Foot Cramps Ruining Your Bulgarian Split Squats? Here’s Why & How to Fix It!

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The main reason for foot cramps during Bulgarian Split Squats is because you are using the back foot to push yourself up. There are a variety of reasons this can occur, including not using proper form, the bench being too high, the weights being too heavy, or inadequate warm up and mobility drills.

It’s Squat Not a Lunge

A Woman Doing Bulgarian Split Squats

So, as I’ve mentioned, when it comes to Bulgarian split squats is because there is a tendency to push with the back foot.

In fact, the majority of the other reasons I’m going to mention here typically involve pushing off the back foot.

It took me a while to learn it, but as they say, “The clue is in the name”, but the exercise is a squat and not a lunge.

We all know that the squat and the lunge are two of the greatest lower body exercises, but they involve slightly different body mechanics to perform.

A squat will basically involve going down and then back up.

Whereas a lunge involves going forward and then coming back again, or vice versa.

However, when performing a lunge we typically push off the foot that we initially planted on the floor to create the lunge.

I have a preference for the reverse lunge, so for me I tend to push off the back foot to return to the starting position.

With that being said, any split squat, including the Bulgarian variety, simply involves going down and back up again.

So, next time you perform the Bulgarian split squat really concentrate on using that front leg to go up and down.

The back leg is simply there for balance and nothing more.

The Bench is Too High

This is something that it took me a long time to learn.

I’m not exactly the tallest guy in the world, and yet the first time I started doing Bulgarian split squats I used a bench, the same as everyone else.

In fact, we all typically turn to a bench to perform Bulgarian split squats, irrespective of whether we’re 5-foot or 7-foot tall.

However, our own height and the height of the platform we balance the back leg on plays a huge role.

Unfortunately, the higher the platform, the more balance becomes an issue, and the more likely we are to “push” with the back foot again.

And of course, this can once again lead to foot cramps.

There is also the possibility of hip and hip flexor strains, as well as other injuries, from the platform being too high.

I would suggest starting off with a much lower platform with Bulgarian split squats, and then raising the back foot higher, as you get stronger and more proficient at the exercise.

In a gym environment you can use a step, a box, the bar on the smith machine, or even load a barbell and balance your back foot on the bar.

Outside the gym you’ll have to use a little more innovation, but once again, start low and build your way up.

You’re GoingToo Heavy

I had a funny idea the first time I tried Bulgarian split squats.

I thought to myself that as I’m “squatting” using one leg rather than two, then I should simply half the weight, and I’d be good to go.

Do you need me to tell you how that went?

Let’s just say that it didn’t go well, and I immediately put my ego in check.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken something as important as balance into consideration.

Then again, the fact that I’d be working many different stabilizing muscles too.

“Want rock-solid stability and core strength? Unilateral work (single-leg exercises) is your answer.”

Tony Horton (Fitness Instructor, P90X)

I honestly think that I’m probably not alone in trying to go too heavy when it comes to the Bulgarian split squat (or the squat for that matter).

So, it’s time to do the same as me, and let the ego go.

If you have to start out with just bodyweight until you’ve perfected the move, then so be it.

Admittedly, I’ve now worked my way up to a very healthy weight with Bulgarian split squats.

In fact, I’ve somehow surpassed half of my barbell squatting weight, and still use perfect form.

But that has taken years to build up to.

I often smile to myself when I see a regular gym-goer who has now become a friend.

He’s not the biggest guy in the world either, but he’s a beast (plus he’s got age on his side at 26).

He regularly deadlifts with 5 plates on either side of the bar, so we’re talking 220kg here (or fast approaching 500lbs).

And yet I always see him performing Bulgarian split squats slowly, with perfect form, and while holding 14kg dumbbells in each hand (approximately 30lbs).

This guy has no ego, plus he understands the importance of working your way up in weight.

Lack of Ankle Mobility

A Man and a Woman Doing Ankle Mobility Exercises

Mobility and flexibility, or a complete lack of, was a big thing for me in my younger years.

I didn’t realise how being more flexible and mobile could actually help me lift more weight, get stronger, get more muscular, get more ripped.

However, you live and learn.

Once again, going back to my early days with the Bulgarian split squat I had to place the toes of my back foot on the bench.

The preferred (and correct) method is to have the upper part of your back foot laying on the bench.

Unfortunately, this felt extremely uncomfortable for me, and I stopped using the “correct” foot placement, as I felt it was putting me off concentrating on the actual exercise.

“Single-leg exercises are more representative of real-world movement patterns, making them essential for injury prevention and functional strength.”

Gray Cook (Physical Therapist)

However, this upper foot placement works well to ensure that you can’t push off your back foot.

But, my method meant that I was constantly pushing off the toes of my back foot.

And yes, you guessed it, this led to foot cramps.

My lack of ankle mobility meant that I wasn’t performing the exercise correctly, and I had to constantly deal with my back foot cramping up.

And, of course, eventually I just stopped using the Bulgarian split squat.

Considering that many people view it as possibly one of the greatest (if not the greatest) lower body exercises, this was a huge mistake on my part.

Not Warming Up (Your Feet) Correctly

Here’s something I thought I’d never say – you should perform foot warm-ups before split squatting.

I’m not a great one for performing exercises barefoot, such as squatting and deadlifting.

However, I understand the importance of not wearing big, clunky shoes when doing these types of exercises.

I tend to wear very flat shoes when I train, so I’m sorted in that respect.

That being said, I have learned that performing my warm up routine barefoot can actually have a great knock-on effect on my performance.

The feet are involved in some respect with most lower body exercises, so it makes perfect sense that they are “warmed-up” too.

Even a basic bodyweight warm up which includes squats, lunges, push ups, and jumping jacks can be done barefoot.

I’ve noticed that this helps with ankle mobility too, and with my feet being “warm”, foot cramps are a thing of the past.

Extending Too Far in the Top Position

Finally, your foot cramps during Bulgarian split squats could be because you’re extending too far in the top position.

Even though this is a squat, there is no requirement to go all the way back up to the top of the movement.

In fact, I would advise against it.

By staying in the bottom half of the split squat you’ll create constant tension.

Furthermore, this increases the metabolic tension on the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

“Single-leg exercises are fantastic for identifying and correcting weaknesses, improving core stability, and building overall leg strength.” 

Bret Contreras (Strength Coach)

So, you’ll actually get better size and strength gains.

This could be the one time when a full range of motion doesn’t have greater benefits.

And by not extending too far at the top you’ll also eliminate foot cramps.

Here’s NFL player, Bryce Jones, demonstrating this technique perfectly.

Key Learning Points

  • You should rest the upper part of your back foot on the bench.
  • If you place the toes of your back foot on the bench you are more likely to “push off your toes” which can lead to foot cramps.
  • A standard weight bench may not be the optimal height for everyone. Find your “perfect height” by trying different platforms to rest your back foot on until you find a height that is comfortable for YOU.
  • Don’t use weights that are too heavy. Hone your technique first, add more weight once your form is on-point.
  • A lack of ankle mobility will make it difficult to rest the top of your back foot on the platform. Therefore, work on improving your ankle mobility.
  • You should “warm up your feet” as part of your overall warm-up routine.
  • There is no reason to extend fully at the top of movement, infact not doing so will increase time-under-tension.

Hopefully, that’s your foot cramps sorted, now check out what I have to say about feeling Bulgarian split squats in your knees.

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