How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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The Bulgarian split squat is a version of a single-leg squat where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair. As a unilateral squat, the exercise focuses more on the quadriceps than similar lower-body compound movements. In order to maintain perfect form, it also calls for a high level of balance and coordination, which increases the engagement of the core and upper body.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise to add to a lower-body or total-body workout.
Due to the compound, balance-focused nature of the movement, it’s a good idea to include it toward the beginning of a workout, perhaps after a solid warmup including traditional squats, Romanian deadlifts, or barbell snatches.

Lockie RG, Risso FG, Lazar A, et al. Between-leg mechanical differences as measured by the Bulgarian split-squat: exploring asymmetries and relationships with sprint acceleration. Sports (Basel). 2017;5(3):1-12. doi:10.3390/sports5030065

 If you’re ready to fire up your quads and grow your glutes, read on for ways to try the highly-effective exercise.

Bulgarian Split Squat Muscles Worked

Bulgarian split squats are an intense lower-body exercise that engages several leg muscles simultaneously. One of the main muscles used in Bulgarian split squats is the front quadriceps.
Other muscles include the hamstrings along the back of thighs, glutes of the buttocks and hips, and calves along the back of the lower legs.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

This exercise is intended to target your front leg—your back leg is there to offer some balance support, but the engagement and the “burn” should be felt primarily in your front leg, particularly the quadriceps of your front leg.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Bulgarian split squats also include a balance challenge to keep you steady on one leg. This keeps core muscles, including the abdominal muscles and spinal erectors (run along the spine), engaged throughout the movement.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat

The most important thing to remember when doing the Bulgarian split squat is that finding the perfect foot placement for a comfortable workout may need some trial and error.You’ll place one of your feet on a bench behind you, but you may need to hop your front foot around a little bit to help you find the exact position that feels best. Before beginning your actual set, feel free to do a few practice reps to make sure you’re setup correctly.

All you need for the most basic version of the Bulgarian split squat is a bench or a sturdy chair. As you become comfortable with the exercise, you may want to add dumbbells or kettlebells for increased resistance.

  1. Stand roughly two feet in front of a sturdy bench or chair, your feet hip-distance apart, your core engaged, your shoulders back, and your chest and eyes pointing straight ahead.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
  2. Place your right foot on the bench behind you after picking it up. There are two ways you can go about this.
    One option is to place the top of your foot on the bench so that your ankle joint is roughly aligned with the edge of the bench. The other option is to flex your ankle and find your balance with the ball of your foot and your toes, more like during a traditional lunge exercise.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
  3. Make sure your feet are at least somewhat wider than hip distance apart. It will be more harder to balance if your elevated foot is right behind your front.
  4. Remember, your back foot is just there to help you stay balanced—the engagement and movement of the exercise are focused on the front leg.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
  5. Engage your core with your chest high and eyes looking straight ahead, and bend your left knee, allowing your right knee and ankle to naturally bend as you move through the downward phase of the exercise without taking on the load with your back leg.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
  6. Keep the load balanced evenly across your left foot as you lower. Hinge slightly forward at the hips, ensuring your left knee remains aligned with your left toes (that it doesn’t cave inward or bow outward). You may find that your left knee starts to protrude slightly over your left toes toward the bottom of the exercise. Depending on how comfortable you are and how flexible your ankles are, this might not be good or wrong.
  7. Inhale through this downward phase, lowering down until your left quadriceps is roughly parallel to the ground.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
  8. Utilizing your left foot as leverage and your left quad and glute to drive the exercise’s upward phase, press yourself back up to standing. As you push yourself to a standing position, release the breath.
  9. Step your right foot off the bench or chair after completing a full set to one side. Ensure you keep things even by performing the same repetitions and sets to each side.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

You may need to hop or wiggle your front foot around to find a secure, well-balanced placement. You may have to do this a couple of times after performing a repetition, as finding the proper foot placement based on your comfort and preference can take a little time.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats

A great exercise to advance your lower-body training is the Bulgarian split squat.This movement targets all the same muscle groups you see targeted during squats and lunges—quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, and spinal erectors—but places greater focus on the quadriceps and core due to the single-leg, balance challenge that the exercise provides.How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Anytime you work your body unilaterally, or concentrate on one side of your body independently of the other, you can correct your muscle imbalances from side to side.

By improving these imbalances, you’re less likely for one side to “take over” when bending, lifting, or moving through life, making it easier for you to maintain proper alignment and avoid injuries over time.

These exercises may also improve your agility, and core strength, making it less likely that you’ll experience a fall when knocked off balance. Maintaining your balance as you age may help you fall less and lower your chance of suffering potentially deadly injuries like wrist or hip fractures.

Bulgarian Split Squat Variations

The split squat variations listed below can be performed without a bench or with the addition of weight, an exercise ball, or a resistance band to make the exercise more difficult.

