Doing any type of traditional squat will guarantee to get your glutes on fire, especially a barbell back squat! But if you want to switch things up and really challenge yourself... Start incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your leg workout routine! Barbell back squats and heavy deadlifts should be your bread and butter for maximizing lower body gains, but adding Bulgarian split squats will further improve your leg day! Aside from firing up your glutes, it targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, and core – it's seriously one of the best exercises you can do to build muscle in all major muscle groups in your legs.
The downside is that this exercise is often done with improper form and technique which can lead to poor results, but when done correctly you'll reap all the wonderful benefits it offers! So, to help maximize your efforts and improve your leg strength, we're breaking down everything you need to know about Bulgarian split squats – benefits, step-by-step instructions, mistakes to avoid, and variations you can try to further improve your results!
Benefits of Bulgarian split squats
Before we get into how to do this single-leg exercise with proper form, let's talk about why you should be doing it in the first place!
No equipment needed – Probably one of the greatest things about this exercise is that you don't need weights to feel your legs burning! So, if you have limited equipment at home or traveling, you can easily incorporate this exercise into your workout routine to continue making progress on the go!
Help fix muscle imbalances – Unilateral exercises, like Bulgarian split squats help to improve side-to-side muscle imbalances. These imbalances are quite common because most people tend to favor one side of their body when doing everyday tasks. By working on one side of your body independently from the other you improve any imbalances you may have while also reducing the chances of letting one side of your body take over.
Improves balance, stability, and core strength – It may not seem like it, but having good balance, stability, and a strong core is super important in strength training. Improving these three areas will help naturally improve your form and technique for key heavy compound lifts.
Can be adjusted to target certain muscle groups more – Compound exercises are known to target multiple muscle groups at once, and Bulgarian split squats are one of the best ones! The concentric part (when muscles contract) of the move helps target your quads and glutes, while the eccentric part (when the muscle lengthens) helps activate the hamstrings. Not only that, but a simple change in foot placement can make the exercise more quad-focused for those who want to grow their quads or more hamstring/glute-focused for those trying to strengthen their posterior chain.
How to do a Bulgarian split squat
If you know how to do split squats then you're already close to understanding how to do a Bulgarian split squat! Since this exercise is already challenging without weight, we'll give step-by-step instructions on how to do it using only your bodyweight.
Here's how to do a Bulgarian split squat in 5 simple steps:
- Stand about two feet in front of a bench or stable surface (facing away from it) with your feet hip-distance apart.
- Place your right foot on the bench behind you. There are two ways you can place your non-working foot, you can place the top of your foot on the bench so the ankle is hanging off the edge. The other option is to find balance with the ball of your foot and your toes by flexing your ankle, like you would doing a traditional lunge. The common foot placement is the first option, but it comes down to personal preference! Give both foot placements a try, and see which one you like best.
- Check to make sure that your feet are roughly hip-distance apart or slightly wider. Being directly behind your front foot will make balancing difficult, so you may need to hop or move your front foot to find a well-balanced foot placement.
- Once you found your ideal foot placement, engage your core (here's how to engage your core for those who don't know), keep your chest high, take a deep breath, and begin to bend your left knee so that your right knee and ankle naturally bend as you move down. If you need help balancing, place your hands on your hip and focus on keeping the load balanced evenly across your left foot. You should feel a stretch in the front of your back-facing leg and in the glutes of your front-facing leg.
- Once your left quad is roughly parallel to the ground, use the back foot for balance and drive through your front foot to raise your torso back to the starting position. Focus on using your left quad and glute to power back up.
Start by doing 8-10 reps on each leg, and remember to do the same amount of reps for each leg! Once you're able to do 3 sets of 12 reps on each leg with good form and technique then you can add dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell to increase the resistance!
Mistakes to avoid
Bulgarian split squats seem simple enough, but there are common mistakes that can hold you back from getting effective results and also increase your risk of an injury. So, avoid making these mistakes when performing it:
Leaning too far forward or back – Keep your torso upright, but with a slight forward lean. Leaning back limits the effectiveness of the exercise, but so does leaning too far forward. Leaning too far forward places stress on your front knee, but also can lead to an unengaged core thus limiting the core-strengthening benefits this exercise offers. You want to keep a slight lean/forward tilt to allow you to go through the full range of motion with your knee.
Back leg placed directly behind the front – Aligning your back foot directly behind your front will make it even more difficult to balance and to master good form. So, make sure that your back foot is roughly hip-distance apart from your front, or even slightly wider.
Placing your whole foot on the bench – Placing your entire foot on the bench will make the exercise a whole lot easier thus minimizing the effectiveness. The key is to have your toes flexed, and making sure that no other part of your foot is on the bench.
Front knee losing alignment – You want to make sure your knees are staying in line with your toes. Allowing the front knee to shift inward or outward will cause you to lose alignment thus placing greater stress on the knee. To avoid making this mistake, keep your front foot far enough away from the bench.
Modifications and variations
A bodyweight Bulgarian split squats are an excellent starting point for everyone, but here is a list of modifications and variations for beginners, for those who want more of a challenge, and emphasize their glutes more or quads.
Bulgarian split squats are a difficult exercise, so if you're new to it start by mastering a traditional split squat. This split squat variation involves performing it without the back leg elevated. Once you master a traditional split squat, start practicing Bulgarian split squats, but with a lower elevated surface. So, instead of a bench use a riser or stack a few plates. Just ensure that it's a stable surface to avoid any injuries!
To emphasize your glutes
If you're trying to build stronger and bigger glutes place your front leg slightly further out in front of your body. It can limit the quality range of motion, but it will help to shift more of the load onto your glutes. And as always, for those trying to grow their glutes – do some glute activation exercises before leg day to get them fired up and working!
To emphasize your quads
If you want to grow your quads, place your front foot slightly closer to your body than normal. This will place a greater emphasis on your quads thus forcing them to work harder than your glutes.
For more of a challenge
Add free weights! Once you've mastered your Bulgarian split squat form using only your bodyweight, consider holding a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides. For an even more challenging variation, try a barbell or goblet Bulgarian split squat. So, instead of holding weights at your sides, you'll place a new challenge by either adding a barbell on your back or by holding a dumbbell out in front of you (think goblet squats). You can also level up to a single-leg squat! The Bulgarian split squat will improve your balance and stability so you can start training to do the oh so challenging single-leg squat.
Now, you have all the information you need to master one of the best lower body exercises there is! So, start incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your leg day to start building better lower body strength.
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