Know Your Exercise – Part 1: Bulgarian Lunge or Split Squat
We start a series of blogs in which we analyse some significant weight training exercises that somehow miss the attention of exercisers! This blog looks at the Bulgarian Lunge or Split Squat.
Let’s make one thing clear: Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS) is a static movement while the “lunge” is generally considered to be dynamic – unless of course the lunge is “static” as we often term it thus in India. The BSS is also termed as “rear foot elevated split squat”.
How often do you see this BSS exercise being performed in the gym? Don’t miss this super one – just look at the benefits!
With one leg behind the body and elevated off the floor, the BSS targets many of the same muscles as a traditional squat but emphasizes the quadriceps. It strengthens the hamstrings, glutes and calves as well – not to forget the adductors and abductors muscles of the hip joint. It works the erector spinae muscles in the back too.
Further, as a single-leg exercise, your core muscles need to work actively to maintain your body balance. A traditional squat puts a sizable load on your lower back while the BSS largely “neutralizes” the lower back thus emphasizing the legs.
What’s more, the BSS offers variations that are quad dominant or glute dominant. In fact, it is s great exercise for not only good, solid quads but glutes as well!
How does it differ from a single-leg squat?
In a single-leg squat, the stabilizing leg comes out in front of the body. In the Bulgarian split squat, the stabilizing leg is behind the body, on an elevated surface. The BSS also allows you to reach a deeper “drop” than in a single-leg squat thus challenging the flexibility in the hips.
What’s so Bulgarian about this exercise?!
It is good to know how an exercise gets its name – quite often, the “history” of the exercise helps deepen its understanding and role in weight training. We quote here from a blog by the Personal Strength Institute:
“The Bulgarian Split Squat is a term that is often used for a rear-foot elevated Split Squat. This term originated when the Assistant Coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting National Team Angel Spassov toured the USA in the late 1980s to speak on the training methods of the highly successful Bulgarian Weightlifting System. During the 1970s and 1980s the Bulgarians who only had about 5.000 competitive weightlifters were going toe to toe with the Russians (who had 300.000 competitive weightlifters) and often beating them in total medal count at the World Championship and Olympics.
Where does that fairy tale come from?
Angel Spassov was promoting that the Eastern Block Weightlifters had dropped all back squats from their program and replaced them by Step ups and Split Squats. There is also the famous “The Bulgarian Leg Training Secret” article that is found online written by Angel Spassov and Terry Todd which promotes this idea. The article and Angel Spassov’s teachings suggest that back squats as a base of the super strong Bulgarian weightlifters are a myth and outdated and were replaced by Step ups and Split Squats. This eventually led to the Bulgarian Split Squat being promoted over the years as a superior exercise for leg development over the squat. Yet, that’s a fairy tale.
Did the Bulgarians do Bulgarian Split Squats?
In 2011 I have attended a seminar with Ivan Abadjiev, the Head Coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting National Team, mastermind behind the Bulgarian Weightlifting System and former boss of Angel Spassov. He was asked during the seminar about the use of Step ups and Split Squats in their training. And he shook his head. And he made it clear that the Bulgarians never used any Step ups and Split Squats in their training. The idea to use them was solely Angel Spassov’s idea and he, Ivan Abadjiev, did not like the idea, mainly because step ups and split squats are too unspecific to weightlifting. And one of the corner stones of the Bulgarian Weightlifting System was the idea that the two Olympic lifts are two specific skills that need to be specifically trained. Therefore, there are only 6 exercises used in training, the Clean & Jerk, the Snatch, Front Squats, Back Squats, Power Clean and Power Snatch. And on the elite level he would even cut down to 3 exercises the Clean & Jerk, the Snatch and Front Squats.
Split Squat vs Back Squat
When comparing the Split Squat to the Back Squat to primary argument for the Split Squat is that puts less pressure on the lower back. Which is correct. Yet, this is my primary argument against the Split Squat. Lower Back Strength is essential. Lower Back Strength is the primary limiting factor of the posterior chain which is the base of all power produced and transferred. To get the lower back, specifically the lumbar erector spinae, stronger the Squat and the Deadlift are the two main exercises that get the job done. Done better and more functional than any other exercise group there is. Split Squats do not strengthen the lower back as they put less pressure on the back. That doesn’t make the Split Squats a bad exercise group. It just makes them an inferior choice when it comes to one the most general goals in strength training – strengthening the lower back.
Rear-foot elevated Split Squat vs. Front-foot elevated Split Squat
Another myth regarding the rear-foot elevated Split Squat is that it opens the hip and provides a stretch on the hip flexors and adductors. Which is correct, to a small degree. The higher the position of the rear foot the lower the stretch on hip flexors and adductors as the lower the range. So vice versa, lower the position of the rear foot the higher the stretch on hip flexors and adductors as the greater the range. Which makes the front-foot elevated Split Squat the superior exercise choice when opening and strengthen a greater range is the goal.
To conclude, the rear-foot elevated Split Squat (BSS) is a great exercise, is technically not a Bulgarian Split Squat, though. And while it has some distinct advantages, these advantages also bring downsides that need to be considered when making the ideal exercise choice for certain clients on a certain program.”
Nevertheless, this exercise is a great strength builder – not necessarily only for and by weightlifters! It generates more –
- Lower leg strength – who does not want strength??
- Core strength
- Body balance and coordination
- Hip and knee joints mobility
In this video, Dr. Francesca Fesheila Tan, MBBS, demonstrates the Bulgarian Lunge or Split Squat. Her technique is impeccable!
- Place a flat bench about 30 cms behind you. Rest your right foot behind you on the bench with only the distal portion of the top of your foot on the bench. Keep your left leg straight.
- Eccentric contraction: Inhale as you lower body straight down when squatting with your left leg. Keep the left knee in the same position using it only as a hinge to lower your body.
- Keep back straight, head erect as you look straight ahead.
- Hold dumbbells in both hands with the arms by your sides.
- Concentric contraction: Exhale as you push back up to starting position. Repeat with left leg the prescribed reps then switch to right leg.
CAVEAT: You should not have any knee or ankle pain or injuries. Any such injuries may not give the kind of mobility, flexibility, and support necessary for performing the squat.
Try out the above exercise for 12 reps as indicated, on each leg. Now, do the lunges in the following variations:
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand while you lunge with the opposite leg (contralateral).
- Hold the dumbbell in one hand while you lunge with the leg on the same side (ipsilateral).
- In place of dumbbell, use a barbell.
- With or without weights, place the working leg on a BOSU or wobble board or a stability ball.
There are basically two variations on a Bulgarian split squat — one that is “quad dominant” and the other that is “glute dominant”. If the foot is farther from the elevated surface and lean slightly forward, as physique athlete and personal trainer Heera Solanki shows, you will place more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. If it is closer to the elevated surface with torso more erect, you will exercise your quads more.
Both variations are beneficial! It ultimately comes down to your personal training goals, as well as what feels, to you, more natural based on your flexibility and mobility. Playing around with each variety can help you identify which works best for you.
Do you feel any difference in the location and / or intensity of “burn” on the muscles in above variations? Do let us know – let’s share the Joy of Weight Training!