Bulgarian split squats, also known as rear foot elevated split squats, were popularized in the 1980s by Bulgarian weightlifting coach Angel Spassov. This gnarly single-leg squat variation is revered by all who do them, and for dang good reasons.
I won’t deny that back squats and deadlifts are sexy — like, ruin three months of your life because you knew she was crazy but you didn’t care, kind of sexy. I’m not at all speaking from experience. They’re also productive; I’m not raggin’ on them. But the truth is we spend most of our lives on one leg. So, training on one leg is essential if you want to be a strong, useful human being.
The Bulgarian split squat builds nasty amounts of single-leg strength. But wait! There’s more!
They’re also great for hip mobility conditioning. The hip of the non-working leg is held under stretch for the entire movement, and the movement teaches each side of your pelvis to work independently. Both are a big win for overall hip mobility.
How To Do Them
Success begins with the setup. First, find a rear foot support that’s the appropriate height for you. Use a bench, a box, or a standard like the one featured in the photos that will allow you to rest your non-working rear foot while also allowing your knee to reach the ground. This height provides the sweet spot of balance support and range of motion.
Next, set your front foot so you can maintain your weight in the center of the foot throughout the movement. You must also keep your shin vertical, or slightly less than vertical, in the bottom position. If your heel comes up when you go down, your front foot is too close to your rear foot support. If your knee is behind your ankle in the bottom position, your front foot is too far from your rear foot support.
Once that part of the setup is sorted, the movement is simple.
From the starting position (standing), sink down until your back knee is just above the ground. Then, drive through the center of your front foot until you return to the starting position with your leg locked out.
It’s okay if your torso leans forward slightly, but it should maintain the same amount of lean throughout the movement — meaning you shouldn’t lean over more as you descend into the bottom position. Imagine that you’re on an elevator, and you’re going straight down and straight up.
Loading Bulgarian Split Squats
It’s easy to add weight to these puppies in a few different ways.
The old standby is holding a dumbbell in each hand (above). You can handle heavy weight with dumbbells, and it’s easy to balance during setup. Load this variation up, do low reps, or grab lighter dumbbells and hit high reps. You can’t go wrong.
A goblet hold with a kettlebell is also effective, but arm and upper-back strength is a limiting factor for adding weight. Use this variation if you’re cranking out reps.
The third popular option is to load them with a barbell across the shoulders (like the video above) in either the back squat or front squat position. Each of these variations allows for lots o’ weight to be hoisted. This is the best option if you want to get after low reps and push your strength. But be aware that balance and setup with the barbell is a son of a bitch. If you’re new to Bulgarian split squats, break yourself in using one of the other two variations before progressing to the barbell.
Including Bulgarian Split Squats in a Training Program
Bulgarian split squats are versatile. They work as the main event of a lower-body strength session, and they are also a great assistance exercise. Where they fit in your training depends on your goals and your movement ability.
If bilateral (done with two feet) squatting variations like back squats, front squats, and goblet squats are a no-go for you, load up Bulgarian split squats in 3 to 5 sets of 2 to 6 reps per side. Truth be told, split squats work as a main lower-body strength exercise, even if you’re good to go with bilateral squats. We need to train intensely on both legs and on one leg. If your goal is to be strong and balanced on each side of your body, loading them up as your main lift is a killer option.
If your goal is to add mass to your legs, Bulgarian split squats can be used as an assistance exercise that follows your main strength movement, whether your main lift for the day is a deadlift or a squat.
Mass is built by increasing training volume. Bulgarian split squats add appreciable training volume because each leg is trained individually. The bonus is that you can use heavier weights than most other single-leg exercises. To do this effectively, use mid-range sets of 6 to 12 reps per side, hitting 18 to 40 total reps per side during a workout.