Some TikTokers Are Claiming This Is an Easier Alternative to Bulgarian Split Squats

Is a single-leg press on a gym machine really an effective modification for the challenging leg exercise? Trainers weigh in.

Woman in Bulgarian Split Squat Pose
Photo: Getty Images

IYKYK: Leg day is no joke. Workouts that focus on your lower half, which includes some of the largest muscles in the body, somehow always leave you dripping in sweat and sore for days. While every leg exercise is taxing in its own way, there's one move that is known around studios, gyms, and homes everywhere as a real beast: the Bulgarian split squat.

ICYDK, Bulgarian split squats are a single-leg strength-training exercise that can be performed with or without weights. To perform the exercise, you rest the top of your back foot on an elevated 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 slowly lower your back knee to the ground and push through the heel of the front foot in order to stand back up to the starting position.

While the Bulgarian split squat may be effective, it's also notoriously challenging — from just setting it up, pushing through the multi-muscle fatigue, to simply staying balanced through it all.

This could be why some TikTokers are posting videos on the platform showcasing alternatives to the advanced squat variation. For example, one video posted by user NathalyyEnriquez shows her doing a single leg press using a leg press machine as a supposedly easier modification. The video clearly appealed to the masses because the clip quickly went viral and racked up more than a million likes and more than eight million views since first posted in May.

If you're not a fan of Bulgarian split squats or aren't feeling ready to tackle the tough exercise just yet, you might be wondering if NathalyyEnriquez's tip is legit. The truth is, making this swap means you'll likely miss out on some of the benefits of the original move.

Ahead, learn more about the differences between these two exercises, including a better alternative for Bulgarian split squats if you're just not into them.

Bulgarian Split Squat

What Is a Bulgarian Split Squat?

First things first, it's necessary to understand what is a Bulgarian split squat and the muscles it works. A Bulgarian split squat is essentially a one-legged static lunge or squat, intended to build strength, explains Breann Mitchell, a fitness coach and FitOn trainer.

How to Do a Bulgarian Split Squat

The exercise requires you to get into a lunge stance with the top of your back foot resting on an elevated bench. Then, you slowly lower into a deep bending position, bringing your back knee toward the floor while keeping your torso upright. The Bulgarian split squat can be done using your body weight or with added load through free weights.(Related: The Best Bodyweight Leg Exercises That Prove You Can Build Strength Without Weights)

Muscles Worked with a Bulgarian Split Squat

"As a lower-body exercise, it strengthens the muscles of the legs, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves," says Sebastien Lagree, founder of Lagree Fitness. "Also, your core is forced to work in overdrive to maintain your balance."

There are many reasons why leg workouts are difficult,but what makes the Bulgarian split squat feel even more challenging is the addition of core engagement and balance work.

Single-Leg Press On a Machine

What Is a Single-Leg Press?

A single leg press is a unilateral variation of the bilateral leg press exercise. So, instead of pushing off the leg press machine with two legs (bilateral), you only use one (unilateral). "[The leg press] is a powerful compound lower-body exercise that targets your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and more," Thanu Jey, D.C., C.S.C.S., clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic previously told Shape. "It helps build strength in the movement of extending your knees and hips."

How to Do a Single Leg Press

There are two types of leg press machines found at most gyms — an incline leg press machine and a horizontal cable leg press machine. The latter is the type of machine used in the TikTok video described above.

When using this piece of equipment for a single-leg press, you want to line your foot up on the platform so that it's parallel with your shoulder's heightand continue to bend your knee to a 90-degree angle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Make sure your knees stay aligned with your middle toes when you bend. Then, push through your heel to extend the bent leg without locking the knees, recommends the NASM.

Muscles Worked with a Single-Leg Press

"The single-leg press also targets the quads, hamstring, and glutes, but will not require as much stability as the Bulgarian split squat," says Mitchell. The lack 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 fine lower-body exercise, it's not exactly accurate to say it's a 1:1 swap for the Bulgarian split squat. Specifically, the absence 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 total body movement because of the addition of the 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. (Related: Carrie Underwood's Leg Workout Is No Joke — Here's How to Do It)

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 great exercises,but if you're trying to find a replacement for Bulgarian split squats, you need some element of balance in your exercise. So, the next time you're gearing up for leg day, make sure you're aware of the muscles you want to target so that you can perform the right exercises to help you achieve your goals.

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