Bulgarian Split Squat Variations

The rear-foot-elevated or Bulgarian, split squat is an excellent exercise to train the lower body for sport or everyday life.  It is unclear where how this exercise received it’s name but this is of little importance.  The split or asymmetrical stance of the lower body introduces unique deands on the muscles and nervous system.  Acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, sprinting and jumping all require stability of the lower body in similar positions.   Elevating the rear foot increases the difficulty by allowing a deeper squat.  The Bulgarian split squat trains the hip to support the upper body while also controlling the knee position in an athletic stance.

A traditional squat is performed with the feet placed symmetrically side by side.  This creates challenges in primarily one plane.  The Bulgarian split squat is performed with a narrow split stance creating challenges in multiple planes.  Raising the rear leg on an elevated surface shifts the load to the front leg.  The front leg assumes approximately 85% of the total load.

There are many variations to the Bulgarian split squat.  Progressions and regressions can be tailored for the beginner or advanced lifter.  The purpose of this article is to describe several of these modifications.  The Bulgarian split squat can be modified so those new to strength training can incorporate the exercise.  The advanced progressions are best suited for athletes or those with several years of training experience.  The exercise can be modified to challenge balance and stability using lighter loads.  It can also be performed with heavy loads.  Under these conditions, maximal strength development is emphasized similar to training with common multi-joint exercises such as the back squat.

Muscles Involved with the Bulgarian Split Squat

The main lower body muscles involved in the Bulgarian split squat is the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus maximus.  The quadriceps is the first muscle to fatigue, especially when heavier loads are used.  This then requires the gluteus maximus to compensate.  The gluteus medius and minimus are involved to maintain proper positioning of the pelvis and balance. The hip rotators are recruited in order to control the inward or outward movement of the thigh and knee.  The ankle muscles are highly active in order to maintain balance in the narrow stance. The abdominals and low back muscles help maintain a neutral spine position and balance.

Set-Up and Positioning

Taking time to position yourself before the movement will allow for proper performance of the exercise.  Assume a split squat stance with the trail leg just in front of a support box/bench on the floor. While shifting the weight toward the lead foot, place the top of the trail foot on the support box/bench.  The distance from the lead foot to the trail foot support is approximately the length of one leg.  Adjust the support box/ bench distance so the lead knee is directly above the toes. The trail leg support can range from approximately 6 inches to knee height.  This may require some experimentation.  Start with a lower height and adjust as needed.  For stability and balance, the top of the trail foot should remain in contact with the support box/bench throughout the exercise.  The width between the front and trail leg is approximately hip width.

TRX-Assisted Bulgarian Split Squat

Once proper set-up has been achieved grasp the suspension trainer in both hands.  Bend the elbows and hold the straps close to the chest.  This will assist with maintaining proper balance and a vertical position of the trunk.  Maintain this vertical trunk throughout the exercise.  A forward lean is difficult to control with the split stance and rear foot elevated.  Keep the weight of the lead foot distributed in the middle of the foot or near the heel.  Perform the movement by “sitting back” so the trunk remains vertical and the lead knee does not track excessively past the toes. It is acceptable to have the knee pass slightly ahead of the toes.  Lower the trail knee only to a position 1-2 inches above the floor.  Complete the desired number of repetitions on one leg before switching legs.

Bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squat

For many, the weight of the body is enough to provide a training effect.  Progressing away from using the suspension trainer increases balance and stability challenges.  Place the hands on the hips or arms across the chest.  If you are unable to perform the exercise without the arms in these positions you many lack adequate balance.  If this is the case, regress back to the TRX-Assisted exercise or try holding two light dumbbells with the arms at the sides.

Kettlebell (Goblet) Bulgarian Split Squat

There are a few advantages to performing the Bulgarian split squat with a kettlebell held at the chest.  First, this promotes a vertical position of the trunk.  Other variations, such as holding dumbbells at the side of the body or a barbell on the back, require the trunk to slightly dip forward.  Second, the kettlebell helps activate the core musculature and cue proper positioning of the rib cage on the pelvis.  It is important to stack the lower rib cage on top of the pelvis.  The abdominal muscles are primarily responsible for this.

2-Arm Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Holding two dumbbells to the side of the body lowers the center of mass.  For some, this improves balance and stability compared to the bodyweight exercise.  Start with light loads and progress as strength improves. If you prefer, try holding two kettlebells instead of the dumbbells.

1-Arm Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Holding a dumbbell in one hand increases balance and stability challenges.  Hold the dumbbell in the hand on the side of the trail leg.  This will increase activity to the hip musculature, especially the gluteus medius of the lead leg.  This exercise is more challenging than it looks.

TRX Bulgarian Split Squat

This variation is performed with the trail foot placed in the suspension trainer loop. Position the suspension loop so the trail lower leg is parallel to the floor.  Maintain the trunk in a vertical position.  Maintain the hands on the hips.  The knee of the lead leg should not track excessively past the toes.  Compared to the bodyweight split squat, this exercise shows greater activation of the hamstrings, adductors, gluteus maximus, and gluteus medius.  The suspended position increases stability and balance challenges.  This is a more demanding exercise for the hip muscles.  It is a progression from the bodyweight Bulgarian split squat.  To further increase the challenge, try holding a dumbbell in the hand on the side of trail leg.

Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Performing the exercise with a barbell allows for the progression of the load for strength development.  The barbell also causes the trunk to angle slightly forward to support the load.  Before positioning the bar, pull the shoulder blades back.  Place the bar on the base of the neck resting over the trapezius muscles. Tuck the elbows to your side and maintain the retracted shoulder blade position.  With barbell training, heavier loads and fewer repetitions are optimal.  Start with a weight which allows you to perform 6 to 8 quality repetitions.  As always, focus first on proper technique before progressing load on the bar.

Closing Thoughts

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent exercise for rehabilitation, injury prevention, and strength development.  This exercise requires stability in multiple planes and challenges the hip muscles to control the position of the lower limb.  Performance in many sports involves lower-body, weight-bearing skills in positions similar to the split squat. Sprinting, change of direction, throwing, and kicking require the transfer of forces from one leg in a similar fashion.  If you are unsure about how to best incorporate the Bulgarian split squat, give your physical therapist or strength coach a call.


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