5 Bulgarian Split Squat Variations That Will Make You Cry
It’s usually the exercises you hate the most that are the ones that make a difference. Bulgarian split squats are one of those exercises that brings me joy when I see it in my clients’ programs, and sorrow when I see it mine. Why? Because I know how brutally challenging they are, and how brutally effective they can be in return.
What the hell were those Bulgarians thinking when they came up with this one?
I’m sure you already know, but here’s a refresher of what a Bulgarian split squat looks like:
- Back foot elevated on bench (or something)
- Front foot forward in split squat stance
- Hands holding dumbbells, kettlebells, or juggling lacrosse balls
- Back knee drops towards floor
- Come back and repeat motion
- Try not to let anyone see you cry
Sounds awful, right? Well, it is. But it’s also one of the best exercises you can do in the gym for a multitude of reasons.
- Balance and Coordination. How often do you have your back leg up on something? This awkward set up challenges your stabilizers.
- Glute Development. Bulgarian split squats aka Bulgarian booty builders. Whenever my clients ask me which exercises will help them get a bigger butt, this is one of them.
- Athletic Performance. There is a direct carryover to improved athletic performance. Most athletic movements are done unilaterally (running, jumping, throwing, kicking, punching). Split squats hone your ability to generate power in a unilateral stance. Better running, better jumping, better everything.
- Core Engagement. Remember how these help your balance and coordination? They also really work your core. The offset balance of your feet challenges your core muscles to stabilize your torso, especially when weights are added to the mix.
- Correct Imbalances. None of us are perfectly symmetrical. We’re always going to have one leg that’s stronger, one shoulder that’s more mobile, etc. It’s easy to notice imbalances during bilateral movements but it’s hard to correct them. Incorporating unilateral movements like split squats into your routine allows you to train one side of the body and “balance out” your imbalances.
- Spinal Health. Not everyone can or should be loading a barbell on their back. Most people aren’t ready to get into a full squat position with external loading on their spine. Insert split squats. You reap the benefits of strength, muscle, and power development; all the while keeping your spine safe and healthy.
- Hip Mobility. Most people have tight hips. Most people find it very challenging to get into a good squat position. Most people find it easier to get into a good split squat stance. This is because the demand on your hip, ankle, and thoracic (upper back) mobility is less in a unilateral stance. Also, think of the actual motion of the split squat. You’re actually getting a stretch in the hip as you’re doing the movement.
Have I convinced you, yet?
Now, we all know this movement isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s challenging. It’s brutal. It will leave you asking yourself, “Why did I choose to do this? Why did I listen to that asshole?”
As with any exercise you see in the gym, there’s an endless list of variations you can do. Why does that matter? Well, variety in your exercise selection matters for a few reasons.
- It keeps things fun and interesting.
- It challenges your body in new ways.
- It helps you break strength/hypertrophy plateaus.
- Our muscles crave variety.
- You can scale exercises for everyone.
As if Bulgarian split squats weren’t brutal enough as they are, here are some variations you should try. And why there’s so awesome.
1. Eccentric Bulgarian Split Squat
This one is just awful for all the right reasons. With exercises as brutally fucking challenging on your legs as split squats, you want to get them over with as fast as possible. Well, you can’t with these.
By slowing things down during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement, you’re doing a couple of things. You’re helping improve your body awareness and overall form, while increasing tension in your legs throughout the movement.
2. Isometric Bulgarian Split Squat
This ties in together with the previous eccentric variation due to it’s relatively “slow” nature. Adding an isometric pause at the bottom of the split squat (with your knee hovering over the floor) will make your legs cry. And maybe you.
Again, this helps you practice good form while making your legs work for a longer period of time. Both of which are great for developing muscle and getting stronger.
3. Zercher Bulgarian Split Squat
Zercher exercises are just the best, seriously. There are so many ways you can incorporate them into your routine. Zercher squats, lunges, good mornings, and farmer carries just to name a few. The benefits of this split squat variation are the fact that you are adding load with the barbell while creating a challenge for your core and upper body at the same time.
Whenever you have weight in front of the body, you challenge your core to help stabilize the spine. With a front-loaded position such as this, you’re also putting more emphasis on the quads. Double boom.
4. Landmine Bulgarian Split Squat
Awful, just awful. Do I need to explain to you why this is awful? But amazing at the same time? Other than just looking badass, this variation is great for developing strength because you can add more load than dumbbells or kettlebells.
5. Dynamic Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
This one requires you to use a barbell and bands. This is an advanced variation and I don’t recommend it for anyone just starting off with split squats. The purpose of this movement is to improve your ability to generate strength as fast as possible (aka power). In order to perform this correctly, you want to explode up from the bottom of the split squat as fast as possible while maintaining good form.
This is one of those exercises that you do once and immediately feel the benefit. Do 4-6 reps per side for 3-5 sets. You will be able to jump higher, run faster, and develop lower body explosiveness.
- Bulgarian split squats are awful and amazing at the same time. It’s usually the exercises we hate the most that are the most effective and beneficial.
- Different variations of classic exercises help keep things interesting, are scalable for everyone, and allow for continued progress.
- Unilateral movements like split squats help correct imbalances we can see in bilateral movements.
- Try not to let anyone see you cry when doing these.