Bulgarian split squats (BSS), or rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS) are universally loved* by exercisers and lifters.
*Not really, XOXO
Bulgarian split squats are TOUGH but they are great for so many reasons!
If you need a solid leg exercise, a change in routine, a new lift or just a challenge, try these!
You can do it! Don’t be scared off by them. There are ways to modify to make them workable for almost anybody.
This picture is fake news, because nobody smiles while doing Bulgarian split squats:
What are the Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats?
There are so many benefits of doing Bulgarian split squats! Here’s a bulleted list, and more info below.
Bulgarian split squats:
- Improve balance and coordination
- Are effective at building strength and mass
- Work your legs unilaterally
- Can be very challenging
- Allow you to exercise with less weight
- Can be done anywhere
- Don’t always load spine
First and foremost, Bulgarian split squats are effective for building muscular strength and mass. You can often do more than half your squat in the split squat. For example, if you can squat 200 pounds, you can do a split squat holding more than 100. This is a great way to build strength that in turn translates to a stronger squat.
Bulgarian split squats obviously work your legs in an offset way, so even though both legs really are working, they have different roles in the lift. The forward leg should be doing most of the work. This way, you can work your legs in a balanced manner and be sure your strong side isn’t taking over. Building strength unilaterally will spill over to your bilateral lifts like the squat and deadlift.
Bulgarian split squats are challenging! As mentioned earlier, your body can actually handle a great deal of load in this position, so your ceiling is high. You can continue challenging yourself by adding weight, reps or changes in tempo to progress this lift.
Bulgarian split squats are also extremely versatile. You can do them anywhere! You can do them from a stair if your home has stairs, a park bench if you are getting a lift in outdoors, or from a regular bench at the gym.
Because they are a combination of balance and load, they can be challenging enough with bodyweight. This also gives you the added benefit of being able to set up anywhere, like previously mentioned. You can hold one dumbbell or kettlebell, or two. You can hold them in a rack position or with straight arms. You can do them with a barbell on your back, too.
Bulgarian split squats don’t load your spine in the way that the barbell lifts do. (Unless you decide to do them with a barbell, which you absolutely can.) This gives you options for a great lower body exercise if your back is giving you issues.
Finally, you can do them almost anywhere; from stairs, a chair, a park bench if you’re outside. These really are a great option for equipment-free training.
Related: this leg curl is a great assistance exercise for building strong hamstrings.
How to Modify the BSS
Like I touched on briefly above, you can make the BSS tougher or easier by modifying them in many ways.
To make them most manageable, use a low starting position; try 6 inches. From there, position yourself against a wall or something to give you balance. Start with just a few reps. Switch legs and repeat. Then, immediately rest. Don’t make an assessment of it yet. 🙂 Rest a minute or so, and then do it again. You can add a few reps this time.
Work up to doing 3 sets of 8-12 well. When you are ready to increase the challenge from there, increase the height of the elevated leg to 12-18 inches. Again, practice until you are doing multiple sets of 8-12 well.
From here, you will add weight. It sounds counterintuitive, but holding dumbbells will increase your stability by lowering your center of gravity. Try it with 5-10 pound dumbbells. If that’s still too much balance work, you can hold one dumbbell and stabilize yourself with the other.
You can see what’s next: increase your weight and build up to challenging, heavy sets. You can get creative with increasing your challenge by continuing to hold heavier weights, decreasing your rest time, doing tempo work (slow on the descent, slow up).
Want an upper body how-to? Check out the Hammer Strength iso-row.
How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats
- Set up facing away from a sturdy box, chair or bench.
- Put one leg behind you, on the box
- From here, bend both knees to accomplish the split squat
- Stop before your knee hits the ground
- Focus on the leg in front to do the work; make sure your whole foot is on the ground
- Squeeze your glutes, and drive your big toe in the ground as you come up
- Repeat for as many reps as you are performing
- Switch legs
- You can put your toes on the bench, like I do in the video, or put your foot flat on the bench, with the top of your foot resting on the bench.
- Situation your feet so that there is lateral stability between them. By this I mean, if you were to look down, your feet are as if you are on railroad tracks and not a tightrope. You might have to hop your front foot out to the side to accomplish this. You’ll feel more stable this way.
- You’ll probably find one side is more stable than the other. That is ok!
Try Them Out!
Add these into your training and see how it goes! Please let me know if you have any questions! Message me here.
About the author
Kathryn Alexander is a strength coach and personal trainer in Austin, Texas. She loves hiking, college football, and the feel of a perfectly knurled barbell. Read more about Kathryn here.