Improve Strength, Mobility and Balance With Bulgarian Split Squats

Working on single-leg strength has a ton of athletic and real-world benefits.
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In the game of strength training, single-leg exercises like Bulgarian split squats tend to take a back seat to standard leg-builders like squats and deadlifts. Big mistake. Incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your routine delivers serious benefits.

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  • What are Bulgarian split squats?​ Also known as "rear foot elevated split squats," the Bulgarian split squat involves lunging in place while resting the top of your back foot on an elevated surface.
  • What's the difference between Bulgarian split squats and lunges?​ At first glance, the Bulgarian split squat may resemble a lunge, but there are a couple of key differences: First, your rear foot is elevated. Second, both feet stay put. These differences contribute to some of the unique benefits of Bulgarian split squats, such as their ability to build balance and stability and increase hip mobility.
  • What muscles do Bulgarian split squats work?​ Bulgarian split squats target the glutes and the muscles of the legs, specifically the quads in the fronts of your thighs. Your hamstrings and calves are involved as well. And because this exercise challenges your balance, your core also engages to help keep you stable, says Megan Kaye, MS, CSCS, fitness director at Fredericksburg Fitness Studio.
  • What are the benefits of Bulgarian split squats?​ Adding Bulgarian split squats into your routine can help you fix muscle imbalances, improve balance and stability, strengthen several major muscle groups and increase hip mobility, says James de Lacey, MS, a strength and conditioning coach in Auckland, New Zealand.

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How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat With Perfect Form

Bulgarian Split Squat

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Butt, Legs and Abs
  1. Stand a few feet in front of a bench, box or chair, facing away from it.
  2. Reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
  3. Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as low as you can comfortably go.
  4. Your front-leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point down toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
  5. Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

Watch the Full Bulgarian Split Squat Tutorial

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5 Bulgarian Split Squat Benefits and Muscles Worked

1. Helps Correct Strength Imbalances

"We all have a dominant leg," de Lacey tells LIVESTRONG.com, and many of us unwittingly let our dominant leg take over for our weaker leg during everyday activities and bilateral (two-legged) exercises.

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When this happens, the strength gap between your two sides can get wider over time. Single-leg exercises like the Bulgarian split squat enable you to work on one leg at a time, which can help close this gap.

Fixing strength imbalances is beneficial for everyone, says Ryan Daly, CPT, a head sports performance coach at Project TRNSFRM. Strength imbalances can contribute to faulty form when exercising and poor posture the rest of the time.

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"Both of these things are common causes of injury, such as muscle strains and tendinitis," Daly tells LIVESTRONG.com.

2. Improves Balance and Stability

Single-leg exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are essential for building balance and stability. If you only do two-legged exercises, your ability to balance on one leg can diminish quickly, de Lacey says.

Since single-leg balance and stability play a key role in many sports and everyday tasks, incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your routine may help you perform these activities with greater ease.

3. Increases Hip Mobility

One sneaky perk of the Bulgarian split squat is that it increases hip mobility. "You'll find that the leg placed on the bench gets an immense stretch through the hips and quadriceps muscle," de Lacey says.

As you bend your knee, the main muscle being stretched is the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh). This muscle crosses the hip and knee joints and is responsible for hip flexion (lifting the knee or bending over) and knee extension (straightening the knee), de Lacey says.

Given that many of us deal with tight hips from sitting for long periods of time, any exercise that gets our hips stretched and moving can go a long way toward easing tightness.

4. Works Several Muscle Groups

The Bulgarian split squat is a compound exercise, which means it works multiple muscles at the same time. When you perform Bulgarian split squats, you'll hit the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves and core.

"This helps you save time when working out, burn more calories and prevent overworking any single muscle group," Daly says.

5. Builds Core Strength

While Bulgarian split squats primarily work your legs, they also challenge your core muscles. As you squat down, your core muscles contract to help you stay balanced and stable on a single leg, Daly explains. The result? A stronger midsection.

5 Bulgarian Split Squat Form Tips

1. Put Your Shoelaces Flat on the Bench

"Through experience, I've found this to be the most comfortable foot position," de Lacey says.

The alternative is to flex your foot to place your toes on the bench behind you. However, if you don't have good toe or hip mobility, you'll probably find this position uncomfortable — or even painful, de Lacey says. Tucking your toes can also cause you to accidentally rotate your hip, throwing off your form and taking some of the focus away from the glutes.

