9 Reasons Why Bulgarian Split Squats Are One of the Toughest Lower-Body Exercises

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Bulgarian split squats must rate as one of the best lower-body exercises ever.

They are essentially a squat, but also have many similarities to lunges.

That being said, have you ever noticed that Bulgarian split squats are so much tougher than conventional squats and lunges?

Don’t worry, I’m actually writing this article to make myself, and hopefully you, feel better.

It appears that just about everyone thinks that the rear-foot elevated split squat is a killer.

The most obvious reason for Bulgarian split squats being so hard is that they are a unilateral exercise and therefore require a great deal of core stability, balance, and coordination. However, Bulgarian split squats have a greater range of motion, longer time-under-tension, and don’t allow you to compensate for potential muscle weaknesses, making them extremely hard when compared to many other lower-body exercises.

Range of Motion

Bulgarian split squats will take you through a greater range of motion than lunges and traditional split squats where both feet are in contact with the floor.

This immediately means that you may be going through a range of motion that you’re not accustomed to.

I’m sure you realise that the exercises that you perform more often become “easier” over time.

Therefore, if you’re not used to performing a certain exercise, while taking it through its full range of motion, it’s going to feel really hard.

Furthermore, there is a different plane of motion between lunges and any type of split squat.

Lunges require a horizontal range of motion.

Essentially, you are moving forwards and backwards when performing forward lunges and reverse lunges.

However, for Bulgarian split squats you are moving through a vertical range of motion, so up and down.

Increased Load on the Front Leg

Once more, if we compare Bulgarian split squats to lunges there is an increased load placed on the front leg.

And this is true whether you perform either movement with a load or just your body weight.

It is estimated that during lunges approximately 70% of the “load” (whether weighted or just with body weight) is placed on the front leg.

However, when it comes to Bulgarian split squats this increases to approximately 90% of the load being placed on the front leg.

Therefore, due to this increased load Bulgarian split squats are going to feel tougher.

Balance, Stability, & Coordination

This is potentially what makes lunges, split squats, and Bulgarian split squats so much harder than many other lower-body exercises.

Basically, they are all unilateral leg exercises, although none can be considered a true single-leg exercise.

That being said, as you are potentially training one leg at a time (90% of load is placed on the front leg) you’ll require a great deal of balance and coordination.

This typically requires a lot of core stability too, so any type of core weakness is going to make Bulgarian split squats even more difficult.

Clearly this means that you’ll need to work on strengthening your core, which should include your abs, spinae erectors, glutes, and hip flexors.

However, something else to take into consideration is the height of your back foot during Bulgarian split squats.

The vast majority of people elevate their back foot too high, which increases instability, when in fact your rear foot should be approximately 4-6 inches off the ground.


Now, this next issue with Bulgarian split squats may just be me, but see what you think.

Personally, I feel there is more time-under-tension performing Bulgarian split squats than barbell squats.

When you lock out your knees and hips at the top of the barbell squat you basically get some “rest” or light relief at the very least.

If you think about it, when you’re barbell squatting and fatigue starts to kick in, but you still have more reps to perform, you’ll typically catch your breath for a second or two at the top of the movement.

However, when you lock out on Bulgarian split squats there is still tension being applied to your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

In fact, I often find myself dropping into the squat in order to get some “light relief”.

Granted, that probably sounds quite strange, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m getting any rest at the top of Bulgarian split squats.

And yet, it definitely feels like I am with barbell squats.

This also means that I tend to perform Bulgarians at a faster pace, which turns them into both a strength and conditioning (muscular endurance) exercise.

Increased Volume

I would hazard a guess that not many people perform Bulgarian split squats as the main lift of their workout.

Typically, if you’re doing “leg day” then you’ll start out with barbell squats.

Then again, perhaps you have a specific “squat day” and a “deadlift day”.

The point being that it’s usually the big, compound, barbell lifts that are used as the main lift of the day.

So, this also means that Bulgarian split squats are performed in the accessory rep range.

Therefore, as an example, perhaps you’re doing 10-15 reps (each leg) for Bulgarians.

Now, we’ve already established that the rear-foot elevated squat is tough.

However, how often do you perform 20-30 rep squat sets?

And this is essentially what you’re doing with Bulgarian split squats.

