It’s no secret that I love the bulgarian split squat, otherwise known as the rear-foot elevated split squat or RFE SS (but those are both a mouthful and naming something after an Eastern European country makes it sound way more awesome).
If you ask any of my lifting friends, they’ll probably tell you that my love for bulgarians falls somewhere between my love for Venus Cafe Gold Fever chicken pizza and any of the Captain America/Iron Man/Avengers movies.
If you poke around the internet a bit, you’ll probably find plenty of articles claiming that actual Bulgarian weightlifters never used the movement. Instead, they performed a sort of back-foot slightly-elevated lunge, where the ball of the foot was placed on more of a block than a bench.
But regardless, the bulgarian (as it’s called for short) might possibly be one of the most bad-ass movements in the entire gym.
Why Single-Leg Work?
Single-leg movements are awesome in general because you can load up each leg individually, thus sparing the back, unlike in a squat or deadlift. This is not to say that squats and deadlifts aren’t awesome, because they are and you should certainly still perform variations of them, but single-leg movements provide our legs with a stimulus that bilateral lower body movements simply cannot compete with.
So whether you have a back injury, are into “functional training,” or need to grow your legs so that they finally match your upper body, single leg movements are where it’s at.
If we take our squats and deadlifts and then turn them into one-legged movements, we can see a continuum emerge from very easy to extremely difficult. For deadlifts, we might start with an unloaded superman-style single-leg deadlift (or SL RDL <- that’s Romanian Deadlift). We can then use cables, dumbbells, and barbells in unilateral and bilateral fashions to load up the movement. My go-to is an SL RDL with the opposite arm loaded with a dumbbell or landmine.
But the majority of our single-leg variations stem from the squat.
The Single-Leg Squat Continuum
It starts with split squats. While they may qualify as the easiest of the bunch, they are certainly anything but easy. If you’ve only squatted on two feet up until this point, these should provide a rude awakening.
One advantage of split squats is that they can easily be turned plyometric by performing split squat jumps. They’re a good alternative to one-legged verticals. We can also increase the difficulty of split squats by elevating the front foot, thus increasing the range-of-motion.
The next exercise on the continuum (for me at least) is bulgarians! They are almost identical to split squats, but the rear foot is elevated on a bench, box, or SL squat stand with the laces facing down. This takes the back foot out of the equation (for the most part) and places a much greater stress on the front in terms of balance, femoral control, and strength.
The next exercises on the continuum would be pistol, skater squat, and Valslide lunge variations. These are the first “true” single-leg movements on the list as the opposite leg doesn’t even touch the ground in a pistol squat. (The back knee briefly touches in a skater squat and the back foot is obviously on a slider in Valslide lunges, but I don’t consider it to be “working.”)
What About Lunges?
So where are all the lunge variations? Simply put, I don’t use lunges very often in my programming.
Although I appreciate their place as a single-leg movement, I don’t see a large difference between lunges and split squats. In both instances, the back leg is working in assistance to the front leg. If split squats are too easy, I’ll elevate the rear foot and perform bulgarians. If bulgarians are too hard, lunges will almost invariably be too difficult as well.
Occasionally, I use walking lunges or back lunges to keep programming “fresh,” but it would be misleading to say that it wasn’t more for entertainment than practicality.
I use single-leg work for two main reasons: to build the legs or to develop tri-planar stability through the lower body and core while on one leg, most of the time both. Split squats, bulgarians, and true single-leg variations accomplish this for me.
So Then, Why Bulgarians?
I love bulgarians for a few reasons:
- The back leg provides additional stability without additional strength (for the most part) allowing them to be loaded more easily than the more difficult single-leg variations.
- Even using the back leg for stability, bulgarians are much more of a “true” single-leg movement than split squats.
- They allow for a terrific range-of-motion.
- They can be easily adjusted into a hip- or knee-dominant exercise.
- They make your butt sore as all hell.
That’s about it. They are much more of a true single-leg exercise than split squats and provide a much increased range-of-motion, especially if you elevate your front foot on a block or step. When compared to pistol/skater squats and Valslide lunge variations, bulgarians can be loaded much more easily and therefore really challenge our leg strength as opposed to squats or deadlifts.
My favorite ways to perform bulgarians are with the front foot elevated with dumbbells or with a barbell on the upper back (no front foot elevation because there’s nothing safe about trying to find a 2-4″ block behind you while you have 100+ lbs on your back).
Bulgarian split squats, though not definitively the best single-leg variation in the universe, are definitely my favorite variation (and that can be seen in their 2-3x per week appearance in my programs). And hopefully I’ve convinced you as well.
Like I mentioned, single-leg variations challenge us in the same way that, say, a leg press challenges us. When you take the core out of the equation, we’re able to harness the full strength potential of our legs. That being said, single-leg squat variations often add up to be much larger than our best squat. (It’s like, if you take your bulgarian 5rm and doubled it, because you have two legs, it will almost always be higher than your 5rm squat in the case of proficiency with both movements.)
And as a bonus, we develop the stability on one leg that just doesn’t come with machine leg work.
So if you’re looking to develop your legs for athletic reasons, to squat bigger weight, or to simply build those chicken legs into thunder thighs, do yourself a favor and include some bulgarians in your next program.
Also, self-five for the great reference in the featured image. And just as a quick note, this is my official public claim as Inventor of the Self-five Burpee. I Googled it and everything and there was nothing, so it’s mine.