Never skip leg day.
Table of Contents
- What is a Lunge?
- What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
- Benefits of Lunges
- How to Do a Lunge Properly
- Lunge Variations
- A Complete Lunge Workout
That’s a classic piece of advice often thrown around in jest. It’s true, though.
But a bad leg day is worse than skipping leg day.
So, how do you ensure you have a good leg day?
For most people, the central movement will be squats, and for good reason. They’re effective and wear you out quick. But doing just one movement isn’t good enough.
For a good leg day, you need to workout your entire legs. That’s where lunges come into play.
Some people think lunges are just funny squats, but they can be the cornerstone of your whole leg workout.
In fact, I favor lunges over squats! They’re more entertaining and are better for giving you a better booty, too.
This article will teach you how to lunge properly (yes, you can do them incorrectly).
Not only that but you’ll also learn enough lunge variations for you to toss away squats and have a complete leg workout without loading several hundred pounds onto a barbell!
What is a Lunge?
Lunges are a simple exercise. On paper.
You put one leg in front of the other then kneel down so the rear knee almost touches the ground.
The movement is sort of like a split squat.
This tests not only your leg strength but also your balance, so it recruits lots of muscles to keep you from falling over.
Though, lunges are different from squats because they always involve pushing and balancing with both legs.
You can lunge with or without weights, forward or backward, with feet elevated or flat on the floor. There are plenty of variations so this one workout has lots of potential.
Some people boast that they can teach you 20 or even 30 different lunges!
At that point, though, you’re fluffing your ego rather than increasing your fitness level.
The bad part of lunges is, because they are hard to balance, they have a greater potential for injury if you do them wrong.
So, I’ll teach you how to do them right.
But first, let’s look at what muscles they use.
What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
Lunges are a killer workout for the muscles in your thigh and posterior.
There are three main muscles worked out by lunges:
So if you want a well-defined thigh or a great butt, lunges will propel you toward your goals.
You can even change up which muscles are targeted by lunges by moving your legs further apart or closer together. Long lunges are better for your glutes while short lunges focus on your quads.
Lunges do work out your hamstrings, but not as well as some other exercises, such as stepping on a StairMaster. There’s evidence that lunges only train the hamstrings isometrically. That doesn’t make lunges a bad hamstring exercise but it shouldn’t be the only leg exercise you rely on.
Lunges and Stabilizing Muscles
But that’s not all!
Because lunges test your balance, lots of stabilizer muscles are exercised as well.
Your calves, specifically the gastrocnemius, are activated to keep your legs in place along with the tibialis anterior in your shin. Hip adductors and abductors also keep your legs steady.
Even your abs and back muscles get in on the fun by holding your torso steady throughout the maneuver. These include the obliques and erector spinae.
Trust me, if you aren’t using your core muscles, your torso will want to keel over during a lunge.
Benefits of Lunges
The first benefit of lunges is clear: you’ll get stronger leg muscles.
Who doesn’t want stronger legs?
With stronger legs you’ll be able to walk further without tiring, run faster because your legs can push off the ground better, and carry heavier weight without your legs turning into spaghetti noodles.
So, lunges are good for functional strength.
But the benefits don’t end there.
Balance, Coordination, and Stability
Lunges are also great for balance, moreso than squats or other leg exercises. That’s because you move forward and backward, or side-to-side, during a lunge. You don’t just go up and down.
Throwing your center of gravity around like this forces your body to adapt and learn how to hold it up even when you’re not standing up and down.
This can improve not only your balance but also your coordination and stability when in unusual leg positions.
Some researchers refer to this as medial-lateral stability.
That type of instability is linked to increased fall risk in the elderly, so training with lunges now can keep you stable when you’re older!
Lunges involve leg movements you won’t see in the average classroom or office.
Many of us spend our time in three positions: standing, sitting, or laying down.
Lunges involve moving into and out of positions that don’t fit those three. This helps train your muscles to move in ways you may not otherwise move, increasing flexibility.
Lunges are also a unilateral exercise. This means that they train one side of your body at a time. Though it may seem odd, this can make your body more symmetrical.
That’s because training one side then the other means that one half of your body can’t compensate for a potentially weaker other half.
Using your weaker side to set the maximum reps in a set will allow you to train for symmetry.
This final benefit is part of what makes lunges such a good counterpoint to squats:
You don’t have to put weight on your spine to make progress.
Properly done, weighted squats won’t injure you or your spine and can help you to deload when you’ve loaded your spine with too much weight for too long.
Still, it’s a good idea to exercise without weight holding you down. Lunges can train your legs without that weight.
How to Do a Lunge Properly
Now that you know why you should add lunges to your exercise regime, let’s look at how to do them properly.
We’ll start with the forward lunge.
You want to pay extra attention to your form during lunges, especially if they are new to you.
They test your balance so much that it’s easy to lose your balance and twist something or to use your muscles wrong and put shear force on your knee.
First of all, your feet need to be parallel to each other. Rotation during lunges is extremely bad and can cause forces to travel through your knees which can cause injury.
Secondly, never let your forward knee travel in front of your toes. It should stay directly above your ankle and heel, with your weight going down through the heel, and not travel forward or backward during the movement.
Third, keep your upper body straight up and down. Look forward with your head up and your shoulders back. Think about your core to ensure it’s activated.
With those in mind, here is how to perform a lunge:
- Step forward with one foot and place your knee above your heel.
- Starting at the hips, lower your rear knee toward the ground. You’ll lift off of that heel and go onto your toes.
