What are Bulgarian split squats? (A guide for bodybuilders)

What are  Bulgarian split squats?

What is the Bulgarian split squat?

The Bulgarian split squat is a single leg variation of squatting and it targets the quads, glutes and hamstrings making it a great compound movement. It can be performed with just bodyweight, dumbbells or a loaded barbell meaning that you can scale up as you become more competent. 

Effectiveness of the Bulgarian Split Squat.

You can not beat the squat for developing strength and mass in the lower body. There are many variations of the exercise including hack squats, front squats and goblet squats in addition to your regular back squat. 

A combination of these in your weekly routine is a great way to develop the lower body but one that should never be missed is the Bulgarian split squat. 

This is the hardest of all the squat movements as it requires good balance and places a lot of tension on your legs individually. 

The Bulgarian split squat is a single leg variation of squatting and it targets the quads, glutes and hamstrings making it a great compound movement. 

It can be performed with just bodyweight, dumbbells or a loaded barbell meaning that you can scale up as you become more competent. 

If you have never used Bulgarian split squats, add them to your next leg day and take your leg development to another level. This article will tell you why to use them, how to perform them and the benefits of adding them to your split. 

Why is it called the Bulgarian split squat?

Up until the 1970s, the standard squat was the staple exercise for leg development. It was used by bodybuilders, athletes and strength trainers for leg development. It worked well so nobody ever questioned the method. 

That was until the Bulgarian national weight lifting team started to dominate the Olympics in all of the weight categories. This was a surprise to the other nations who quickly analysed training methods used by the Bulgarians and were drawn to the 'separate squat'. 

Other nations started to employ separate squat training in their preparations and records were rapidly being broken in the weight lifting world. The method became popular with other athletes and bodybuilders who quickly realised that it was good for building mass and definition in the quads as well as strength. 

The separate squat gained huge popularity over the following 20 years and became known as the Bulgarian split squat. 

Which muscles are targeted with Bulgarian split squats?

Muscles worked with the bulgarian split squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a compound movement so it utilises more than one primary mover. In this case, it is the quadriceps muscles at the front of the upper leg and the gluteal muscles. 

These are the main target muscles for the movement. There are a couple of secondary movers that help with flexion and stabilisation. These are the Hamstrings at the back of the upper leg and the soleus in the lower leg. 

To a small extent, your core muscles are also bought into the movement as stabilisers as are some of the back muscles. 

Advantages of adding Bulgarian split squats to your training.

  1. Upper leg development. There are many squat variations for developing the upper leg but the Bulgarian split squat allows you to isolate one leg at a time. This means that you can really connect with the target muscle making sure that you are pushing it to its limits.
  2. Equipment. Although this exercise can be performed with added resistance, Bulgarian split squats are also very effective with just body weight. By slowing the movement right down and maximising time under tension, you can give the quads and glutes a great workout with no equipment. This makes it ideal to add to circuits or a home workout routine. 
  3. Because you are only working one leg at a time, you will not be using as much resistance as you would for a back squat. This makes it easier on the spine and reduces the risk of back injury.
  4. There is a huge emphasis on balance when doing Bulgarian split squats. This helps with coordination and the development of stabilising muscles. 
There are no real disadvantages to performing Bulgarian split squats as part of your training split. The movement can be difficult to master at first and you need to make sure that you are following the correct method to avoid injury. By stretching well and starting off with just body-weight it is no riskier than other resistance exercises. 

How do I do Bulgarian split squats?

How do I do a bulgarian split squat

The standard Bulgarian split squat needs no equipment. As long as you have a way of supporting your rear leg, you can perform the movement with just your bodyweight. A flat bench, a step, a couple of weight plates or even a sofa will do as a support if you are working out at home. 
  1. Place one leg behind you with your foot on to the bench or support. 
  2. Stand with a straight spine and use your arms to stabilise you. You can use them as support or just for balance. 
  3. Flex the front leg at the knee by bending it to an angle of 90 degrees. 
  4. Hold this position for a second before breathing out and pushing back up. 
  5. Don't allow your standing leg to fully straighten before squatting again.
  6. Keep a straight back throughout the movement. Breath out as you push up and in as you lower down.
  7. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets on alternate legs.
It is important to make sure that you do not overextend the knee joint and squat too low. This puts immense pressure on the joint and you run the risk of injuring your quads or hamstrings. 

