Written by Dave Thomas
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I have very few rules in life.
- When Gladiator is on TV, I watch it.
- When biscuits and gravy are on the menu, I order it.
- When Ryan Gosling is in a movie, I see it.
- When a movement has “Bulgarian” in it, I do it.
Bulgarians know what’s up when it comes to strength, producing the 3rd most weightlifting titles of any country in the world, and by far and away the most per capita when you factor in population.
Strength and medals. What Bulgaria does.
To be honest, I feel a little strange posting this article. This movement has been around forever and it’s come and gone in our programming since we opened in 2011, but I only recently picked it up again after realizing how much work my hamstrings needed, and needing to find productivity without heavily loading the hinge position.
Why I Like BSS and You Should To:
Here are the main reasons I find it beneficial and worthy of your training time.
1. Back Friendly Hamstring Isolation
This is a great way to isolate the hamstrings without having to overload the lumbar in heavy bending. Deadlifts are great for the posterior chain, but they don’t exactly leave a small footprint on your CNS and rest of your training week. Because they are not based on the hinge pattern, BSS are great for training weak hamstrings without ancillary soreness in areas you don’t want.
2. Lengthening of the Hip Flexors
Unlike the deadlift and back squat, the eccentric motion (lowering) brings length to the hip flexors, not shortening. Most of us sit on our dicks all days behind a Lower Crossed Syndrome forming desk.
LCS in a nutshell is when you have chronically weak abs and glutes, and over-active hip flexors and spinal erectors. This combination of contrasting strong vs. weak musculature results in your pelvis being pulled forward into anterior tilt, and your lower back sent into resting hyper-extension, and spinal compression.
It’s not great, and if you sit all day or lifted like a dickhead in your previous life, you likely have some version of it (more on this below). Nothing puts our glutes to sleep or forms chronically shortened hip flexors like sitting. It’s a killer on our movement.
BSS are great to bring length to where our societal obligations bring shortening.
3. Unilateral Balance
I am not shy about my love for single-leg training. I believe that if most people cared about it in the same manner as they did the bigger, sexier lifts, we’d all be a lot healthier, and a lot functionally stronger. Most things we do in life are unilateral.
Not only is this single-leg, but it’s quite literally a step above. Cheesy pun not intended, because the back foot is elevated it takes single leg training through a greater range of motion.
4. Core Strength
Mainly, stability against spinal rotation. When we train our anterior core to resist rotation, we’re better able to keep spinal integrity during lifts.
5. Hamstring Hypertrophy
Not only are they great heavy for five reps, but I like them in the eight rep range as well for hamstring hypertrophy. I am a big advocate of bodybuilding measures to “pre-hab” or re-hab, and this movement is a shining example of that benefit.
If all we do is focus on strength, we never really train any sort of muscle endurance, or just straight up muscle.
6. Huge Bang for Buck
It is a very low dose, high stimulus movement. Just a little bit can go a long, long way. Like Old Granddad. I am not a personal fan of using these to trash your hamstrings, which can certainly be done if that’s the goal. It’s just not me.
Cues to Perform It:
1. The rib cage should be kept down and not allowed to flare upward. Keep the chest relatively upright, but with a slight forward tilt. This will allow a straight vertical eccentric movement towards the floor. I do not like the cue of “lean forward” because most athletes are not self-aware enough to know the right amount, and they will over do it and turn it into a hinge based movement. I also don’t like, “stand completely tall” because that can push the low back into hyper-extension.
So, “Chest upright, with slight forward tilt.” Done and done.
2. In the lead foot, drive your weight into your heel. This will better target the hamstrings.
3. Think about driving the knee of the elevated leg down, and slightly back. This will increase the range of motion of the lead foot. Special Bonus: It will also keep your knee behind your toe and save you the hassle of every gym knucklehead telling you that’s bad for you, when it isn’t.
4. Try to have your back foot flat on the bench.
1. Anterior Tilted individuals
Remember from the above that if we are anterior-ly tilted in our pelvis, we create resting spinal compression and not something we really want to load.
So, if this is you, tread slowly with the BSS, start at body weight and focus HEAVILY on keeping the rib cage pulled down when you perform it. A lowered rib cage, and a focus on a slightly forward lean when performing the movement can help to negate those risk points.
Remember. Proper movement > load.
2. Tight Hip Flexors
The irony is that I love this movement for tight hip flexors caused by sitting, but it’s a catch 22 since those tight hip flexors can easily cause a muscle strain if you jump straight into heavy BSS and full range of motion. My hip flexors are very tight, so I don’t walk too far away from the bench with my lead foot. I want to lengthen it under load, not take it to its maximum stretch.
3. Back Pain
This is not the best loading position for back pain since we do run the risk of slight hyper-extension when performing it. If you have a back injury, pass on this until it’s healed. If you have a chronic back injury (i.e, disc), long term it is a great movement to have in your repertoire because there is no heavy hinge required to train the hamstrings. Just make sure you follow the technique points about chest position when performing it, and start light.
4. Weak Core
Been talking an awwwwfully lot about the rib cage of late, and for good reason. The rib cage and the positioning of the lumbar spine go hand-in-hand. If the rib cage flares up, the low back will always go into hyper-extension and LCD/pelvic tilt will be an ongoing, self-fulfilling prophecy. It is critical that you pull your rib cage towards your belly button to keep the anterior core engaged.
If any of these are situations you are dealing with, I recommend starting off with a grounded, front rack version.
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Front loaded split squats today. Wrapping up our October cycle of Thursday front loaded unilateral work. Excited for everyone to see the carryover to their healthy movement, and of course their deadlift and front squat #gainz in November, two movements directly impacted by what you're seeing above.
The front loaded barbell will keep the hyper-extenstion in the lumbar away (where back loaded likely won’t), and the balance of both feet being grounded reduces the range of motion on the hip flexors.
Welp. That’s about 450 words more than I planned on, but once I got going I realized there was more to talk about in this movement than I originally thought. The Bulgarian Split Squat is an awesome alternative to squatting or deadlifting on days where that movement is called for, and it’s a great posterior chain supplement on days where you do your own thing.
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