Some time ago, a strength coach by the name of Mike Boyle caused controversy when he announced the death of the classic barbell squat.
“The back gets injured the most when squatting,” says Boyle. “So we train our legs for size and strength by bypassing the back.”
Boyle has his athletes perform an exercise called the rear foot elevated split squat (also known as the Bulgarian squat or Bulgarian Split Squat).
Since making the change, Boyle claims to have seen a large reduction in the number of back injuries at his gym.
Now, Boyle may have changed his mind on the subject in the past few years. I don’t know, and I can’t really be bothered to find out either.
As far as I’m concerned, the squat is very much alive and well.
However, the rise in popularity of the Bulgarian squat means that we now have some research to show us how well it compares to the regular squat when it comes to building stronger legs.
The Bulgarian Squat vs. The Barbell Squat
Consider, for example, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, led by Glasgow Warriors strength and conditioning coach Derrick Spears .
Here’s how the study was set up:
A group of 18 rugby players with at least one year of resistance training experience took part in the trial.
The men started out being able to squat just over 1.5 x bodyweight, which is an “intermediate” level of strength. They weren’t the typical untrained beginners who are often used in this type of research.
The men were assigned to one of two groups.
Group one trained exclusively with the Bulgarian squat. The second group used the squat.
Both groups trained their legs twice a week for a total of five weeks.
Muscle strength, as well as a few other performance measures, was tested at the start and end of the study.
During each testing session, squat depth was assessed using a video camera. If participants failed to achieve the correct depth, testing was repeated 48 hours later.
Both groups increased the maximum amount of weight they could squat by around 22 pounds (10 kilograms).
Strength in the Bulgarian squat also increased to a similar extent – around 10% – in both groups.
In other words, both the squat and Bulgarian squat were equally effective at improving lower body strength.
Not only did the split squat make people stronger in the split squat, it made them stronger in the squat as well.
Some say that the Bulgarian squat isn’t a good exercise because it doesn’t lend itself to long-term progressive overload (i.e. adding weight to the bar) like the regular squat.
To a degree, this is true.
For one, the exercise is quite awkward to do. If you’re doing it with dumbbells, eventually you’ll reach the point where your grip gives out before your legs do. You can always use a barbell, but it can be tricky to keep your balance.
One alternative is to combine dumbbells with a weighted vest, or some heavy chains draped across your shoulders. This way, you can still work up to some very heavy weights without toppling over.
For example, here’s a video of strength coach Ben Bruno performing the Bulgarian squat with 335 pounds (152 kilograms). That’s a lot more than some people can squat with.
“I’ve had a long history of back problems which culminated in 2005 when I had a surgery to repair a disk,” Ben explains.
“I started squatting after my surgery because I wanted to make my legs bigger and stronger and had always heard squats were the only way to do it. My legs did get bigger and stronger. But my back was constantly sore.
“I haven’t experienced any back pain since my transition from heavy squats to heavy split squats. My biggest ‘problem’ now is that I’ve maxed out the dumbbells in the gym and have had to resort to loading with weighted vests, chains, and the occasional Volkswagen Beetle (kidding).”
The squat is a great exercise.
I like it a lot.
But if injury or lack of equipment means that you can’t squat heavy, there are plenty of other exercises — the Bulgarian squat being one of them — that you can use to make your legs bigger and stronger.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.