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How to Do Split Squats

Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on July 21, 2022

A split squat, also known as a Bulgarian split squat, is an intermediate-level exercise that mainly targets the muscles of the lower body. The split squat exercise is just as the name suggests — you perform a squat with your legs split apart. 

It’s a good alternative to regular lunges and can be incorporated into your workout routine to add new stimulus to your lower body muscles. Split squats can be done almost anywhere, using just your bodyweight or additional hand weights. 

What Is a Split Squat?

A split squat is a lower body exercise that works one leg at a time. Your legs are split with one leg in front of you and the other behind you on an elevated surface like a bench. This exercise works the front leg muscles. Split squats put emphasis on your quadriceps to support your body weight and require core engagement to stay upright and balanced. 

A split squat is a good alternative to lunges, which targets similar muscles. If you’ve always done lunges to target your lower body, you’ll benefit from trying split squats. Switching up these exercises adds new stimuli to the same muscles. This can help reengage them so you can continue to build strength.

What Muscles Do Split Squats Work?

A split squat is a lower body exercise that primarily targets your leg muscles, glutes, and core. Split squat muscles worked include:

  • Gluteals. These muscles make up the buttock area. They make it possible to rise from a sitting position, stand straight from a bending position, walk upstairs or on a hill, and run.
  • Quadriceps. Located at the front of your thigh, these muscles allow you to extend your knee and flex your hip so you can squat or sit.
  • Adductors. These muscles are located in the middle region of your thigh, running from the pelvis to the femur. They help you maintain balance when walking.
  • Hamstrings. These muscles run down the back of the thigh from your hip to just below the knee. They allow you to move your leg behind your body and bend your knee to perform a squat.
  • Abdominals. These muscles are located in front of the body between the ribs and the pelvis. They support the trunk, make movement possible, and regulate internal abdominal pressure to help hold organs in place.
  • Calves. This muscle is located in the back of your lower leg, running from your knee to your ankle. It allows you to walk, run, jump, flex your foot, and stand up straight.

How to Do a Split Squat

The main split squat equipment you need is a bench. You may include weights like dumbbells if you choose to do a weighted split squats exercise. Follow these steps to perfect your split squat form:

  1. Start with your feet hip-width apart. Place your right foot forward and the left foot behind your body on a bench that’s about knee height. Keep your hands on your hips. 
  2. Keep your back straight and lower your left knee (back leg) toward the floor. Try to get the knee of your front leg to a 90-degree angle and keep your front knees behind your toes. 
  3. Before the left knee (back leg) touches the floor, press down on your right foot to pull back on the right knee.
  4. Push the top of your left foot into the bench and return to the starting position. This is one rep for one leg.
  5. Aim for three to four sets of 8 to 10 repetitions (reps) on each leg. Rest for 45 seconds after each set.

If you are new to split squats, start off by doing 5 to 8 reps on each leg. Once you get stronger, increase to 12 to 16 reps on each leg. Aim to do split squats three times a week to get the maximum results. Eventually, you may want to add weights to this exercise.

Split Squat Adaptations

There are various split squat adaptations for athletes at different levels and with different exercise goals. Some split squat variations include:

  • Weighted Bulgarian split squats. ​​This variation is like the traditional split squat exercise except you add weights for a more challenging workout. Hold a single dumbbell (or kettlebell) vertically with both hands in front of your chest. Keep your elbows close to your rib cage at all times. You can also hold the dumbbells at your sides.
  • Deficit Bulgarian split squats. This variation is like the traditional split squat except you also place your front foot on an elevated surface. This allows your back knee to go down deeper, further activating your leg muscles and glutes. This variation also helps reduce overextension in your lower back. 
  • Jumping Bulgarian split squats. This variation is like the traditional split squat exercise except you push forcefully from your front heel to perform a small jump. Make sure to land on your toes safely and carefully bend the front knee to the starting position. This variation works your single-leg explosion and forces you to maintain balance, stability, and coordination.

Split Squat Benefits

Split squats are great alternatives to other lower body exercises like lunges. They also help with isolating work on a single leg at a time, which helps improve muscle stabilization and core engagement for balance. Split squat benefits include:

  • Improved lower body strength. Split squats predominantly target your quads and glutes. Because split squats focus on one leg at a time, it requires more muscle focus and increases muscle activation. This helps to increase the growth of muscles used for unilateral movements like sprinting and jumping more efficiently.
  • Improved flexibility and mobility. Split squats require an extensive range of motion at the hips and knees. As such, split squats can help with flexibility and mobility. Split squats also help you better apply force with one leg at a time, which makes it easier for you to perform movements that require one leg to exert more force than the other.
  • Spine relief. Split squat is a great exercise to work your lower body while giving your back some pressure relief. Because your legs are offset, you end up putting more weight on your front leg and less load on your spine, as opposed to some other lower body exercises. 

Split Squat Mistakes to Avoid

The split squat is an intermediate-level exercise that requires careful focus throughout the movement to ensure proper form. When getting ready in the starting position, make sure that your back foot is resting on a bench that's about knee height. Adjust the positioning of your front and back feet so that your torso can remain upright.

As you perform the movement, make sure your front leg stops at a 90-degree angle and that your front knee is always behind your front toes. Make sure to keep the top of your back foot flat on the bench throughout the movement.

Throughout the entire exercise, avoid rounding your shoulders or leaning too far forward or backward. Focus on keeping your core engaged and your hips squared and facing forward.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The American Council on Exercise: “Bulgarian Split Squat,” “Exercise Swaps: “Do This, Not That!”

BetterHealth Channel: “Abdominal muscles.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Calf Muscle,” “Thigh Muscles.”

Elzanie, A., Borger, J. StatPearls, “Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle,” StatPearls Publishing, 2022.

Gymless: “Bulgarian Split Squats.”

International Journal of Exercise Science: "Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat."

Jeno, S., Schindler, G. StatPearls, “Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Adductor Magnus Muscle,” StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

National Academy of Sports Medicine: “Bulgarian Split Squat.”

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