Most people don’t give the lunge the love it deserves.
While it might not be as sexy as the squat or stroke your ego as much as the deadlift, it’s one of the best all-around exercises for building lower-body muscle and developing functional strength.
That is, it trains all of your lower-body muscles, including your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, and it helps you gain the type of strength that you can use during everyday tasks, such as climbing stairs, stepping over objects, or running.
What’s more, it isn’t as technical as many other lower-body lifts, so it’s easier to learn and well suited to anyone new to weightlifting.
Like any exercise, though, you won’t get the full benefit unless you use proper lunge form.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to do a lunge, what a lunge is, why it’s beneficial, which muscles the lunge works, the best lunge variations, and more.
The term “lunge” refers to any movement where you step one leg forward and lower your body by bending both knees until your trailing leg’s knee touches the floor.
In a weightlifting context, the lunge exercise is a lower-body exercise that involves lunging while carrying weights.
There are many lunge variations, but perhaps the most common (and the one we’ll focus on in this article) is the dumbbell lunge.
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People often confuse the split squat and lunge because they involve similar “movement patterns.”
While the two exercises are alike, there’s one main difference: in the split squat, your feet remain rooted to the floor, whereas lunge variations tend to be more dynamic and may involve stepping or walking forward, backward, or sideways.
Both are excellent exercises that train the same muscles to a similar degree, so it’s a good idea to include both in your training program.
A good way to do this is to include the lunge in your program for 8-to-10 weeks of training, take a deload, then replace the lunge with the split squat for the following 8-to-10 weeks of training.
Then, you can either continue alternating between the exercises every few months like this or stick with the one you prefer.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
For instance, in one study conducted by scientists at Marquette University, muscle activation in the vastus lateralis (the outside of the quads) was higher during the lunge than it was during the squat.
This doesn’t mean the lunge is better at developing your quads than the squat. More muscle activation doesn’t always lead to more growth, and since you can use significantly less weight on the lunge than the squat, it doesn’t have the same muscle- and strength-building potential.
What it does mean is that the lunge is an excellent exercise in its own right and one that you can include in your program if you want to prioritize quad growth.
In another study conducted by scientists at Stockholm Söder Hospital, researchers found that the lunge trained the hamstring to such a high degree that it boosted hamstring strength, lowered injury risk, and improved sprint performance, making it an excellent exercise for athletes.
The lunge is a unilateral exercise, which means it allows you to train one side of your body at a time.
This is beneficial because unilateral exercises . . .
- May enable you to lift more total weight than you can with some bilateral exercises. (exercises that train both sides of the body at the same time), which may help you gain more muscle over time
- Help you develop a greater mind-muscle connection with your quads, glutes, and hamstrings because you only need to focus on one side of your body at a time
- Help you correct muscle imbalances, because both sides of your body are forced to lift the same amount of weight (one side can’t “take over” from the other)
- Improve several aspects of your athletic performance more than bilateral exercises, including jumping, agility, and speed
The lunge exercise mimics movements that we use in everyday life, such as walking, climbing stairs, or stepping over objects.
Using the lunge to train the muscles involved in these movements (including stabilizer muscles across your entire body) helps develop whole-body balance, stability, and strength that makes day-to-day activities easier.
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The main muscles worked by the lunge are the . . .
It also trains your abs and core to a lesser degree, too.
Here’s how these muscles look on your body:
The best way to learn how to do a lunge is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, lunge, and ascend.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang at your sides. Stand up straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart and keep your chest up and shoulders back.
Take a long step forward with your right foot—about two-to-three feet—and, with most of your weight on your front foot, lower your body by bending both knees at the same time until your left knee touches the floor.
As you descend, keep your chest up and your arms at your sides.
Reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your front foot and leaning slightly back, allowing your legs to straighten. Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position, and then repeat the pattern with your left foot (to complete one full rep).
Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:
The reverse lunge (also known as “the dumbbell reverse lunge” or “DB reverse lunge”) is identical to the regular dumbbell lunge, only instead of stepping forward, you step backward. Research shows that by stepping backward, you emphasize your glutes, making the reverse lunge a useful exercise for anyone looking to develop a bigger butt.
