It doesn’t seem that long ago that barbell squats were pretty much the only lower body exercise gym-goers did to build big strong leg muscles.
They usually supplemented them with some leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises. But the main bulk of their leg workouts was barbell back squats.
Now though, there seem to be so many different leg exercises out there.
Some very good, some ok, and some just seem awful.
Two of the very good leg-building exercises are front squats and Bulgarian split squats.
Both of these are variations of the traditional squat and can help build some truly big legs.
In this article, we compare front squats and Bulgarian split squats in terms of their variability, difficulty, which muscles each one works best, and we also look at some safety considerations.
What’s The Difference Between Front Squats And Bulgarian Split Squats?
Front squats and Bulgarian split squats look very different.
A barbell is used for front squats whereas dumbbells are used for Bulgarian split squats (although a barbell can be used too).
The latter also has an appearance closer to a lunge than a traditional squat movement.
Another key difference between the two exercises is that Bulgarian split squats work one leg at a time whereas front squats work both simultaneously.
Bulgarian split squats actually remove one foot from the ground and have it braced on a bench behind you when doing the exercise.
With front squats, both feet stay flat on the ground throughout the movement.
Which Exercise Is Better For Quads?
Both Bulgarian split squats and front squats are great for building quads.
While Bulgarian split squats do bring more muscles into play throughout the movement, your quads are heavily targeted in both exercises.
Something to keep in mind is that a much lighter weight will need to be lifted during Bulgarian split squats.
This is partly because you will be working one leg at a time so it makes sense that less weight can be lifted, but also because you will have to be able to balance and keep yourself stable with one foot off the ground.
As more weight can be lifted during front squats, with fewer secondary muscles coming into play, it could be argued they might be slightly better for your quads than Bulgarian split squats but it would be a very close call.
Which Exercise Is Better For Hamstrings?
Although your hamstrings activate during both exercises, they will be worked quite a bit harder during Bulgarian split squats.
The split-leg stance, the elevated back foot, and the deepness of the squat all help bring most of your lower body muscles into play during Bulgarian split squats.
That’s not to say that front squats don’t work your hamstrings – they definitely do, but just not as much as Bulgarian split squats.
Which Exercise Is Better For Glutes?
This is another win for Bulgarian split squats as they will be better for your glutes than front squats.
Like with your hamstrings, front squats do work your glutes to some extent but you will get more glute development by doing Bulgarian split squats.
There isn’t a huge amount of room for variability in front squats.
While you can switch from a barbell to dumbbells, this can be more challenging than you might think as you’ll need to be able to lift the dumbbells from the ground into the front squat position.
This can limit how much you front squat with dumbbells.
With a barbell front squat and a squat rack, the weight is already at chest height when you start the exercise so it’s much easier to go heavier with a barbell.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats can be adapted in a few ways to keep things interesting and to suit the equipment you have available during your workouts.
Although they are commonly performed with dumbbells held by your sides, you can actually use kettlebells, weight plates, or even a weighted barbell (on the top of your back) for Bulgarian split squats.
You can also change out the bench that your non-working leg is resting on for a gym ball to bring your core muscles into play even more, as shown below.
Bulgarian split squats offer greater variability than front squats.
You can change pretty much every piece of equipment used for the exercise which can help you add the exercise into your workout even if you don’t have all of the equipment needed for the traditional version of Bulgarian split squats.
The movement involved in front squats is a fairly simple one.
The position of your elbows and wrists can be what makes the exercise too challenging for some people though.
Having the weight on the front of your body can be difficult too as any error in your technique can pull your body forwards which can put a lot of pressure on your lower back.
That said, front squats have a reasonably low difficulty level once you’ve mastered the technique.
Bulgarian Split Squats
There are a few aspects of Bulgarian split squats that give them a reasonably high difficulty level.
The first is that as the exercise works one leg at a time, your working muscles will be placed under more stress.
The single-leg element also makes it harder to keep your body in a stable and balanced position.
This makes your core muscles engage more resulting in an even more challenging exercise.
The position you need to be in for Bulgarian split squats is not an easy one to adopt for some people so they are quite a challenging exercise.
Bulgarian split squats have a higher difficulty level than front squats.
Performing any exercise on one leg will bring your core muscles into play a lot more to help keep you balanced.
If you add this to the already challenging body position needed for the exercise, Bulgarian split squats are quite an advanced exercise.
As with pretty much every exercise you will ever do, the amount of weight you’re lifting and your technique are key safety considerations to keep in mind when performing front squats or Bulgarian split squats.
Lifting too much weight on either of these exercises can put a lot of pressure on the working muscles and joints.
This can quickly lead to an injury.
Making mistakes in your technique can also cause injury as it could put excessive stress on a particular joint or muscle that shouldn’t be worked so hard.
Front Squats vs Bulgarian Split Squats: Which Is Best?
Both front squats and Bulgarian split squats are highly effective leg-building exercises.
If you prefer a more traditional squat movement that puts a lot of focus on your quads and has a reasonably low level of difficulty, then front squats could be a good choice for you.
If you would rather do an exercise that is very challenging, has good levels of variability and brings your glues and hamstrings into play alongside your quads, then Bulgarian split squats might be the better option.
Hope this helped!
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.