An exercise designed to enact as much pain as possible.
That at least is the thought that almost inevitably runs through my mind during a set of Bulgarian split squats. Heavy squatting? Fine by me. Heck throw in breathing squats for fun. I can grind through that. But high volume split squats? That’s an altogether different story.
By the tenth rep, I’m a sweaty mess. My quads are burning, hip flexors being stretched beyond belief and I’m making internal deals with myself about the next rep. Only three more reps then we rest…promise!
What keeps me coming back to the exercise again and again? Its sheer effectiveness.
Here is an exercise that overloads the quads, improves flexibility and prevents to a large part, any degree of cheating. Try leaning forward too much on the Split Squat and you’ll end up on the floor toot sweet. An experience many of us have encountered at one point or another.
Who then is responsible for this oh so necessary evil? When was the exercise created, who popularised it and what is the correct way of doing things? Stick around, and you might just learn a few things.
Cold War Beginnings?
Though lifters have been experimenting and torturing themselves with a variety of leg exercises for millennia, the origins of the Bulgarian Split Squat point towards a more recent past. While the exact originator of the exercise is unknown, the scant writings and recollections that exist suggest that the exercise stemmed from Olympic lifting. Olympic lifting in the Cold War era to be precise.
This, we may reflect, is perhaps not too odd an occurrence. In the first instance, Olympic Weightlifting exercises such as the Snatch and Clean and Jerk were once performed in a splitting motion as evidenced by Rudolph Plukfelder’s attempted snatch below.
Incidentally, if you want to know more about the changes in Olympic Weightlifting techniques during this period, check out our past post on the history of weightlifting shoes.
Anyway, back on track!
The Cold War period was a time of great experimentation for both weightlifters and their coaches. People played around with different rep schemes, techniques and numerous means of periodisation. All in the quest for Olympic glory. Oftentimes it was the Nations who dominated the lifting platform that brought us the real and lasting innovations. Think again about the Romanian deadlift and how it came to the wider lifting world.
Well one such weightlifting powerhouse during the 1970s and 1980s being the Communist state of Bulgaria. Demonstrating a ferocity and raw power, Bulgarian lifters were the go to experts of the field. Something evidenced by the fact that many lifters still emulate their training programmes from the era. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it eh?
What’s interesting about the Bulgarian management team is that they were unafraid of dumping sacred exercises in favour of efficiency. You see from the 1980s onwards, reports began to emerge in the West that Bulgarian lifters did very little heavy back squatting. Instead they focused on front squats, high step ups and you may have guessed, split squats. Such exercises were seen to have a better crossover to the world of snatches and clean an jerks.
How did they become popularised?
Interestingly, given his help in re-popularising German Volume or 10 x 10 training, the Canadian lifting guru, Charles Poliquin appears to be at the heart of this story. Well not Charles Poliquin exactly, but rather one of his long time co-partners, Kim Goss.
In the 1980s Goss was working as a strength coach at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, a far cry from his current editorial work (which incidentally is voluminous). An avid weightlifting fan and anorak, you can imagine Goss’s excitement when it emerged that the Bulgarian weightlifting coach Angel Spassov would be in town.
Angel Spassov, courtesy of Ironmind.com
Eager to pick his brain, Goss invited Spassov to the Academy to train some of his athletes. At that time Spassov was touring various states and lecturing on two exercises that he felt were of utmost importance to weightlifters; the high step up and the rear foot elevated split squat (a.k.a. the Bulgarian split squat).
After Spassov taught the exercise to several of Goss’s clients, he went off on his merry way to continue his tour. It should, you would have thought, been plain sailing for Spassov. Well things quickly became heated.
Antonio Krastev, one of Bulgaria’s great lifters from his period.
At some point of his lifting tour, Spassov seemed to suggest to many in the lifting community that Bulgarian weightlifting coaches had entirely discarded the back squat in favour of split squats and various forms of high step ups. Whether this was misleading or miscommunication is up for discussion. Indeed, its still a problem that Spassov has to contend with. Take this article written by Spassov with the great physical culture historian/champion powerlifting Terry Todd. It seems to suggest that back squats fell out of favour during the 1980s.
Similarly at the time of his tour, certain people in the lifting community believed that Spassov was dismissing the back squat. A heinous crime in the insular world of lifting! Citing examples such as Leonid Taranenko, the Russian weightlifter, Spassov claimed that back squats had been completely forgotten! A claim that Taranenko later refuted. Similarly Goss has recounted that when Ivan Abadjiev, then the coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting team, visited his facility in 2011, that he poo-pooed the idea that the split squat and lunch were the cornerstones of his programmes. Though it is difficult to find evidence of Spassov claiming the back squat had been entirely forgotten, the controversy surrounding his supposed claims helped to elevate the exercise’s importance and popularity. After all, if it had replaced the Back Squat it had to be good right?
The Olympic Weightlifting world was a smaller place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Word got round of this ‘wonder exercise’ and soon, gyms became infected with this cruel but effective method of training. A method of training, which many people are performing incorrectly. Something which leads us on to our final point.
Split Squatting like a Champ
Courtesy of the Poliquin Group.
Think about how you set up when preparing to do a set of Bulgarian Split Squats.
Oftentimes we just lazily grab the nearest bench, elevate our back foot to roughly about knee height. Soon after we’ll begin to bounce up and down in complete agony. Sore? Without a doubt. Effective? Not so much.
According to Spassov and those instructed by him, there is a definitive way to perform this exercise. First, choose a platform now higher than 6 inches, with 4 to 6 inches being the ideal range depending on your body structure. Go no higher than this! Returning to Goss’s writings on the subject (which will be included at the end), using a standard bench of about 12 inches should only be done for athletes specialising in sports such as ice skating or dancing.
Second, place the ball of the rear foot on the platform and not just the tippy toes. Keeping the ball of the foot on the platform helps keep the back leg active in the movement, providing you with much more bang for your buck. Finally on the descend, keep your hips moving down in a straight direction. Don’t kick the ass out or hyperextend the back. Ideally the back leg would be almost straight, but not too many people can boast of such flexibility. Try out this method and you’ll quickly realise how different it is from most ‘split squats’ done on the gym floor.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be ten thousand right? In any case Charles Poliquin provides a good example of the Spassov technique.
Are you a fan of the Bulgarian Split Squat? How have you used it in the past? Let us know in the comments section.
In the meantimes…Happy Lifting!
Kim Goss’s excellent writings on its history can be found here and here.
Spassov’s article with Dr. Terry Todd can be found here. Incidentally this article also gives a history of the high step up.
Nick Norton’s article on the ‘Secrets of Bulgarian Weightlifting’, can be accessed here.
Finally a good resource on variations of the split squat and how to get flexible enough to do them correctly written by Tony Gentilcore can be found here.
This is my favorite leg exercise! Really targets the glutes as well as strengthens core since some balance is required. Great article Conor.
Hi there, thanks so much for the kind words! Glad you enjoyed it. It’s an exercise I have a love/hate relationship with. I love what it does but hate how it feels! Like all good exercises I suppose..! Hope you’re well
Exactly my stance!
Haha a kindred spirit….finally!
“the idea that the split squat and lunch were the cornerstones of his programmes”
Lunch is definitely the cornerstone of my program.