The Bulgarian Split Squat
Also called the rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS), this single leg exercise is a versatile addition to most training programmes regardless of lifting experience or level.
How do you do it?
The rear leg is raised on a surface such as a bench or plyo box.
The front leg bends at the hip and knee to allow the body to decent.
The trunk remains upright and braced during the entire exercise.
The fact that the back leg is in contact with a surface helps significantly with stabilisation, so balance becomes less of an issue than in other single leg exercises such as the single leg squat.
This exercise can be performed with just bodyweight, holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell or weight vest, making it a versatile option for any programme. The amount of muscle recruitment involved makes this a suitable exercise for hypertrophy or strength training.
See our video of Lee Mclaughlin - athlete/PT/fitness model - performing this versatile exercise.
Why not just squat?
One of the main benefits of this exercise is the reduction of shearing forces on the spine. Some people will have a history of disc problems and can find that back or front squatting aggravates their previous issues. Using the Bulgarian split squat reduces the amount the trunk has to brace against an external load, thus reducing the spinal loading.
This exercise has the benefit of being easy to learn, and easy to perform.
Using a unilateral exercise ensures that each leg is getting overloaded and no one side is compensating for potential tightness, weakness or imbalance. The Bulgarian split squat is therefore beneficial for people who’s mobility is not the greatest. Many people are unable to get into a decent back squat depth due to dorsiflexion restrictions or hip tightness. The split squat reduces the need for as much mobility at the ankle joint; it can actually assist in the reduction of hip flexor tightness by loading into hip extension during the decent phase.
If someone has significantly tight hip flexors that affect the range they can achieve in this exercise, simply lower the box. This will allow a lower range to be achieved.
Start with a low box and unloaded. Get used to dropping the back knee to the floor under control and pushing through the front foot.
Once the movement pattern has been consolidated, begin by holding a light dumbbell in the goblet squat position across the chest. This load can be increased by holding dumbells in each hand or by wearing a weight vest. The benefit of starting with dumbbells is that if you do lose balance, it’s easier to regain balance or if needed, to drop the weight.
Once you are confident with dumbbell, try using a barbell, which can be loaded up as required.
The height of the box can be raised as hip mobility allows, which will allow the front leg to get into a deeper position, loading the glutes to a greater extent.