IYKYK: Leg workout is no joke. Workouts that focus on your lower half, which includes some of the largest muscle groups in the body, somehow always leave you drenched in perspiration and in pain for days. While every exercise that targets the legs is strenuous in its own way, there’s one move that is renowned at studios, gyms, and homes everywhere as a real challenge: the Bulgarian split squat.
Just so you know, Bulgarian split squats are a single-leg strength-training exercise that can be performed with or without weights. To execute the exercise, you place the top of your back foot on a raised surface, such as the side of a workout bench or a chair, with the front foot planted a few steps in front of the bench. Then, you gradually lower your back knee to the ground and exert pressure through the heel of the front foot to stand back up to the starting position.
While the Bulgarian split squat may be effective, it’s also infamously demanding — from simply setting it up, enduring the fatigue in multiple muscles, to maintaining balance throughout it all.
This could be why some TikTokers are sharing videos on the platform presenting alternatives to the advanced squat variation. For instance, one video posted by user NathalyyEnriquez shows her performing a single leg press using a leg press machine as a supposedly easier modification. The video clearly appealed to many people because it quickly became popular and gained over a million likes and more than eight million views since it was first posted in May.
If you’re not a fan of Bulgarian split squats or don’t feel ready to take on the challenging exercise just yet, you might be wondering if NathalyyEnriquez’s suggestion is legitimate. The truth is, making this switch means you’ll likely miss out on some of the advantages of the original move.
Ahead, discover more about the differences between these two exercises, including a superior alternative for Bulgarian split squats if you’re simply not into them.
Bulgarian Split Squat
What Is a Bulgarian Split Squat?
First things first, it’s necessary to comprehend what constitutes a Bulgarian split squat and the muscles it targets. A Bulgarian split squat is essentially a one-legged static lunge or squat, intended to develop strength, explains Breann Mitchell, a fitness coach and FitOn trainer.
How to Perform a Bulgarian Split Squat
The exercise requires you to assume a lunge position with the upper part of your back foot resting on a raised bench. Then, gradually descend into a deep bending position, bringing your back knee toward the ground while maintaining an upright torso. The Bulgarian split squat can be executed using your own body weight or by incorporating additional resistance through free weights.
Muscles Engaged in a Bulgarian Split Squat
“As a lower-body exercise, it fortifies the muscles of the lower limbs, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves,” says Sebastien Lagree, creator of Lagree Fitness. “Furthermore, your core is compelled to work extra hard in order to sustain your balance.”
There are numerous reasons why leg workouts are challenging, but what adds to the difficulty of the Bulgarian split squat is the incorporation of core engagement and balance training.
Single-Leg Press Using a Machine
What Does a Single-Leg Press Entail?
A single-leg press is an individual variation of the bilateral leg press exercise. Hence, instead of exerting force on the leg press machine with two legs (bilateral), you only utilize one leg (unilateral). “[The leg press] is a potent compound exercise for the lower body that targets your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and more,” Thanu Jey, D.C., C.S.C.S., clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic previously stated on Shape. “It helps develop strength in the movement of extending your knees and hips.”
How to Perform a Single-Leg Press
There are two variations of leg press machines commonly found in most fitness centers — an inclined leg press machine and a horizontal cable leg press machine. The latter is the type of machine depicted in the TikTok video mentioned earlier.
When utilizing this equipment for a single-leg press, you want to align your foot with the platform so that it is parallel to the height of your shoulders and continue bending your knee to a 90-degree angle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Ensure that your knees stay in line with your middle toes as you bend. Then, push through your heel to extend the bent leg without fully straightening the knees, as recommended by the NASM.
Muscles Worked with a Single-Leg Press
“The single-leg press also targets the quadriceps, hamstring, and glutes, but will not require as much stability as the Bulgarian split squat,” says Mitchell. The absence of core and stability work will target the muscles “slightly differently” due to the change in weight distribution, she explains.
Bulgarian Split Squat vs. Single-Leg Press
Unfortunately, while a single leg press is a perfectly acceptable lower-body exercise, it’s not exactly accurate to say it’s a 1:1 swap for the Bulgarian split squat. Specifically, the lack of core activation is the main reason why a single-leg press isn’t a true alternative for this exercise, says Lagree. “The movement is very different against gravity because you’re in a seated position [in a single-leg press] with zero core engagement,” he says. “You could say it can help strengthen the muscles to perform a Bulgarian split squat, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an alternative.”
Ultimately, a Bulgarian split squat engages more overall body movement because of the inclusion of core and stability work. “The single-leg press is more beginner-friendly, but does not fully replicate the benefits of a Bulgarian split squat,” says Mitchell. (
So, what is an alternative exercise to the Bulgarian split squat?
The best substitute is a traditional lunge, because “this will allow you to work on form and balance before you try to elevate the back leg,” says Mitchell. If you want to add a little core and balance work without fully committing to the elevated leg, you can also try doing forward or reverse lunges using sliders, which help build stability, recommends Lagree.
At the end of the day, both are excellent exercises, but if you’re trying to find a replacement for Bulgarian split squats, you need some element of balance in your workout. So, the next time you’re preparing for leg day, make sure you’re aware of the muscles you want to target so that you can perform the appropriate exercises to help you achieve your goals.
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