- Slowly drop until your legs are both at 90-degree angles, which should happen before your knee touches the ground. Don’t let your knee drop enough to touch the floor!
- Pause at the bottom of the movement. No bouncing!
- Push through your front heel back up to standing.
Congratulations! That was one forward lunge.
I prefer to start with my weaker leg to establish the number of reps then meet that with my other leg, for better symmetry.
It can also help to put your hands on your hips.
Remember, you can step further forward to focus more on your glutes or keep your feet closer together to target your quads better.
Now that you know how to do a forward lunge, here are some other ways to lunge. Adding these will not only make your workouts more interesting but also produce more well-rounded legs.
My favorite variation is the walking lunge.
Sure, they challenge your balance more, but the real reason why I like them is because they go well with outdoor walks.
I’m all about fresh-air exercise!
A walking lunge is just like a forward lunge that alternates sides except you push more with your rear foot so you end with your hips above your front leg.
This is a less stable movement than lunging in place, so your balance is tested even more.
Keep alternating sides and you’ll find yourself traveling quite a distance.
That’s why these work better outside; I’ve done them in a dorm room, but that involved way too much turning around!
You can do walking lunges on your way to class as a way to burn some calories at school if you don’t mind letting the other students know how important working out is to you.
A reverse lunge is also called a backward lunge. I’d recommend doing as many of these as you do forward lunges, once you have the movement down.
It can be hard to get to that point because backwards movement is so rare in our lives.
All you change to do a reverse lunge is to step backward instead of forward. It’ll feel weird at first.
Backward walking lunges are even more challenging and worthwhile!
Forward, backward… how about side-to-side?
Lateral lunges, or side lunges, change up the muscles used during a lunge. Notably, they add in the groin.
To do a lateral lunge, step far to the side. Keep your feet parallel. You don’t want rotation during these lunges either!
Then lower your weight in the direction of that leg. Your other foot will roll onto its side. Stop when your knee reaches 90 degrees, then push back up. Repeat with the other side.
Most people don’t need to add weight to experience the benefits of lunges. If you want to progress even further you can add weight, though make sure not to add too much weight too fast.
Don’t let your ego bust up your knees.
Dumbbell or Kettlebell Lunges
Carrying a dumbbell or kettlebell in both hands changes up lunges more than you’d expect.
The added weight causes the major muscles to work harder, which can cause you to experience gains faster.
However, this weight also makes it easier to balance yourself during a lunge. This can make it easier for people new to lunges but also cuts down on some of the benefits if you can do a lunge without weights.
You can also add on a bicep or hammer curl mid-lunge to work out both your arms and legs, if you have the coordination for it.
Adding a barbell, however, increases the challenge to both your strength and balance.
Just make sure not to load up on too much weight before doing a weighted barbell lunge. Remember, it’s easier to injure your legs while lunging!
For ideas on how to hold the barbell, check out this squat article.
For a bit more of a cardiovascular oomph, try plyometric lunges.
They are also called jumping lunges because you push yourself up with enough power and speed to launch yourself into the air! Try to land gently, in the same position from which you started.
Some people find it easier to do jumping lunges when they swing their arms above their head as they leap.
You can also do criss-cross plyo lunges by swapping which feet as you land. Or, for even more of a challenge, turn your entire body and keep your feet in roughly the same location (turned with your body, of course).
This last variation is also called the Bavarian Lunge. It’s much the same as a forward or reverse lunge but with one of the feet on an elevated surface.
If doing forward lunges, slightly elevate the rear foot. If doing reverse lunges, slightly elevate the front foot.
It’s that simple.
This adds even more challenge to your balance and forces the non-elevated leg to do even more of the work.
A Complete Lunge Workout
By taking all of these lunge variations and throwing them together, you can get an entire lunge day workout!
Generally you want to mix squats, lunges, calf raises, and other leg exercises for leg day. But if you’ve been going too hard on the squats recently it’s a good idea to deload your spine and spend a week or two only lunging.
You’ll want to start with a warm-up, like any other exercise. I appreciate jumping ropes, which will get plenty of blood flowing to your legs.
There are three versions of this exercise: Beginner, Intermediate, and Experienced.
- Beginner: If you’re new to lunges, grab a couple of very light dumbbells to aid in balance. Also, forgo the plyometric lunges.
- Intermediate: If you can lunge properly without weights as a balance aid then forgo them for now.
- Advanced: Finally, if you’ve gotten to the point where you can lunge all day without tiring, grab some heavy-ish dumbbells, kettlebells, or load up a barbell.
The Lunge Workout
You’ll do each set twice, once with your left leg forward and once with your right leg forward. Always start with your weaker leg and, if you can’t do all of the reps, stop at that number of reps with your right leg.
Perform the following lunge variations in this order:
Start with a goal of 8 reps each and remember to do your weak side first then your strong side. Add 1 rep per day you do this workout until you hit 12 then go up a step in intensity (Beginner to Intermediate to Advanced).
Rest for 2-3 minutes between sets. Rest for 5 minutes after the last set then start over again from the top.
Your goal is at least 3 times through or until you can’t complete a set.
When properly performed, lunges train your legs for power and stability. They are a good addition or alternative to squats and can provide massive benefits with little space.
My favorite thing about lunges, though, is that they can be a no-equipment exercise you can do outside.
Sure, working out in the gym is good.
But wouldn’t your rather lunge your way through a beautiful forest?