Fit and Fine by Kamal Singh CSCS: The Bulgarian Split Squat

When I started lifting weights long years ago, the squat, which is now called the back squat, was considered the king of strength training exercises. We had all kinds of percentages and numbers with which we would compare our absolute as well as relative strength. (Absolute strength is the actual amount of weight you are lifting while relative strength is the weight lifted divided by your body weight). We would ridicule trainees who could barely squat 1.5 times their body weight for a single repetition.

In the desire to push up the squat numbers, we did ridiculous things like wear lifting belts, knees wraps and even lifting briefs! We forgot that these accessories were adding to those numbers as we would use the rebound from stiff knee wraps to get the bar moving upwards and we were not really getting stronger.

Single leg training was not focused on. In fact, why would you lift less weight in a lunge type movement when you could awe the entire gym by moving heavier weight in the squat. It became all about the ego and not result producing strength training.

Enter coach Michael Boyle

In the late 1990s, coach Michael Boyle who was renowned for training a large number of athletes, from American football, baseball, Lacrosse, to soccer, started calling out the bi-lateral back squat as a useless exercise for athletes. According to him, it caused back pain and did not really target the legs. His attack on the squat spread like wild fire and lot of the old timers felt that Coach Boyle was a “blasphemer”. In place of the squat, coach Boyle recommended the Bulgarian split squat or as he termed it, the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, aka RFESS. He claimed that his athletes were stronger with the RFESS while back pain had reduced dramatically amongst his clientele. It seemed everyone in his gym was happy with this change, though the squat lovers all over went hammer and tongs at the him.

The Bulgarian Split Squat actively targets the cardio vascular system along with overloading the muscular system (Shutterstock)
The Bulgarian Split Squat actively targets the cardio vascular system along with overloading the muscular system (Shutterstock)

The Bulgarian Split Squat

This is essentially a single leg or a unilateral exercise where the back leg is elevated on a bench, preferably a low bench. The aim is to touch or get as close to the ground with the back knee. While performing the exercise, make sure the front leg is forward enough to get a straight up and down piston like movement. Coach Boyle recommends using a single dumbbell goblet style or two dumbbells hanging by the side. Using a barbell is not recommend as the stress on the back goes up and chances of losing balance are high as the back foot is perched precariously on a bench.

Some of the advantages of utilizing the Bulgarian Split Squat:

The Bulgarian Split Squat uses a fraction of the weight used in the back squat but it is extremely hard to do. It actively targets the cardio vascular system along with overloading the muscular system.

The RFESS fixes inter limb strength imbalances. This is not possible with a squat and these imbalances could lead to injuries for an athlete. By using the RFESS, the trainee ends up improving the strength of both the legs equally.

Heavy squats can lead to back issues while the loading on the back is reduced in RFESS. This is a good thing as back pain affects 80-90 percent of all athletes.

The Bulgarian Split Squat is also an active stretch. So, you improve strength on one side and mobility on the other. In my book that is a win-win.

Incorporate the Rear Elevated Split Squat and you shall be happy with the results – increased muscle size and strength. You do not have to totally stop doing the back squat but could easily drop it for a few months and just focus on getting strong on the RFESS. And when you go back to the squat, you will be pleasantly surprised. Now go and do it…

Kamal Singh is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who has been coaching for 15 years

From HT Brunch, August 6, 2022

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