Jennie (name changed to remain anonymous) was a client of mine who’s main goal in the gym was to make her butt look better. She tried a lot of different things on her own, but nothing really worked for her. Jennie felt like it was the front of her legs that were getting bigger if anything. Not good.
Squats aggravated an old injury of Jennie’s from a car accident, and deadlifts obviously weren’t getting the job done by themselves. Jennie needed something else to add to her exercise regime, something that would work. The Bulgarian Split Squat, also know as the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)
Table Of Contents
- Step One: The Split Squat
- The Two Most Common Split Squat Mistakes
- What to do if you’re making these mistakes
- How To Do Bulgarian Split Squats
- What to do next
When it comes to getting a set of nice legs and a bigger butt, the RFESS is one of the best exercises you can use. In this guide, you’ll learn how to do them safely and effectively if you don’t know how to do them now.
The RFESS is a single leg squat variation where your back foot is elevated on a bench or platform. It also puts your glutes through a massive range of motion while requiring you to stabilize one leg at a time. Since Jenn had back pain when she did regular squats, this was a great way for her to work her glutes without hurting her back. The RFESS put less stress on her back since it favors the hips more.
If you don’t have any back issues, the RFESS is a great exercise to use in conjunction with the rest of your exercises to build your butt.
Step One: The Split Squat
Learning how to do the SS first will teach you how to create tension in your glutes during the movement. You’ll also gain a sense of comfort in your knees, hips, back and ankles during this movement.
Since the SS is in a staggered stance, this exercise require strong hip stability to keep you in control through the exercise. You don’t want to be wobbly or shaky. If you do feel wobbly or shaky, try working on these from the bottom up.
Start in a kneeling position on the ground, and stand up from there. For every exercise, how you setup guides you through the rest of the movement. If you start on the ground here, you’ll start in a more stable position and it should be more comfortable. When you get better you can start from the top.
Here’s how the exercise looks so you can see how to do it properly:
If you’re confident with the SS and feel stable, you can jump right into the RFESS. If you think you need a little more time, try holding some weight while doing normal SS on the ground.
There are three different ways you can add weight to SS:
Goblet Split Squats
Goblet split squats are one way you can start adding weight. The benefit here is the dumbbell is easy to hold, and doesn’t require much grip strength. Here’s a video demonstration:
One issue, though, is when you start using a heavier dumbbell, it’s hard to pick it up into starting position. When you get to that point, it’s much easier to grab two lighter dumbbells and hold them at your side like suitcases.
Suitcase Split Squats
The benefit here over the goblet SS is that it’s easier to get into starting position with heavier weights. It’s easier to hold two 30lb dumbbells as suitcases, instead of one 60lb dumbbell in goblet position. Here’s a video demonstration of the suitcase split squat:
The problem with the suitcase SS, is it’s extremely reliant on grip strength. After you get to a certain point, you may be better off switching to barbell SS. You’ll be able to hold more weight comfortably, and be able to progress further.
Barbell Split Squats
Barbell split squats are the last step before you get to the RFESS. I definitely recommend learning how to barbell squat before doing these. This way you can get comfortable holding the bar on your back.
If you’re not comfortable holding the bar on your back yet, no sweat! You can still progress with the other SS variations while you learn how to barbell squat.
Before you start working on the Barbell RFESS, practice the Barbell SS first. It requires a lot more stability than the other variations, and it’s harder to get into position. Here’s a video demonstration of the barbell SS:
The Two Most Common Split Squat Mistakes
1. You want to avoid having your knees stick out over your toes.
If you’re doing this exercise and your front knee is pushing forward, it shows you have poor awareness in your glutes and other hip/leg muscles in a staggered stance. Here’s how this looks:
With the SS, you’ll want to move straight up and down on an axis. Once you’re in position to start, pretend there’s a big metal pole going straight through the middle of your body, top to bottom; through your head and down to the floor. You don’t want to move off of this axis.
When you start descending to the floor, start by sticking your butt behind you, and go down from there. This will help you favor your hips instead of your knees, and keep you on an axis “up and down”, instead of having you move forward.
If your knees bend first while you’re on your way down, you’re more likely to move forward instead of “up and down”.
2. You want to avoid using momentum and favoring your back foot
The second most common mistake I see with SS is turning it into a “hopping” momentum type of movement:
This means you’re not creating tension in your glutes from the bottom of the exercise. It also suggests you’re favoring your back leg more than your front leg.
What to do if you’re making these mistakes
The easiest way to fix this is to push the shin of your front leg up against a bench with your foot underneath. The bench will prevent you from moving forward, and force you to do the exercise properly. Here’s a video demonstration.
If you’re still having trouble, try stacking up a yoga block or two and start kneeling on those. Most people won’t need to regress this far, but if you do there’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, good form is all about feeling the right muscles. If the exercise feels right, it’ll also look right. Here’s a video of the SS from an elevated position.
After you get this down, go back to trying SS from the ground, and then start holding weights. If you’re still having trouble, you can try the half kneeling stretch.
This stretch will start off in a kneeling position, and you’ll move back and forth using just your hips. Pretend you’re dancing and only your hips are moving. Here, you’ll keep even pressure through your feet the whole time. Again, only your hips will move in the half kneeling stretch. Not your knees or feet.
If you’re having trouble, try doing this with the bench in front of you like in the last video in this section. This way, if you’re moving your legs too much instead of your hips, you’ll crash into the bench and the bench will force you into the right position.
When you shift your hips forward, you should feel the stretch in the groin of your back leg, as well as down the rest of your back leg.
When you shift your hips back, you should feel the tension shift to the glutes and hamstrings of your front leg.
The goal of this stretch is to help you better feel the muscles in a staggered position. Good form is all about feeling the right muscles in the right places.
After you’re able to perform the SS comfortably from the ground with good form, you’re ready to move on to the RFESS. Remember, good form isn’t just about how it looks, but also how it feels. You should primarily feel your glutes during this exercise, as well as your quads. You shouldn’t be shaky or wobbly before moving on to the next step.
How To Do Bulgarian Split Squats
As I mentioned earlier, the most important part of any exercise is setting up properly. To start, grab a regular lifting bench. A bench is usually a high enough elevation for the RFESS. If you need to go lower or higher, you can use a step and use as many levels as you need.
Regarding foot positioning for your back foot, you can put your laces flat on the bench, or use your toes like in the SS. This will take some trial and error to find what’s comfortable, just be patient. Try a few things and see what you like best.
Here’s what a step looks like in most gyms:
If you’re doing these at home, you can get an adjustable plyometrics box. This one on amazon is the best bang for your buck.
The benefit of learning how to do the split squat before the RFESS is you’ll know what feels right and what feels wrong. Here’s a demonstration of the RFESS:
Once you’ve found a comfortable position, and can complete a number of these without feeling “shaky or wobbly”, you can start adding some weight.
Since the RFESS progressions with weight are the same as the SS progressions, I won’t explain them again here. Refer back the the section above “Step One: The Split Squat”, and do them off the side of a bench or a step.
Here are the RFESS weighted progression videos.
What to do next
Remember, unless you’re suffering from pain, injuries or discomfort, the RFESS is a great exercise to use in conjunction to your other leg exercises. It is also a great substitute for glute exercises that hurt your back.
The Bulgarian split squat progression is a great example of using an increased demand for stability and range of motion to force you to get stronger. At some point, though, the increased demand for stability and range of motion stops, and the RFESS becomes about getting stronger by lifting heavier weights for more reps.
The best way to keep an eye on your progress here is by tracking total volume. You can learn more about that, as well as how to get a bigger butt with exercise in my free ebook.