5 Effective Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives (With Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

Considered a classic secondary compound exercise best used for the purposes of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength in the legs, the Bulgarian split squat is often found in intermediate to advanced training routines due to its ease of use and simplicity in performance.

However, certain situations exist wherein an exerciser will wish to alternate out this particular exercise with another exercise that does not present the same drawbacks found in the Bulgarian split squat - all without sacrificing its effectiveness as a training tool.

Fortunately, quite a few alternative exercises may take the place of the Bulgarian split squat. However, the best alternative are reverse lunges. Both in terms of muscle activation patterns and bodily coordination.

Why Should the Bulgarian Split Squat be Alternated Out?

Being a lower body compound exercise of intermediate difficulty and a closed kinetic chain movement, the bulgarian split squat is most often substituted out due to the position it places the exerciser’s body in, some of whom will find such a form rather uncomfortable either because of their usage of incorrect form or because of their own unique bodily proportions.

This is especially true with the fact the bulgarian split squat places significant stress on only a single knee joint at a time, with the other leg being elevated behind the exerciser so as to rest the entirety of the weight resistance on the musculature of one leg.

Apart from the connective tissue stresses involved in this, exercisers with a poor sense of balance or different foot and ankle anatomy will find that the bulgarian split squat is extremely uncomfortable and that it is best to make use of alternative exercises that achieve the same training stimulus.

Other reasons also exist that may necessitate that the bulgarian split squat be substituted out, such as a history of hip and knee injuries, inexperience in free weight resistance exercises, a lack of available equipment, poor exerciser flexibility or the desire for a more intense training stimulus.

Regardless of the particular reasoning behind the subsequent alternating of the bulgarian split squat, it is important for the exerciser and any connected athletic professionals to first assess the underlying causes of these reasons prior to choosing an alternative exercise so as to avoid any untoward incidents from occurring.

What to Look For in a Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative

The hallmark characteristics of the bulgarian split squat are also the very factors that must be brought into consideration when searching for potential alternative exercises to the aforementioned bulgarian split squat.

Primarily, this is the activation of such muscle groups like the quadriceps femoris, hip flexors, gluteus major and minor, the various small muscles in the calves and the hamstring muscles to some extent.

bulgarian split squat

While the particular level of intensity in which these muscles are activated during the bulgarian split squat will depend on the exerciser’s unique biomechanics and the position of their foot, it is generally either the quadriceps femoris of the gluteus muscle group that acts as the primary mover muscle in the exercise.

As such, it is also important to look for this same characteristic in any potential bulgarian split squat exercises, alongside other factors such as a similar level of training stimulus intensity, movement complexity, equipment required and lack of lower back mechanical stress.

How to Program the Substitution of the Bulgarian Split Squat in a Workout

The bulgarian split squat is primarily used as a secondary compound movement or as an auxiliary exercise in order to “finish off” the lower body prior to the more specific muscular activation of isolation exercises.

In more advanced training programs that make use of periodization or collective fatigue accounting, the bulgarian split squat is used either in high volume periods at a low to moderate intensity in order to build neuromuscular movement pattern recruitment or as unilateral muscular endurance capacity conditioning in the off-season of athletic training programs.

As such, any potential alternative to this particular split squat variation must also share a similar capacity to act as a secondary compound movement or as an auxiliary exercise for the purposes of fatiguing the lower body - in simpler terms, exercises capable of being performed at high repetitions without excessive risk of injury due to form breakdown or overtraining.

The Best Overall Bulgarian Split Squat Alternative: Reverse Lunges

Though other alternatives to the bulgarian split squat may be especially useful in certain circumstances, individuals without serious health conditions or injuries will often find that it is the reverse lunge exercise that best fits the particular requirements needed of a substitute exercise.

reverse lunge

This is due to the similarity in both exercises form, of which requires approximately the same level of bodily coordination and lower body flexibility while also creating a muscular activation pattern that utilizes both the four heads of the quadriceps femoris muscle as well as both halves of the gluteus muscle as the primary mover muscles of the exercise.

The reverse lunge - when performed in a similar range of repetitions and level of resistance - can thereby recreate much of the same training results as the bulgarian split squat, with a marked level of muscular hypertrophy, endurance capacity and strength conditioning being developed with the regular performance of the former exercise.

Such a similarity in practically ever aspect save for drawbacks will not require any sort of modification in the workout routine of the exerciser, allowing them to simply swap out one exercise with the other without the need for any additional thought or reprogramming of their routine.

Equipment-based Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives

For purposes other than a lack of available equipment, it is best to utilize a form of resistance exercise equipment so as to induce a similar level of training stimulus to what the bulgarian split squat is ordinarily capable of, as bodyweight alternative exercises can only go so far in terms of resistance intensity.

This is all the more applicable in cases wherein the exerciser desires a more intense or difficult alternative so as to retain the flow of their periodization or progressive overload scheme.

1. Lunges

Not to be confused with the previously mentioned reverse lunges, the lunge exercise acts as an excellent alternative to the bulgarian split squat in terms of muscle group activation pattern and equipment requirements, usually requiring the same sort of free weight equipment that is used in the bulgarian split squat as well.

dumbbell lunges

In order to substitute the bulgarian split squat with a set of lunges, the exerciser may utilize the same volume of repetitions with no changes in the repetition or weight loading scheme due to the similarity in form and training intensity.

