Bulgarian split squats are social media’s most hated exercise – here’s why they’re so good for you

Sometimes, the most painful exercises are the best, and that’s no different for Bulgarian split squats. 

Bulgarian split squats are having a moment on social media, but unlike hip thrusts and pilates moves, they aren’t trending because they’re everyone’s favourites exercises. Rather, people on Instagram are discussing their love-hate relationship with Bulgarian split squats.

While the emphasis online may be on how unpleasant they are, there’s still a widespread acknowledgement of how effective the exercise is. 

What are Bulgarian split squats?

Split squats are so-named because they involve bending at the knees to lower your hips to the ground, like a traditional squat. The ‘split’ comes into it because, rather than having both feet firmly planted on the floor, one foot is placed behind the other for a split stance.

For the Bulgarian split squat variation, the back heel is then elevated onto a bench, sofa or another surface. This adds the extra challenge of depth to the movement, as well as placing more emphasis on the front leg.

What are the benefits of Bulgarian split squats?

Much like traditional squats, they are fantastic for improving the strength in your quads, hamstrings and glutes, says Alex Ward, personal trainer and head coach at Sweat Society. 

Because one foot is elevated in the move, you will be moving through a bigger range of motion. “That improves core and ankle stability, as well hip flexor mobility,” Ward adds. And as it’s a unilateral exercise, working one side at a time, they can “help you fix muscle imbalances and improve your balance”.

All of those skills are so important because they are functional and translate to the real world. For example, we often lower down with our stance split or weight through one leg when we pick things up. “Split squats demand the same patterns from our bodies as everyday activities, for example walking up and down stairs, getting up from a chair or striding for the bus,” explains Ward. 

And the strength you’ll build in a Bulgarian split squat is transferrable to other workouts, too. “They are especially important for people who play any sort of sport due to the level of stability and control that they build. If you want to run faster or further, this unilateral exercise is a must in your training programme as they mimic your stride pattern while improving your glute strength, explosive power and core stability,” says Ward.

Why are Bulgarian split squats so hard?

“Bulgarian split squats really are known in the industry to be hard,” says Ward. “The reason they are so difficult is because you are placing most of your weight through one leg – less weight goes through the elevated leg, so the front takes all of the load. That makes it work extra hard,” he says. 

Plus, the added range of motion doesn’t only improve flexibility but means the leg is under load for even longer as it travels further. “That leads to the burn we all feel performing the exercise – there is no release when executing the full movement,” explains Ward. 

How to do a Bulgarian split squat

Hopefully, we haven’t put you off. While it’s a challenging exercise, it’s a great one. “I would say these are one of the best leg exercises to include in a strength session,” says Ward. “For someone that is new to the exercise, I would recommend three sets of 10 reps, initially starting with bodyweight and then working up to holding one or two dumbbells to increase the difficulty.”

Here’s how to do a Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Stand with your raised surface behind you and place your right foot on the bench. You can lay your feet flat on the bench or have your toes curled under as long as you don’t push through your toes in your reps.
  2. Play around with the positioning of the front foot. You want to be stood far enough away from the bench that you have enough range to lower to the floor, but not so far that you end up arching your back. A few foot-lengths away is a good place to start. 
  3. Engage your core by pulling your belly button towards your spine, roll your shoulders back and down and slightly lean forwards while maintaining a straight spine. 
  4. If you are holding dumbbells, let your hands hand by your sides. Otherwise, place your hands on your hips. 
  5. Bend your front knee to lower your hips to the floor. Try to get your back right knee to comes as close to the ground as possible. 
  6. Press through your front foot to come back up.

Images: Getty

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