2. Push With the Middle of Your Foot

Many people make the mistake of leaning forward onto the ball of their front foot, but you'll find more stability by pushing through your full foot, de Lacey says. Try to keep your weight centered on your lead foot. Doing so can reduce your odds of knee pain from the exercise, de Lacey says.

3. Use a Soft Surface That Isn’t Too High

The benches you'll find at gyms and fitness studios tend to be the ideal height for Bulgarian split squats.

"Lower benches or boxes can work but may restrict your movement if your knee hits the floor," de Lacey says. Opt for a soft bench or use a towel to cushion your ankle. If you're doing the move at home, try a sofa or ottoman — stick to the edges to avoid having your foot sink in ​too​ much.

4. Keep Your Front Knee in Line With Your Ankle

Make sure your front knee doesn't fall in or out, Kaye says. Focus on keeping your knee in line with your ankle. This will help prevent knee pain.

5. Stay Vertical

Aim to keep your front shin and rear quad vertical throughout the exercise.

"While there is a place for the knee to track forward over the toes, the Bulgarian split squat is best performed with the front shin vertical or close to it," de Lacey says. "This allows you to take advantage of the large glute muscles and reduce the stress on the knees."

As far as your rear leg is concerned, keeping that quad vertical will enable you to achieve a deeper range of motion. "If you move too far forward or backward as you descend, you'll struggle to get deep and it will feel awkward," de Lacey says. Tweak your position accordingly if you feel an uncomfortable pull in your back quad or hip as you do the move.

3 Bulgarian Split Squat Variations

Try these three Bulgarian split squat variations progress the move and make it more challenging.

1. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Once you've mastered the body-weight Bulgarian split squat, the best way to take things to the next level is to add a dumbbell or two. "This is where I would recommend all beginners to start when loading the Bulgarian split squat," de Lacey says.

You can either hold one or two dumbbells down by your sides or in a racked position in front of your shoulders. Pick whichever option feels most comfortable.

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt, Legs and Abs
  1. Hold a dumbbell in one or both hands and let your arms hang at your sides.
  2. Stand a few feet in front of a bench, box or chair, facing away from it.
  3. Reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
  4. Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as far as you can comfortably go.
  5. Your front leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point directly down toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
  6. Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
  7. Repeat.
  8. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

Tip

Holding one dumbbell in the hand opposite your working leg (called contralateral loading) will put more focus on your glutes. Holding one dumbbell in the hand on the same side as your working leg (called ipsilateral loading) will recruit more of your hip adductors (inner thigh muscles), de Lacey says.

2. Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat

"The barbell is the king when it comes to loading exercises heavy," de Lacey says. Use a barbell if you've nailed the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat variation and you're looking to build maximal strength.

The only downside: The positioning of the barbell behind your back may make it harder to maintain your balance, so don't try this variation if you still struggle to balance with the body weight or dumbbell Bulgarian split squat.

Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Butt, Legs and Abs
  1. Set up a barbell in a squat rack and stand several feet in front of a bench, box or chair, facing away from it.
  2. Walk up to the barbell and step underneath so your feet are directly beneath the racked bar. Your knees should be bent and the bar should rest on your upper back. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing out) just outside your shoulders.
  3. Straighten your legs to unrack the bar.
  4. Then, step back carefully until you’re able to reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
  5. Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as far as you can comfortably go.
  6. Your front leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point directly toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
  7. Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
  8. Repeat.
  9. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

3. Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat

Performing the Bulgarian split squat from a deficit (i.e., with your front foot elevated) forces your muscles to move through a larger range of motion.

"This large range of motion means your muscles need to perform more work with greater time under tension, which leads to more muscle growth," de Lacey says. You'll feel a big stretch under your glutes in the front leg and the hip flexor and quadriceps in your back leg.

Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Butt, Legs and Abs
  1. Set a sturdy board, bumper plate, mat, aerobic step or box a few feet in front of a bench, box or chair and step onto it with both feet. You should be facing away from the bench, box or chair.
  2. Reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
  3. Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as far as you can comfortably go.
  4. Your front leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point directly toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
  5. Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

Tip

This move requires a lot of hip flexor mobility, so start with a smaller deficit than you think you can handle. Then, increase the deficit as your strength and mobility improve. You can also add weight once you get the hang of the deficit position.

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