound exercises, however, the Bulgarian split squat also trains several other muscle groups, including the…

And here’s what these muscles look like:

bulgarian split squat muscles

To a lesser extent, the Bulgarian split squat also engages the lats, shoulders, and abs.

Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Back Squat

The differences between the barbell back squat and the Bulgarian split squat are pretty straightforward:

The barbell back squat involves both legs more or less equally and has the weight positioned high on the back.

The Bulgarian split squat emphasizes one leg at a time, and the weight is generally held in the hands.

Simple enough.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, however, there’s controversy over which of these exercises is better for gaining muscle and strength.

Traditionalists say that nothing beats the barbell back squat, but there’s a growing number of coaches and experts who say that by training each leg independently, you can increase muscle activation, and thus muscle growth.

What does science have to say, though?

Well, it depends on which muscle groups you analyze, but most research shows that the traditional back squat is the more effective lower body exercise.

For example, studies show the back squat causes as much or more quadriceps activation than the Bulgarian split squat, and the same thing is true of the erector spinae and core muscles.

Research shows that the Bulgarian split squat may cause slightly more hamstring activation than the back squat, but the (small) differences are probably due to the fact the quadriceps aren’t doing as much work, which forces the hamstrings to pick up the slack.

So, all things considered, I think it’s fair to say that the barbell back squat is better for developing the quads, but the Bulgarian split squat is as good or slightly better for developing the hamstrings.

Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Single-Leg Squat

These two exercises don’t seem all that different at first glance.

Here’s the Bulgarian split squat again:

And here’s the single-leg squat:

As you can see, the only real difference is that the Bulgarian split squat involves raising your rear leg, whereas the single-leg doesn’t.

This means the Bulgarian split squat has a greater range of motion than the single-leg squat, but it’s also harder to maintain your balance with heavy weights. And because balancing is easier with the single-leg squat, that means it’s also easier to use a barbell instead of dumbbells.

So, which exercise is better? Neither, really.

Both are great unilateral (single-leg) exercises that emphasize the quads.

That said, you generally have to load up the single-leg squat with a lot of weight to get the most out of the exercise, to the point where I’d rather just do regular back squats.

Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Lunges

Here’s what a typical lunge looks like:

Functionally speaking, the main differences between the lunge and the Bulgarian split squat are the lunge engages the rear leg more, and uses a shorter range of motion.

The lunge also requires even more balance than the Bulgarian split squat, making it less newbie friendly. Even advanced lifters generally can’t use as much weight on lunges, either.

All in all, though, lunges and Bulgarian split squats are very comparable. Use whichever one feels more comfortable to you.

Who Should Do the Bulgarian Split Squat?

Everyone can benefit from the Bulgarian split squat, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t start including it in your lower body workouts.

As far as general programming goes, I wouldn’t replace all barbell back squatting with Bulgarian split squats, but they can work well in tandem.

For example, the Bulgarian split squat is a great way to add volume to your quads and glutes without grinding out even more back squats (you can only do so much heavy barbell back squatting every week before the wheels start to come off).

There’s also evidence that using multiple exercises to train and develop a muscle group is more effective than just one, so a well-rounded lower body workout should, in my opinion, involve more than just barbell back squatting.

That said, a perfectly valid reason to choose the Bulgarian split squat over the barbell back squat is if you’re dealing with back pain, because it doesn’t load the spine as aggressively.

Keep in mind, however, that studies show the Bulgarian split squat activates the back muscles about as much as the barbell back squat, so it could still aggravate a lower back injury.

The Bulgarian split squat is also handy for times where you want to squat but don’t have access to a barbell for whatever reason.

For instance, if you’re traveling, you often have to make do with hotel gyms, which don’t have barbells. The Bulgarian split squat is a perfect substitution.

Personally, that’s what I do when I’m traveling. Almost every gym, even the most crappy hotel gyms, have dumbbells, which makes this one of the most effective options for when you’re traveling.

How to Bulgarian Split Squat in 3 Simple Steps

Compound exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are double-edged swords.

They deliver the maximum muscle- and strength-building bang for your buck, but they also require good technique or they can become dangerous.

So let’s break down how to Bulgarian split squat step-by-step.

First, watch this to see what we’re aiming for:

And now let’s go through the three steps of proper Bulgarian split squat form.

Step 1

Setup

There are two ways to set up for the Bulgarian split squat:

  • With a regular bench
  • With a riser or a few plates

It’s claimed Spassov intended for his split-squat to be performed with the rear foot elevated just 4 to 6 inches off the ground, like this:

bulgarian split squat setup

 

But this can’t be confirmed, and not every gym has risers but does have padded gym benches, which make the exercise more comfortable. Thus, people have naturally gravitated toward the latter.

