How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

bulgarian split squat

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Split squat

Targets: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, spinal erectors

Equipment Needed: Bench or sturdy chair

Level: Intermediate

The Bulgarian split squat is a version of a single-leg squat where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair. As a single-leg, unilateral squat, the exercise places a greater focus on the quadriceps than other, similar lower-body compound movements. It also requires a lot of balance and coordination, which increases the level of core and upper body engagement required to maintain proper form.

The main thing to remember about the Bulgarian split squat is that it takes some trial-and-error to find proper foot placement to perform the exercise comfortably. You'll place one of your feet on a bench behind you, but you may need to hop your front foot around a little bit to help you find the exact position that feels best. It's okay to try a few practice repetitions before starting your actual set to make sure you're set up appropriately.

This exercise is intended to target your front leg—your back leg is there to offer some balance support, but the engagement and the "burn" should be felt primarily in your front leg, particularly the quadriceps of your front leg.

As a compound lower-body exercise, the Bulgarian split squat is a great movement to add to a lower-body strength or total-body workout routine. Due to the compound, balance-focused nature of the movement, it's a good idea to include it toward the beginning of a workout, perhaps after a solid warmup and a few compound exercises that provide a bilateral focus, such as traditional squats, Romanian deadlift, or barbell snatch.

Benefits

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent way to take your compound, lower-body training to the next level. This movement targets all the same muscle groups you see targeted during squats and lunges—quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, and spinal erectors—but places greater focus on the quadriceps and core due to the single-leg, balance challenge that the exercise provides.

Any time you can work your body unilaterally—meaning that you target one side of your body independently from the other—you have the opportunity to improve side-to-side muscle imbalances. By improving these imbalances, you're less likely for one side to "take over" when bending, lifting, or moving through life, making it easier for you to maintain proper alignment and avoid injuries over time.

Also, by improving your balance with compound, lower-body exercises, your agility and core strength are likely to improve, making it less likely that you'll experience a fall when knocked off balance. For young people, this may not seem like a big deal, but the consequences of falling are much more pronounced in an older population. Older individuals who can maintain their balance and experience fewer falls are more likely to avoid life-altering injuries like hip or wrist fractures.

Step-by-Step Instructions

All you need for the most basic version of the Bulgarian split squat is a bench or a sturdy chair. As you become comfortable with the exercise, you may want to add dumbbells or kettlebells for increased resistance.

  1. Stand roughly two feet in front of a sturdy bench or chair, your feet hip-distance apart, your core engaged, your shoulders back, and your chest and eyes pointing straight ahead.
  2. Pick up your right foot and place it on the bench behind you. You can do this in one of two ways, and it may take several attempts before you decide which version you prefer. One option is to place the top of your foot on the bench, so that your ankle joint is roughly aligned with the edge of the bench. The other option is to flex your ankle and find your balance with the ball of your foot and your toes, more like you would during a traditional lunge exercise. Neither is a better version than the other, and really comes down to personal preference.
  3. Check to make sure your feet are still roughly hip-distance apart, if not slightly wider. You don't want your elevated foot to be aligned directly behind your front foot, as this will make balancing much more difficult. You may need to hop or wiggle your front foot around to find secure, well-balanced placement. This is something you may have to do a couple times after performing a repetition or two, as finding the proper foot placement based on your comfort and preference can take a little time. Remember: your back foot is just there to help you stay balanced—the engagement and movement of the exercise is focused solely on the front leg.
  4. Engage your core and, with your chest high and eyes looking straight ahead, bend your left knee, allowing your right knee and ankle to naturally bend as you move through the downward phase of the exercise without taking on the load with your back leg. Try to keep the load balanced evenly across your left foot as you lower downward, making sure your left knee remains aligned with your left toes (that it doesn't cave inward or bow outward). You may find that your left knee starts to protrude slightly over your left toes toward the bottom of the exercise. This isn't necessarily bad or wrong, and only depends on your level of comfort and the flexibility you have at your ankles. If it feels uncomfortable, return to the starting position and try to shift your front foot forward slightly before your next repetition. Inhale through this downward phase, lowering down until your left quadriceps is roughly parallel to the ground.
  5. Press back to standing by pushing through your left foot and using your left quad and glute to power the upward phase of the exercise. Exhale as you press to standing.
  6. Simply step your right foot off the bench or chair after completing a full set to one side. Make sure you keep things even by performing the same number of repetitions and sets to each side.

