The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for athletes and lifters of all levels who are looking to increase leg strength, muscular development, address muscular and movement asymmetries, and increase sports specific performance and injury prevention. Programming this unilateral movement can be done in a variety of ways. Therefore, in this article we will discuss the importance of the Bulgarian split squat and specifically how to program them into training programs for athletic development, muscular development, and injury resilience.
Background on the Bulgarian Split Squat
This unilateral movement does an amazing job at stimulating muscle growth and coordination due to it’s single legged nature. The ability perform them in a full range of motion and with loading can further increase the benefits. In the video below the proper technique and progressions to perfect the Bulgarian split squat are discussed.
The Bulgarian split squat is a very effective unilateral exercise to build quality muscle, develop proper joint and movement integrity, and have specific application to bilateral movements such as squats and pulls. Below is a list of muscle groups targeted by Bulgarian split squats:
- Abdominals and Obliques
Programming Recommendations and Rep Ranges for Bulgarian Split Squats
As with most exercise, there are a wide range of rep schemes, tempos, and exercise order than can be used to increase performance in athletes who may be deficit in balance, stability, strength, or movement patterning. Listed below are four various ways you can program these into training plans, each discussing the purpose and the specific repetition ranges and intensities that should be used to optimize results.
Corrective Movement, Warm-Ups, and Muscle Activation
The Bulgarian split squat can be used as a corrective movement within warm-up series to prepare for squats, or as a simple muscle activation exercise prior to sporting events/training. The purpose of doing such a movement at the beginning of a workout is to ensure adequate energy (both mental and physical) to perform strict, controlled repetitions. With most corrective segments, athletes need to focus on building sound movement patterning to learn proper joint function and train the motor movement pathways.
Repetitions can be kept to the moderate repetition range (8-12) at light to moderate loads to allow for quality movement without high amounts of fatigues (which also leads to breakdowns in technique). When used in warm-ups and/or muscle activation series, I prefer to use lighter loads for moderate to high repetitions to increase muscle temperatures and get the body working. All three of the situations do not entail a lifter loading with high amounts of loading or resistance and very little fatigue. This ensures they are able to maximize muscular contractions and focus on the movement patterning. Other techniques such as accommodating resistance, slow tempos, and other variations or split squats can all be placed here to increase performance and movement patterning.
Accessory Work for Increased Muscle Mass
Unilateral training has been shown to increase muscle activation, contractions, and hypertrophy. As athletes and coaches, we are always looking for ways to increase muscle in small and large muscles groups, as simply squatting to develop muscle and strength can leave a lot of holes in your overall development. Increasing unilateral muscular growth can lead to massive gains in squat strength and power.
One of the most popular ways to incorporate Bulgarian split squats into a training regimen is after main strength and power movements, where the emphasis is on gaining lean muscle and reinforcing sound movement. Repetition ranges can be kept in the moderate to high range (6-20) for 3-5 sets to focus on increasing training volume and bringing about metabolic distress within the muscles. The tempo should be controlled and done at a pace that allows for smooth, continuous tension to enhance the training effects that bring about muscular hypertrophy.
Primary Strength Movement for Leg Development
There are times when back squats may not be the best option for athletes or lifters due to movement issues, injury, etc. In example is with a college baseball player of mine, who was in rehabilitation for both hip and lumbar issues, and any sort of bilateral squatting movement and/or back loaded squat cause flare ups. Because we were preparing for the season, we had to develop a few weeks to increasing his strength and muscle mass so that he could withstand the upcoming season.
We chose to use the Bulgarian Split squat as his primary strength and hypertrophy movement in lieu of the back squat (we had him perform a wider stance version in place of deadlifts as well). Other lifters may also find it helpful to devote some strength work using the Bulgarian split squat if they find they have hip shifting and/or breakdowns in the back squat, as unilateral training can work to increase efficiency and strength in both legs equally (instead of often having one leg compensate for the other).
If you choose to program Bulgarian split squats as a primary mover (instead of in accessory segments as discussed above) you need to ensure the athlete is prepared to handle higher loads first, as inadequate muscle mass, balance, and movement patterning can result in increased injury rates. Once you have insured their readiness (which if they have complete these before and shown mastery in both scenarios above, they should be ready), they can set themselves up in front of a squat rack and load weight onto a barbell as seen below.
Repetition ranges can be done in the 4-8 range per leg for strength (I do not suggest lower reps than that, as the risk of failure and other issues can result in injury). Loads can be moderate to slightly heavy, however at no point should technical breakdown exists. For better safety, have the athlete perform these inside a squat rack with safety pins set at the bottom depth to ensure maximal safety throughout. The usage spotters on the side is also beneficial (one on each end of the barbell) if team settings.
Unilateral movements are a great way to challenge muscular endurance and stamina as the specific muscles (in this case the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings) must work exclusively instead of relying on assistance muscles to compensate for fatigue. Athletes like runners, cyclists, and hockey players need high amounts of muscular endurance AND work capacity in the legs, making this a great way to ensure proper development in conditioning sets and/or finishers.
Learn More About Bulgarian Split Squats
We have done a lot of articles and research on the Bulgarian split squat in the past. Take a look at some of our top articles below.
- Split Squat vs Bulgarian Split Squat: Which Is Best for You?
- Which Unilateral Leg Exercise Is Best for You?
Featured Image: @stempperformance on Instagram
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