The Bulgarian split squat is quickly becoming my favorite squat variation for vertical jump training.
The BSS is effectively a rear-leg elevated lunge (that’s what makes it Bulgarian, apparently) and can be done using dumbbells, a barbell, or on a smith machine.
It’s a one of the few exercises that can be performed using the smith machine and there’s good reason to do so. It’s also unique in the fact that it’s one of the few unilateral exercises us two foot jumpers should care to bother with.
The Bulgarian split squat rivals the traditional back squat in terms of vertical jump efficacy and should be one of the primary exercises any vertical jump strength program is based around.
The rest of this article explains why I and so many others in the field are so fanatical about the BSS and how you can integrate it into your training.
Why The BSS Is Ideal For Vertical Jump Training
Even if you’re primarily a two-foot jumper, it’s incredibly important to include some unilateral strength work. Nothing about the vertical jump is perfectly bilateral and each leg plays a slightly different role when we’re jumping.
No Back Or Hip Pain!
One of the major benefits of doing the bulgarian split squat is that it takes a lot of pressure off your back and hips. If you struggle with back squats or deadlifts because of back issues, you’ll still be able to get a really solid workout in basing your session around the BSS.
Personally I struggle to do more than 3-4 sets of back squats before my hips start playing up, but there’s absolutely no issues with hip pain for me when I’m doing the BSS.
Corrects Muscle Imbalances!
Another reason bulgarian split squats are great, particularly for jumpers, is because it will go a long way toward fixing whatever muscle imbalances you have.
If you’re a basketballer, you almost certainly have lower leg muscle imbalances from years of jumping off your favored leg.
Unilateral exercises force each leg to lift the same amount of weight as there’s no way for the stronger limb to compensate for the weaker one. Over time this will help even out any imbalances that you may not even be aware you have!
Great For Single Leg Jumpers!
This is possibly one of the best quad strengthening exercises for single leg jumpers because of the way the load is distributed. It’s looks very similar to a single leg jump which is all about that unilateral loading.
Beginner Friendly Progressions
One of the great things about the BSS is that it’s beginner friendly. You can start with absolutely nothing but a bench if you like. Simply elevate your rear foot, and move your front foot as far out in front of you that it feels comfortable. Here’s a picture of me doing them in my living room.
Make sure you keep your torso upright. Most people will tend to lean way too far forward initially.
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
The next obvious progression is to use dumbbells. You can get a solid BSS workout in with some heavy dumbbells and the DB variation is typically easier to manage and requires less balance overall.
Ideally you’ll want to work your way up to using a barbell or the smith machine. It’s rare you’ll hear anyone actually recommend the smith machine for much, but this exercise is what the smith machine was designed for! We’ll discuss that variation a bit more later on.
Explosive Bulgarian Split Squat Jumps
You can also do Bulgarian split squat jumps, which is just an explosive version of the BSS where you’re jumping out of the hole with that front foot.
This is a slightly more advanced but excellent speed strength variation you can use to develop some serious power.1https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/763149099341380292/
You can also combine the dumbbell BSS with the jumping BSS into a super set to create a post-activation potentiation effect. Simply complete a set with the dumbbells, drop them, and then go into a set of explosive BSS jumps.
You can make this exercise more difficult by using a weighted vest.
Change Foot Position To Alter Training Focus
By extending the distance of your front foot from the bench, you’re shifting the focus to the glutes. The closer you keep that front leg to your center of gravity, the more quad focused the lift will be.
I prefer keeping this as a primarily quad-dominant lift because I feel there’s better ways to hit the glutes without putting as much pressure on the knee and hips.
I like to focus on generating as much force as possible with the VMO of my extended leg.
If you don’t feel like you’re quite in a strong and powerful position when doing this exercise, chances are your form is a little off. You may be sitting too far back into anterior pelvic tilt causing a locked up range of motion. Try putting your front foot a little further out in front and leaning forward slightly with your torso.
Smith Machine Squats For Vertical Jump?
The smith machine is perfect for the bulgarian split squat, despite how much flak it gets as being a non-athletic machine.
Since the smith machine is doing a lot of the stabilizing and balancing for us, we can focus all our energy on generating as much force as possible with that front leg. If you’re using a free barbell, it requires more stabilization and balance and so naturally we can’t lift as heavy because of this.
Massive Force Output
In order to maximize vertical jump potential, we need to be training with as much force output as possible.
Paul Fabritz of PJF Performance recommends doing rear foot elevated quarter squats (i.e.g Bulgarian split squats, using a limited ROM) in order to safely get our legs used to producing massive force output.2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRyQuJN5Y0s&ab_channel=PJFPerformance
The reason this is better than doing regular quarter squats is because those typical back squats fry your CNS, put a ton of pressure on your spine, and are very difficult to recover from. They’re fine to use sparingly, but shouldn’t be done year round.
Using the smith machine to do bulgarian split squats allows us to generate huge force with that front leg in an extremely safe manner where we have very minimal load on our lower back and spine.
The force output we’re capable of when doing this exercise is far superior to what we’re able to generate when doing a typical approach jump.3https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRyQuJN5Y0s&ab_channel=PJFPerformance
This is an ideal way to get really strong down the stretch of a strength training phase without overdoing it.
What’s The Verdict?
In my opinion, the Bulgarian split squat is an absolute must have in any vertical jump strength training program.
There’s so many variations you can make use of to make the movement slightly more specific to your needs as an athlete.
On top of this, it’s important we’re including some sort of unilateral strength work to help fix muscle imbalances but also to give our muscles a different training stimulus.
The smith machine BSS quarter squat is one of the safest ways to generate massive amounts of force that isn’t going to completely fry our CNS. This makes it a staple in any strength-focused or peaking training block.
And for anyone out there who struggles to do regular squats because of back or hip pain, you should strongly consider replacing most of your squat volume with the Bulgarian split squat as it’s going to take a ton of pressure off your spine.
I highly recommend the BSS for athletes looking to increase their vertical jump and it’s a movement I’ve been including in my leg workouts for many years.
Is It Better Than The Back Squat?
For me, at this moment in time, it is superior. Mainly because I’m working through some hip mobility issues that prevent me from back squatting.
I would say back squatting is the better overall movement for the vertical jump but I think the BSS comes in second place. I think it’s pretty massively underutilized and more people should include it alongside the back squat.
Just getting some sort of unilateral stimulus in each week will do wonders.
So, the back squat is still king, but the BSS may well be the queen!