Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pros and Cons: Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (henceforth RFESS) is an exercise that I've had a love-hate relationship with for a long time. It's a really good exercise for a lot of reasons, but there are some cons to it and I'd like to discuss both here today.

There's not going to be a lot of fluff to this post, just some facts and opinions. Let's get started.

- The RFESS is a great single leg exercise with many opportunities to vary the way you load it.
- It is an exercise that takes significant advantage of the bilateral deficit and can allow you to use greater than 50% of your max back squat for a certain number of reps.
- It provides a good way to load the lower body for a client with an contraindication to supporting a barbell on their upper back.
- It is able to function as either a primary or an auxiliary exercise.
- The positions you create force the majority of the stress into the quads with little ability for the posterior chain to take over.
- Since you can load it effectively with dumbbells or weight vests it's a viable option for large groups of athletes.
- Since the overall load is lower compared to a barbell squat, it's "safer" to prescribe early on to someone who is getting started with lifting.
- Due to the unilateral nature of the exercise, there is a built-in metabolic effect that can be beneficial to your clients.

-This is a cumbersome exercise for the vast majority of people who weren't blessed with the coordination and proprioception of a high-level athlete. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate before the exercise feels comfortable. Where do I put my foot? What about my other foot? I can't hold the dumbbells for that long! 
- Until you figure out the proper way to coordinate all of the moving parts, you'll be stuck using awkwardly light weights.
- If you have lower-body mobility restrictions they will appear quickly and aggressively. Try doing these with tight hip flexors and see what I mean. Too, many people will experience severe cramping in the bottom of the elevated foot.
- It's difficult to reproduce consistently, something that I feel is very important. In one gym the benches are 18 inches tall and in another they are 15 inches. On set one your foot is 23 inches away from the bench and on set two it's 26 inches and set 3 is 21 inches. Changing the angle of your shin on every set will eventually add up and result in some pain.
- It doesn't replace the squat! I don't care what Boyle and his zealots think, the traditional barbell squat will do more to increase athletic performance than any other exercise.
- Due to the unilateral nature of the exercise, there is a built-in metabolic effect that can take away from the rest of the clients training session.

How To Fix It!
Believe it or not, I think it's an exercise worth rescuing...with some parameters. Firstly, I think it's an exercise that should get relegated exclusively to the realm of accessory exercise (unless the client requires it because of a contraindication that prevents them from doing bilateral squats). Secondly, I like to take a chunk of chalk and mark a line where the client comfortably places their feet during the first set of the exercise; this way they can have a bit of a standard position from set to set. Lastly, John Meadows has shown a variation of the exercise where he uses one heavy contra-lateral loaded dumbbell and uses his other hand to support himself gently on the frame of the squat rack. This allows him to (mostly) forget about the balance issue that many people experience and focus on chasing the pump dragon.

These are just my thoughts; what are yours? Let's hear them.

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

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