Why the Bulgarian Split Squat is a fairy tale
Bulgarian Split Squat is a term that is often used for a rear-foot elevated Split Squat. This term originated when the Assistant Coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting National Team Angel Spassov toured the US in the late 80s to speak on the training methods of the highly successful Bulgarian Weightlifting System. During the 70s and 80s the Bulgarians who only had about 5.000 competitive weightlifters were going toe to toe with the Russians and often beating them in total medal count at the World Championship and Olympics who had 300.000 competitive weightlifters.
Where does that fairy tale come from?
Angel Spassov was promoting that the Eastern Block Weightlifters had dropped all back squats from their program and replaced them by Step ups and Split Squats. There is also the famous „The Bulgarian Leg Training Secret“ article that is found online written by Angel Spassov and Terry Todd which promotes this idea. The article and Angel Spassov’s teachings suggest that back squats as a base of the super strong Bulgarian weightlifters are a myth and outdated and were replaced by Step ups and Split Squats. This eventually led to the Bulgarian Split Squat being promoted over the years as a superior exercise for leg development over the squat. Yet, thats a fairy tale.
Did the Bulgarians do Bulgarian Split Squats?
In 2011 I have attended a seminar with Ivan Abadjiev, the Head Coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting National Team, mastermind behind the Bulgarian Weightlifting System and former boss of Angel Spassov. He was asked during the seminar about the use of Step ups and Split Squats in their training. And he shook his head. And he made it clear that the Bulgarians never used any Step ups and Split Squats in their training. The idea to use them was solely Angel Spassov’s idea and he, Ivan Abadjiev, did not like the idea, mainly because step ups and split squats are too unspecific to weightlifting. And one of the corner stones of the Bulgarian Weightlifting System was the idea that the two olympic lifts are two specific skills that need to be specifically trained. Therefore there only 6 exercises used in training, the Clean & Jerk, the Snatch, Front Squats, Back Squats, Power Clean and Power Snatch. And on the elite level he would even cut down to 3 exercises the Clean & Jerk, the Snatch and Front Squats.
So why did Angel Spassov did promote this?
A hurt ego could be the simple answer. With the great success of the Bulgarians they received an invitation to do a seminar tour in the US. As Abadjiev did not speak any english the Bulgarians sent Spassov to the US to teach their system. Abadjiev did not like and use Spassov’s idea, yet, so when Spassov came to the US someone finally listened to him. And he sold his ideas as what the Bulgarians were supposed to be doing to be so successful. Well sold. Unfortunately neither effective nor the truth. Just a fairy tale.
Squats are still the „secret“
Neither Bulgarians nor the Soviets ever abandoned the Squat from their program. Some Russians used them as assistance lift and the Russian used many assistance lifts in general. The Bulgarians did not use any Step ups and Split Squats in the training that made them so successful.
Rear-foot elevated Split Squat are good, too
While the rear-foot elevated Split Squat is an exercise with many advantages the way it got the name Bulgarian Split Squat is technically not correct.
There are also two main versions of rear-foot elevated Split Squat. One were the ball of the back foot is placed on a low platform as shown in the picture above. And the second version that is more often seen online were the top of the foot is placed on a bench thats about knee height. Both versions allow different executions of the exercise. During the functional anatomy segment of the YPSI Semi-Private Internship I go into detail about the distinct differences and why only use the first version were ball of the back foot is placed on a low platform. Which is also actually the version Spassov originally promoted.
The Split Squat is an excellent exercise group that has primarily two main advantages and tasks. In my article „Deconstructing the Split Squat – one of the most misunderstood exercises in todays training world“ I go into detail on both of them.
Split Squat vs Back Squat
When comparing the Split Squat to the Back Squat to primary argument for the Split Squat is that puts less pressure on the lower back. Which is correct. Yet, this is my primary argument against the Split Squat. Lower Back Strength is essential. Lower Back Strength is the primary limiting factor of the posterior chain which is the base of all power produced and transferred. To get the lower back, specifically the lumbar erector spinae, stronger the Squat and the Deadlift are the two main exercises that get the job done. Done better and more functional than any other exercise group there is. Split Squats do not strengthen the lower back as they put less pressure on the back. That doesn’t make the Split Squats a bad exercise group. It just makes them an inferior choice when it comes to one the most general goals in strengthtraining – strengthening the lower back.
Rear-foot elevated Split Squat vs. Front-foot elevated Split Squat
Another myth regarding the rear-foot elevated Split Squat is that it opens the hip and provides a stretch on the hip flexors and adductors. Which is correct, to a small degree. The higher the position of the rear foot the lower the stretch on hip flexors and adductors as the lower the range. So vice versa, lower the position of the rear foot the higher the stretch on hip flexors and adductors as the greater the range. Which makes the front-foot elevated Split Squat the superior exercise choice when opening and strengthen a greater range is the goal.
To conclude, the rear-foot elevated Split Squat is a great exercise, is technically not a Bulgarian Split Squat, though. And while it has some distinct advantages, these advantages also bring downsides that need to be considered when making the ideal exercise choice for a certain clients on a certain program.
Picture: YPSI Coach Wolfgang Hattingen in the bottom position of a rear-foot elevated Split Squat.