Common Mistakes

Placing the Back Leg Directly Behind the Front Leg

If you align your back foot directly behind your front foot, you're going to have a really hard time balancing throughout the exercise. Because the motion is powered by your front leg, this is already a unilateral balance challenge, forcing you to maintain your balance as you move through a squat supported primarily by your front foot. If you reduce your base of support by placing your back foot directly behind your front one, you're going to struggle to master proper form.

When you place your back foot on the bench behind you, make sure it's roughly hip-distance apart from your front foot, or even slightly wider. Even though you're not powering the exercise with your back foot or leg, having this wider "kickstand" for support will help you complete the Bulgarian split squat effectively.

Leaning Forward From the Hips as You Squat

It's really tempting and common to lose focus on your core—particularly your abdominals and spinal erectors—as you move through the downward phase of the Bulgarian split squat. Not only does this forward lean limit the core benefits of the exercise, but it makes you more likely to place too much stress on your front knee, shifting your weight too far forward.

Additionally, if you progress to a Bulgarian split squat with a barbell balanced across your shoulders, a forward lean as you squat will be much more likely to lead to injury. Before you start the downward phase of the exercise, re-engage your core muscles and roll your shoulders back. Try to keep this same posture and alignment through the entirety of each repetition.

Rising Onto the Toes as You Squat

A really bad habit that sometimes takes place when your alignment and form are otherwise poor is to rise up onto the ball and toes of your front foot as you squat down. This usually indicates one of two things: 1) your front foot is too close to the bench and you need to move it forward to maintain better balance and alignment, or 2) you're leaning forward at your hips as you perform the squat, and you need to rise onto your toes to support the forward shift in your weight in order to remain balanced.

If you ever find yourself rising onto the ball or toes of your front foot, stop the exercise and reset. Check the placement of your front foot—you may need to shift it forward—and make sure you're keeping your torso upright and tall as you perform the exercise.

Supporting the Movement With the Back Leg

Remember, the Bulgarian split squat is a form of single-leg squat. While the back leg is intended to help with balance, it's not supposed to be engaged to perform the exercise, which would make it more of a lunge. At any given point of the exercise, you should be able to kind of "shake" your back leg to make sure it's still loose and not engaged in supporting your weight.

Allowing the Front Knee to Lose Alignment With the Toes

As with all squat and lunge variations, one common and significant mistake during the Bulgarian split squat is to allow the front knee to shift inward or outward, losing alignment with the same-side toes. This places way too much stress on the knee, especially during single-leg exercises, where the weight and resistance is all being supported by one leg.

Keep an eye on your front knee and make sure it's remaining in alignment with your toes, especially as you transition between downward and upward phases of the exercise.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

While the terms "split squat" and "Bulgarian split squat" are often used interchangeably, they're actually two different variations of the exercise. The Bulgarian split squat refers to the version where the back leg is elevated on a bench or a sturdy chair, while the split squat is the version performed without the back leg elevated.

If you struggle with balance while your back leg is elevated, or if the angle of the elevated foot feels uncomfortable, perform the exercise in the same manner, but with your back foot on the floor. Just remember, this isn't the same as a lunge where the back leg is also engaged in the exercise. You can use your back leg to help with balance, but the entire movement should be supported by the front leg.

Up for a Challenge?

Once you've mastered proper form, make things harder by adding weights. Simply hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands to ramp up the difficulty of the exercise. And for an even more challenging variation, place an unloaded or loaded barbell across your shoulders before performing the Bulgarian split squat.

Safety and Precautions

Proper set up and effective core engagement are hands-down the best ways to make sure the Bulgarian split squat remains safe. Take your time to find proper foot alignment and placement so you're not tempted to lean forward from the hips and throw your center of gravity in front of your front knee. This places too much stress on the knee and could lead to injury.

Generally speaking, this exercise is safe for anyone who's been participating in strength training for a while and has a decent level of balance, coordination, and lower-body strength.

If you're brand-new to strength training, or if you struggle to remain balanced while performing traditional lunges, you probably aren't ready to try the Bulgarian split squat yet. Likewise, if you have any knee or ankle pain or injuries, the flexibility and mobility required to perform this movement correctly may not be comfortable for you.

If you feel any pain or discomfort, discontinue the movement and try the split squat variation with your back foot balanced on the floor.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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