The Bulgarian split squat is probably the best exercise for building single-leg strength.
It’s a fantastic movement to build mass in the quads and glutes, while also improving hip mobility and balance.
Plus, it definitely gets your heart rate racing.
That being said, perform them incorrectly and you could be in a world of pain.
And one of the most common issues associated with Bulgarian split squats has to be lower back pain.
You will typically feel Bulgarian split squats in your lower back due to incorrect foot placement. This is either that you have your front foot too far forward or your back foot is too high. Both of these will usually lead to hyperextension of the lumbar spine, which will place additional stress on the lower back. You should ensure that both legs form a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement.
Your Front Foot is Too Far Forward
The main reason for lower back pain from Bulgarian split squats will be having your front foot too far forward.
I’m never quite sure why, but whenever I see people performing Bulgarian split squats they always appear to be overstretching.
In fact, it often seems as though they’re trying to do some type of modified split.
Granted, the exercise does contain the word “split”, but there really is no need to stretch that far.
In reality, when performing the movement you want both legs to form a 90-degree angle when at the bottom.
So, clearly overstretching the front foot is not going to allow this to happen.
What actually occurs is that you end up hyperextending your lower back.
Essentially, you’re leaning backwards every so slightly to compensate for the distance between your feet.
This is typically made worse as one of the form cues is to ensure you keep your chest up.
However, this will simply lead to a curvature of the lumbar spine.
And unfortunately with each and every rep you’ll be putting undue stress on your lower back.
How You Should Be Doing Bulgarian Split Squats
In order to overcome this there are 3 important form cues:
Okay firstly, you must brace your core when doing Bulgarian split squats.
This mainly involves contracting your abs and your glutes.
Doing so will immediately provide core stabilization and this will protect your lower back.
Next, you must maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
Many trainees aim to keep their back completely straight, but this is not how the spine actually lies naturally.
Your back has a number of natural curvatures and this should be maintained when performing any exercise.
You can actually ensure you’re doing this by simply bracing your core.
Finally, you’ll want to ensure you’re going straight up and down during the movement.
Remember, this is a split squat, which involves going straight up and down, and not lunge, which generally involves going forwards and backwards.
If you can adhere to these simple rules you’ll find it so much easier on your lower back.
You Back Foot is Too High
The second reason you’re feeling Bulgarian split squats in your lower back is to do with your back foot positioning.
And once more, this is something that I see all the time in the gym.
Basically, most trainees have their back foot too high when performing Bulgarian split squats.
In fact, the vast majority of people perform the movement with their back foot on a bench.
For most of us this is too high.
Your back foot should be at approximately mid-shin height.
Therefore, a bench would probably be the ideal height for people who are well over six foot tall.
A standard gym weight bench is about 17 inches tall.
And at a guess, the majority of the population will not have their mid-shin 17 inches from the ground.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that most people could almost half this figure, so realistically we should all be using a back foot platform that is around 8-10 inches tall.
Admittedly, having your back foot too high will mainly cause issues in the groin and the hip flexors.
That being said, this is yet another form of overstretching which will once again lead to your leaning back ever so slightly.
And of course, this leads to hyperextension of the lumbar spine, which is what is causing your lower back pain.
In truth, you can (and probably should) lean your torso slightly forward during Bulgarian split squats.
This will provide better protection for your lower back, plus it actually targets the glutes to a greater extent.
That’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned – no lower back pain and great glutes.
Obviously, all the other form cues still apply once you have your back foot at the right height.
So, once more ensure that you’ve braced your core, you maintain a neutral spine, and the movement goes strictly up and down.
The only other issue with having your back foot too high is that it’s extremely difficult to hit a full range of motion.
I’ve mentioned that both legs should form a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement.
But, if your back foot is elevated to the correct height you should find that your back knee comes into contact with the floor.
So, if you find that you’re way short of the floor you’re not performing the exercise properly and you’re robbing yourself of greater gains with Bulgarian split squats.
Key Learning Points
- If your front foot is too far forward you will be overstretched and usually this will mean that you’re hyperextending the lower back.
- Both legs should form a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the Bulgarian split squat.
- Ensure you brace your core, maintain a neutral spine, and simply move straight up and down.
- If your rear foot is elevated too high you will be overstretching, which again leads to hyperextension of the lower back.
- A weight bench is typically too high for most people to have their rear foot elevated.
- Your rear foot should be approximately at mid-shin height.
- You can lean slightly forward which will relieve lower back stress and work the glutes to greater effect.
Next, make sure to check out my article about another issue with Bulgarian split squats, namely getting foot cramps.
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.