The back squat, Bulgarian split squat, and the lunge are three lower body movements that are fundamental to nearly every strength, power, fitness, and sport athlete. Neglecting both/either bilateral (back squat) and unilateral (Bulgarian split squat and lunges) can set athletes and lifters up for nagging injuries, performance limitations, and muscular and movement imbalances.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the need for all both bilateral and unilateral lower body movements into every strength, power, fitness, and sport athletes program. Additionally, we will point out the key differences between each and how those can be used to best suit performance and the athletes needs/goals.
The back squat is a fundamental movement that build universal strength, muscle hypertrophy, and is a performance enhancing movement patterning for nearly every sport athlete. The back squat, as well as all of the primary variations (front, overhead, zercher, anderson, low bar, high bar, etc) can all be found and discussed in detail in our Ultimate Squat Guide.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The bulgarian split squat is a specific type of unilateral split stance exercise that demands more unilateral balance and strength than a normal split squat (no bench or box). In this exercise, the lifter places their back leg on a bench of box, increasing the demands and emphasis on the front leg muscles and increasing the complexity (balance, strength, coordination, etc).
[Here’s why you, and most lifters, need to start doing more Bulgarian split squats immediately!]
The lunge is a unilateral lower body movement that can be done by stepping the foot forward, walking, or even dropping one foot backwards (reverse lunge). Most variations of the lunge can be manipulated to a degree to shift emphasis to the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and hips, depending on the goal and intent. Lunging is very applicable to most sports, as it develops balance, sounds dynamic movement and stabilization, increases unilateral muscle mass development, and can even help to stimulate new neurons within muscle units to fire and be developed for suture movement (bilateral deficit).
Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge vs Back Squat: Lower Body Training
All three of these movements are highly effective means to produce muscle mass, movement integrity, and optimal symmetry and injury residence in the lower body. Nearly every athlete can, and arguable should, integrate all three of these movements into their training regimens on a continual basis.
One key difference between the back squat and the other two lifts is that the back squat is a bilateral movement, which simply means the lifter or athlete is performing the exercise with both limbs. While unilateral training has been shown to increase muscle activation and can help to work on unilateral deficiencies with lifters, bilateral movements, such as the squat allow for maximal loading, strength capacities, and even application to sport specific movements, such as powerlifting style competitive squats, jumping, heavy cleans and snatches, and more.
Below are three distinct training outcomes that coaches and athletes should be aware of when determine which movement to select for their program.
Maximal Strength Development
Many factors can influence maximal strength development, however for the sake of this segment we will focus on: (1) neuromuscular preparedness and activity, (2) force output, (3) muscle hypertrophy, (4) movement integrity, (5) sport specificity.
The back squat be far is the winner for maximal strength development when compared to the other two movements listed. The back squat is a total body movement that maximizes a lifter’s ability to load the spine, increase total body neural excitation, and produce high amounts of force output.
When looking at heavy back squats, we quickly see that a lifter must perform back squats to do well in powerlifting meets, Olympic weightlifting, and functional fitness, as back squatting is a key metric to assess one’s maximal strength abilities specific to the lower body.
While this is not to say that unilateral exercises do not play a role in strength development, the back squat is 100% necessary for nearly every strength, power, and fitness athlete.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat, as well as most unilateral movements can do wonders for overall strength performance when used to enhance muscle hypertrophy, address any muscle imbalances and/or asymmetries, and increase training volume needed for long term adaptation. Unlike heavy back squats, Bulgarian split squats often are performed with moderate to light loading (relative to one’s squat strength) for moderate to higher repetitions in controlled fashion. By doing these split squat variations in this fashion, the athlete can maximize muscle damage and build healthy connective tissues, muscle fibers, and joint integrity over time.
Similar to the Bulgarian split squat, the lunge (and its variations) can be used to further isolate specific muscle fibers or ranges of motion that are hindering optimal development. The lunge can be used to further develop muscular hypertrophy, balance, and joint integrity to bolster back squat performance.
For example, if a lifter has weak quadriceps, a front foot elevated reverse lunge variation can place additional training volume onto the quadriceps and glutes stimulating muscle growth and adaptation. With time, the similar movement patterning and muscle activation used in lunge could be transferred over to the back squat, and ultimately increasing performance.
While all of these exercises are great lower body assistance options, there are slight differences in loading placed upon the quads, hamstrings, and glutes; all of which are discussed below.
Depending on the degree of knee and hip flexion, as well as barbell placement, coaches and athletes can easily manipulate what muscle groups will be primarily working.
In short, back squats can be used to increase muscular hypertrophy throughout the lower body and hips, often don’t in higher volume training with moderate to heavy loads.
Regardless of sport, back squatting for hypertrophy is key for long term strength and sport performance as it is a foundation and jumping off point towards more intense training practices.
Bulgarian Split Squat
When done with a narrower stance, the Bulgarian split squat emphasizes quadriceps and glute hypertrophy, which can be a huge benefit to athletes lacking proper hip and quadriceps engagement while squatting or receiving barbells (cleans and snatces).
During longer splits, knee flexion is more limited, therefore increasing the load upon the hamstring, which can be beneficial for runners, sprinters, of adults who take a lower bar positioning during the squat (and are lacking in hamstring development).
Bulgarian split squats can certainly be used, and should, by most athletes to increase lower body hypertrophy, balance and coordination, and add training volume during certain phases in one’s program.
The benefits of incorporating lunges into programs is nearly identical to the Bulgarian split squat. The wide array of stances and multi-directional open movement patterning under load is also key for increasing injury resilience, improving an athlete’s balance and proprioception, and can drastically increase hip, knee, and ankle health (when done correctly).
Application to Sport
Lastly, application to strength, power, and fitness sports is key when determining exercise selection, order, and prioritization. Below is a detailed reasoning for the inclusion of each exercise within one’s training.
The back squat has repeatedly been established as a key marker for maximal strength capacity (force output) for nearly every athletic feat. Inclusion of the back squat is key for powerlifters (it’s a competition lift that requires skill and strength), weightlifters (it has high application to leg strength, back position, and both competition lifts), and fitness and sport athletes (increased force development equals bigger, faster, stronger athletes).
While the back squat may be the gold standard for most coaches, there are plenty of variations that can also be incorporated into one’s training to further customize programming based on personal limitations and/or needs.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat can be incorporated to increase sport specific muscle mass, foot positioning (in the split jerk), and/or as preventive/rehabilitative training to enhance any unilateral asymmetries. Increasing leg strength, balance, and unilateral performance can have a drastic effect on joint and connective tissue function during sport movements, especially as progressed properly.
The lunge can be done in numerous of variations, foot positions, and styles, each offering a coach and athlete some of the best methods for increasing range, load, and situational sport skill and strength. Whether a lifter in the split squat, a strongman lugging heavy loads during competition, or a fitness athlete increasing unilateral force production specific to uphill running, the lunge can be manipulated to target a lifter’s needs.
The back squat is key to nearly every athletes, regardless of sport. Increased power, strength, and muscle mass will all help an athlete run faster, jump higher, lift heavier, and prevent injury better. Incorporating unilateral movements, such as Bulgarian split squats and lunges can also play a huge role in the overall development and injury reliance of an athlete. Coaches and athletes should prioritize all three movements (or at least back squats and one of the other two exercise above) in every training cycle to fully maximize performance.
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