Bulgarian Split Squats: The Most Hypertrophy-Friendly Single Leg Lift

| by Truth Seeker |

The Bulgarian split squat (BSS) has the highest potential to produce hypertrophy of the lower body out of all single-leg lifts because:

  • The difficulty of the exercise can be amplified to a very high level.
  • The range of motion at the knee and hip joints is sufficiently long and can be increased even further by elevating the front leg.
  • The balancing requirements are not as high as with other single-leg movements like the pistol squat or the shrimp – a property allowing the lifter to hit the legs without too many “distractions”.
  • The primary movers (quadriceps and glutes) can accumulate a ton of volume.
  • The barrier to entry is low.

Almost Infinite Progression

Unlike other bodyweight exercises, the Bulgarian split squat is easier to overload without altering the main pattern.

The persistent focus on the same areas and the possibility for linear progression, render the Bulgarian split squat effective as a growth stimulator.

Why Should I Add Weight? Isn’t My Bodyweight Sufficient?

Untrained individuals and people who have never done the exercise may find the BSS brutally hard at first, but the reps will quickly climb up. Conditioned lifters may do 20+ reps per leg right away. When the number of repetitions is so high, the workout transforms from a strength builder into a conditioning session.

By adding weight, one can decrease the repetitions per set to a lower rep range more conducive to hypertrophy while also saving time and managing fatigue.

How to Add Weight to The Bulgarian Split Squat

There are four main ways to turn the BSS into a weighted exercise:

Dumbbells or Kettlebells. This is the classic choice. Kettlebells are a little more comfortable than dumbbells because they stay up and do not roll around. Rolling could also be prevented by relying on hex dumbbells.

Another bonus of kettlebells are their long handles making it easier to grab the weight before the first repetition.

Straps are permissible because the goal is to overload the legs rather than to work the grip. The need to perform a separate set for each side often increases the grip demand to “distraction” levels.

A Weights Vest and Chains. A weight vest is also a good choice. The major benefit is that the lifter does not have to hold heavy weights. However, the additional weight provided by the vest will quickly become too low for intermediate and advanced lifters.

Dumbbells/Kettlebells + a Weight Vest. Strong and dedicated brahs sometimes combine the first two approaches to boost the lifted poundage even higher.

A barbell. The Bulgarian split squat can also be done with a barbell like a regular squat. This method allows for infinite progression but has a major flaw – instability. One wrong move could cause a problem.

In addition, you cannot bail out easily in case you miss a rep. With the dumbbell/kettlebell version, you can just put the weight on the floor, but the barbell variation requires you to have spotters or a squat rack with the pins ready to catch.

Personally, I don’t like this variation due to the risk factor and the inconvenience. The set-up takes a long time and is less safe than the dumbbell/kettlebell version.

Why Are Bulgarian Split Squats So Difficult?

Bulgarian split squats are a tough exercise even though they may look like an “easy” home workout to those who’ve never tried them. The difficulty comes from the following factors:

1. High Muscle Mass Recruitment.

The higher the muscle mass involved in an exercise, the more stressful it is on your entire system.

2. Prolonged overclocking of the central nervous system (CNS)

In the world of unilateral exercises, 1 equals 2 because you have to perform a separate set for each side. Therefore, 3 sets of Bulgarian split squats amount to 6 sets for your CNS. The stabilizing musculature (abdominals, spinal erectors) are also under the same strain during each rep. When you add in the rest between sets, you have a recipe for an extended leg workout eliciting high neural fatigue.

In that regard, the BSS is harder for some than regular back squats which are typically done with a greater load, but at least, 1 set counts as 1 rather than 0.5.

Bulgarians Split Squats vs. Pistols

From a hypertrophy standpoint, the BSS is the winner. It’s less technical and easier to overload. Most people would be able to perform a BSS squat correctly in no time whereas pistol squats require weeks if not months to master.

Pistols have three more shortcomings:

Harder to overload. Weighted pistol squats are a possibility, but they are not as comfortable as the BSS. Moreover, you can’t use as much weight.

High balancing and flexibility requirements. A pistol squat requires more balance, coordination and flexibility than a BSS. Those characteristics may be beneficial from an athletic perspective but have diminishing returns when the goal is pure strength and hypertrophy.

Rounding of the lower back at the bottom. Doing a full pistol squat without some lower back rounding is close to impossible for most people. However, the lower back bending at the bottom increases the stress on the knees because the hamstrings relax and do not counter the pull of the quads. This reduces the stability of the knee joint. The back could also be unhappy, especially if you are doing the pistol squat with additional weight.