Some people say that placing your rear foot on a bench makes it too difficult to balance effectively while holding heavy dumbbells, increasing the risk of injury and reducing the practicality and effectiveness of the exercise.

Others say that it doesn’t really matter.

Personally, I’ve always used a bench, and it’s unlikely that a few inches higher or lower is going to make a drastic difference in terms of safety or efficacy.

So, use whichever method you prefer, and if you want to go really heavy, consider the lower elevation as it requires less balance.

Moving on…

The trickiest part of the Bulgarian split squat is figuring out where to put your front foot.

Some people like a relatively narrow stance, like this:

bulgarian split squat stance

And others prefer to be more stretched out, like this:

bulgarian split squat form

The bottom line is you should use the front foot position that’s most comfortable to you.

Specifically, you should feel most of the weight on your forward leg and shouldn’t feel any pain or excessive tightness in your knees, hip flexors, glutes, or lower back.

This takes some trial and error. The easiest way to find your “sweet spot” is doing a few warm-up sets without any weights, trying different foot positions.

Once you’ve found the foot position you like, mark it by placing your phone, a towel, or something else on the ground just in front of your forward foot.

Then grab your dumbbells, place your front foot in position, lean forward, lift your back leg off the ground, and move it backward until your foot is resting on the bench.

Most people prefer to rest the top of their foot on the bench, like this:

bulgarian split squat

But you can also rest the ball of your foot on the bench, like this:

bulgarian split squats

That’s all there is to the setup. Now you’re ready to descend.

Step 2

Descend

Keeping the dumbbells somewhere between your hips and your forward foot and your back straight, lower your hips toward the ground.

Most of the weight should feel like it’s on your forward foot, and your rear foot should feel like it’s helping you balance but not significantly contributing to the movement.

Keep descending until your back starts to round or your rear knee touches the ground.

At this point, you should look something like this:

bulgarian dumbbell split squat

Now it’s time to ascend.

Step 3

Ascend

Keeping your back tight and chest up, push off of the ground with your front foot, reversing the same path you took on the descent.

Here’s how the whole movement looks:

bulgarian split squat movement

Bulgarian Split Squat Variations You Should Know

The traditional Bulgarian split squat is done with a pair of dumbbells, but there are two variations  worth considering:

  • The barbell Bulgarian split squat
  • The goblet Bulgarian split squat

Let’s look at each.

Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat

The barbell Bulgarian split squat is exactly the same as the regular Bulgarian split squat, except you use a barbell instead of a pair of dumbbells.

Here’s how it looks:

bulgarian barbell split squatThe advantages of using a barbell are that you can generally use more weight, you aren’t limited by your grip strength, and you don’t have to control both dumbbells independently.

The downside is that it requires a more lengthy setup, it’s a little more risky (you can’t just drop the barbell if you get stuck), and it can be harder to stay balanced.

This variation also places more stress on the back, so if you have lower back pain or an injury, it’s not for you.

The Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat

The goblet Bulgarian split squat is just like the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat, except you hold one dumbbell in front of your chest, like this:

This exercise works well if you have trouble balancing with two dumbbells.

The downside, though, is that you can’t use nearly as much weight as the regular dumbbell Bulgarian split squat.

This is why I recommend you use the goblet variant for times where you don’t have access to heavy dumbbells or a barbell (traveling, for example).

5 Ways to Get Better at the Bulgarian Split Squat

No matter how good your technique is, you’re going to eventually hit plateaus on your big compound exercises.

These five strategies will help you get unstuck on the Bulgarian split squat if (when) you find yourself in the doldrums.

Lift Heavy Ass Weight

Professor Ronnie Coleman said it best:

There’s a never-ending debate as to the “ideal” rep range for building muscle, but there’s little argument about the fact that heavy lifting is best for getting stronger.

How heavy is “heavy,” though?

Well, the “strength” spectrum of the rep range usually starts around 80 to 85% of your one-rep max, or the 4 to 6 rep range, and goes up in terms of 1RM from there.

If you’re currently doing the majority of your Bulgarian split squatting with lighter weights—the 12 to 15 rep range, for example—you’re going to benefit greatly by emphasizing heavier lifting instead. You don’t have to stop the 12- to 15-rep work, but don’t neglect the lower rep ranges.

I’ll give you an example of what this looks like in terms of programming at the end of this article.