Bulgarian split squat correct form

Before you start the movement. make sure that the knee on your front leg is further forward than your rear supporting leg. If they are too close, you will over-extend the knee. This is not only an injury risk but makes balancing a bit harder too. 

How do I do a weighted Bulgarian split squat?

The movement for a weighted Bulgarian split squat is exactly the same as the standard Bulgarian split squat. It is for the more advanced lifter that wants to take their leg training to another level. 

Resistance can be added to the movement by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell as you would with a goblet squat and following the steps above. 

If you want to push yourself even further, you can hold a pair of heavier dumbbells at your side and for heavy resistance, balance a loaded barbell on your shoulders. 

How do I do a weighted Bulgarian split squt

If you are working towards weighted Bulgarian split squats, you can practice with an empty barbell bar to get used to balancing the movement. As you progress, adding resistance will become easier and you can work towards progressive overload. 

If you have never performed Bulgarian split squats before, do not jump straight in with a loaded barbell. They are not as easy as they are made to look and going too heavy too soon will lead to injury. 

Weighted Bulgarian split squats should also not be performed if you do not have healthy knee and hip joints. The pressure put on these joints is immense so if these are a weak spot or you have any previous injury, opt for a subtler exercise for leg development. 

Smith machine Bulgarian split squats.

If our gym has a smith machine, you can perform the Bulgarian split squat without having to worry about balancing the movement. 

This is a great way to build up to weighted Bulgarian split squats as you can add resistance to the machine without changing the method. 

Smith machine Bulgarian split squat

There will be a bit of trial and error at first when setting up this exercise. Some smith machines have rails that allow for a direct up and down movement and some are slightly inclined. 

You will also need to play around with your front foot position and bench position to make sure that you are not overextending the knee. 

Once set up, perform a few reps with no weight and slowly pyramid up to your working sets. You can pretty much go to failure on a smith machine if you set up the safety stops making it a great alternative to traditional Bulgarian split squats. 

Alternatives to the Bulgarian split squat.

Reverse lunge.

Bulgarian split squat alternatives

Like the Bulgarian split squat, this is another great movement for targeting the quads and glutes. It can be performed with just bodyweight or with a kettlebell, dumbbell or loaded barbell. 

Reverse lunges are often overlooked as most opt for walking lunges around the gym but they put a lot more emphasis on the gluteal muscles if this is an area that you wish to target. 

Romanian deadlift.

Bulgarian split squat options

This is another one for the Glutes. It targets the whole posterior chain in fact. There is not really any quad activation here so it is a bit different to the Bulgarian split squat but still a great lower body mass builder.

You will need a loaded barbell or some heavy dumbbells to get the most out of Romanian deadlifts so it is not ideal for a home workout or circuits but is worth a mention as a great way of working the gluteal muscles.

Pistol squats.

Pistol squats instead of Bulgarian split squats

Like the Bulgarian split squat, the pistol squat is another single-leg squatting method. It does not require any equipment as it is a bodyweight exercise but it does require a great deal of balance, quad strength and flexibility. 

Pistol squats have become popular since the rise of Crossfit and are a great functional movement for developing explosive strength and power in the quads. 

Leg extensions.

Leg extensions instead of Bulgarian split squats

Bulgarian split squats are a compound exercise for developing multiple muscles but if you just want to isolate your quads, the leg extension is the way to go. 

Most gyms will have a leg extension machine and it is a great accessory exercise to compliment squats or leg presses on your leg day. 


Step ups instead of Bulgarian split squats

Like the Bulgarian split squat, step-ups are a very underused exercise. They can be performed with just bodyweight or with dumbbells, kettlebells or a loaded barbell. All you need is a sturdy bench set at about knee height. 

Step-ups effectively target the same muscles as the Bulgarian split squat making it a great alternative to add to the mix when you fancy changing it up a bit. 

Alternatives to the Bulgarian Split Squat.


Front squat

Sissy squat

Hack squat

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