Strong glute muscles — made up of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus — aren't just the foundation of an enviable backside. They're vital in daily movements and, if weak, can result in a host of issues including chronic pain and injuries.
Whether you're on a quest to strengthen your glutes to lessen daily aches and pains, boost your butt, enhance athletic performance — or any combination of these — there's an exercise you're probably not doing that you should be. It might even replace regular lunges. It's the Bulgarian split squat.
Why You Should Care About Glute Strength
Your gluteus maximus is the largest and most powerful muscle in your body. Even if you do minimal strength training, finding a few key body-weight moves that target the glutes can make a huge difference for your overall well-being, since weak glutes can lead to imbalances and even pain in the hips, knees and ankles.
An October 2016 study from the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that strengthening the glute muscles can help decrease lower back pain and increase strength and stabilization. Another August 2007 study from the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy followed patients who had knee surgery and found that strengthening the glutes was essential to the recovery process.
"Strong glutes are beneficial because they share the tension that should be distributed along the posterior kinetic chain," says Matt Landsiedel, CPT, a transformation coach and owner of Matt Landsiedel Fitness. This allows for better overall strength and performance. But if glute activation is poor, it can lead to injury, he says.
What Makes the Bulgarian Split Squat So Effective?
According to "The Glute Guy" — Bret Contreras, PhD, CSCS, author of Glute Lab — lunges are one of the most popular glute exercise. But while you may not have heard of Bulgarian split squats (and they don't make the most popular list), they're actually better for your butt. Why? It's all about the alignment of your body and where you're placing the load.
"While [lunges] are [a] great glute exercise, they work the glutes via hip extension, and the hardest part of the movement is at the bottom when the hips are flexed and the glutes are stretched," Contreras says. "But the gluteus maximus achieves its maximum activation at full hip extension when the glutes are shortened."
Plus, when it comes to lunges, two common form mistakes can make the exercise less effective: Either the knee caves inward or falls too far outward, Landsiedel says. Controlling tempo is the other issue. "[People often] drop too fast into the lunge and use joint, ligament and tendon tension rather than muscular tension and this is why they don't see results."
While the Bulgarian split squat has a similar movement pattern to the lunge, it has two main benefits: it's more effective at strengthening the glutes and gives you a chance to address differences in power, force and velocity between your two legs, according to a September 2017 study from the journal Sports.
"They are more effective than lunges for your glutes simply because there is more load on the working leg," Contreras says. "By elevating the rear leg, you end up relying slightly more on the front leg to propel the body upward compared to split squats or regular lunges."
How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat (The Right Way!)
So how exactly do you do a Bulgarian split squat? Luckily, Contreras is here to break down the move. He says that as you squat, you should be using your rear leg as minimally as possible, only for stability.
Starting stance: "Begin by draping the rear leg over a bench or rounded pad," he says. "Your center of mass should be positioned over the front foot and you should be leaning forward slightly."
Drop a squat: "[Drop] down and back in a diagonal fashion. At the bottom of the movement, your knee will be roughly in line with the front of the foot," says Contreras. "Reverse the movement and rise back to starting position."
Not in the gym? No problem! Instead of placing your rear leg on a bench or rounded pad, Landsiedel says you can elevate your foot on anything — a stair, chair or even the couch — as long as it allows your front leg to be at 90 degrees.
Make It More Advanced
Once you've mastered the move, there are a few ways you can make it more challenging. The first is be to increase the range of motion, which Contreras says is known as a "deficit Bulgarian split squat." To do this, stand with your front foot on a step.
The other option is to increase the load either by wearing a weighted vest or by using weights. Here are a few options from Contreras:
- Back position: barbell across your upper back
- Front rack position: barbell held in front at your shoulders
- Zercher position: barbell in the crux of your bent arms
- Goblet position: dumbbell or kettlebell at the upper chest
- Contralateral loading: holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand as the leg being worked
- Ipsilateral loading: holding a dumbbell in the same-side hand as the leg being worked
- Or hold onto two dumbbells or kettlebells, one in each hand
Bulgarian Split Squats vs. Lunges: The Bottom Line
While the motion of lunges and the Bulgarian split squat are admittedly similar, Landsiedel says you go deeper into the lunge movement with the Bulgarian split squat.
He also agrees with Contreras that the true benefit lies in the fact that there's more strength required of the front leg (since the back leg is elevated) — it's a different muscle stimulus than the lunge.
Of course, strengthening your glutes requires more than one move, and while Bulgarian split squats are great, they shouldn't be the only glute-strengthening exercise you do. Contreras says that while the gluteus maximus requires hip extension exercises (like lunges and Bulgarian split squats), the gluteus medius requires hip abduction exercises (like side-lying leg lifts or banded clam shells).
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: The effect of gluteus medius strengthening on the knee joint function score and pain in meniscal surgery patients
- North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: Hip Strength and Knee Pain in Females
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: ASSESSING AND TREATING GLUTEUS MAXIMUS WEAKNESS – A CLINICAL COMMENTARY
- Sports: Between-Leg Mechanical Differences as Measured by the Bulgarian Split-Squat: Exploring Asymmetries and Relationships with Sprint Acceleration