Learn how to master Bulgarian split squats! Whether you call them BSS, rear leg elevated split squats, or rear leg elevated lunges – we are covering everything you need to know about this exercise including why you should do it, alignment, set-up, and variations!
Why you should do Bulgarian Split Squats
Did you know BSS create similar muscle activity as barbell back squats?! However, due to the unilateral design of this exercise there is an increased demand for stability throughout the body that can expose weak links and mobility deficits easier than double leg exercises. Everyone can benefit from mastering the Bulgarian split squat including average Joes and athletes to prehab their body!
We are big fans of barbell training and we train this way ourselves regularly. 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 an exercise that elicits similar EMG activity to the traditional barbell back squat, look no further than Bulgarian split squats.
A recent study by DeForest et al 2014 compared the EMG activity of the Back squat (85%RM), the real leg elevated split squat (50%RM), and the split squat (50% RM). Their big finding was that almost all the muscles they looked at (gluteus maximus and rectus femoris included) 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 (the lateral hamstring muscle) muscle activity. This means that for those clients who are uncomfortable under a barbell BUT still want good glute and quad results – you can have them perform a Bulgarian split squat and elicit similar muscle activity and similar GAINS!
Another study by McCrudy et al 2010 found that the bulgarian split squat elicited greater gluteus medius muscle activity than the back squat. This makes logical sense considering the unilateral design of the exercise and the increased demand on the gluteus medius in the frontal and transverse planes. If you aren’t convinced yet, give the Bulgarian split squat a try as well as the variations shown above later in the video. Be sure to check out the last video of this article for more Bulgarian Split Squat variations!
Bulgarian Split Squats Alignment
Performing the Bulgarian split squat with ideal alignment, especially under load, is the best way to prehab your lower body! Two main compensations reviewed in this video are excessive contralateral pelvic drop and posterior pelvic rotation. With all movements it is important to consider mobility, strength, and motor control. We will briefly touch on this concept here.
One potential reason for excessive contralateral pelvic drop is a strength deficit of the ipsilateral hip abductors. To confirm, you could strength test the hip abductors and note any side to side differences. One potential reason for excessive contralateral posterior pelvic rotation is tight hip flexors. Try a half-kneeling hip flexor stretch, did the movement improve?!
Motor control is king! You might just find that if you practice this movement or cue yourself via a mirror to keep optimal alignment, you can do it! If your Bulgarian split squat improves with simple cueing, we know you didn’t gain strength in just a matter of minutes. However if it doesn’t improve, then try our suggestions above.
Proper Foot Set-up For Bulgarian Split Squats
We got a good question from one of our followers about ankle pain with Bulgarian Split Squats. 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 at the ankle 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 front of the ankle. Now, if you don’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 doesn’t apply to this exercise, nor to any others! If you’re going to exercise, do it right and do it safe. As physical therapists, we’d much rather see you preventatively when you’re healthy, active, and fit than when you’re injured!
Bulgarian Split Squats Variations
Maybe you’ve been doing the Bulgarian split squat for quite some time now and want to spice things up?! Check out this video to learn some Bulgarian split squat variations.
1️⃣ Cross Body Reach ➡️ this variation is the easiest way to increase the demand on the ipsilateral hip abductors
2️⃣ Contralateral Y ➡️ one of our favorite variations to increase the demand on the hip abductors and also promote scapular stability, especially for overhead athletes
3️⃣ Contralateral Suitcase Hold ➡️ if you really want to load up the BSS, this is an easy way to do so
4️⃣ Jump Reps ➡️ generating and absorbing force on one leg should be a prerequisite for every athlete, here is a way to train that
5️⃣ Clean & Press ➡️ for the bold, this variation is an unique way to use the BSS for a power focused exercise
Every variation has a specific reason, your training shouldn’t be any different. If willing and able, you should to try all of these variations. However, we encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself why. Why would you add one of these variations to your workout or training program? What is your goal? Once you answer this question, all of our content should be easier to navigate.
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DeFOREST BA, CANTRELL GS, SCHILLING BK. Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. International Journal of Exercise Science. 2014;7(4):302-310.
McCurdy K, O’Kelley E, Kutz M, Langford G, Ernest J, Torres M J Sport Rehabil. 2010 Feb; 19(1):57-70