Split Squat

While “split squat” and “Bulgarian split squat” are often used interchangeably, they’re two different variations of the exercise. The Bulgarian split squat refers to the version where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair, while the split squat is the version performed without the rear leg elevated.

Remember, this isn’t the same as a lunge where the back leg is also engaged in the exercise.

  1. Perform the exercise in the same manner, but with your back foot on the floor.
  2. Use your back leg to help with balance, but the front leg should support the entire movement.

Weighted Bulgarian Split Squat

Once you’ve mastered the proper form, make things harder by adding weights.

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands to ramp up the difficulty of the exercise.
  2. For an even more challenging variation, place an unloaded or loaded barbell across your shoulders before performing the Bulgarian split squat.

Bulgarian Split Squat with Resistance Bands

Another variation that adds a challenge is to use a resistance band. The band adds resistance as you lift out of the squat.

  • Place the resistance band under your front foot.
  • Bend your arms to bring the resistance band in line with your shoulders as you perform the Bulgarian split squats.

Bulgarian Split Squat with an Exercise Ball

If you want to add more of a challenge for your core muscles, you can use an exercise ball.

  • Elevate your back leg onto an exercise ball instead of a bench or chair.
  • Move slowly to keep proper Bulgarian split squat form even though your core is working harder to maintain your balance through the exercise.

Common Bulgarian Split Squat Mistakes

There are a few common mistakes made when performing Bulgarian split squats. Here’s what to watch for.

Placing the Back Leg Directly Behind the Front

If you align your back foot directly behind your front foot, you’ll have a tough time balancing throughout the exercise. Because your front leg powers the motion, this is already a unilateral balance challenge, forcing you to maintain balance as you move through a squat supported primarily by your front foot.

If you reduce your base of support by placing your back foot directly behind your front one, you’re going to struggle to master proper form.

When you place your back foot on the bench behind you, make sure it’s roughly hip distance apart from your front foot or even slightly wider. Even though you’re not powering the exercise with your back foot or leg, having this wider “kickstand” for support will help you complete the Bulgarian split squat effectively.

Leaning Too Far Forward From the Hips

It’s tempting and common to lose focus on your core—particularly your abdominals and spinal erectors—as you move through the downward phase of the Bulgarian split squat. Not only does this forward lean limit the core benefits of the exercise, but it makes you more likely to place too much stress on your front knee, shifting your weight too far forward. (A slight lean is fine.)

Additionally, if you progress to a Bulgarian split squat with a barbell balanced across your shoulders, a forward lean as you squat will likely lead to injury. Before starting the exercise’s downward phase, re-engage your core muscles and roll your shoulders back. Try to keep this same posture and alignment throughout each repetition.

Rising Onto the Toes

A bad habit that sometimes occurs when your alignment and form are otherwise poor is to rise onto the ball and toes of your front foot as you squat down. This usually indicates one of two things: 1) your front foot is too close to the bench, and you need to move it forward to maintain better balance and alignment, or 2) you’re leaning forward at your hips as you perform the squat, and you need to rise onto your toes to support the forward shift in your weight to remain balanced.

If you ever find yourself rising onto the ball or toes of your front foot, stop the exercise and reset. Check the placement of your front foot—you may need to shift it forward—and ensure you’re keeping your torso upright and tall as you perform the exercise.

Supporting the Movement With the Back Leg

Remember, the Bulgarian split squat is a form of single-leg squat. While the back leg is intended to help with balance, it’s not supposed to be engaged to perform the exercise, making it more of a lunge. At any given point of the movement, you should be able to “shake” your back leg to ensure it’s still loose and not engaged in supporting your weight.

Allowing the Front Knee to Lose Alignment

As with all squat and lunge variations, one standard and significant mistake during the Bulgarian split squat are to allow the front knee to shift inward or outward, losing alignment with the same-side toes. This places way too much stress on the knee, especially during single-leg exercises, where the weight and resistance are all being supported by one leg.

Pay attention to your front knee alignment with your toes, particularly when you transition from the downward to the upward phase of the exercise.

Safety and Precautions

Proper setup and effective core engagement are hands-down the best ways to ensure the Bulgarian split squat remains safe. Take your time to find appropriate foot alignment and placement, so you’re not tempted to lean forward from the hips and throw your center of gravity in front of your front knee. This places too much stress on the knee and could lead to injury.

Generally speaking, this exercise is safe for anyone who’s been participating in strength training for a while and has a decent level of balance, coordination, and lower-body strength.

If you’re brand-new to strength training, or if you struggle to remain balanced while performing traditional lunges, you probably aren’t ready to try the Bulgarian split squat yet. Likewise, if you have knee or ankle pain or injuries, the flexibility and mobility required to perform this movement correctly may not be comfortable for you.

If you feel any pain or discomfort, discontinue the movement and try the split squat variation with your back foot balanced on the floor.

 

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