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Rear-leg Elevated Split Squat: Your Key to Solid Hamstrings

A recent study published by the International Journal of Exercise Science compared the activity levels of leg muscles between the split squat, back squat and rear leg elevated split squat (most commonly known as the Bulgarian split squat). While I regularly have my clients do all of these exercises, when it comes to building their posterior muscles, such as the hamstrings and glutes, I like to employ the Bulgarian split squat.

In the study, it demonstrates higher muscle activity levels in the front thighs for the regular back squat, which is likely due to the increased amount of weight carried by the individual. Mike Boyle, a well-known strength and conditioning coach, openly declares that he prefers to avoid back squats for his athletes because of the greater compressive force placed on the back. While back health is most certainly a huge concern of mine when working with my own clients, it is not quite as dire because I am not training elite athletes that are squatting over 400 lbs.

In commercial gyms, posterior leg muscles, such as the hamstrings and glutes, are commonly underworked by the majority of the male population, while overworked by females. What attracts me to including the Bulgarian split squat in my clients’ workout plans is it high level of effectiveness in the hamstrings and glutes, along with giving the front thigh muscles a good workout, as well.

Performing the Bulgarian split squat can be a bit tricky, at first. With one foot resting on top of a bench, establish a solid base on the planted foot that is on the floor; I describe this to my clients as imagining that the front foot is bolted into the ground at the base of the big toe, base of the pinky toe and the heel. Descend to the point where the elevated knee gets close to the floor (preferentially, place an Airex pad to tap with the knee), while keeping the entire planted foot firmly on the ground.

Since the Bulgarian split squat requires attention to maintaining balance, it can feel quite a bit more exhausting than the regular split squat or back squat. Once the Bulgarian split squat has been mastered, the next progression we will discuss will be the Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat.

Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. DeFOREST BA, Cantrell GS, Schilling BK. Int J Exerc Sci. 2014 Oct 1;7(4):302-310. eCollection 2014.

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