The Best Method for Performing Bulgarian Split Squats
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Here’s one of the most natural feeling Bulgarian squat variations you’ll ever attempt as demonstrated by one of my awesome clients and national figure competitor Leslie Petch.
Bulgarian squats and variations thereof are some of the most effective lower body exercises you can perform. Not only do they allow the lifter to focus more so on one leg and correct asymmetrical imbalances, but they promote increased mobility while simultaneously enhancing stability and balance. Unfortunately many lifters find traditional Bulgarian squats awkward and semi-unnatural. Oftentimes that’s because the back foot (ideally the top of the laces) rests against the top of the bench, which can feel quite uncomfortable (periodically leading to foot cramping). Performing Bulgarian squats with your back foot on a foam roller as shown in the video helps to alleviate this issue and provides additional benefits that can’t be duplicated with any other variation. Here are several reasons that make this Bulgarian squat on the foam roller so effective.
1. As previously mentioned, discomfort in the back foot is one of the most common problems with Bulgarian squats as the lifter can feel as though their back foot and arch is about to cramp. Although you can perform Bulgarian squats with your back foot on a smith machine or fixed bar (with a squat pad attached to the bar) or a Bulgarian squat stand (with a rotating foam pad), neither of these variations provides the additional benefits listed below.
2. Another common issue with Bulgarian squats is determining exactly how far the back foot should be in proximity to the front leg and making the necessary adjustments. That’s because once your foot is locked into the pad and you decide to move closer or farther to the bench you literally have to reset your entire body, which further disrupts your set and detracts from the effort you could channel into your actual repetitions. Using the foam roller completely eliminates this issue as the lifter can gradually adjust the roller as he or she performs his or her reps by simply allowing it to move naturally with each motion.
3. Maintaining a fixed back leg position throughout a Bulgarian squat (or even a lunge for that matter) doesn’t always feel very natural as the back leg/hip naturally wants to extend further back on the eccentric phase and drive with slight forward hip flexion on each concentric phase of the repetition. In fact, this is why the slide-board has become so popular with strength coaches as it allows individuals to perform lunges with the back leg sliding back and forth in one seamless transition during each rep.
On traditional Bulgarian squats this cannot occur as the back leg is fixed. However the foam roller eliminates this issue not only making it much more natural feeling for the lifter but also promotes increased activation of the thigh and hip muscles of the back leg. That’s because there is more rhythmic movement and deliberate eccentric/concentric phases allowing cyclical stretching and shortening of the hip flexors each repetition. The slight movement (back and forth) of the back leg is somewhat subtle yet intramuscularly it’s quite significant.
4. Although the ability to move the back leg forward and backward on each repetition can be accomplished in a similar fashion by using suspension systems such as the TRX, the heightened instability keeps most lifters from aggressively sitting back into the movement (which represents proper positioning for the hips) for fear of losing their balance. This minimizes the overload to the hip flexors of the back leg while also diminishing the lengthening and stretching of those hip flexors.
In contrast, because the foam roller slides back so naturally and predictably, the lifter can comfortably sit back into the roller thereby maximizing hip activation and eccentric elongation of the hip extensors of the front leg and hip flexors of the back leg. In addition, this allows the lifter to go surprisingly heavy on this variation enabling them to truly overload the muscles without excessive balancing issues. This is not to say that performing lunges and Bulgarian squats on suspension systems are poor exercise choices (as I periodically use this with my athletes) but if the goal is a smooth and natural variation that’s conducive for overloading the muscles with heavy weight, the foam roller Bulgarian squat is tough to beat.
5. I've found this Bulgarian squat variation to provide just the right level of instability for enhancing balance and motor control without being so unstable that it detracts from the actual movement. Simply put you're forced to use strict mechanics in order to avoid having the foam roller move around in an uncontrollable fashion however once your form is locked in you'll still be able to handle relatively heavy loads without losing your balance.
The setup shown in the video is ideal as you’ll need to have a gap for the back knee to fit between therefore placing a foam roller on two boxes or benches feels most natural. Several sets of 5-10 repetitions will tax nearly every muscle in your lower body (including the quads, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and smaller stabilizers) while also addressing mobility and stability.