There are so many great leg exercises out there — from squat variations to lunge alternatives. One of the best leg movements for building strong legs — and a trainer favorite — is the Bulgarian split squat.
A Bulgarian split squat is a squat variation that looks similar to a lunge. Your legs are in a split position, one in front of the other, instead of together.
The muscles worked by Bulgarian split squats include your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves and core, so it's a great exercise to work multiple muscles at once and get the most bang for your buck.
But the Bulgarian split squat isn't necessary in your training routine to build muscle if you can't — or don't want to — do it. The Bulgarian split squat is an advanced exercise and has some prerequisites, including mobility and stability.
So, if you aren't able to do Bulgarian split squats due to pain, injury or if you're still building the necessary strength, stability or mobility, there are plenty of substitutes that are easier to do and work the same muscles. (It's worth noting that performing Bulgarian split squats with improper form or making other common mistakes can lead to injury.)
Below, learn how to perform seven Bulgarian split squat alternatives.
How to Build Muscle and Strength With Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
In order to gain strength, performing 2 to 6 sets of 6 or fewer reps of compound exercises (moves that target multiple muscles) is ideal, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). You should rest 2 to 5 minutes between each set.
In order to build muscle size, it's best to perform 2 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps, according to the NSCA. You should rest 30 to 90 seconds in between each set. (It's worth noting most people will gain both muscle strength and size from resistance training.)
It's also important to warm up and cool down before and after performing any of the following Bulgarian split squat alternatives (and any exercise in general). Doing both regularly can help prevent injury and improve athletic performance, per Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, California.
Allowing your body enough time to recover from your workouts is also key to building muscle and strength. Strength training causes microtears in your muscle tissue, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Adequate rest helps heal and repair these microtears, making your muscles stronger.
Of course, proper hydration and eating foods that fuel your body (think: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats or other sources of healthy protein) will also aid in your gym efforts.
1. Regular Split Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Take a big step backward as if you’re going to do a reverse lunge. Plant the toes of your back foot firmly into the floor. Your heel should be raised significantly — flex your foot to achieve this position.
- Once you feel sturdy and ready, slowly lower yourself until your knee lightly touches the ground. Be careful not to bang your knee. If you have trouble with that, stop at your full range of motion (i.e. your front knee starts to push over your toes) and use your phone to record your form so you can check it. Keep your knee in line with your toes.
- After you reach your end range of motion (ideally, your thigh should be parallel to the ground), drive through the heel of your front foot to press back up.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you finish your set, then switch legs.
If you can’t do a Bulgarian split squat due to limited mobility or stability, scaling back to a regular split squat is the next best option. This exercise trains the same movement pattern as the Bulgarian split squat, but isn’t quite as advanced.
If you want a little bit more of a challenge, perform regular split squats with dumbbells. (If you don't have a set of dumbbells, try these dumbbell alternatives.)
2. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet planted flat on the floor. Position your feet about hip-width apart.
- Lift one foot off of the floor and allow your body weight to shift to your supporting leg, but keep your hips aligned (don’t let the hip of your raised leg sink down). You can keep your raised knee bent or extend your leg out straight.
- Pressing your upper back into the floor, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings of your supporting leg to send your hips upward. Press up until your hips extend all the way. Your torso should make a straight line from your shoulders to your hips, diagonal to the floor — don’t over-arch your spine.
- With control, lower your hips back to the floor.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you finish your set. Then, start over on the opposite leg.
To make this move easier, perform a regular glute bridge with both feet on the floor. To make this move harder, add resistance by looping a mini band right above your knees or holding a dumbbell right below your bellybutton.
3. Elevated Single-Leg Hip Thrust
- Sit on the floor with your upper back against a bench, couch or chair. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart.
- Use your arms to hoist yourself up a bit — you should be pressing your upper back into the bench, supporting yourself slightly with your arms and using your legs to keep your body hovering above the ground. At this point, your hips should be bent and your butt should hover close to the ground. You may choose to move your hands behind your head to support your neck.
- Lift one foot off of the ground. You should feel your body weight transfer to your supporting leg. Extend your non-supporting leg in front of you so your foot doesn’t drag the ground. This is the starting position.