Increase Your Grip Strength

One of the main reasons people stall in their progression on the Bulgarian split squat is grip weakness.

This not only makes the dumbbells harder to hold onto, it makes the entire exercise feel significantly harder.

So, if you don’t ensure your grip keeps up with your legs, your Bulgarian split squats will stall.

Fortunately, improving grip strength is very easy when you go about it correctly. Check out my article on how to increase grip strength to learn more:

The Best Forearms Workouts to Increase Grip Strength

Use Straps

The Bulgarian split squat demands a lot from your hands.

Working to improve your grip strength helps, but if you’re pushing for progressive overload (as you should!), chances are your grip isn’t going to be able to keep up.

At some point, you’re probably going to need to progress to heavier dumbbells than you can hang on to.

This is where straps come in, because they allow you to safely hold more weight than you can unassisted.

If you want to learn more about your grip options and what straps to use, check out this article:

How to Find the Best Deadlift Grip For You

Wear the Right Shoes

Believe it or not, the wrong shoes can make Bulgarian split squatting significantly harder.

A good weightlifting shoe does a few things:

  • It provides a stable surface to help us balance and support heavy loads. This is particularly important with exercises like the deadlift, squat, and overhead press.
  • It fits your feet snugly and leaves no wiggle room. You don’t want your feet moving around in your shoes as you train.
  • It provides good traction so your feet don’t slip or shift during a lift.

All this is why the right weightlifting shoes can improve your performance in the gym, and reduce the risk of injury as well.

Check out this article to see my weightlifting shoe recommendations:

The Minimalist’s Guide to the Best Shoes for Weightlifting

Improve Your Hip Mobility

bulgarian split squat mobility

Many people can’t do the Bulgarian split squat with proper form because they lack the flexibility and mobility.

The most common problems here are tight hip and hamstring muscles, which prevent you from moving through the full range of motion without rounding your back or tipping forward.

Fortunately, you can do a series of simple exercises to help overcome this and make all your squatting, lunging, and deadlifting more comfortable and effective.

To learn more about this, check out this article:

How to Improve Flexibility and Mobility for Squatting

A Simple and Effective Bulgarian Split Squat Workout

You now know how to Bulgarian split squat properly.

You also know the important variations.

And you know the 5 most effective things you can do to avoid and break through plateaus.

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

As I mentioned earlier, I like to use the Bulgarian split squat as a quad, glute, and hamstring accessory exercise on my lower body days.

Since a good leg workout always starts with some type of heavy squat, the Bulgarian split squat always comes second or third in my workouts.

Here’s a simple and effective lower body workout that incorporates the Bulgarian split squat.

Barbell Back or Front Squat

Warm-up

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of one-rep max (1RM)

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of 1RM

Bulgarian Split Squat

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM

Lying Hamstring Curls

2 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM

(Optional) Seated Calf Raises

2 sets of 8 to 12 reps at 70 to 80% of 1RM

And a few odds and ends on how to do this workout:

You shouldn’t go to absolute muscle failure every set.

Muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set.

We should take most of our sets to a point close to failure (one or two reps shy), and we should rarely take sets to absolute failure.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than two to three sets per workout, and never on the squat, deadlift, bench press, or military press, as it can be dangerous.

Instead, I reserve my failure sets for isolation exercises like hamstring curls, leg extensions, calf raises and the like, and it’s usually a natural consequence of pushing for progressive overload as opposed to deliberate programming.

In this case, I recommend you generally avoid failure on the Bulgarian split squat. Doing so too often tends to cause too much wear and tear on the knee and hip, and simply isn’t necessary.

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.

Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.

This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.

For instance, if you squat with 50-pound dumbbells in each hand for 6 reps on your first set, you use dumbbells that are 5 pounds heavier for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 55-pound dumbbells, that’s the new weight you work with until you can squat it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (50 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight again.

The Bottom Line on the Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is one of the single best exercises you can do for developing your lower body.

It can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell, but most people prefer dumbbells. It’s easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.

The traditional dumbbell split squat is a good alternative to the barbell back squat if you’re dealing with back pain, as it doesn’t load the spine as aggressively. It’s also handy for times where you want to squat but don’t have access to a barbell for whatever reason.

Although some people say that Bulgarian split squat is better than the back squat for gaining size and strength, it’s best used in tandem with it, as an accessory exercise for additional volume to build your legs.

The Bulgarian split squat is also comparable to the barbell single-leg squat and the dumbbell and barbell lunge, although it allows you to use a slightly greater range of motion than the single-leg squat and more weight than the dumbbell lunge.

Happy split squatting!

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