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Bulgarian Split Squats: How To, Muscles They Work & Alternatives


The Bulgarian split squat is an outstanding exercise for building muscle, gaining strength, and boosting athleticism.

What is a Bulgarian split squat, you ask?

It’s a single-leg exercise performed with dumbbells and a bench, sometimes referred to as the “rear foot elevated split squat.”

To do it, stand a couple of feet in front of a bench and place one foot behind you on the bench. Then, while holding a dumbbell in each hand, bend your front leg’s knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor and stand back up.

While it works all the lower body muscles like other squat variations, its unique benefit is it trains each side of your body independently, making it ideal for finding and fixing muscle imbalances and enhancing athletic performance. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to do the Bulgarian split squat with proper form, common form mistakes to avoid, which muscles it trains, the benefits of the exercise, who should perform it, the best alternatives and variations, and more. 

How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat with Proper Form

To master Bulgarian split squat form, split the exercise into three steps: set up, descend, and squat.

1. Set up

Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand 2-to-3 feet in front of a bench or other surface that’s about knee height off the ground.

Lean slightly forward, putting most of your weight on your right foot, and extend your left foot behind you, resting the top of your foot on the bench. 

2. Descend

Keeping your right foot planted on the floor, lower your butt toward the floor by bending both knees at the same time. Keep descending until your left knee touches the ground or your right thigh is parallel with the floor (whichever occurs first).

3. Squat

Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:


Bulgarian Split Squat


Common Bulgarian Split Squat Form Mistakes

The Bulgarian split squat is a top-tier lower body exercise. That said, you can greatly diminish the exercise’s effectiveness if you don’t use proper Bulgarian split squat form. Here are three common mistakes and how to fix them:

1. Leaning too far forward.

One way to use the Bulgarian split squat for glute growth is to lean slightly forward as you perform the exercise. Performing the Bulgarian squat using this form isn’t an issue, provided the lean doesn’t become excessive.

However, if your torso collapses over your front leg (your chest gets close to your front knee), odds are you’re trying to lift too much weight. To fix this, use a weight that allows you to maintain a slight forward lean (or a near-vertical posture if emphasizing your glutes isn’t your goal) throughout the range of motion. 

2. Shift your weight backward.

To perform proper Bulgarian split squat form, your body must move up and down in a straight line over the center of your front foot. However, as the weights get heavier, many people shift their weight toward their back leg as they descend because this increases how much your rear leg can contribute, making the exercise easier. 

Don’t alter the movement pattern involved in the Bulgarian split squat just to lift more weight—lighten the load and keep your weight over your front foot to maximize the exercise’s effectiveness.

3. Letting your knees cave in.

Many people find their knees “cave in” toward their bodies’ centerline as they descend. This is called knee valgus, and it can increase your risk of injury. To correct it, imagine screwing your foot into the floor so that your knee turns slightly outward. This “cue” increases glute activation and makes the exercises safer.

[Read More: Complete List of Weightlifting Cues for Perfect Form & New PRs]

What Do Bulgarian Split Squats Work?

The main muscles worked by the Bulgarian split squat are the quadriceps, or “quads.” This muscle group is on the front of the thigh and comprises the following four muscles:

  • Rectus femoris
  • Vastus lateralis
  • Vastus medialis
  • Vastus intermedius

Here’s what the quads look like: 


Quad anatomy


Like all compound exercises, however, the Bulgarian split squat also trains several other muscles groups, such as:

Here’s how all the muscles worked by Bulgarian Split Squats look on your body:



Bulgarian Split Squat Muscles Worked


[Read More: 13 Quad Exercises for Your Next Quad-Focused Leg Day]

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The Bulgarian Split Squat’s Benefits

1. It trains your entire lower body.

The Bulgarian split squat trains all the muscles of the lower body, including the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

It also trains several other muscle groups across your body to a lesser extent, including the traps, forearms, lower back, and core.

[Read More: This Is the Last Lower Body Workout You’ll Ever Need]

2. It trains your body unilaterally.

The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral exercise, which means it allows you to train one side of your body at a time. 

Unilateral exercises are advantageous because they enable you to lift more total weight than you can with some bilateral exercises (exercises that train both sides of the body simultaneously), which may help you gain more muscle over time.

