How to Do Lunges: Form, Muscles Worked & Variations
What are Lunges?
Lunges are one of the most basic moves in the gym and are often one of the first exercises you learn when it comes to fitness. It’s a compound and functional movement that is great for building mass and strength in your lower body. Lunges hit several large muscle groups in your legs and glutes – both in the front and back – while also working your core. One of the best things about lunges is the large array of variations you can choose from to work your body in different ways and keep your workouts interesting.
What Muscles do Lunges Work?
Lunges work the majority of the muscles in your lower body, primarily the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. However, you’ll also feel them in your stabilizing muscles such as adductors, core, and erectors. Because there are so many variations of the lunge, choosing different varieties will alter where you feel the effects.
Your glutes help control your descent into the lunge and push up out of the lowered position. At the same time, your gluteus medius stabilizes the hips and knees through the whole movement.
Quads: Like the glutes, your quads worked hard during both the descent and ascent to control the movement, and you’ll feel the burn in both your front and back legs.
Hamstrings: Feel your hamstrings activate to slow down your descent and when you extend your hips as you reach the standing position again.
Adductors: The adductors, located in your inner thighs, are key stabilizers that help bring your thighs towards your midline and keep your knees from moving around.
What are the Benefits of Lunges?
There are many benefits to including lunges in your workout program. Firstly, it’s a great way to strengthen your lower body muscles, as well as build mass. Then, you’ll also improve your hip flexibility and mobility, as it helps stretch your hip flexors, which can be tight from extended sitting. Next, it improves your balance, as it puts your stabilizing muscles to work to keep you upright. Lunges are also a unilateral exercise, working one side at a time. This makes it easier to identify and correct imbalances between your left and right. Finally, because it’s a functional exercise, you’ll see improvements in daily activities that use this motion, such as climbing stairs and picking things up from the floor.
How to do a Lunge
The basic forward lunge keeps things simple, is great for perfecting your form, lets you build up strength for more advanced moves, and won’t put unnecessary pressure on your knees. When you’re setting up for this, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, your shoulders, hips, and rear knee should be in a straight line at the bottom of the move to create stability and ensure everything is in the correct place. Meanwhile, your front foot needs to be placed so that at the bottom, your shin is vertical, and your knee bends at 90 degrees. Finally, when you’re executing a lunge correctly, you should feel the movement evenly through your glutes, hamstrings and quads, as well as evenly across both legs. You might need to adjust your foot position slightly if you don’t.
Forward Lunge Variations
Keep things interesting and change up your workout with these lunge alternatives. Some are simple and great for beginners, while others are more challenging and need good form and strength. Each brings the same benefits of improved strength and mobility in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings while offering slight variations such as a different plane of movement or shifted muscle engagement.
Once you’ve perfected your form, you can start to add weight to your lunges. A barbell is one of the easiest ways to increase the load. It sits across the back of your shoulders and makes using heavy weights simple. Getting stronger in your functional movements is excellent for both daily activities as well as athletes. After unracking your weight, take a long step forward, landing on your heel and keeping the weight there – resist the urge to put any weight on your toes. Next, sink into the lunge, keeping shoulders, hips, and back knee aligned at the bottom. Then, drive back up through the front heel to a standing position. You can choose alternate steps or perform all your reps on one side and then the other.
A curtsy lunge can be an excellent way to shift the focus onto the glutes, specifically the gluteus medius. This exercise involves stepping back and crossing the rear leg behind the body so that when you push up and out, the sides of your glutes do the most work. However, this move isn’t for everyone, as it can put more pressure on the knee. As such, it’s best not to attempt this if you’re new to lunges, don’t have very strong legs or glutes, or have bad knees. You can, however, combat some of the increased tension on the knee joint. When you shift your rear leg back, at the same time, internally rotate the toes of your front foot so they better match the angle of your front knee at the bottom of the move.
Alternating Jumping Lunge
Take things up a notch with alternating jumping lunges. As a fatigue-based metabolic exercise, it’s an effective way to achieve metabolic stress, and therefore hypertrophy, in the quads and glutes. It’s also a great calorie burner and makes a great finisher exercise for the end of your workout. To execute this, you start in a lowered lunge stance. Remember to keep your front knee vertical with your rear knee, hips, and shoulders aligned. Then, leap out of your lunge, switching legs mid-air and landing immediately into a lowered lunge. You can also swing your arms while doing this to create a counterweight. In addition, try to keep a balance between the heel of your front foot and the ball of the rear one, and don’t drop your knee to the floor (it will hurt!).
Bulgarian Split Squat
If you really want to target your quads, then the Bulgarian Split Squat
is an excellent lunge alternative. It’s similar to a regular lunge; however, the rear foot is elevated on a bench, putting a more significant load on the front leg. That makes it easier to overload without heavy weights and a good alternative if you have a bad back. Like the regular lunge, you want to move on the vertical plane, not shifting forward or back. You should also keep your torso upright with your shoulders over your hips. Unlike the regular lunge, you should feel most of the burn in your front leg, particularly the quads and glutes.
Switching up the direction you move is an effective way of ensuring you’re working through your muscles’ full range of motion. The clock lunge works your glutes in all directions, which is extra effective as this muscle group features both fast and slow-twitch fibres. Pretend you’re standing in the middle of a clock, facing the 12. Starting on your right leg, step forward with the left to 12, and return to the centre. Repeat, stepping to the 11, ten, and nine. Then for eight and seven, you’ll step your left foot behind and point the toes in that direction. You’ll feel the weight shift to your right leg at six as you step the left foot straight back. Continue stepping behind until three, then bring the left foot in front again for two, one, and back to 12, combing back to centre each time. Repeat on the other side.