The lunge may even allow the exerciser to use a somewhat heavier amount of weight as well due to the more stable position it places the exerciser in, with both feet remaining in contact with the ground as opposed to only one in the bulgarian split squat.

However, much like the previous exercise, the lunge places significant shear force on the knees during the deepest part of the repetition - alongside the additional drawback of also placing some of the weight load onto the lumbar spine, both characteristics that should be avoided for individuals with a history of injuries in these areas.

2. Bench Single Leg Hip Thrusts

A variation of the hip thrust with only a unilateral type activation and the exerciser placed at such an angle that the muscular activation pattern is altered somewhat, shifting some of the weight to the gluteus muscles alongside the hip flexors and quadriceps femoris muscle group.

single leg hip thrust

As an alternative to the bulgarian split squat, the bench elevated single leg hip thrust makes use of the exact same sort of equipment that the bulgarian split squat itself uses - that being a pair of free weight resistance exercise implements as well as a bench or other elevated surface.

While the single leg hip thrust provides a similar muscular activation pattern and unilateral training stimulus as the bulgarian split squat, it is not entirely a perfect alternative as certain nuances are lost in the single leg hip thrust.

As such, the bench elevated single leg hip thrust is best used as less of a direct replacement of the bulgarian split squat and more of an auxiliary exercise best used alongside an additional alternative exercise that provides a more widely encompassing muscular activation pattern.

3. Curtsy Lunges

A variation of the lunge wherein the exerciser performs a “curtsy” during the eccentric portion of the repetition, the curtsy lunge is a somewhat more advanced form of the lunge that provides a more significant level of muscular activation in the hip adductors and gluteus muscle group, both of which are also trained intensely in the bulgarian split squat.

Also being of a unilateral nature and requiring only a dumbbell or kettlebell, the curtsy lunge perfectly fits the role of an exercise that matches the equipment requirements, athletic requirements and flexibility requirements of a bulgarian split squat alternative exercise - while also taking a significant amount of the risk of knee injuries out of the equation.

As such, if the exerciser wishes to utilize the curtsy lunge in such a capacity, they may simply substitute out the bulgarian split squat in terms of volume and resistance with little to no extra workout programming or modification required.

Due to the nature of the exercise’s form, however, the curtsy lunge is best avoided by exercisers with a history of hip joint injuries, as repeatedly performing the curtsy lunge with excessive resistance may aggravate this condition.

4. Single Leg, Leg Press

A hotly debated modification of the machine based leg press exercise, the single leg or unilateral leg press is primarily performed by advanced level exercisers in order to more closely focus on their mind-muscle connection throughout the repetition, allowing for greater muscular contraction and power output at the expensive of time and risk of injury.

single leg leg press

The single leg version of the leg press may act as an alternative to the bulgarian split squat for the purposes of utilizing a more intense strength training exercise, such as would be the case in athletes or gym goers whom find the bulgarian split squat inadequate or no longer as effective as before.

Great care must be taken during the performance of this particular alternative exercise, however, as the risk of knee and hip dislocations is quite high, even in the ordinary two legged leg press exercise.

This is especially applicable to exercisers of novice experience in such types of resistance exercises, and as such it is best for these individuals to either choose a more suitable alternative exercise or to employ the services of an athletic coach so as to ensure they maintain proper form and retain a reasonable training program.

5. Weighted Step Ups

A combination of the classic step up plyometric exercise and certain free weight resistance characteristics, the weighted step up is generally performed with the exerciser repeatedly climbing up and down from a gym block or similar elevated platform, essentially creating a reversed bulgarian split squat.

cable step up

Though the general form compared between the two is found to be reversed in this particular alternative exercise, the general muscular activation pattern is quite similar, both in terms of muscle groups involved as well as the intensity of the activation therein.

As such, though the weighted step up is significantly more unstable and free moving than the bulgarian split squat, it may still act as an excellent one to one alternative exercise for individuals wishing to incorporate a plyometric or cardiovascular training aspect into the exercise - or those whom find the bulgarian split squat to be boring.

References

1. Aguilera-Castells J, Buscà B, Morales J, Solana-Tramunt M, Fort-Vanmeerhaeghe A, Rey-Abella F, Bantulà J, Peña J. Muscle activity of Bulgarian squat. Effects of additional vibration, suspension and unstable surface. PLoS One. 2019 Aug 26;14(8):e0221710. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221710. PMID: 31449568; PMCID: PMC6709890.

2. Paz GA, Almeida L, Ruiz L, Casseres S, Xavier G, Lucas J, Santana HG, Miranda H, Bonnette S, Willardson J. Myoelectric Responses of Lower-Body Muscles Performing Squat and Lunge Exercise Variations Adopting Visual Feedback With a Laser Sensor. J Sport Rehabil. 2020 Nov 1;29(8):1159-1165. doi: 10.1123/jsr.2019-0194. Epub 2020 Jan 15. PMID: 31945738.

3. Mackey ER, Riemann BL. Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. Int J Exerc Sci. 2021 Apr 1;14(1):533-543. PMID: 34055144; PMCID: PMC8136570.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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