Home » How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

by Divyang

The Bulgarian split squat is a version of a single-leg squat where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair. As a unilateral squat, the exercise focuses more on the quadriceps than similar lower-body compound movements. It also requires a lot of balance and coordination, increasing the core and upper body engagement required to maintain proper form.

The Bulgarian split squat is a great movement to add to a lower-body strength or total-body workout routine. Due to the compound, balance-focused nature of the movement, it’s a good idea to include it toward the beginning of a workout, perhaps after a solid warmup including traditional squats, Romanian deadlifts, or barbell snatches.2 If you’re ready to fire up your quads and grow your glutes, read on for ways to try the highly-effective exercise.

Bulgarian Split Squat Muscles Worked

As a compound lower-body exercise, Bulgarian split squats work many muscles of the legs at the same time. Bulgarian split squats primarily work the quadriceps along the front of the thighs. Other muscles include the hamstrings along the back of thighs, glutes of the buttocks and hips, and calves along the back of the lower legs.

Bulgarian split squats also include a balance challenge to keep you steady on one leg. This keeps core muscles, including the abdominal muscles and spinal erectors (run along the spine), engaged throughout the movement.

How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat

The main thing to remember about the Bulgarian split squat is that it takes some trial-and-error to find proper foot placement to perform the exercise comfortably. You’ll place one of your feet on a bench behind you, but you may need to hop your front foot around a little bit to help you find the exact position that feels best. It’s okay to try a few practice repetitions before starting your actual set to make sure you’re set up appropriately.

All you need for the most basic version of the Bulgarian split squat is a bench or a sturdy chair. As you become comfortable with the exercise, you may want to add dumbbells or kettlebells for increased resistance.

  1. Stand roughly two feet in front of a sturdy bench or chair, your feet hip-distance apart, your core engaged, your shoulders back, and your chest and eyes pointing straight ahead.
  2. Pick up your right foot and place it on the bench behind you. You can do this in one of two ways. One option is to place the top of your foot on the bench so that your ankle joint is roughly aligned with the edge of the bench. The other option is to flex your ankle and find your balance with the ball of your foot and your toes, more like during a traditional lunge exercise.
  3. Ensure your feet are still roughly hip distance apart, if not slightly wider. You don’t want your elevated foot directly behind your front, making balancing much more difficult.
  4. Remember, your back foot is just there to help you stay balanced—the engagement and movement of the exercise are focused on the front leg.
  5. Engage your core with your chest high and eyes looking straight ahead, and bend your left knee, allowing your right knee and ankle to naturally bend as you move through the downward phase of the exercise without taking on the load with your back leg.
  6. Keep the load balanced evenly across your left foot as you lower. Hinge slightly forward at the hips, ensuring your left knee remains aligned with your left toes (that it doesn’t cave inward or bow outward). You may find that your left knee starts to protrude slightly over your left toes toward the bottom of the exercise. This isn’t necessarily bad or wrong and only depends on your level of comfort and the flexibility you have at your ankles.
  7. Inhale through this downward phase, lowering down until your left quadriceps is roughly parallel to the ground.
  8. Press back to standing by pushing through your left foot and using your left quad and glute to power the upward phase of the exercise. Exhale as you press to standing.
  9. Step your right foot off the bench or chair after completing a full set to one side. Ensure you keep things even by performing the same repetitions and sets to each side.

It might be necessary for you to hop or wriggle your front foot in order to establish a stable, balanced position. After completing a repetition, you might need to repeat this a few times to get the ideal foot location based on your comfort level and choice.

Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent way to take your lower-body training to the next level. This movement targets all the same muscle groups you see targeted during squats and lunges—quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, and spinal erectors—but places greater focus on the quadriceps and core due to the single-leg, balance challenge that the exercise provides.

Any time you can work your body unilaterally—meaning that you target one side of your body independently from the other—you have the opportunity to improve side-to-side muscle imbalances.2

By improving these imbalances, you’re less likely for one side to “take over” when bending, lifting, or moving through life, making it easier for you to maintain proper alignment and avoid injuries over time.

These exercises may also improve your agility, and core strength, making it less likely that you’ll experience a fall when knocked off balance. Maintaining your balance as you age could mean that you experience fewer falls are more likely to avoid life-altering injuries like hip or wrist fractures.3

Bulgarian Split Squat Variations

Below are variations for doing a split squat without a bench or increasing the challenge by adding weight, a resistance band, or an exercise ball.

