Category Archives: Bulgarian Split Squats

Dumbbells For Massive Legs

Dumbbells For Massive Legs
Exercise, including resistance training, acts as a stress on the body. We’re accustomed to thinking of stress as a negative, but when it comes to training, stress applied in the correct doses is a good thing – because stress is the trigger that causes physiological adaptation to occur.
For example, apply the correct amount of aerobic stress to the body and it will adapt by becoming more aerobically fit. Similarly, apply the correct level of stress using resistance training, and the body reacts by increasing muscle size and strength. Thus, when it comes to training, stress applied in the correct doses produces positive results.
However, one of the challenges for lifters is that the body adapts quickly. The trick, then, is to manipulate the stress of exercise often enough to keep the adaptation rate at an optimal level while avoiding becoming over trained.
While there are a number of variables (e.g., rest times, sets and reps, training speed, training intensity) you can manipulate to keep the stress of resistance training elevated, one of the most significant variables to manipulate is exercise selection.
By providing exercise variation each workout, and then adjusting the specific exercises performed every 4-6 weeks, the body will continually be faced with an elevated level of training stress.
For the lower body there are the typical barbell lower body exercises (squats, deadlifts, and straight leg deadlifts) that can be performed along with various exercise machines (leg press, hack squat, leg extensions, etc.).
However, one variation that isn’t often considered is performing lower body training with dumbbells. I’ve been using dumbbell lower body exercises to supplement the barbell lower body exercises we perform with my collegiate athletes with great success for a number of years now.
Some of you might be thinking that it will be impossible to overload the musculature of the lower body using dumbbells, but I guarantee that if you perform these exercises with strict technique and high intensity, you’ll be fully aware of your training the next day.

Training with dumbbells also provides some specific advantages:

Variety. 
Safety. 
Novelty. 
Even when performing an exercise that requires the barbell to be held in the hands, such as a straight leg deadlift (SLDL), the load placement still differs because the barbell is held in front of the legs, in contrast to performing SLDL’s with dumbbells where the dumbbells are held to the sides of the legs.
When the load placement differs the muscle recruitment pattern, by necessity, also changes. This variation in muscle recruitment helps keep both the stress of exercise and thus the rate of adaption elevated.
The following are some of my favorite dumbbell variations of the classic lower body barbell exercises. In terms of programming, use the same training protocol on dumbbell days as barbell days.
For example, if in a hypertrophy training cycle, do these dumbbell lower body exercises for 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions with 60 seconds of rest between sets. If in a strength cycle, perform 5 sets of 3-6 repetitions with 2 minutes rest between sets.
To assist you, exercise technique instructions are provided as well as common mistakes to avoid. Video demonstrations are also included, so that you can see the exercises performed correctly.

Dumbbell Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Hold the dumbbells along the sides of the body.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what’s most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this can result in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell One-Legged Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Hold the dumbbells along the sides of the body.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Reach back with the left leg and place the left foot on a bench or plyometric box that’s approximately knee height.
  • The right foot should be placed far enough forward of the bench that you are now in a lunge position.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement. This is especially common when performing a one-leg squat so emphasize correct depth.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this results in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell Front Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Place the dumbbells front to back on the shoulders, with the back end of the dumbbells resting on the shoulders. The hands should continue to grasp the dumbbells, with the elbows held high so that the dumbbells are level rather than the front end being lower than the back end.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Maintaining an arched back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first), return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise. Focusing on keeping the elbows high will help eliminate this problem.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this results in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell One-Legged Front Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Place the dumbbells front to back on the shoulders, with the back end of the dumbbells resting on the shoulders. The hands should continue to grasp the dumbbells, with the elbows held high so that the dumbbells are level rather than the front end being lower than the back end.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Reach back with the left leg and place the left foot on a bench or plyometric box that’s approximately knee height.
  • The right foot should be placed far enough forward of the bench that you’re now in a lunge position.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement. This is especially common when performing a one-leg squat so emphasize correct depth.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often times this can result in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell Lateral Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a stance that’s substantially wider than shoulder-width.
  • Hold the dumbbells at arm’s length in a line directly under the shoulders.
  • Keeping the left leg straight squat back and to the right.
  • Lower the hips through a full comfortable range of motion.
  • The right knee can drift slightly forward of the right foot, be kept in line directly above the right foot, or be lined up slightly behind the right foot, depending upon what’s most comfortable to the athlete.
  • The back should remain arched and the head should stay up through performance of the exercise.
  • Return to the starting position and then repeat in the opposite direction until the desired number of repetitions has been completed.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not lowering the hips through the full comfortable range of motion.
  • Allowing the knee of the leg that’s supposed to remain straight to bend.Ê For example, when lowering to the right the right knee should bend but the left knee should remain fully extended.

