Personally, I prefer the Bulgarian split squat to the traditional barbell back squat.
Once you’re able to load the movement with substantial weight you’ll see some pretty impressive lower body gains.
Plus, it can help to prevent or correct muscle imbalances which may have occurred through years of “normal” squatting.
But, one question always comes to mind with Bulgarian split squats: what’s the perfect bench height?
Angel Spassov, former Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach, popularised the Bulgarian split squat in the United States during the late 1980s. Spassov stated that the movement should be performed with the rear foot elevated at 4-6 inches. Realistically, the maximum height of the back foot should be at approximately mid-shin level. Therefore, a standard weight bench would typically be too high for many lifters.
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The “Ideal” Rear Foot Height For Bulgarian Split Squats
It’s pretty much standard practice to place your back foot on a weight bench to perform Bulgarian split squats.
But, do you realise that this is actually too high for the vast majority of the population?
Angel Spassov is the person credited with introducing the “Bulgarian” split squat to the west in the late 1980s.
In truth, the actual origins of the rear-foot elevated squat are unknown.
However, the fact that Angel was the Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach explains the name given to the movement.
That being said, Angel taught the exercise with the back foot approximately 4-6 inches from the ground.
Realistically, with any type of split squat the majority of the weight is loaded onto the front leg.
Therefore, the back leg is mainly there for balance and stability.
However, for a traditional split squat with both feet on the floor, approximately 70% of the load (or your body weight) is placed on the front leg.
This means that even though the back leg is mainly there for “balance and stability” it still supports 30% of the weight.
But, here’s what makes Bulgarian split squats such a fantastic exercise.
Even raising the rear foot just 4-6 inches, as Angel Spassov originally recommended, the weight shift between the two legs changes quite significantly.
You are now supporting 90% of the load (or your body weight) on the front leg and therefore only 10% on the back leg.
And to be honest, placing your rear foot higher doesn’t actually challenge the front leg any more.
Plus, having your rear foot too high can be a source of poor form, potential strains, niggles, or injuries (more on this later).
So, if you wish to perform Bulgarian split squats the way they were intended, your rear foot can be supported on a block, box, step platform, airex pad, etc.
And, of course, if you have access to an adjustable bench you can lower it to the optimal height.
You Don’t Actually Need a Bench For Bulgarian Split Squats
As I’ve mentioned, a bench will simply be too high for most people in the gym environment.
And yet, it’s our “go-to” piece of equipment when performing Bulgarian split squats.
You now know that Angel Spassov originally intended the back foot to be only 4-6 inches off the ground.
However, over the years this height seems to have increased and now a weight bench is viewed as the standard approach to Bulgarian split squats.
I understand the reasoning behind having your rear foot further elevated.
This immediately increases the range of motion required, which can clearly lead to better strength and hypertrophy gains.
Plus, it requires a certain amount of flexibility and mobility too.
That being said, many gym-goers don’t have the appropriate flexibility, which can lead to problems.
Personally, I would say that the perfect maximum height for your rear foot should be at mid-shin height for yourself.
So clearly this will differ from person-to-person.
That being said, I would hazard a guess that most people will have a mid-shin height of 8-14 inches, depending on their height.
However, a standard weight bench in the gym environment is typically 16-17 inches tall.
Can you now see why a bench isn’t required for most of us?
Issues Caused By Having Your Rear Foot Too High
I’ve spoken a few times now of issues being caused by having your rear foot elevated too high.
This usually comes down to a lack of flexibility or poor joint mobility, especially of the hips.
So, let’s look at these in more detail now.
Hips & Hips Flexors
Realistically, the back hip shouldn’t actually go through extension when performing Bulgarian split squats.
Your hip and knee should remain in a straight line as you lower yourself to the ground.
However, when your rear foot is higher than your hip mobility allows for, you will generally lean forward slightly more and the back hip will go through a slight angle of hip extension.
When you don’t have the prerequisite flexibility and mobility this will cause pain in the hips.
Furthermore, the hip flexors are a tiny group of muscles, but they are often tight or weak in many individuals.
This can actually cause many issues in normal daily life.
However, when performing an exercise like Bulgarian split squats with your rear foot elevated beyond your capabilities it’s likely to lead to an injury.
Personally, I would say that everyone should work on strengthening their hip flexor muscles anyway, which in turn will make many exercises easier, e.g. Bulgarian and conventional squats, deadlifts, etc.
Groin and Adductors
The adductors are basically three very thin muscles that run inside of the quads and collectively these are known as the groin muscles.
This is where you’re most likely to feel a strain when your back foot is elevated too high.
Admittedly, the adductor muscles are trained quite well during all squat variations, but this doesn’t mean that they are susceptible to injury.
Once more, this typically comes down to poor flexibility, so it’s something you certainly need to work on.
I’ve previously spoken of Bulgarian split squats causing knee pain, although this is usually the front knee.
However, you can still put additional and unwanted stress on the front knee by having your back foot too high up.
This again causes issues with flexibility, so often you’ll narrow your stance to incorporate having your rear foot so high.
Essentially, your front foot is probably no more than 8-12 inches in front of the bench.
With this stance, the lower you go the more likely that your front knee will extend beyond your toes.
Now, this isn’t exactly what I’d call an error, full range of motion squats should see the front knee go beyond the toes.
However, once more, this requires a great deal of flexibility, something which many people may not possess, which is also why you’re generally told to not allow your knees past your toes when you squat.
This also places a lot of additional stress on the front quad and knee, which can be a source of pain.
I’ve also previously discussed lower back pain from Bulgarian split squats.
And yet again this is an issue that can be caused by having your back foot too high.
I’ve already mentioned that you may end up leaning forward to compensate for your back leg.
Now, Bulgarian split squats should be performed with a slight forward lean.
In fact, this will actually engage the glutes to greater effect.
However, there is a tendency to lean too far forward when you don’t have the required flexibility and this can put a lot of strain on the lower back.
Key Learning Points
- Angel Spassov, who popularised the Bulgarian split squat in the west, states that your rear foot should be elevated by 4-6 inches.
- The maximum rear foot elevation for all individuals should be mid-shin height.
- Mid-shin height for most individuals would be between 8-14 inches high, whereas a standard weight bench is 16-17 inches high.
- Having your rear foot elevated beyond your levels of flexibility can cause issues with your hips and hip flexors, groin muscles/adductors, knees, and lower back.
Staying on the subject of unilateral leg exercises, discover what I have to say about barbell lunges compared to dumbbell lunges.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.