The main problem with both the squat and the deadlift is that, once you become technically proficient, they allow you to lift a lot of weight. While it is mainly the legs that do the work, the spine has to transmit the forces generated by your legs and into the bar. This is where the problems start…
It is essential to maintain a neutral spine when lifting weights. This means that the natural lumbar curve must preserved no matter what your legs and arms are doing. Unfortunately, when big weights are involved, the lumbar curve is usually the first casualty!
Working on form, flexibility and core strength can all help minimize this from happening but if you watch some of the best lifters in the world, you’ll see even they lose their lumbar curve when heaving huge weights and as even a small deviation in lumbar curve can place an inordinate amount of stress on the passive spinal structures it really pays to avoid this if at all possible.
Another problem with the squats and deadlift are the compressive forces placed on the spine. Shouldering even moderate weights can compress your intervertebral discs and if any of them as misaligned, this can be disastrous.
One answer is to lift less weight in the first place but this can significantly decrease the load on the main lifting muscles and result in a loss of strength and performance – quite the opposite of what most exercisers are trying to achieve!
So, what is the solution ? I’m not suggesting you replace squats and dead lifts – far from it. I am, however, suggesting that for some exercisers, it might pay to perform additional exercises prior to squats and deadlifts in an effort to reduce the amount of weight you are able to use.
Enter the snappily named the Bulgarian split squats. The name “Bulgarian split squats” originated when the Assistant Coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting National Team spoke about training methods of the highly successful Bulgarian Weightlifting System during his trip to the United States in the late 80s.
What are Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are a rear foot elevated split squats, virtually a single leg exercise which means that you will be unable to lift as much weight. This fixes the spinal loading problem. Also, your torso remains much more upright and that cancels out the losing the lumbar curve problem. In addition, the bulgarian split squat will increase hip mobility and balance while developing prodigious amounts of leg strength.
Many smart and progressive strength and conditioning coaches are turning away from traditional bilateral (two-legged) exercise like the squat and deadlift in favour of the split squat and its variations simply because it has less potential for causing injury. Split squats might not allow the absolute limit loading that is possible with the squat and deadlift but the trade off is that the athlete in question is much less likely to get hurt during a training session.
How to do Split Squats
If you are used to performing mostly bilateral free weight exercises or, even worse, the leg press, you may find that the split squat is initially hard to master simply because your balance is lacking. Don’t worry – this is quite normal and although for a week or two you may find yourself wobbling a lot and unable to use any additional external load, if you stick with it you’ll soon become more stable and then you’ll be able to add extra weight.
Speaking of load, your strength levels will rise quite quickly as your body learns to generate high amounts of force one leg at a time. This is quite a progression steep curve and within a few weeks you’ll go from performing bodyweight only bulgarian split squats to performing them with a barbell across your shoulders or dumbbells in your hands.
- Stand with your back to an exercise bench turned sideways
- Extend your strongest leg behind you and rest the top of your foot on the bench
- Bend your legs and lower your rear knee to lightly touch the floor
- From this position, check your front shin is all but vertical. Try not to let your knee travel forward of your toes
- Using your front leg for pushing and your rear leg for balance, drive down though the heel of your leading leg and stand back up
- Continue for the desired number of reps and then rest a moment before changing legs and performing an identical number of repetitions
Problems and troubleshooting split squats
Keep losing your balance? If you find your balance is holding you back, perform this exercise sideways on to a wall and rest your hand against it for balance. Gradually wean yourself off the wall as your balance improves.
I also suggest performing low repetition sets of the split squats as often as you can – for example sets of five between upper body exercises or as part of your warm up. These practice sets will make your transition from SS beginner to expert much quicker!
Pain in your knee? You are probably using too short a stance. Step out until you are able to maintain a vertical shin on your lead leg. Try to sit back into the movement as opposed to sit down. Lead with your hips!
Pain in the hip/groin? You may be using too long a stance so shift your lead leg in a little. Hip/groin pain could also be the result of poor hip flexor flexibility and quadriceps. If this is the case, reduce the range of movement slightly by placing a folded gym mat or thick towel on the ground and work on your flexibility. Alternatively, use a lower bench for your rear foot.
Progressions and adaptations
Once you have mastered the SS using your bodyweight for resistance, it’s time to add some external loading to keep your strength improving. Try one of these loading options to make the split squat more demanding.
- Hold a single dumbbell or medicine ball to your chest
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand – the so-called suitcase SS
- Rest and hold a barbell across your upper back – as though you were doing a back squat
- Hold a barbell across the fronts of your shoulders – as though you were doing a front squat
- Raise and hold a barbell or dumbbells above your head
- Wear a weighted vest or rucksack
- Drive off the floor and into a jump – note; only your front foot should leave the floor
- Hold one dumbbell by your side to challenge balance and core strength
- Hold one dumbbell above your head to challenge balance and core strength
- With two dumbbells at shoulder level, perform a shoulder press at the bottom of each repetition while holding your rear knee just off the floor
In closing, I want to reiterate my reasoning for championing the split squats. By performing this exercise BEFORE squatting and/or deadlifting, you will preferentially fatigue your lower body muscles while leaving your lower back unchallenged and fresh. Subsequently, when you duck under the bar to squat or grab the bar to deadlift, your lower body will be temporarily weakened but your lower back will still be strong.
Subsequently, you won’t need to lift as much weight to get a very similar training effect, all the while significantly reducing your risk of injury. In addition you’ll get enhanced balance, increased mobility and an effective way to ensure that both your legs are developed equally.