Dumbbell Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out directly forward through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the forward position the right knee should be over or slightly forward of the right foot, the left leg should be bent with the left knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the forward position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Side Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg fully extended take a long direct lateral step to the right.
  • Once you plant your right foot, shift the hips back so you achieve a full comfortable depth and range of motion.
  • Keep the back arched and the head up during performance of the exercise.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the knee of the “post” leg to bend rather than keeping it fully extended.
  • Taking an incomplete recovery step so that a shoulder-width stance isn’t achieved before initiating the next lateral step.

Dumbbell Arch Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Imagine an arch in front of you, each point of the arch is a stride’s length away from you.
  • Divide the arch up into sections based on the number of repetitions you have to perform.
  • The first repetition will be to the bottom right corner of the arch, the last repetition will be to the bottom left corner of the arch.
  • Each step is a gradual progression across the arch, starting at the right corner and ending at the left corner.
  • Keeping the left leg fully extended take a long, direct lateral step to the bottom right corner of the arch.
  • Once you plant your right foot, shift the hips back so you achieve a full comfortable depth and range of motion.
  • Keep the back arched and the head up during performance of the exercise.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.
  • The next step will be a gradual progression towards the opposite side of the arch.
  • Continue until all the repetitions have been completed and you’ve progressed from one corner of the arch to the opposite corner.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not returning to a shoulder-width stance before initiating the next step.
  • Not progressing in sequence from one corner of the arch to the opposite corner with each step.
  • No steps should be directly forward to the center of the arch. Every step should involve an angled step.
  • Every lunge across the arch should involve a full range of motion.

Dumbbell Hockey Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out at an angle that places the foot 18″-24″ wider than shoulder width (depending upon leg length) through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the forward position the right knee should be over or slightly forward of the right foot, the left leg should be bent with the left knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg, taking that same 18″-24″ wider than shoulder-width step with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the forward position.
  • Making the lateral step too narrow rather than achieving the desired width.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Reverse Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out directly backwards through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the back position the left knee should be over or slightly forward of the left foot, the right leg should be bent with the right knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the backward position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Pivot Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Pivot on the right foot, twist the body to the right, and lunge in a direction toward the back and to the right of the starting position.
  • At the end position the left knee should be over or slightly forward of the left foot, the right leg should be bent with the right knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.
  • Repeat in the opposite direction.
  • Foot placement can vary during performance of the exercise – there isn’t one correct foot placement so the angle during the pivot can be varied each repetition.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the pivot position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Straight Leg Deadlifts

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder width stance.
  • Lock and then slightly unlock the knees; maintain this slightly unlocked position during performance of the exercise.
  • Arch the back, lift the head, and maintain this position during performance of the exercise.
  • Keeping the knees slightly unlocked and the back arched, pivot at the hips and slide the dumbbells down the lateral portion of the legs through a full comfortable range of motion.
  • Return to the starting position maintaining the position at the knees and back.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the knees to flex beyond the slightly unlocked position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the dumbbells to drift forward during the lowering portion of the exercise rather than keeping them on the lateral portion of the legs.
  • Performing the movement through an incomplete range of motion.

Wrap Up

Dumbbells For Massive Legs
Squats are still the “king of exercises” and you can’t beat deadlifts for building brute strength, but even the most stripped down lifter needs a little variety from time to time.
For some lower body variations that are both challenging and build serious size and strength, take a look beyond the barbell. Take some (or all) of these dumbbell variations out for a test drive and stay ahead of your body’s adaptation curve

Bulgarian Split Squats


Bulgarian Split Squats

The rear foot elevated split squat (aka the Bulgarian split squat) has become my primary lower body strength exercise. I don’t back squat, rarely front squat, and when I do, it’s usually with lighter weights.
(Please, hear me out before you slap the wuss tag on me and search for the next “do squats and drink milk” article.)
I still love squats, but I don’t think they’re right for me. I’ve had a long history of back problems (not lifting-related), which culminated in 2005 when I had a surgery to repair a disk at L5-S1. I was just 20 years old.
I started squatting after my surgery because I wanted to make my legs bigger and stronger and had always heard squats were the only way to do it. My legs did get bigger and stronger, but my back was constantly sore. I remember always having to ice my back just to make it to the next squat day, then repeating the process all over again. There had to be a better way.
It turns out heavy squats aren’t the only way to get bigger, stronger legs.

