Squatting is a necessity for athletes. It’s a key movement pattern that must be trained to maximize strength, speed and power.
But there’s more than one way to squat.
Most people immediately gravitate toward the Barbell Back Squat. From the time any athlete picked up their first weight, the Barbell Back Squat has likely been part of their programming. While this exercise does offer massive upside, I don’t believe it’s the best overall leg exercise.
Instead, I believe that title belongs to the Bulgarian Split Squat, which is a safe and accessible way to build lower-body strength and correct imbalances while also improving mobility and total-body stability. Here are five reasons why it’s my favorite lower-body exercise for athletes.
1. They’re Highly Accessible
Bulgarian Split Squats are very easy to learn, and once you’ve got the motion down, they’re pretty hard to mess up. Even if you do mess up (possibly by placing your front foot too far or too close, or your back foot too high), the injury risk is extremely low. Youth athletes, beginners or those with past injuries can all likely execute a Bulgarian Split Squat safely with minimal coaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about a Barbell Back Squat.
Many have trouble back squatting due to mobility restrictions or past injuries. People with long femurs or long torsos may also have issues. Bulgarian Split Squats, on the other hand, don’t have those limitations. Rear foot height or front foot placement can be adjusted person to person to find the perfect, pain-free setup.
Another reason the Bulgarian Split Squat is so accessible is because it doesn’t require a ton of weight to load effectively. This not only takes stress off the spine and reduces injury risk, but it also makes it a more viable lower-body exercise for people who don’t have access to heavy weights. Commercial gyms, hotels, apartments and smaller studios often have limited equipment, so the Bulgarian Spilt Squat could be a perfect option.
2. They Train Single-Leg Strength
Single-leg strength is an extremely undervalued aspect of sports performance. Almost all athletic movements on the court, field, or mat are performed unilaterally. In layman’s terms, that means off one leg. Therefore, athletes need to train unilaterally, and do so heavily!
Mike Boyle was really the first guy to pioneer heavy single-leg training. Prior to him, unilateral exercises were reserved for accessory movements. Through extensive work with athletes, he found that the limiting factor for the Barbell Back Squat was not usually leg strength, but rather back strength. Remove that limiting factor, as you do with a Bulgarian Split Squat, and the legs are often able to handle a much greater load.
Single-leg strength not only transfers well to sport-specific movements, but also to bilateral lower body strength. Placing an emphasis on Bulgarian Split Squats for 6-8 weeks by using them as a main movement rather than an accessory movement could very likely lead to greater strength gains in the Barbell Back Squat and Deadlift. It could be just the thing you need to push through that plateau.
3. They Destroy Imbalances
Almost everybody has some level of muscular imbalance from limb-to-limb. This could be due to previous injuries, athletic demands or lifting mechanics. Training unilaterally with the Bulgarian Split Squat is a great way to correct these imbalances and bring up lagging body parts.
In almost all sports, athletes favor one side over another. Pitchers push off the mound with the same leg every day; right-handed basketball players predominately jump off of their left leg at the hoop; and wrestlers often shoot for a takedown with whatever leg they feel most comfortable. These actions may not seem significant, but day after day, week after week, year after year, one leg will inevitably become more developed than the other.
Correcting imbalances such as these is important to prevent injury and move correctly. Rather than attempting to strengthen the weaker leg with heavier weights or more sets, a smarter approach is to train both legs the same way, but individually. It’s always a great idea to work your weak side first when doing Bulgarian Split Squats.
4. They Build Mobility
Mobility is an extremely important aspect of performance. Unfortunately, too many people these days are getting carried away with hours upon hours of stretching and lubricating rather than actual training. Here’s an important reminder: Mobility is the ability to move properly within a joint’s range-of-motion. Flexibility is the actual length of the joint’s range of motion. Many people believe increasing their range of motion will solve all of their problems, when really they just need to become stronger within it.
Bulgarian Split Squats are an ideal exercise to mobilize and strengthen the hips. Simply performing them more often and focusing on proper form will accomplish more than many other hip flexor mobility drills.
5. They Enhance Stability
Any single-leg exercise has the added benefit of improving stability. Preventing the body from rotating and maintaining good posture throughout the movement will put an additional demand on the core and small stabilizer muscles. These requirements are exactly what an athlete needs to prepare them for sports.
Bulgarian Split Squats are perhaps the perfect single-leg exercise because they require just enough stability to make you work, but not so much that you can’t load heavy. Movements like Pistol Squats and Single-Leg Deadlifts are great, but they require so much balance that most people can barely use any weight (if they can perform them at all). With Bulgarian Split Squats, while the front leg is technically the one being worked, the back leg is still able to support and assist in the movement.
You can also increase or decrease the stability factor by using different tools. Utilizing a Kettlebell or Barbell Front Rack, Zercher Hold, or Single-Arm Hold will make stabilizing during the Bulgarian Split Squat much more difficult. Conversely, dumbbells/kettlebells in each hand by your sides or body weight will be easier.