Split Squat

While “split squat” and “Bulgarian split squat” are often used interchangeably, they’re two different variations of the exercise. The Bulgarian split squat refers to the version where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair, while the split squat is the version performed without the rear leg elevated.

Remember, this isn’t the same as a lunge where the back leg is also engaged in the exercise.

  1. Perform the exercise in the same manner, but with your back foot on the floor.
  2. Use your back leg to help with balance, but the front leg should support the entire movement.

Weighted Bulgarian Split Squat

Once you’ve mastered the proper form, make things harder by adding weights.

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands to ramp up the difficulty of the exercise.
  2. For an even more challenging variation, place an unloaded or loaded barbell across your shoulders before performing the Bulgarian split squat.

Bulgarian Split Squat with Resistance Bands

Another variation that adds a challenge is to use a resistance band. The band adds resistance as you lift out of the squat.

  • Place the resistance band under your front foot.
  • Bend your arms to bring the resistance band in line with your shoulders as you perform the Bulgarian split squats.

Bulgarian Split Squat with an Exercise Ball

If you want to add more of a challenge for your core muscles, you can use an exercise ball.

  • Elevate your back leg onto an exercise ball instead of a bench or chair.
  • Move slowly to keep proper Bulgarian split squat form even though your core is working harder to maintain your balance through the exercise.

Common Bulgarian Split Squat Mistakes

There are a few common mistakes made when performing Bulgarian split squats. Here’s what to watch for.

Placing the Back Leg Directly Behind the Front

If you align your back foot directly behind your front foot, you’ll have a tough time balancing throughout the exercise. Because your front leg powers the motion, this is already a unilateral balance challenge, forcing you to maintain balance as you move through a squat supported primarily by your front foot.

When you place your back foot on the bench behind you, make sure it’s roughly hip distance apart from your front foot or even slightly wider. Even though you’re not powering the exercise with your back foot or leg, having this wider “kickstand” for support will help you complete the Bulgarian split squat effectively.

Leaning Too Far Forward From the Hips

It’s tempting and common to lose focus on your core—particularly your abdominals and spinal erectors—as you move through the downward phase of the Bulgarian split squat. Not only does this forward lean limit the core benefits of the exercise, but it makes you more likely to place too much stress on your front knee, shifting your weight too far forward. (A slight lean is fine.)

Additionally, if you progress to a Bulgarian split squat with a barbell balanced across your shoulders, a forward lean as you squat will likely lead to injury. Before starting the exercise’s downward phase, re-engage your core muscles and roll your shoulders back. Try to keep this same posture and alignment throughout each repetition.

Rising Onto the Toes

A bad habit that sometimes occurs when your alignment and form are otherwise poor is to rise onto the ball and toes of your front foot as you squat down. This usually indicates one of two things: 1) your front foot is too close to the bench, and you need to move it forward to maintain better balance and alignment, or 2) you’re leaning forward at your hips as you perform the squat, and you need to rise onto your toes to support the forward shift in your weight to remain balanced.

If you ever find yourself rising onto the ball or toes of your front foot, stop the exercise and reset. Check the placement of your front foot—you may need to shift it forward—and ensure you’re keeping your torso upright and tall as you perform the exercise.

Supporting the Movement With the Back Leg

Remember, the Bulgarian split squat is a form of single-leg squat. While the back leg is intended to help with balance, it’s not supposed to be engaged to perform the exercise, making it more of a lunge. At any given point of the movement, you should be able to “shake” your back leg to ensure it’s still loose and not engaged in supporting your weight.

Allowing the Front Knee to Lose Alignment

As with all squat and lunge variations, one standard and significant mistake during the Bulgarian split squat are to allow the front knee to shift inward or outward, losing alignment with the same-side toes. This places way too much stress on the knee, especially during single-leg exercises, where the weight and resistance are all being supported by one leg.

Safety and Precautions

Proper setup and effective core engagement are hands-down the best ways to ensure the Bulgarian split squat remains safe. Take your time to find appropriate foot alignment and placement, so you’re not tempted to lean forward from the hips and throw your center of gravity in front of your front knee. This places too much stress on the knee and could lead to injury.

If you’re brand-new to strength training, or if you struggle to remain balanced while performing traditional lunges, you probably aren’t ready to try the Bulgarian split squat yet. Likewise, if you have knee or ankle pain or injuries, the flexibility and mobility required to perform this movement correctly may not be comfortable for you.

If you feel any pain or discomfort, discontinue the movement and try the split squat variation with your back foot balanced on the floor.

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