The move is a trainer fave for a whole slew of reasons, and all you need to try it for yourself is a bench and some serious lower body strength. Read on for everything you need to know.
The benefits of Bulgarian split squats
A Bulgarian split squat has a (literal) leg up on your usual squat because it involves elevating your back foot on top of a surface instead of planting it on the floor. "It's a type of single-leg movement, and differs from your conventional barbell squat in that it emphasizes one leg at a time and doesn't place a heavy weight on your shoulders," says ISSA certified personal trainer and COO of Model Trainers, Nick Topel. "They're a great alternative to the conventional barbell squat—especially for people with back problems since there's virtually no load on the back or spine."
The biggest benefit of the Bulgarian split squat, according to Katie Kollath, ACE, CPT, co-founder of Barpath Fitness, is that because it's a unilateral move, it helps you build up strength and stability one leg at a time, "which is great for building up weaknesses in one limb compared to the other," she says. In addition to hitting your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves (aka your entire lower body), the move will also give you some indirect core work as you engage your abs to stabilize yourself and keep your torso upright.
It also has benefits beyond building up stronger muscles: "You’re not only working on strength, but also on balance, stability and mobility," says Zehra Allibhai, the kinesiologist and trainer behind The FitNest.
How to do a Bulgarian split squat
1. Grab a bench, chair, or some other sort of elevated platform (ideally between 12 to 16 inches), and place it behind you. If you're new to the move, you can start with your back foot on the floor, then work your way up to elevating it.
2. Stand a full stride's length in front of the bench, and place the top of your non-working foot on the surface in an elevated lunging position. "Make sure that your ankle is hanging off the edge so your back leg can freely move up and down," says Topel. Additionally, make sure the top of your foot is flat (as opposed to driving your toes toward the bench), which Kollath says will allow for maximum tension in the front, working leg.
3. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and your front leg should be a half stride in front of you and your back leg should be a half stride behind you. "Feel free to adjust either foot slightly so you're comfortable, and make sure that your front foot is far enough out that your knee doesn't move forward past your toes when you lower down," says Topel.
4. Tilt your torso forward about 15 degrees, and take a nice deep breath while bracing your core.
5. With your hands on your hips (or holding onto a pole for balance if you need), slowly lower your torso like you're doing a stationary lunge. "You should feel a deep stretch in the front of your back-facing leg and a nice stretch in the glute of your front-facing leg," says Topel. "Use the back foot for balance and drive through your firmly planted front foot to raise your torso back to the top." Be sure to keep your chest up with a slight forward lean to keep a neutral spine, adds Kollath.
Once you can do three sets of 12 reps on each side, Topel suggests adding in some hand weights for extra resistance.
The biggest mistakes people make when doing Bulgarian split squats
Now that you know the right way to do a Bulgarian split squat, it's important to avoid common mistakes that could be messing with your form and preventing you from getting the most out of the move. The biggest one trainers see? Keeping your upper body too upright. "You want to keep a slight forward tilt in your torso to allow for maximum range of motion with your knee, which is slightly counterintuitive as most people are taught to keep their head and chest upright when they're doing a squat movement," says Topel. "Tilting forward a little more emphasizes the quads, while remaining more upright, but still tilted forward, will help to emphasize the glutes." He notes that 15 degrees is the sweet spot to get it right.
Holly Roser, a personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness, also says you might making the exercise easier for yourself without even realizing it. "People will have their whole foot on the bench, making this move a lot easier. What you really want to see is just the toe flexed, but no other part of your foot touching the bench," she says. "Also, be mindful of having your front foot way too far out in front of you. Imagine you’re doing a regular lunge with the only difference being that your back foot is elevated."
You'll also want to make sure that you keep your knees tracking properly as you move your body up and down. "Make sure your knees are staying in line with your toes," says Kollath. "Your shin doesn't need to be completely vertical—actually, the knee should go over the toe—but you definitely want to make sure your heel stays flat on the floor so you can drive through it as you stand back up." Keep your front foot far enough away from the bench (approximately half of a stride away) to combat this issue.
Use your Bulgarian split squats to target specific areas of your body
Once you've got the original version of the move down, you can mix things up a bit to target different parts of your body.
To emphasize your glutes
Plant your front foot slightly further out in front of your body than you would in the standard variation of the move, "as if you were taking a long stride," says Topel. "This reduces the bend in your knee as you perform the squat, which shifts more of the load into the glutes," he explains.
To emphasize your quads
Plant your front foot slightly closer to your body than you normally would, which will force your quads to work harder than your glutes as you move up and down in your squat. You can also use a higher bench to amplify the stretch in your back leg.
To emphasize your core
Hold a kettlebell in front of your torso, which Topel says will add some weight and provide instability to force you to engage more of your core.
How's your squat form? Check using this video:
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