Bulgarian Split Squat is an Effective Alternative to the Back Squat

Bulgarian Split Squat Muscle EMG = Back Squat?

While our focus is on #prehab, i.e. finding the weak links in your movement system and addressing them through specifically targeted exercises, we are HUGE ADVOCATES OF BARBELL TRAINING and train this way ourselves every day. That being said, not everyone is a fan of (or comfortable with) getting under a barbell – especially in the rehabilitation setting. So if you are unable to get your clients or patients under the barbell and are looking for exercises that elicit similar EMG activity to the traditional back squat, look no further than the REAR LEG ELEVATED SPLIT SQUAT aka the Bulgarian split squat.

A recent study by DeForest et al 2014 compared the EMG activity of the Back squat (85%RM), the Bulgarian split squat (50%RM), and the split squat (50% RM). Their big finding was that almost all the muscles (gluteus maximus and rectus femoris included) they looked at elicited similar muscle activity. The only significant difference between the Bulgarian split squat and the back squat was that the back squat displayed higher biceps femoris muscle activity. This means that for those clients who are UNCOMFORTABLE UNDER THE BARBELL–but still want good glute and quad results–you can have them perform a Bulgarian split squat and elicit similar muscle activity and GAINS! (READ: Best Squat Depth for Gluteal Activation)


Optimal Bulgarian Split Squat Alignment

Another study by McCrudy et al 2010 found that the Bulgarian split squat elicited greater gluteus medius muscle and biceps femoris activity than the back squat (although they found lower rectus femoris activity). Which makes logical sense considering the unilateral design of the exercise to stabilize the knee (biceps femoris) and the increased demand on the gluteus medius in the frontal and transverse planes.

In conclusion, the Bulgarian split squat is an effective alternative to the back squat. If you arenโ€™t convinced yet, give the Bulgarian split squat a try, as well as the variations above shown!

Ankle Position During The Bulgarian Split Squat

We got a good question from one of our followers about ankle pain during the exercise. This is a common complaint many have with this exercise, and it all boils down to how the ankle is position on the bench.

We want to AVOID HYPER PLANTARFLEXION with the back leg. Instead, try this easy setup using a half foam roller. It’s the perfect size that fits within the contours of the anterior ankle. Now, if you donโ€™t have the luxury of even this simple setup, make sure you point your TOES straight down into the bench. This will ensure your ankle stays in a relatively neutral position while performing the exercise. We can use the available range of motion at the metatarsal-phalangeal joint instead of relying solely on the talocrural joint for all the motion.

“No Pain No Gain” doesnโ€™t apply to this exercise, nor to any others! If youโ€™re going to exercise, do it RIGHT and do it SAFE. As a Physical Therapist, Iโ€™d much rather see you preventatively when youโ€™re HEALTHY, ACTIVE, and FIT than when youโ€™re injured!!




McCurdy K, O’Kelley E, Kutz M, Langford G, Ernest J, Torres M.ย Comparison of Lower Extremity EMG Between the 2-Leg Squat and Modified Single-Leg Squat in Female Athletes
J Sport Rehabil. 2010 Feb; 19(1):57-70

DeFOREST BA, CANTRELL GS, SCHILLING BK. Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. International Journal of Exercise Science. 2014;7(4):302-310.

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