No one enters the gym to become weaker, and no one wants to get hurt in the process of getting stronger. The classic exercises, when done correctly, maximize our rewards and minimize the inherent risks.
But sometimes the classics miss the mark and cause discomfort. Sometimes they limit our loading and training effect because we're thinking too rigidly about how an exercise MUST be done.
Bulgarian squats are a brutally effective tool to build big strong legs. With a simple modification we can make them even better.
Hatfield Bulgarian squats – or Hatfield rear-foot elevated split squats (different name, same results) – add stability to the classic version by allowing you to hold the rack with your hands for balance. This means dumbbells are out and barbells are inadvisable. Enter a safety-squat bar, which sits safely on your shoulders without you needing to hold the handles.
Purists may argue that reducing the instability decreases the effectiveness. The Hatfield version still requires balance and single-leg loading, but allows for stricter form and the ability to load heavier.
Stable versus unstable isn't a yes or no dichotomy. Instead, view it as a spectrum. Find the point on the spectrum which best suits your needs. More stability can often give you access to more range of motion and better control into the end range of motion, providing a safer and superior training effect.
How to Do It
- The setup requires a safety bar, rack, and bench to elevate your back foot. Set the foot of your working leg close to underneath the pins. You need to be close enough to hold the rack but not hit the pins with the bar on the way up.
- Set the back foot on the bench, laces down. "Toes down" can work but may cause some discomfort and may tempt you to push too much with the back leg.
- Hand position should be 6 to 12 inches below the pins. Too high and your arms interfere with the bar path. Use your hands for stability but don't pull up.
- Perform these with a slightly forward lean to prevent the bar from falling off your shoulders. Maintain a vertical shin angle as you descend into the squat while pushing your working hip back.
- Keep your torso straight as you pivot forward at the hip joint. While this shifts the work to engage your hamstrings and glutes more, it's still a quad and knee-dominant exercise. Maintaining a vertical shin makes this a friendlier option to train quads for those with a history of knee pain or injury.
Treat Hatfield Bulgarian squats as either your primary lower-body lift or an accessory to squats. Used as a primary lift for a training phase, you give your body a break from the axial loading and joint stress from squats, while maintaining training intensity on your leg muscles.
As a primary lift, warm up with ramping sets, then perform 2-3 working sets of 6-10 reps per leg. As an accessory lift, do 3-4 working sets after warming up with your primary lift.