Enter the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

I’d dabbled with rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS) off and on for a few years, but I never really thought of them as a strength exercise until I read Mike Boyle’s article Build Bigger Legs, One at a Time. Shortly thereafter, I got an internship at Coach Boyle’s facility (where I now work), and knowing that RFESS are his bread and butter lower body exercise, I figured it’d be a good idea to get better at them.
It didn’t take long for me to start drinking the Kool Aid, and I haven’t looked back. My experiences thus far have surpassed even my grandest expectations. I haven’t experienced any back pain since my transition from heavy squats to heavy RFESS. My biggest “problem” now is that I’ve maxed out the dumbbells in the gym and have had to resort to loading with weighted vests, chains, and the occasional Volkswagen Beetle (kidding).

My adoration has been bolstered by what I’ve observed from my athletes. We’ve had well over 500 athletes come through the doors in the past year without a single case of low back pain due to the RFESS. There have been a few minor complaints of knee pain that have been quickly cleared up by adjusting the distance of the front leg to the bench (usually moving farther away). Similarly, I’ve heard several complaints of a pulling sensation in the groin and hip flexor of the rear leg (usually shorter and/or inflexible athletes), usually rectified by lowering the height of the bench.
Nevertheless, for someone with a preexisting groin issue, I’d choose some other movement.
Still, when taking into account the sheer volume of athletes that we’ve had perform the exercise on a regular basis, the injury rate is remarkably low, almost zero.
It’s also a very “user-friendly” exercise, meaning most people can do it well. Many lifters struggle for years learning how to squat correctly, and lots never do. Go into any commercial gym and you’ll see far more bad squats than you will good ones. Often, it’s due to poor form and/or mobility restrictions, both of which are correctable with good coaching, hard work, and patience.
If you’re one who’s hell-bent on squatting and are willing to address your limitations to be able to do them well, I applaud you. In the meantime, it still makes sense to employ the RFESS as the risk of getting hurt is far less. If you can’t squat well and continue to do it anyway, you’re just asking for injury.
Finally, there are those who just aren’t meant to squat. For some like me, it may be due to prior injury, while for others it may just be the way they’re built. Many lifters with longer femurs and longer torsos will invariably turn their squats into good mornings, transferring much of the force from the legs to the lower back, which is both dangerous and ineffective. Practice and coaching may improve their technique slightly, but for the most part it will be an uphill battle.
I realize what I just said is akin to strength and conditioning heresy. Many just can’t wrap their minds around the idea that squats may not be for everyone. I’d submit that these people are probably good squatters who haven’t experienced significant back pain in their lives. For those blessed souls, squats are great. I’m jealous of them. But for those with back injuries or who just can’t seem to pull off a decent squat, the RFESS is a better choice.

Limitless

Bulgarian Split Squats

In the back squat, the limiting factor is typically the lower back. In the front squat, it’s the upper back. In the RFESS, you essentially eliminate those limiting factors and are able to hone in more directly on the legs. Moreover, because you’re not loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, so you’re able to do them with greater frequency, potentially leading to greater strength and size gains.
It might seem that stability would be a severely limiting factor in getting strong, but this isn’t the case with the RFESS, which is what makes it the best single-leg variation for building strength. In many ways, it bridges the gap between bilateral and single-leg exercises because you get the benefits of unilateral training while still getting assistance from the back leg to handle heavier loads. The back leg doesn’t do much as far as lifting the weight, but helps tremendously with stabilization, allowing the front working leg to push harder. Technically, it could be argued that the RFESS isn’t even a true single leg exercise at all since both legs are in contact with a fixed surface the entire time.
I don’t care how it’s classified. I just care if it works, and it clearly does.

Squat-less Hypertrophy?