While the dumbbell reverse lunge is probably the most common reverse lunge variation, the barbell reverse lunge and deficit reverse lunge are also viable alternatives.
The benefit of the barbell reverse lunge is that it allows you to handle more weight than the dumbbell reverse lunge because you aren’t limited by your grip, and the benefit of the deficit reverse lunge (which involves raising your front foot 3-to-5 inches off the floor on a step, block, or weight plate) is that it increases the exercise’s range of motion, which is generally better for muscle and strength gain.
For the barbell lunge, you place a barbell across your upper traps rather than hold dumbbells in your hands. Using a barbell instead of dumbbells allows you to lift more weight because you aren’t limited by your grip strength, which is generally better for gaining muscle and strength.
The downside of the barbell lunge is that it can be difficult to “bail out” if you lose your balance. That is, if you feel unsteady during the dumbbell lunge you can easily drop the dumbbells, but if you stumble during the barbell lunge, it’s not so easy to drop the weight.
The walking lunge trains your muscles similarly to the regular lunge, but because you have to use a more explosive movement to propel your body forward, it’s slightly more effective at helping you develop lower-body power. This makes the walking lunge a useful lunge variation for athletes.
The lateral lunge, also known as the “side lunge,” is a lunge variation that involves stepping sideways rather than forward.
The lateral lunge emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings more than the regular lunge, but it also requires more balance, coordination, and flexibility. This means you can’t lift as much weight on the lateral lunge, which negates some of its muscle- and strength-building potential.
In the curtsy lunge, you step diagonally backward so that your rear leg crosses your lead leg, increasing the amount of work the glute on your lead leg has to do.
Many people find the curtsy lunge feels awkward and puts undue stress on your knees, so it’s not a variation I’d recommend if you have a history of knee issues or if you’re new to weightlifting and lack coordination and balance.
The lunge jump is a bodyweight lunge variation that helps you build lower-body power and explosiveness. As such, it’s an excellent exercise for anyone who plays a sport that requires you to generate a lot of force quickly or change direction at speed.
Another benefit of the jump lunge is that it doesn’t require any equipment, making it a good lower-body exercise for when you don’t have access to gym equipment (when traveling, for example).
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The runner’s lunge, also known as the “crescent lunge” or by its Sanskrit name, “utthita ashwa sanchalanasana,” is a stretch that loosens your hips, ankles, calves, hamstrings, quads, and groin.
If you lack the lower-body flexibility to perform exercises comfortably and with good form, the runner’s lunge may be able to help. Learn how to include it in your stretching regimen in this article:
That said, it’s more difficult to learn and requires my coordination and balance, which means it might not be as suitable as the lunge for people who are new to weightlifting.
What’s more, most people can lift more weight on the lunge than the Bulgarian split squat, which largely negates any muscle- or strength-building advantage that the Bulgarian split squat might have.
Neither is better or worse than the other. Both exercises train all of the same muscles to a similar degree.
While the reverse lunge may emphasize your glutes and quads slightly more than the forward lunge, most people find that they can lift more weight with the forward lunge and that it’s easier to learn and perform. This negates any muscle- or strength-building advantage that the reverse lunge may have over the forward lunge.
The lunge builds “functional strength.” That is, it trains the muscles involved in everyday movements, such as walking, climbing stairs, or stepping over objects, which helps you develop whole-body balance, stability, and strength and makes these day-to-day activities easier:
+ Scientific References
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- Muyor, J. M., Martín-Fuentes, I., Rodríguez-Ridao, D., & Antequera-Vique, J. A. (2020). Electromyographic activity in the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and rectus femoris during the Monopodal Squat, Forward Lunge and Lateral Step-Up exercises. PLoS ONE, 15(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0230841
- Ebben, W. P., Feldmann, C. R., Dayne, A., Mitsche, D., Alexander, P., & Knetzger, K. J. (2009). Muscle activation during lower body resistance training. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1055/S-2008-1038785
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