When it comes to posture, a lot of us have tight hip flexors and weak buttocks (if you stand up, and lift one knee up to the front, that’s your hip flexors working). The Bulgarian Split-Squat is a great exercise to help correct the imbalance. Prolonged sitting, as well as many of the exercises we like to do such as running and cycling and kicking a ball, encourage our hip flexors to remain tight and inflexible, which pull on the lower back and are a very common cause of back pain. Glutes (buttocks) and hamstrings (back of the thigh) that are weak from underuse contribute to the problem.
Which brings me to the first reason why this exercise is so awesome! It strengthens the butt and hamstrings while stretching out the hip flexors and thigh muscles. You basically move up and down between the two positions, as pictured. Being an asymmetrical exercise, you’re strengthening the hamstrings and glutes of your front leg, and getting a deep stretch into the thigh and hip flexors of the back leg. If you like, you can hold the bottom position for a couple of seconds to deepen the stretch.
- Pick a step-height that is comfortable for you. If your hips are tight and you’re new to this exercise, choose something pretty low, and – instead of holding a dumbbell – have one hand touching the wall to help you balance.
- Your rear foot can be flexed (so that you’re resting your weight on the ball of your foot with your toes tucked forward) or pointed (as pictured).
- To emphasise the recruitment of hamstring and glute muscles, make sure the front foot is far enough forward so that when you come down to the bottom position, your knee is still above your foot, not in front of it. Allowing the knee to come too far forward will move the work away from the glutes and hamstrings and into the thigh. To this end, imagine you’re driving your heel into the ground when you stand up and try to feel the contraction in your buttock as you do so.
- Try not to bend your back leg too much, to maximise the stretch in your thigh. To maximise the stretch in your hip flexor, try to keep the body vertical, with the shoulders directly above your hips, rather than leaning forward. It’s good to be quite strict on this point. Often as people fatigue, they start to lean forward without noticing.
- If you don’t feel much of a stretch in your back leg at all, try moving your front foot further forward, or try holding your arm (the same side as the leg that’s on the step) straight up above your head, reaching up as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling.
- If you’re really struggling with balance, make sure that your feet aren’t in one line – try to widen your stance sideways.
- By the time you can do fifteen repetitions each side, try adding resistance by holding a dumbbell or wearing a weighted backpack.
The other reason this exercise is so cool, is because it sounds totally bad-ass. I think someone, somewhere must have decided that – in order to make their exercises sound cooler – they’d start adding the names of random countries to their exercises.
“No way! It’s a Bulgarian Split-Squat!”
“And what’s that thing? It looks like a modified Good Morning.”
“Are you kidding? It’s a Romanian Deadlift.”
In that grand tradition, I’ve renamed the one-arm behind-the-head triceps extension (pictured) to the Czechoslovakian Triceps Hammer. No reason. Except that I desperately want to be bad-ass. But I’ve got to stop admitting that to people, because I think it gets in the way of my potential bad-assery.
Let me know how you go with the Mighty Bulgarian Split-Squat. Or, for that matter, with the Czechoslovakian Triceps Hammer of Doom (keep the elbow as still as you can to isolate the triceps), and if you have any questions, let me know!
Read Part Two.
Related: Deep Squats And Hamstring Flexibility Part One.