I guess I don’t need to tell you what an awesome exercise Bulgarian split squats (BSS) are.
Also often referred to as rear-foot elevated split squats (RFESS).
However, are they good enough to be the main lift in your workout?
Essentially, are RFESS good enough to replace squats.
Bulgarian split squats are a great choice for your main lift on leg day or lower body day. They are a compound movement with similarities to barbell squats and lunges. That being said, if barbell squats cause you issues with your back or your knees, RFESS are a viable alternative. Furthermore, as a taller lifter barbell squats can feel fairly awkward and as though they’re not hitting the target muscles. Once more, Bulgarian split squats would make the ideal replacement.
Bulgarian Split Squats Are a Compound Exercise
Personally, I feel Bulgarian split squats would be fantastic as a main lift.
In fact, I would hazard a guess that I perform RFESS more often than barbell squats.
Firstly, BSS are a compound movement, and therefore they hit a number of muscle groups in the body.
The primary muscle groups activated include the quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors and abductors.
The secondary muscle groups stimulated include the calves, abs, and erectors spinae muscles.
Furthermore, you will undoubtedly activate the upper back and traps.
That being said, the upper back and traps are typically stimulated via isometric contraction.
This occurs simply from balancing a barbell across the back of your shoulders, holding dumbbells in your hands, or a kettlebell or dumbbell in the goblet position.
Now, you could argue that lunges target many of the same muscle groups.
However, lunges are typically viewed as an accessory exercise rather than a main lift.
I would actually agree with this, but one thing’s for sure, lunges are nowhere as physically taxing as Bulgarian split squats.
And this is what makes BSS a great option for your main lift.
Your Back Isn’t a Limiting Factor With RFESS
I guess with all exercises you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
And when it comes to barbell squats it’s your back that is your “weakness” or essentially your limiting factor.
When it comes to barbell back squats it’s your lower back that is typically the limiting factor.
In fact, many people will actually push through a set of squats, when close to fatigue, and actually use their back strength to finish off the strength.
Obviously, the legs are still involved, but stabilizing muscles, such as the lower back, can take over as you approach the end of your set.
Furthermore, when it comes to front squats it’s usually your upper back that is the limiting factor.
In fact, I’m sure many people have to re-rack the barbell due to upper back soreness, and yet don’t even feel as though their legs have been stimulated that well.
That being said, any potential back weaknesses are completely removed when performing Bulgarian split squats.
In effect, RFESS will isolate the legs to a greater extent than barbell squats.
Furthermore, Bulgarian split squats don’t require you to load the spine as heavily as traditional barbell squats, so you should recover much quicker.
Imagine being able to squat 3 times a week, recovering really well, while your legs get stronger and bigger with every workout.
So, if back pain from barbell squats is an issue, you can certainly use RFESS as your main lift.
Do Barbell Squats Hurt Your Knees?
Another common issue with barbell back squats is knee pain.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t get knees issues with Bulgarian split squats, but typically to a far lesser extent.
Realistically, any squat variation shouldn’t hurt your knees and this generally comes down to a lack of flexibility or joint mobility.
You’ll often hear that your knees shouldn’t travel beyond your toes when you squat.
However, this isn’t actually true.
In fact, a squat performed with a full range of motion will generally see your knees pass your toes.
But, as I say, this could be a problem for your knee health if you don’t have adequate flexibility and mobility.
You can actually completely remove this potential issue when performing RFESS.
All it takes is having your front foot further forward, so even when you drop into a full range of motion your front quad will rarely go beyond parallel to the ground.
This means that there is no chance of your front knee travelling past your toes.
That being said, you don’t want to spread your legs too far apart, as this can often cause adductor or hip flexor issues in the back leg.
However, this once more comes down to a lack of flexibility.
If this happens to be the case then you can simply lower the height of your rear leg during RFESS.
Do You Have Long Legs or a Long Torso?
I’ve never been a fan of the “everyone must squat” motto.
In fact, I personally prefer the Bulgarian split squat over conventional barbell squats, and therefore perform them more often.
That being said, I probably have the “perfect squatting physique”.
What I mean by this is that I am fairly short,with short femurs and a short torso.
Plus, my flexibility and joint mobility is pretty good too.
So, I have personally never had any issues with barbell squatting, whether the load is at the front or the back.
However, this obviously means that there are certain physiques that may not find barbell squats so easy.
In fact, depending on your physique, you may be prone to injury whenever you squat with a barbell.
The people who generally have the most difficulty with barbell squats will typically be tall.
This means that they have long femurs, as well as a long torso.
And unfortunately, this makes squatting extremely difficult.
In reality, taller lifters often end up in some type of modified good morning position when they squat,
Therefore, they are leaning forward excessively and their torso is far more horizontal than vertical.
This being the case, the hamstrings will be activated much more and this can also put a terrible strain on the lower back.
I’m sure there are many tall lifters out there who dread the thought of barbell squats, and yet put themselves through the nightmare on a weekly basis.
In truth, there really is no need, and any tall lifter can replace barbell squats with Bulgarian split squats.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, this will remove the load from the spine, which is better for overall back health.
Plus, with RFESS performed either with dumbbells at either side or goblet-style it’s far easier to maintain a more upright posture.
This immediately removes the risk of injury and works the legs to far greater effect.
So, I would actually encourage tall lifters to use Bulgarians as their main lift on “leg” or “lower body” day.
Key Learning Points
- Bulgarian split squats are a compound exercise and more physically demanding than lunges.
- RFESS are a great alternative if your upper back is the limiting factor in front squats and your lower back is the limiting factor in back squats.
- BSS are a better option for those who suffer with knee pain from barbell squats.
- Tall lifters often struggle with barbell squats due to flexibility and joint mobility issues.
- Bulgarian split squats are more suited to lifters who have tall femurs and tall torsos.
Next, make you check out the 9 reasons why Bulgarian split squats are so hard .
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.