Returning to a point I made above, this makes the movement extremely taxing on your lungs and cardiovascular system.

Muscle “Isolation”

Okay, before I go any further, allow me to confuse matters slightly.

Bulgarian split squats are definitely a compound exercise.

With each rep you will work the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, plus various stabilizing muscles too.

That being said, you will “isolate” the legs far more than with traditional barbell squats.

When performing barbell squats, as your legs start to fatigue, other muscles typically take over.

In fact, your back strength often sees you through to the end of your set of barbell squats once your legs have fatigued.

However, if you’re unable to maintain a neutral back position when you barbell squat this could lead to injury.

But, the fact remains that you don’t have this option with Bulgarian split squats.

Admittedly, this isn’t so much the case if you’re performing the movement with a barbell across the back of your shoulders.

However, holding dumbbells at your side or holding a load in the goblet position takes lower back strength largely out of the equation.

Essentially, each and every rep of Bulgarian split squats requires complete leg strength without much help from the other major muscle groups.

Sure, your stabilizing muscles provide some “support” but it certainly isn’t the same as with barbell squats.

Muscle Weaknesses Exposed

This actually leads on quite well from what I’ve just mentioned.

Going back to your back strength “helping” you complete a set of barbell squats when your legs are fatigued.

As I’ve said, this isn’t the case with Bulgarian split squats.

Therefore, you could say that Bulgarian split squats will expose any potential muscle weaknesses far more than barbell squats.

This “exposure” is increased due to the fact that any type of split squat is a unilateral leg exercise.

So, any weakness in the quads, glutes, hamstrings, abs, hip flexors, erector spinae muscles, and even your grip, make you more susceptible.

This also explains why very few people will initially start performing Bulgarian split squats with half the weight that they barbell squat with.

It’s highly unlikely that someone can barbell squat 225lbs, while also having the ability to perform Bulgarian split squats with a 60lb dumbbell in each hand.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that it would take quite a few sessions, over the course of a few months, to get to this level of performing Bulgarian split squats.

Shorter “Rest” Periods

Once again, I’m not sure if this is just me or whether everyone does this as well.

However, when switching from one leg to the other during Bulgarian split squats I take some rest, but not what I would consider “full rest” between sets.

So, as an example, I would perform 10 reps with my left leg as the front leg.

Then, place the dumbbells on the floor, take a few deep breaths in order to get my breathing under control.

And then I would immediately pick up the dumbbells and perform my 10 reps with my right leg as the front leg.

Essentially, I’ve performed 20 reps of squats with approximately 15-20 seconds rest while I change legs.

As I mentioned earlier, this is yet another reason why Bulgarian split squats are both a strength and muscular endurance exercise.

Plus, this also shows why they are far more taxing on your cardiovascular system.

Greater Glute & Hamstring Activation

Bulgarian split squats will activate the glutes and hamstrings more than lunges and traditional barbell squats.

Yes, both barbell squats and lunges will work the glutes and hamstrings (as well as the quads), but nowhere near as much as with Bulgarian split squats.

In fact, you can actually target your glutes and posterior chain even more with split squats by leaving your torso forward ever so slightly.

So, in effect, you are placing much more stress than normal on the glutes and hamstrings.

The glutes also happen to be the largest muscle in the human body.

Therefore, you’re working the larger muscles much harder than you usually would.

And this explains why Bulgarian split squats are so exhausting.

Key Learning Points

Bulgarian split squats will be harder than lunges, normal split squats, and conventional barbell squats due to:

  • Increased range of motion due to your rear foot being elevated.
  • Bulgarian split squats have approximately 90% of load on the front leg. 
  • More balance and coordination required, as well as core stability.
  • Increased time-under-tension (no “rest” at the top of the movement).
  • More volume, especially when performing Bulgarian split squats in the “accessory rep range”.
  • You tend to isolate the leg muscles more when compared to barbell squats.
  • Your muscle weaknesses have nowhere to hide during Bulgarian split squats.
  • There is a tendency to not take a full rest period when you change between legs.
  • Bulgarian split squats typically provide greater glute and hamstring activation when compared to lunges and barbell squats.

If you’re looking to hit the front of your legs more with your lower body workouts, check out what I have to say about making lunges more quad-focused.

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