They can also help you establish a stronger mind-muscle connection because you have less to focus on, they’re useful for identifying and correcting muscle and strength imbalances, and they may enhance athletic performance more than bilateral exercises. 

[Read More: Unilateral vs. Bilateral Exercises: Which Is Better for Muscle Building and Performance?]

3. It’s highly adaptable.

The Bulgarian split squat doesn’t require specialized gym equipment, so you can perform it virtually anywhere. For example, you don’t need a bench to perform the Bulgarian split squat—a sofa, chair, or any sturdy surface around knee height off the ground can work.

You can also add resistance to the exercise using whatever you have available, including dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell, or resistance bands. And if you have none of these, you can use just your body weight.

In other words, it’s a highly adaptable exercise suitable for any environment or setup.

Who Should Do the Bulgarian Split Squat?

The Bulgarian split squat is effective for anyone looking to build muscle, gain strength, and enhance athletic performance. 

In most cases, it isn’t a replacement for the regular back squat, but it can work well in tandem.

For example, the Bulgarian split squat is a great way to add volume (sets) to your quads and glutes without grinding out even more back squats (you can only do so much heavy barbell back squatting every week before the wheels start coming off).

There’s also evidence that using multiple exercises to train a muscle group is more effective than just one, so a well-rounded lower body workout should involve more than just barbell back squatting.

That said, a valid reason to choose the Bulgarian split squat over the back squat is if you’re dealing with back pain because it doesn’t stress the spine as much.

The Bulgarian split squat is also handy when you want to squat but don’t have access to a barbell. For instance, when traveling, you often have to make do with hotel gyms, which typically don’t have barbells. In scenarios like this, the Bulgarian split squat is a perfect substitution.

Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives and Variations You Should Know

1. Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Using a barbell instead of dumbbells for the Bulgarian split squat allows you to lift heavier weights because you aren’t limited by your grip strength, which is generally better for gaining muscle and strength. 

The downsides are that it’s not as easy to drop the weight if you lose balance, and it places the load on your back, which may not be suitable for those with back issues. 

2. Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat

The goblet Bulgarian split squat works well if you find balancing with two dumbbells challenging. The drawback is that you can’t use nearly as much weight as the regular dumbbell Bulgarian split squat.

3. Bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squat

The bodyweight Bulgarian split squat is an excellent split squat variation for those new to strength training because it allows you to practice Bulgarian split squat form without added resistance.

4. Dumbbell Split Squat

The main benefit of the split squat vs the Bulgarian split squat is that the regular split squat requires less balance and coordination, making it more suitable for beginners. That said, the Bulgarian squat has a longer range of motion, which is usually better for muscle growth. 

5. Dumbbell Lunge

The main differences between the Bulgarian split squat vs the lunge are the lunge engages the rear leg more and uses a shorter range of motion. If you perform the lunge walking, it also requires even more balance than the Bulgarian split squat, so it isn’t always the best option for beginners.

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Bulgarian Split Squat FAQs

FAQ #1: Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Squat: Which is better?

Neither is better or worse than the other. If you can only perform one, choosing which comes down to your goals, experience level, and circumstances. 

Because the regular squat allows you to train both sides of your body simultaneously and requires less balance, you can lift heavier weights more safely and progress more regularly, which is generally better for muscle growth. So, if you can squat, you should.

That said, if squats hurt your lower back, you have minimal equipment, or you’re looking to develop balance and athletic performance or correct muscle imbalances, the Bulgarian split squat is a worthy substitute.

In most cases, you don’t have to pick just one, though. Typically, the best solution is to include both exercises in their program. 

A good way to do this is to start your leg workout with the back squat, then perform the Bulgarian split squat later when supporting muscles like your lower back are bushed, but your legs can still manage another few sets.

This is how I like to organize my training, and it’s similar to the method I advocate in my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger

(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)

[Read More: The 8 Best Back Squat Alternatives]

FAQ #2: What is Bulgarian split squat good for?

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent exercise for training your entire lower body, including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Because it’s a unilateral exercise, it may also boost athletic performance more than bilateral lower-body exercises.

FAQ #3: How do you perform Bulgarian split squats for glutes?

The Bulgarian split squat is already one of the best exercises to develop your glutes. However, by leaning slightly forward as you perform the exercise, you train your glutes in a slightly more stretched position, which may benefit growth further. 

[Read More: Growing Your Butt: Best Glute-Focused Exercises]

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