The Best Leg Exercise You’re Not Doing

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

The Bulgarian split squat, otherwise known as the rear foot elevated split squat, has been an exercise of interest for me personally for many years now. I have done multiple research reports in school and countless hours of outside research in the gym to determine its worth as a lower body movement. Here’s what I’ve decided. It is the best exercise for overall muscle activation in the lower body. Don’t just take my word for it, take the numerous scientific studies that have found these results time and time again. Specifically, muscle activation between the split squat and conventional barbell back squat has found that muscle activation in the Gluteus Medius, hamstring group, and external obliques was significantly higher in the split squat compared to the back squat. While Gluteus maximus, quadriceps group, and erector spinae muscles showed no significant difference in muscle activation compared to the back squat. In simpler terms, it is a better compound (multi-joint) exercise than the traditional barbell back squat. Does that mean you shouldn’t back squat? Absolutely not! If you can complete a proper back squat, I mean at least to parallel, then have at it! But way too many times I have seen people who have no business putting a barbell on their back, with even a quarter of the amount of weight that they are using, because mechanically their squat movement is just plain ugly. If your knees cave in, you can’t reach parallel, your heels come off the ground, or you can’t hold the bar on your back with elbows pointed down because of shoulder mobility issues. Do yourself a favor and stop back squatting until you can do the movement with proper mechanics. Instead, start doing the Bulgarian split squat to train the proper movement of the squat unilaterally, one leg at a time.

When doing the movement properly focus on:

· Not letting that front knee cave in

· Driving through the front heel

· Keeping your back as straight up and down as possible

· Maintaining contact between the back foot and bench you are using

To properly do the Bulgarian split squat someone would need a bench or box to put their rear foot up on, after they have found their balance they would insure that the front leg has the knee stacked over the ankle. The movement itself begins when they descend into the eccentric phase of the squat. One key aspect to the movement is that all the weight is in that front heel so that they wouldn’t come up on their toes. As the eccentric phase reaches the bottom it becomes harder to keep your balance. During the concentric phase the main muscle group that is working is the quadriceps in the front leg to extend the knee and bring them back to an upright position but also the hamstrings group and gluteus maximus by extending the hip. As a closed chain exercise all muscles of the upper leg are being worked in some way whether as main movers or stabilizing muscles due to its unilateral movement. Another important component that the Bulgarian split squat emphasizes is coordination/ balance. Most people will probably not include unilateral leg exercises into a training program since it is much more difficult and awkward. However, it is extremely beneficial, and these benefits easily relate to activities of daily living that many people neglect.

So next time you’re in the gym about to train legs, walk away from the squat rack and grab a pair of dumbbells instead and give this exercise a try. I guarantee you will start adding it into your regular training program more often!

For anyone interested in reading more of the research