- Drive through the heel of your supporting foot and squeeze your glutes to send your hips up. Try to fully extend your hips, making a horizontal line with your torso. Keep your right and left hips aligned.
- With control, lower your hips back down.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you finish your set, then switch legs.
The hip thrust develops your glutes and hamstrings. Elevated single-leg hip thrusts in particular can help you gain strength and stability that will transfer to movements like squats and deadlifts.
4. Reverse Lunge
- Stand with your feet hip- or shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and position your arms comfortably. You can keep them at your sides, put your hands on your hips or make a double fist in front of your chest.
- Take a step backward with your right leg. The distance will vary from person to person, but you should step back far enough so that your knee doesn’t extend too far past your toes and close enough so that you can drop your back knee all the way to the ground (or as close to the ground as you can, depending on your range of motion).
- Plant your back foot and lower your body. Allow your knee to gently touch the floor, or stop just short of the floor, making a 90-degree angle with your front leg. Be careful not to bang your knee on the ground.
- Keep most of the weight in your front leg, and use your front leg to bring your body back to center. Drive through your heel and keep your knee in line with your toes.
- Repeat the movement with your opposite leg and continue until you finish your set.
A classic lower-body move, the lunge offers a ton of benefits, like strengthening your legs and improving your balance. Reverse lunges mimic the Bulgarian split squat because they target your glutes and hamstrings more than forward lunges do.
To make this move harder, hold dumbbells in both hands.
Bulgarian Split Squats vs. Lunges
While both exercises work your glutes, there is a slight difference between Bulgarian split squats and lunges. As LIVESTRONG.com previously reported, Bulgarian split squats are more effective because “there's more load on the working leg," according to Bret Contreras, PhD, CSCS, author of Glute Lab. "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."
5. Curtsy Lunge
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your arms at your sides or make a double fist in front of your chest.
- Move your right foot behind your left foot. Keep moving your right foot to the left until it passes your left foot by several inches. Keep your hips facing forward with a tight, strong core. Plant your right foot on the floor and lower yourself until your knee hovers above the ground.
- Bring your right foot back to center and plant it (back to the starting position).
- Repeat the movement, starting with your left leg.
This lunge variation makes for a unique challenge: Instead of moving forward to backward, you move side-to-side. Curtsy lunges are great for developing the hip abductors, the muscles that move your legs away from the center of your body.
To make this Bulgarian split squat alternative harder, hold dumbbells in both hands.
6. Bench Step-Up
- Set up a bench, box or step on a flat surface. Make sure it’s sturdy.
- Face the box, standing about 6 inches away.
- Plant one foot firmly on top of the box. Make sure your entire foot is on the box — don’t let your heel hang off.
- Shift your body weight to the leg that’s on the box and stand up until your hips are fully extended. Use your non-working leg as little as possible (don’t propel yourself up with your non-working leg).
- Lower yourself down until your non-working leg taps the ground and without taking your foot off the box, start another rep.
- Continue until you finish your set, then start over on the other leg.
Looking for a real leg burner? Try bench (or box) step-ups. This single-leg exercise primarily challenges your quads but also recruits your hamstrings and glutes. Make step-ups harder by holding dumbbells in both hands.
7. Staggered-Stance Romanian Deadlift
- Choose two dumbbells you can deadlift for several reps. Hold them with a full, strong grip, with your arms down by your sides.
- To find your staggered stance, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Then, step back about 12 inches with one foot. Flex your back foot so that your heel lifts up from the floor.
- Bend both knees slightly. Your back leg should have a deeper bend than your front leg.
- Hinge at the hips, sending your butt back, while keeping your back straight. You should feel tugging in your hamstrings.
- Lower the dumbbells as far as you can without increasing the bend in your knees and without arching your back.
- Use your hamstrings and glutes to pull your body back to the upright position.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you finish your set, then start over with the other leg.
Most of the exercises here target the quads more than the hamstrings, but your posterior chain (aka the backside of your body) is just as important as the anterior chain (the front side of your body). For a hamstring challenge, try staggered-stance Romanian deadlifts — while this move looks kind of funny, it’s one of the best single-leg exercises.
To make this Bulgarian split squat alternative harder, hold dumbbells in both hands.