Three Dimensional Lunge
The three-dimensional lunge is a simplified version of the clock lunge. Start with your feet together, and with your right foot, lunge forward, then back to the centre. Keeping on the right, repeat the movement to the front diagonal, back diagonal, and then a back lunge, returning to the centre each time. Once you’ve done that side, do the same with your left foot. Doing this, rather than the entire clock, takes some pressure off the knee on the curtsy-style lunges, as the moving leg is not crossing the body. As such, it’s a safer alternative if you have unstable or painful knees. However, you’ll still get similar benefits from moving your body across different planes of motion while waking up your muscles.
Lunge and Twist
Adding a twist to your lunge can increase your glute and core activation. Both are going to be squeezing hard to keep you in position as your upper body moves. As such, these are great for improving your balance and stability. To perform this exercise, you’ll drop into a lunge, as usual, keeping shoulders, hips, and knees aligned. Avoid letting your bottom knee touch the ground; you’ll want to hover instead. Staying in the bottom position, hold your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Slowly bring the arm on the same side as your front leg out and around until it’s behind you, following your hand with your eyes. Bring it back to the centre, then lift out of the lunge to repeat on the other side. Remember to keep your front foot flat, rising a little if you need to help keep your balance.Lateral Lunge
If you want to be able to split a watermelon with your thighs, then a lateral lunge is a must-have in your workout program. They not only help develop balance and stability, but they also work your adductor and abductor muscles in the inner and outer thighs and groin. Start in the middle, then take a wide step out to one side, sinking into a squat. Try to keep your weight slightly further back so your glutes are fully engaged. The leg you step out on will hold most of the load, while you’ll get a bit of a stretch in the other leg. Pushing through the heel, come back to the centre, then repeat on the opposite side.Reverse Lunge
The reverse lunge is an excellent variation for beginners, as it’s a little easier to master the form. One of the biggest mistakes people make in a front lunge is stepping too short and hard, causing the knee to travel over the foot. Stepping back helps alleviate this, plus takes some of the stress and force off the front knee. To begin, stand with your feet around shoulder-width apart. Then, step one foot back so that both knees will be bent at the bottom of the move at 90 degrees. Avoid letting your back knee hit the ground. Hold for a second, then drive through the front heel and ball of the rear foot, back to the centre. You can continue working the one side before swapping to the other or alternate each foot.Walking Lunge
Walking lunges are one of the most functional variations of the forward lunge. They challenge your balance and coordination and can help improve your range of motion and everyday function. They not only strengthen your quads, glutes, and hamstrings but your hips, core, and other stabilizing muscles. To execute, you can hold dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand or do it with just your body weight. Standing upright with a straight back, take a medium step forward. You’ll know it’s the right length if both your knees bend at 90 degrees when you’re at the bottom. As always, keep your shoulders, hips, and rear knee aligned. Then, push through your front heel to come back up and step your rear foot forward before sinking into the next lunge.
Single Overhead Dumbbell Lunge
Once you’ve nailed the simpler lunges, you can take your game up a notch with a single overhead dumbbell lunge. Adding weight above your head turns this into a full-body workout. You’re arms and shoulders will be engaged holding the weight while your back and core work on stabilization. Try to keep the weight centred overhead; otherwise, you risk your arm coming out too far. If you’re performing these as a forward lunge, step the opposite foot forward. Alternatively, you can also do this as a walking lunge too.Lunge vs Split Squat
Lunges and split squats might look essentially the same, but there are a few key differences. Firstly, the lunge is more dynamic, as it involves a stepping motion – whether that’s forwards, backwards or to the side. Conversely, a split squat is static. Next, when performing a lunge, you should feel the effort equally across both the front and back legs, plus through the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. However, in the split squat, more emphasis is put on the front leg, which operates as the prime mover, while the back leg simple provides stability. Of course, both are excellent lower body exercises and can be incorporated into a well-rounded program.Common Mistakes
If you’re committed to the sweat and burn of a good lunge session, you want to make your efforts worthwhile. Unfortunately, there are a few fairly common mistakes that can not only limit your results but might also cause injury. Consequently, it’s important to keep an eye out for them in your own sessions and avoid them where you can.
Aligning Ankles with Hips and Knees
Many lunge-related injuries occur when your ankles are not aligned with your hips and knees. Ideally, your front knee should stay above the same ankle, while the rear ankle should be in line with your hip. This will keep your hips square and prevent any left to right tilt and imbalances. If you’re struggling with this form, try simple bodyweight-only movements or opt instead of rear lunges until you get the form correct.
Letting Your Spine Collapse
If there’s one rule that applies in nearly every exercise, it’s to keep a tight core. Lunges are no exception. One of the most common mistakes, especially when using weights in a lunge, is letting your spine collapse and leaning forward. Counteract this by keeping your core tight, chest up, and shoulders back to maintain an upright position. You want your shoulders, hips, and knees to always be in a straight line at the bottom of the move.
Taking too Long of a Lunge
Getting the correct step length in your lunge is vital for maximizing your leverage and range of motion. If you go too long, you reduce the range of motion on your back leg and minimize the leverage from your front. Of course, stepping too short can also be a problem. Your weight on the front foot should be focused on the heel. If you feel it in the balls or toes, then you need a longer stride. The perfect step will have both knees bent at 90 degrees when you hit the bottom of the move.Not Mixing it Up Much
It’s important to keep your training interesting, so you don’t get bored, and your gains don’t plateau. Once you’ve got your forward lunge down pat, try mixing things up with some of the variations above. Use body weight, add weights, or increase your reps or sets – there’s plenty you can do to keep both your body and mind engaged.