Ten Massive Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat, the movement that feels like hell, but delivers heavenly results. Out of all the exercises that one can do, no other begets such a love-hate relationship from so many people. But you should do them, even if they suck.
Reason #1: Stabilization and Balance
Lifting on one leg, unsurprisingly, requires quite a bit more stabilizing and balancing by the lower body, and the “core” as well. This is something just about everyone feels the first time they try this movement, and it’s not a bad thing at all.
If starting out, you can hold onto something to help you balance, but the eventual goal should be to be able to perform the movement free-standing, without any assistance. Stabilization requirements are a positive, until you fall on your ass.
Reason #2: Less Spinal Loading
The back squat and front squat are wonderful movements, but they do place quite a bit of stress on the spine, due to the axially loaded position of the barbell. This is not a bad thing in most cases, indeed in a lot of ways it’s a benefit, as the spinal erectors can strengthen due to this resistance.
However, for many people, especially if they have a history of lower back issues or poor mobility, they may not be able to even perform barbell movements correctly. Or, their lower back might gobble up more of the tension than it otherwise should. The Bulgarian Split Squat is a good option because it puts the majority of the tension on the legs, not on the torso musculature.
Reason #3: Equipment Friendly
To really overload the legs, for a back or front squat you need a barbell, plates and a squat rack. All are pretty much non-negotiable. And the stronger you get, the more plates you need.
For a Bulgarian split squat, you need a couple of dumbbells…or perhaps nothing at all. For a lot of people, they can’t do bodyweight sets of 15 that are deep and controlled, quality reps. So it really doesn’t require anything more than just yourself and a bed or chair to put your back foot up on.
In other words, it’s quarantine friendly.
Reason #4: Muscle Imbalances
Most people have leg length differences, or a slightly twisted pelvis. This isn’t always a bad thing — for example, in distance runners, it’s often an adaptation to a slightly cambered road, or running counter-clockwise around a track all the time. But, over time, these imbalances can add up and put you at risk for injury. A normal back squat almost certainly will not help identify or correct these imbalances.
However, due to the unilateral nature of a Bulgarian split squat, you can very quickly see if one side feels different than the other. And if you keep doing them, often any imbalances sort themselves out over time.
Reason #5: Mobility
Most of us sit all day, and thus have very tight hips, weak glutes, shortened hip flexors and lower back pain. A lot of people — sometimes myself included — cannot even get into the positions of a Bulgarian split squat, particularly in the lowest position.
This is the single greatest exercise for hip mobility, because it’s working the glute and hamstring of the front leg, and the hip flexor of the back leg, all under significant loading. That really is the key to actually improving your mobility; not just stretching, not just weight training, but the intersection of those two. Stretching under active loading is an absolute godsend when it comes to seeing real changes.
Reason #6: Constant Tension
In a back squat, it does work the lower body to a significant degree, but there are also breaks in the movement where certain muscles are almost completely inactive. For example, there’s almost no tension at the very top of a squat, as all of the loading is being directed straight down through the bones and joints.
In a Bulgarian split squat, because the back leg is pushing back slightly, and the front leg is providing an equal and opposite reaction forward, you get a constant tension effect on that front leg. This is horribly uncomfortable, but also can trigger growth.
After a barbell back squat set, I’m destroyed, but it’s more of a whole body destruction, not specifically in the leg. After a set of Bulgarians…the leg is so utterly fatigued that sometimes it buckles under the simple act of walking.
Reason #7: Glute Medius and VMO Strengthening
The glute medius is a muscle located on the side of the hip, and is rarely a prime mover in any movement — it’s more of a stabilizer, assisting the larger and more succulent gluteus maximus, that tasty Roman emperor of the lower body musculature in extending the hip.
In any movement that is performed on one leg, the glute medius is very active — and that includes running and sprinting, along with almost any athletic endeavor. It’s vital. A weak glute medius is just begging for injury at multiple spots in the kinetic chain. So strengthen them, with Bulgarians.
The VMO is located on the inside of the knee, and is also a vital stabilizer. Yup, the good old BSS strengthens this as well.
Reason #8: Depth of the Stretch
In the bottom position of a back squat or front squat, it can be difficult to get a stretch on the quads or glutes. And for many people, if they even attempt it, it’s goodbye knees, hello orthopedist.
A split squat allows much more effective range of motion at the hip and possibly at the knee as well, which is an independent trigger of hypertrophy. That full range of motion stretch under load is vital for getting maximally jacked.
Reason #9: Flexible to Program
To a certain extent, you can target different areas with a barbell squat. You can use a low bar position and lean forward more, sitting the hips back to work more glutes and hamstrings. Or, you can use a high bar or front squat position, stay very upright, letting the knees come forward (it’s fine, that’s a myth that it’s dangerous) to work more quads.
However, especially for beginners, this can be overly complex, and they have to learn what is essentially an entirely new movement to work a different area. Plus, trying to force a back squat into working just one part of your leg is awkward and can place needless stress on the lower back. Not optimal. With a Bulgarian split squat, it’s pretty simple. You can take a longer stride for more glutes and hamstrings, or a shorter one for more quads.
Reason #10: High Intensity Friendly
Beyond failure techniques like partial reps, drop sets and forced reps are something that really don’t make a lot of sense on a barbell back squat. The risk to reward, to be blunt, sucks for that. Low reward, high risk, specifically to the lower back. Any trainer who is advocating drop sets on barbell squats is really doing their clients a massive disservice.
I’ve even seen people say to go to failure with high bar, then roll the bar down their back in the middle of the set to a low bar position, and go to failure again. That is beyond asinine. Rerack the bar and reset that way if you must partake in contrarian stupidity, but don’t roll a weight down your back mid-set.
But on something with a lot less loading through the spine like a BSS, it makes sense. You can go to failure safely, then literally drop the weights and do a drop set, going to failure again with just bodyweight. Or, you can do partials, going to failure then small baby reps in the bottom position. Or both. Be prepared for sore glutes incoming.
Here’s this article in video format, with jokes and stuff:
All in all, this movement is overlooked, not because it isn’t effective, but because it’s hard. Don’t shy away from movement for that reason. If you want to see results, you need to accept the fact that things won’t be easy.
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