There are dozens of exercises that can help bulk up your legs or tone your thighs, and squats are a favorite among novices and fitness enthusiasts alike.  If you’re looking for an option outside of the traditional version, then you should incorporate the Bulgarian split squat into your program.

The single-leg exercise is a compound movement that will not only hit on all of the major muscle groups in your lower body, but it will also challenge your balance and coordination.

It requires a bit of set up and good form to master the squat, and in this article, we will give you all the details on how to get it right.  We’ll talk about its origins, the muscle groups it works and how, and how to execute the movement.

We’ll even give you tips on how to use it to build muscle, a few popular variations,  and common mistakes to avoid when you try it out.

Let’s get started.

How Did The Bulgarian Split Squat Get Its Name?

Although we don’t know the precise origins of when the Bulgarian split squat first made an appearance, its rise to popularity can be traced to Angel Spassov, an influential Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach in the 1980’s.

He traveled to the U.S. to learn from other coaches in the sport and share his knowledge.  On the trip, he revealed that he used single-leg squats as a training tool to help his athletes improve their lower body strength so that they could move more weight when they performed a snatch or clean and jerk.

It wasn’t long after that Olympians around the world incorporated single-leg squats into their strength programming, and thus the method was born.

Muscled Used In The Bulgarian Split Squat

 Compound exercises are movements that create motion in more than one joint, and therefore work multiple muscle groups simultaneously.  All squats fall into this category, and the Bulgarian varsity is particularly effective at recruiting fibers to both execute and stabilize the activity.

The primary movers include:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Erector Spinae
  • Calves
  • Forearms

Muscles that support or stabilize the exercise include:

  • Abs and core
  • Shoulders
  • Lats

Single-Leg Squat vs Bulgarian Split Squat

man doing bulgarian split squat

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 Although the names are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a notable difference between the two.  In a traditional single-leg squat, the back foot stays planted on the ground.  However, in the Bulgarian variation, the back leg is raised on a platform that is at least four-inches or higher.

Because of this, Bulgarian squats require a wider range of motion and recruit additional muscle fibers during the movement.  That said, they also provide a more substantial balance challenge, especially if you are working with heavy weights.

They are both effective lower-body movements that are executed unilaterally and can help to improve strength and correct muscle imbalances.   One isn’t any better than the other, and both could be incorporated into a well-rounded weightlifting program.

Who Should Try A Bulgarian Split Squat?

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Anyone who is looking for creative and effective lower body strength training drills can add this squat variation into their workout routine.  Studies show that using more than one exercise to train different body parts, like your quads and hamstrings, is more effective than only doing a single movement.

That means that you can do both a back squat the Bulgarian version safely in the same workout, and may see fitness and strength gains as a result.

This option is also a good choice for anyone who has back pain and doesn’t respond well to heavy barbell work because of the stress it places on your spine.

If you’re traveling and looking for a challenging movement that you can do anywhere and doesn’t require additional equipment, then a split squat is a good go-to movement choice.

How To Do A Bulgarian Split Squat

Are you ready to give it a try?  Here are step by step instructions on how to execute the lift.

First, start by finding a bench, step, or another elevated platform that you will rest your foot on.  It can be anywhere from four inches off the ground to knee height, but higher elevations will give you more range of motion.

Next, plant your feet two to three feet in front of your bench.  Shift your weight into your right foot and stretch your left toe backward until it rests on top of the platform.

Tighten your core and find your balance.  Make sure that your torso is upright and that your hips are squared to the front.  Shift your weight so that it’s balanced equally between the leg standing on the ground and the one resting on the bench.

To execute the split squat, bend your standing leg while lowering your back knee straight towards the ground.  Try to get your front thigh parallel to the ground, and take care not to let your knees come forward over your toes.  Keep your shin in line with your ankle and your weight in your heel.

Once you hit the bottom of the squat, then press through your front heel to drive your leg back up to your starting position.  This is one rep.

Continue for a series of eight to 15 repetitions depending on your strength goals.

Once you’re comfortable and are confident that you have your balance, you can add weight by picking up dumbbells, kettlebells, a medicine ball, or using a barbell.  We discuss some of these variation options in detail below.

Tips To Master Your Bulgarian Split Squat Form

Be warned that you might not get it right first time you try this movement.  It requires a lot of balance and stability, and you may need to tweak your form before you’re comfortable adding weight and banging out reps.

Play With Distance

If you want to emphasize your quadriceps during the lift, you’ll want to place the bench closer to you and take a narrower stance.  If you step further away, you’ll focus more heavily on your hamstrings and glutes, but will also stretch deeply through your hip flexors and groin.

Some people prefer one over the other, and if you have mobility issues or tight muscles, you may need to make some adjustments.

Play around with where you place your bench until you find a place where you feel that you are able to move through the complete range of motion and are stable in the exercise.

​Keep Your Core Tight

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Throughout the entire movement, your core muscles of your abs and lower back are responsible for keeping you from toppling over.

If you find that you’re feeling wobbly, return to the starting point of the exercise and reset those muscles. Roll your shoulders up back and down, lift your chest, tighten your abs and try again.

Find Weights That Work For You

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Although the traditional way to add weights to a Bulgarian split squat is to pick up a set of dumbbells with one in each hand, that doesn’t work for everyone.

If you feel unstable, play around with other methods of weighting your squat.  You can use a kettlebell or dumbbell in a goblet style hold, or even use the smith machine or squat rack to place a barbell across your shoulder blades.

Variations On The Bulgarian Split Squat

 Although the traditional movement with dumbbells or body weight is highly effective, you can change it up by utilizing new equipment to make it more challenging.  Here are a few options.

​Stability Ball Bulgarian Split Squat

 If you have excellent balance and want to take your elevated split squat to the next level, you can try incorporating a stability ball in place of the bench.

To do it, select a ball that comes to knee height or lower and place your back foot on top of the ball.  Follow all of the same steps we listed above, and feel the burn thanks to the unstable surface.

​Kettlebell Goblet Twisting Bulgarian Split Squat

 Another way to give your core an additional challenge is to incorporate a twist.  This includes another movement plane and forces those muscles to not only stabilize but also flex.

To do it, hold a single kettlebell or dumbbell in a goblet stance and set up the lift like normal.  Then, when you bend your front knee and begin the squat also rotate your torso towards the leg that’s extended backward.

Hold the rotation through the bottom of the movement, and then return your torso back to the front when you raise up out of the lift.

Take care not to let your hips rotate and instead use your core and turn your shoulders while they stay facing forward.

​Final Thoughts

 A well-rounded strength training program will include several different exercises for major muscle groups, and this squat is an excellent choice to add into your lower body routine.

It’s safe and effective and is a good option for people with lower back pain because it doesn’t require you to load your spine directly.  Beginners should perfect their form before adding weight, and there are several variations that you can do to make it more challenging as you progress.

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