Most people know that strength training exercises can help you build muscle. But what specific muscles do Bulgarian split squats work?
Bulgarian split squats are a popular leg exercise. To do this exercise you will need a stable object at about knee height. Once you have that to do one repetition stand right in front of the object with your back toward it. Put one foot on the object with the upper foot as the contact point.
Hop forward a bit so that you can achieve the desired angles in the next step. Slowly lower your hips as far as comfortable by bending your front leg, preferably until your front knee is at a 90-degree angle. Try to keep your front knee behind the toes of your front foot. Most of your weight should lean on your front leg.
After that raise your body up again in a controlled motion, repeat for a certain number of repetitions, and repeat the same number of repetitions with your other leg forward.
Bulgarian split squats mostly target your quadriceps (front thighs), glutes (butt), and calves. They also engage your hamstrings (back thighs), and many other secondary muscles to some extent. Bulgarian split squats, bodyweight or weighted depending on your strength, can be a great addition to your leg workout plan.
Main muscles worked with Bulgarian split squats
With any exercise, but especially compound exercises like Bulgarian split squats, you will almost always make a variety of different muscles work. Even so, there are a few muscles that will have to work the hardest for lifting, in the case of Bulgarian split squats, your body weight.
For most people, the quadricep or glute muscles will be the first to fatigue when doing Bulgarian split squats with the right technique. Besides that, your calf and hamstring muscles will have to work hard too.
Other muscles that will help you keep your body straight and in position include core muscles, hip abductors, hip adductors, and erector spinae.
If you do weighted Bulgarian split squats, what weights and how you hold them will influence what muscles will get engaged more.
All of them will engage your leg muscles more but for example, a barbell on your shoulders will also engage core muscles and erector spinae more. If you hold dumbbells by your sides your grip muscles and trapezius will have to work harder. A goblet dumbbell hold will engage arm muscles more, etc.
Depending on your personal situation, workout plan, and training goals, compound exercises like Bulgarian split squats may be a good or bad addition and certain types of weighted versions will be preferable over others.
Bulgarian split squats vs lunges and squats
There are many other leg exercise options besides Bulgarian split squats. The two most popular ones include lunges and squats.
One study measured more hamstring engagement in Bulgarian split squats compared to regular split squats and back squats (1).
A different study measured more hamstring and oblique engagement in Bulgarian split squats compared to regular squats. However, at the same time they also measured less quadricep engagement in Bulgarian split squats (2).
Bulgarian split squats are also likely slightly less effective for training your glutes compared to squats due to the more limited range of motion.
If you don’t have any extra weights, Bulgarian split squats and lunges will be more effective than bodyweight squats since your legs have to carry double the amount of weight. Similarly, Bulgarian split squats will put slightly more pressure on your front leg than lunges.
All in all, these differences will not be very big. Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and squats will target the same muscles in very similar ratios. There are some small differences but these will not be that relevant for most people and their training goals.
How to make Bulgarian split squats harder
As a strength training beginner, and possibly even intermediate, Bulgarian split squats can be a great bodyweight exercise to train your quadriceps and glute muscles. That being said, at some point your body weight may stop being enough resistance to build a lot of extra muscle mass with Bulgarian split squats.
At this point, you need to turn to other leg exercises or make Bulgarian split squats harder to keep building a lot of extra muscle. Making Bulgarian split squats harder at the right points in your training journey can also speed up muscle growth.
The main way to do this is to do Bulgarian split squats weighted. This is basically doing the same exercise but with extra weights or resistance to make it harder.
You can also use free weights, preferably no-handed or one-handed weights if you struggle with balance. Some examples of these are a weighted vest, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, grocery bags, etc.
The reason for this is that Bulgarian split squats do require some balance to do successfully. With these types of weights, you can still use your arms for balance if needed.
That being said, you can definitely also use two-handed weights like a barbell to do Bulgarian split squats with heavy weights.
For both bodyweight Bulgarian split squats and these weighted variations, to build the most muscle mass you want to do about 4 sets of 10-40 Bulgarian split squats depending on how advanced you are.