Switching to the RFESS doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a life with chicken legs. My legs have gotten bigger and stronger over the past year and a half, which doesn’t seem logical until you consider that the vast majority of lifters can overload the legs much more in a RFESS than they can in a squat or front squat.
Exactly how much more isn’t clear – it’s hard to determine exactly how much load is being placed on the working leg during a RFESS since the back leg helps to some degree. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the front leg bears about 85% of the load, although I’m sure it varies from person to person. It’s also hard to compare the RFESS to full squats because the depth isn’t equivalent since the front leg is slightly above parallel in the bottom position of the RFESS.
We could argue about the minutiae all day. In the end, just look at the numbers. We’ve found that on average, our athletes use about the same weight for the RFESS that they use for parallel front squats. Many athletes that struggle with squatting can actually RFESS more than they front squat!
The more experienced athletes with good squatting builds (short and stocky) usually front squat slightly more, but not much. Even the best squatters usually front squat no more than 10% of what they can do on the RFESS.
We’re only starting to scratch the surface with the RFESS. Two years ago, when Mike wrote his controversial article, 225×5 was considered the benchmark. Now we have high school guys hitting those numbers and college guys doing it for close to 20 reps!

The “How To”

Bulgarian Split Squats

The key to learning the RFESS is first establishing a good setup position and then following a systematic loading progression.

  • Start by placing a small Airex pad or folded towel in front of a standard weight bench.
  • Standing in front of the pad, reach one leg back behind you and rest the top of your foot on the bench.
  • Descend under control until your back knee lightly touches the pad, making sure to keep the torso upright.

The most important thing is determining how far you need to stand from the bench, which is somewhat individual and will take some trial and error to figure out.
The closer you stand to the bench, the more it will emphasize the quads. However, standing too close may cause knee pain and make it harder to stay upright.
On the other hand, standing too far away can cause pain in the groin and hip flexor of the rear leg and lead to excessive arching of the lower back. You should feel a slight stretch in the rear hip flexor, but no pain. If you feel pain, try using a shorter bench so the stretch isn’t as extreme.
When first starting out, it seems best to start from the bottom up to help ingrain good form. As far as loading, start with a light dumbbell held in the goblet position.

bulgarian squats

Stick with the goblet hold until you’ve maxed out the dumbbells in your gym or can no longer hold the weight. The goblet hold is great because it forces you into good posture while providing a great core workout.
Once you’ve run out of weight that way, start holding two dumbbells at your sides. You’ll need to be extra vigilant to stay upright because the dumbbells will pull you forward. If using a 90-pound dumbbell with the goblet hold, start with two 50-pound dumbbells. Continue on until you’ve maxed out your dumbbells.
Using wrist straps is fine if grip strength becomes an issue, but only when absolutely necessary. Try to refrain and in time you’ll have a killer grip to accompany your strong legs.
If you find yourself in a position where you’ve run out of weight again, there are several things you can do:
Use weight vests. This is my personal favorite, but I realize not everyone has access to them.
Use a barbell. For people with back issues, I prefer using a front squat grip because it requires less weight and helps ensure an upright torso, similar to the goblet hold. If you don’t have back issues, feel free to put the bar on your back if it’s more comfortable. If using a front squat grip, use the same weight as you would if you were holding dumbbells. If using the bar on your back method, you’ll be able to handle slightly more weight, so plan accordingly. Any time you use a barbell, make sure to use a power rack so you can safely bail if need be.
Increase the range of motion by elevating the front leg on a small step. I love this method, but it’s not for everyone. If you don’t have the requisite mobility, it can wreak havoc on your hips and lower back. Start light and if you experience any pain whatsoever, try something else. I recommend no higher than a four-inch step, which will put most lifters of average height at parallel or slightly below.

Eccentrics. Slowing down the tempo on the eccentric portion of the rep will make lighter weights feel heavier, which is great for both hypertrophy and strength. I warn you though, they burn! This isn’t a technique I’d recommend doing frequently. Rather, it should be employed sparingly and judiciously, no more than once every 3-4 months for three weeks at a time.

1.5 Reps. I picked this one up from Joe Defranco. Do one full rep, come halfway up, go back down again, and come all the way up. That’s one rep. This significantly increases the time under tension and can be great for packing some muscle on your quads. Again, these burn. Consider yourself warned.

Jump. RFESS jumps are a fantastic way to develop single-leg power through a full range of motion.

Closing Thoughts

I’m certainly not anti-squatting. Fact is, if I could do them pain free, I’d probably take up powerlifting as I love moving heavy weights. And if squatting works for you, then do it.
If what you’re doing isn’t working, the RFESS might be the answer you’re looking for. But you’ll never know until you try it. What do you have to lose?


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