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Debates rage all over the internet about which leg-based movement is superior.
Table of Contents
- Which Exercise is Better?
Some people hail the squat, an Olympic movement involving heavy weights that hits both legs at once.
Other people hold up the lunge, which is more dynamic, tests your stabilizer muscles, and doesn’t require heavy weights.
This is a simple question without a simple answer.
The fact of the matter is that, though they are both leg movements, they are different enough for neither to be ultimately superior.
But can one or the other be better for you?
That answer is yes.
And to figure out which exercise is better for you, we need to look at the movements themselves.
The following briefly covers lunges, what muscles they target, and how to do them. If you want more information, there’s a more comprehensive lunge article available here.
What is a Lunge?
A lunge is a movement focusing on one leg at a time where the legs are positioned far from each other and you move your weight toward one foot then back.
The most common lunge is the forward lunge. In this movement, you put one foot forward, bend down until your knees are both at 90-degree angles, then push back up.
Lunges can be surprisingly tricky because they work against, not with, your center of balance. They also emphasize one leg’s strength at a time.
Benefits of Lunges
Lunges work out the major muscles of your upper legs, from your glutes and quads to your hamstrings.
They also target smaller stabilizer muscles from your back core down to your calves and shins. In fact, lunges are a great exercise to help runners run more efficiently.
So, while they’re good for burning calories and growing big muscles (hypertrophy), they also have a functional component: Strengthening those stabilizer muscles helps with balance and speed both inside and outside the gym.
Forward lunges are not the only ones you can, or should, do.
In fact, to properly train your legs, you should mix it up with the following variations:
- Backward Lunges – These are like forward lunges except you step backward, not forward.
- Lateral Lunges – Also called side lunges. You step to the side instead of forward or backward.
- Plyometric Lunges – Jumping lunges. Instead of merely pushing yourself back up, leap upwards!
- Walking Lunges – Instead of pushing back into the starting position, push yourself forward above your front leg. Then, use your other leg to step forward. You’ll move forward, so make sure you have plenty of room!
Much like lunges, there is an entire article dedicated to squats. You can read that article here or read the following for a more-condensed version.
What is a Squat?
A squat, unlike a lunge, has no horizontal travel. You move directly up and down.
Start from a standing position, with your feet shoulder width apart and toes slightly pointed out. Push your hips back then swing them down so your center of gravity moves straight down.
Keep your knees behind your toes and your lower back straight!
Pause at the bottom then push yourself back up.
You can do this with a barbell or just your body’s weight.
Benefits of Squats
Squats also work out the major muscles of your upper legs. In fact, they target them harder than do lunges.
This is at least partially because squats don’t really test your balance and the biomechanics of the movement allow you to load your back up with weight.
A LOT of weight.
So, squats are a great exercise to grow your leg muscles fast.
Though they don’t hit your stabilizer muscles as hard as lunges you do need to engage your core in order to squat properly, so squats do help with stability as well.
The squat described above, without any weight, is a bodyweight squat. They’re a great movement but you can load ‘er up with the following variations.
- Back Squat – The most common squat you’ll see in the gym, this squat has a barbell on your back.
- Front Squats – Slightly more difficult than a back squat, mostly because of wrist mobility, front squats put the weight on your chest.
- Overhead Squat – Hold the barbell high in the sky for a squat that opens your shoulders and counters sitting at a computer.
- Dumbbell Squats – If you want a little more weight than a bodyweight squat but not as much as a barbell squat, hold some dumbbells or kettlebells.
- Bulgarian Split Squat – Get into a lunge position (!) but with your rear leg elevated so you only use one leg to squat (whew) for a squatting movement that isolates one leg!
What's the difference between a lunge and a split squat?
Lunges and split squats appear to be very similar movements. With legs apart you squat up and down. Some people might be inclined to answer the question with “semantics” but that’s not correct!
The difference between lunges and split squats comes down to your rear leg:
Are you pushing with your rear leg during the movement? If so, it’s a lunge. If not, it’s a split squat.
Which Exercise is Better?
So, I love squats and lunges. I basically love them equally. My leg days involve an equal split between squats and lunges.
As you can tell, my opinion is that, overall, neither movement is better than the other one.
But your situation may be different. Your goals may be different. This means that, for you, squats may be better than lunges. And vice versa.
To figure out whether you should focus on squats or lunges, find the goal below that applies best to you.
For When You Want to Lift as Much Weight as Possible
Do you like the idea of being able to boast to your friends that you can move hundreds of pounds without trouble? Then squats should be your focus!
The line formed from your shoulders to your heels in a squat lets you safely load up much more weight than you can handle with a lunge. Not only are larger weights more impressive, but they contribute to hypertrophy as well.
For Functional Training
Squats are a wonderful exercise for leg strength and size but they train your legs in one specific movement: straight up.
Lunges are better for functional training because they test your legs ability to hold and push when your center of gravity is not directly centered.
Walking, running, hiking, jumping, etc all involve your center of balance moving around. So do lunges. If you want better balance skills, focus on lunges.
Toss in a Bosu or balance ball for even more effective training!
For Fitness Newbies
Lunges demand more from your balance and so are harder to perform when you’re still learning how to move up and down, especially since the legs don’t contribute equally.
So, I would recommend for people new to working out to start with basic bodyweight and empty bar squats. Once you have that down, toss in lunges as well.
For Outdoor Workouts
I love exercising outdoors. Being in greenery is good for you, and walking lunges let you explore as you work out.
Combined with how lunge equipment is more portable (or doesn’t exist!) and lunges are a clear winner when exercising outside!
For Quick Workouts
If you only have a limited amount of time to work out, such as working out between classes, squats should be your movement of choice.
Lunges require you to do each set twice in order for it to be a complete set because each rep only targets one leg. This means that a lunge workout can easily take twice as long as a similar squat workout.
So, to save time, load up that bar and hit both legs at once!
For Overall Health and Fitness
Both lunges and squats!
Much like bicep curls and hammer curls, squats and lunges both hit the same general area but not in the same way.
This means that if you want to hit your legs for maximum effect with less of a risk of overtraining, you should do both squats and lunges.
You can split leg day between the two or have a dedicated squat day and a dedicated lunge day.
I prefer the former because my goal is more about being capable and happy with my body. The latter may be better for dedicated bodybuilders and other people who want to see maximum gains because your muscles will be fresh for each style of movement.
Squats versus lunges?
Both movements exercise your legs. One hits them harder, the other hits more minor muscles. Unless you have a specific need, this means that these two movements cover each other’s weak points.
Rather than seeing them as adversaries, use squats and lunges as allies for healthier, stronger legs!