On the other hand, the Bulgarian split squat has a shorter range of motion making it easier to maintain the lower back arch and the hamstring tension.

The hip flexors get smoked. During pistol squats, the hip flexors are working overtime to support the extended leg. This may result in painful cramps forcing the lifter to cut a set short before sufficiently fatiguing the quadriceps and glutes.

How to Make the Bulgarian Split Squat Even Harder

In most cases, simply adding weight to the exercise would be sufficient, but if you really want to expand the difficulty of the exercise, you can elevate the front foot on a small block. This will increase the range of motion substantially and intensify the lift to a new height.

What Muscles Does the Bulgarian Split Squat Work?

The quadriceps and the glutes are the primary movers and the usual places where soreness appears. The hamstrings are also under pressure as they contribute to hip extension. The calves work too but only as stabilizers of the lower leg. Their strength is not a limiting factor.

When the exercise is done with extra weight, it gains similarities to the trap bar deadlift. Consequently, the strain on the hamstrings, the spinal erectors, and the upper back ascends. The gripping muscles are also under fire if straps aren’t deployed. The abs are not taking a break either as they have to stabilize the torso.

A list of the worked muscle groups:

Primary movers: Quads, Glutes

Secondary movers: Hamstrings

Stabilizers: Abdominals, calves, adductors, spinal erectors, upper back

Can You Use the Bulgarian Split Squat as Main Lower Body Lift?

Yes. The BSS could be a primary lower body exercise. However, it cannot be treated as a regular squat because it isn’t designed for low repetitions (under 5). The coordination requirements and the entire set-up make the low-rep experience unpleasant, inconvenient and risky.

Higher weights increase the chances of form breakdown too much which in this case could result in a “wreck” faster than when doing regular squats. It’s better to keep the reps over 5 and add weight when they reach around 10-15 per leg.

Are Bulgarian Split Squat More Effective than Barbell Back Squats?

A study from 2016 involving academy rugby players tested the effectiveness of the Bulgarian split squat against the classic barbell back squat.

18 players were randomly assigned to either a unilateral (split squat) or bilateral (regular squat) group. Both trained biweekly for five weeks.

The results were very similar. Both groups increased their relative back squat 1-rep-max (1RM) equally. Their 10m and 40m sprints improved similarly too. The conclusions were that the BBS is as effective as the classic back squat.

Just like other studies, this one can be criticized too, but the data is good enough to conclude that the BSS is a powerful leg exercise.

Nonetheless, if you want to increase your back squat, it’s certainly better to back squat than to do BSS.

Is the BSS better than the back squat? Not for me. I’d rather do high bar squats as they are more convenient and less stressful on the CNS in some cases.

Is the Bulgarian Split Squat a Good Choice for People Training at Home?

It’s one of the better options. Many other home exercises are more of a pump gimmick than serious training.

Below is an example home routine:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3                         
Dips – 3xF

Pull-ups – 3xF

Push-ups – 3xF

Bulgarian split squat – 3xF

Calf raises – 3xF

Bulgarian split squats – 2xF

Single leg calf raises – 3xF

Pull-ups – 3xF

Dips – 3xF

Bodyweight rows – 3xF

Bulgarian split squat – 2xF

Calf raises – 3xF

3xF stands for three sets performed to failure but without form breakdown.

Every workout the lifter should try to do more reps. Once he or she can perform 15-20 dips and 10-15 pull-ups in a row with good form, it’s time to add weight or switch to something harder.

Since this is a bodyweight-only program, and the upper body is hit two times a week with plenty of rest between the sessions, overtraining is not expected, but it’s always possible once the lifter gets stronger. If recovery becomes an issue, a deload week with the reps and sets reduced in half is an option.

References:

Speirs, D., Bennett, M., Finn, C. and Turner, A., 2016. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(2), pp.386-392.

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4 comments

  1. Brett

    Bulgarian split squats done with the front leg elevated off the ground by 15 cm are a good choice for ectomorphs with long legs and torso.

    Or if you have difficulty back or front squatting without bending over due to your long legs then switch to BSS. You shouldn’t regret it.

    A rep range of 5 – 7 is good because you don’t want your cardio to give out before your quads with higher reps of 10 +.

    I personally do 5×5 of BSS once a week with a dumbbell in one hand (this allows for better balance/control than weight in both hands, for me anyway).

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Thank you for the comment and the tip 🙂

  2. ZC

    So to recap, BSS is good for people can’t do high bar squat?

    Because in the end, BSS vs BS results is similar.

    Unless you want to find something new to try and probably getting sore for fun.

  3. oldworld

    for me the most mentally draining exercise there is.
    its so damn hard to push through but fells good when done afterwards 🙂

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