Do you want to know the absolute BEST exercise that will do everything for your lower body? It will work out your inner thigh, outer thigh, mid thigh, AND your rear thigh? This exercise is the secret to the lower body of your dreams. Need a bigger butt? Done. Bigger quads and hams? EASY. All of this and more can be yours if you do this one exercise… And that exercise is… The Bulgarian Split Squat! Okay, maybe I hyped it up just a little. But hear me out, doing Bulgarian Split Squat is an amazing exercise that can yield a ton of benefits. These benefits include but aren’t limited to:
- Increased mobility.
- Increase leg size and strength.
- Improve hip stability.
- Improve athletic performance.
- Improve balance.
Quick History Lesson
Once upon a time, there were two coaches named Kim Goss and Angel Spassov. Goss was a strength coach at Air force Academy in Colorado and Spassov was the Olympic weightlifting coach from Bulgaria. Goss wanted to learn from Spassov and asked him to come to the Air Force Academy to train. Spassov told Goss that an under-appreciated exercise was rear foot elevated split squat. Now did you catch that?? The rear foot elevated split squat. Because American strength coaches caught wind of this fantastic movement from a Bulgarian coach, it was later coined the Bulgarian split squat. While the name “Bulgarian split squat” is not necessarily wrong, it’s also not correct. So from henceforth, we’ll call it the RFESS (Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat).
Let’s Improve Our Mobility
The RFESS was, and still is, primarily intended to increase athletic performance and leg strength and size. But that doesn’t mean we can’t break the rules. If your goal is to improve your mobility at the hips, this movement can accomplish that.
First, we want to place our back foot behind us on a bench/box/pad that is about upper thigh height. Then while holding two light to moderate weight dumbbells, descend slowly until we feel a good stretch in our hip flexors and quad. Then ascend back up. Placing our back foot on a pad that is about upper thigh height will increase the height of the foot, and increase the stretch of the rear leg at the bottom position. When completing this variation, it is important to keep in mind that the weight is not as important. Feeling a deep stretch and moving through a complete range of motion is paramount.
Move Like an Athlete
For those of us who have more athletic-oriented goals we are pursuing, the RFESS should be a staple regardless of the sport you are pursuing for a myriad of reasons. The first reason being that it is more sport specific than a bilateral squat which means there is a potential for more transfer into the sport we are preparing for. This also means better performance!! If our goal is to become a better athlete, there are some coaching cues that we should be familiar with before we implement this amazing movement.
Ditch the bench
If we want to maximize our force output, increasing the head of the rear leg will increase the instability and take away from our force production! If our aim is performance based, then use a couple of bumper plates about 4-6 inches in height, and place your back foot on that in an active position (AKA on your toes), not just flat.
A slight forward lean with increase our range of motion and reduce the amount that the back foot is contributing to the movement. If we want the most out our front leg, then a slight forward lean will take some pressure off of that back foot.
As we add load you might notice subtle differences between the right leg and left leg. Do you lean further to the left on one side? Does your knee cave in on the other? Abolish these imbalances immediately and focus on making each rep identical to the last. Which brings me to my next topic of hip health and symmetry!
Healthy Hips Healthy Soul
Let’s say you just want to remain healthy and pain-free, well I have an amazing lower body exercise for you… Can you guess it?? That’s right, the RFESS!! With a few tweaks and modifications we can use this movement to improve our hip function and health, which can lead to reducing low back pain and increasing performance. Often, poor hip health stems from the inability of our glute medius to function properly and stabilize our pelvis, as well as our cores inability to keep us stable and in healthy positions. To remedy this, there are two modifications we need to make.
Offset the load
It’s likely that when I say “weak glute” you might respond with the clamshells, or other exercises using a band around the knees and moving your legs in and out in a questionable fashion. Our goal is to improve the function of the glute, not the action (What’s the difference Coach Jon?). Great question!! The action of the muscle is the movement that it performs. For example, the action of the glute medius is to abduct the femur (move our thigh away from our body), but the function of the glute medius is to resist movement at the hip (How do I train the function of the glute med Coach Jon?). Another great question!! To train the function of the glute med we want to impose a certain amount of instability. Now, before you hop on a Bosu ball and do single leg squats, we don’t need that much instability. Simply get in position for an RFESS and place one light dumbbell in the same hand of the leg that is on the ground. So if my right leg is elevated behind me, I want a light dumbbell in my left hand. This will slightly increase the instability and force that glute med to stabilize the movement.
Front Rack Position
To get more bang for your buck and integrate you core into the movement. Get a kettlebell and perform the RFESS with a kettlebell in the front rack position. That means the kettlebell is up at chest height. This will force your body to resist movement even more and introduce an anti-rotational component to the lift, overall increasing our resiliency.
And there you have it!! Coach Jon’s guide to the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, a movement that will yield you great results, no matter what your goals are. If you give it a shot, make sure to let me know how it treats you!
Sports Performance Coach
“Coach Jon, Irvine Strength and Conditioning Coach who is an athlete himself and someone I recommend to my patients because he knows what he is doing and his attention is on the proper form and injury prevention which is how it should be.”- Dr. Shakib