BASIC Progression and Bulgarian Split Squats

Posted on 06 Sep 2009 17:53

Blog Home

By Eric Troy

I am always bringing up, obsessively you might say, how there are many different ways to progress in strength training. And, in fact, how many different things we do and achieve represent progression that we don't even recognize.

Getting stronger is such a narrow concept for most people. That narrow scope opens the door for stagnation, faulty training, and injury. That is why I try to discuss getting BETTER with people rather than just getting stronger. When it comes to training they are both the same thing but the simple word change opens the mind to potentials. Amazing what words can do. One reason you should never resort to the tired old "semantics" line with me…words are POWERFUL and can do lots of damage when used carelessly. Strength training is not an object after all. We can't point our finger at it and make ourselves understood. It's an abstract that needs the right words to communicate our ideas.

And yet the word progression, so full of possibility, has come to mean piling weight on the bar while lifting it worse and worse, instead of better and better.

Maybe, if we in the strength training and bodybuilding culture could simply call things what they are it would help. So many times an exercise that has been modified in a simple and progressive way gets named after whoever happened to be seen doing this exercise. The fancy moniker draws attention away from the fact that it is a BASIC exercise that has been made a bit more difficult.

One such exercise is the so-called Bulgarian split squat. This exercise is nothing more than a static split squat with the back leg elevated.

If a trainee were to elevate his back leg on a low aerobic stepper, we'd call it a split squat with the back leg elevated on a stepper. Put the back leg up higher, as on a bench, and we call it a Bulgarian!

Problem is 'static split squat' or 'static split squat with back leg elevated' doesn't sound great on paper. Consequently there are many novice trainees doing Bulgarian Squats right now who don't even know what a split squat is. They take an ADVANCED version of a basic exercise they've never done…and pile weight on it as if their life depended on it.

What if I told you you could use more weight with a regular split squat? Perhaps that would help. What if I told you you could add weight to that for a bit then elevate your backleg a bit off the floor. Then add a bit of weight to that. Then elevate some more. Then add a little weight. Until your back leg is on a bench and you are using more weight on your "Bulgarian Squat" than you would have been able to do and, therefore, get more out of the exercise than you would have right off the bat. You're stronger. You are more proficient. You are better.

The problem with this kind of thing is that it is advanced. I don't mean advanced technically as it is a simple movement. The range of motion is advanced and the balance and stability that is required is advanced. But it is viewed as a basic movement as it is the first instance many trainees ever encounter the movement. In fact the same can be said of lunges.

The Confusion: Consider this page at ExRx

It portrays and describes this exercise with the foot on the bench, which is what we normally consider a Bulgarian.

Now check out the Barbell Split Squat

Here we have both feet on the floor. A regular split squat.

I can only guess that the "easier" nature of the dumbells caused the author to surmise an elevated back leg should be part of the dumbell package.

As I've said TIME AND TIME AGAIN the exercise is the MOVEMENT, not the implement lifted! One more time. The exercise is the movement. Not the implement lifted.

A split squat in it's basic form is both feet on the floor.

All this business about "dumbell this" and "barbell that" is complete nonsense. The choice of implement and the position that implement is held in change the mechanics somewhat as it alters the center of mass but it does not change the essence of the exercise. Just because you do a traditional exercise with a bag full of rice does not mean you just re-invented the wheel.

Here is another page, at which shows indicates the split squat must have the back leg elevated.

The confusion here, results from the idea that both legs will be worked to some extent on a split squat and the higher you have the back leg, the more the focus is on the front leg. Leading to the belief, as expressed in the Men's Health page, that the Bulgarian is different from the regular split squat because it uses the rear leg only for balance instead of pushing 50% of one's weight with the back leg in the regular version. Complete nonsense. The push is always from the front leg, off the heel. The "work" being done with the back leg is simply the stretch in the hip flexors and the tension of balancing. You certainly do not "attempt" to use both legs.

This is the basic split squat from Core Performance and I have suggestions on how to progress them here.

Beyond all of the above, I can think of one primary reason this happens: while Bulgarians are portrayed as a hardcore strength and bodybuilding exercise by bodybuilders and strength trainers alike, the basic split squat is "hip mobility in the sagital plane" or some other fluffy sounding correctional terminology. Just how am I supposed to get trainees to progress in a sensible fashion when the experts use language that makes the average trainee cover his ears and pile 40 extra pounds on his barbell?

Having said that, I do not wish to insult those who specialize in corrective exercise. For from it! So if you are one just consider how the language you use affects the thinking and attitude of your clients. Consider whether simple language and simple explanation will be better than technical and complex ones. Perhaps the biggest of all, consider how the language you use makes them feel. Does what you say make them feel like can improve, grow, and get better? Or, does it make them feel like a patient, doomed to complicated "rehab" rather than simple progression?

This page created 06 Sep 2009 17:53
Last updated 23 Oct 2015 04:55

© 2016 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.