Fact: adding the name of an Eastern European country to the beginning of an exercise increases the amount of muscle you can build by 10x.
Okay, that’s not actually true at all. But the Romanians did give us the Romanian Deadlift, and some Cold War-era mad scientist in Bulgaria created one of the best leg and booty building exercises the world has ever seen.
Why is the Bulgarian Split Squat (or BSS for short) such a tremendous leg and booty builder? Because single limb (aka, unilateral) training forces your the muscles work harder. Plus, unilateral movements burn a ton of calories and can help you balance strength on your dominant and non-dominant sides.
Runners will benefit from unilateral training because running (and walking to an extent) is a single limb exercise. If you play a sport that involves a lot of jumping, the Bulgarian Split-Squat, will help you build stronger and more powerful glutes and hamstrings that produce the power needed to kick gravity in the face and propel yourself upwards.
But those of you who hate running like me and prefer to lift weights will also see a massive improvement in your all-around performance thanks to increased balance and stability. So basically what I’m saying is you should be doing Bulgarian split squats.
How to Bulgarian Split Squat
If you’ve never done a BSS before, or you’re new to working out in general, start first with mastering the split squat. See my video below on how to do that and why I love it as well.
Setting up for the Bulgarian Split Squat is simple: stand in front of a bench or chair, extend your leg back and place the top of your foot on the bench or chair. This is your starting position.
Begin the movement by driving your elevated knee towards the ground. Squat down to a depth where you have control and then return to the starting position.
- At first, you may want to limit the depth of your squat and go only to a point where you have control. As you get more proficient with the BSS, you can attempt to bring the knee of your rear leg in contact with the floor, with your front foot should flexing to around a ninety-degree angle.
Two Common Mistakes Made with BSSs
There are quite a few “mistakes” that people make when it comes to the BSS. And they’re mistakes that can often inhibit you from gaining more strength and stability.
One of the biggest mistakes I see is in the setup of the BSS. In the video below, I cover a far easier setup for the BSS that’s far less awkward.
The second biggest mistake I see with BSSs is the height of the bench used for the elevated rear foot. Shorter people may have issues getting their bodies setup in a position that doesn’t wrench on their low back or hip flexors.
So what can you do if this is you?
- Stack 2-3 weight plates on top of one another to get a height that gives you the best control and mobility
- Adjust and use the pad of the leg extension machine and dangle your foot over that
- Lower the bar of the smith machine to an appropriate height and use it to elevate your foot
“Hey Robbie, does it matter if I’m able to put pressure into my rear foot, or can I just flop my foot facedown on the bench?”
Yes, and no. What matters here is whether you are comfortable with your foot facedown or if it’s more comfortable with your toes planted and giving your foot some pressure.
Planting your toes into the bench will give you the ability to exert more force into and through your rectus femoris (the quad muscle that crosses the knee and hip joints) — this leads to better stability and increases the work performed by your rectus femoris. But at the end of the day, go with what feels best for you.
Ways to Challenge and Advance this Bastard of an Exercise
Before you even think about going out and trying to do 50-pound dumbbells with these, make sure you’ve mastered the bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squat first. (If you wanna make the bodyweight version even more challenging and have the knee stability and strength to do it, add a small hop from the bottom to work on explosive power. But you probably don’t need to do this if your joints are as strong as a wet paper towel in a rainstorm.)
After mastering the bodyweight version, you can add dumbbells until you’ve subdued the heaviest weight available. Once you’ve unlocked that achievement, to make BSSs harder, add a 2 to 3-second pause halfway up and overload the lengthened position of your glutes.
Of course, you can always use a barbell, a safety squat bar, or do BSSs in a smith machine. If your gym has a safety bar, you can do a Hatfield variation of the BSS for added support. Check out my friend Andrew Coates’s video for T-Nation below.
Again, you’re always going to be stronger using both legs (duh!). But if your goal is to take your physique to new levels, burn more calories in a single workout, or make your weaker side stronger, you need to do unilateral movements. Everyone can benefit from the increased strength and stability gained from doing single limb training. And when it comes to improving your overall athletic performance, increasing total lower body strength, and building bigger legs and glutes, the Bulgarian Split Squat is the best bang for your buck.