The lunge is a popular leg-strengthening exercise with a multitude of variations to add variety to your workout. In addition, varying your technique allows you to emphasize different muscles or parts of those muscles.

This exercise is beneficial for injury prevention, as well as rehabilitation after injuries occur. It’s often part of a foundational strength program or rehab protocol, allowing athletes and exercisers to return to their sport or activity of interest as quickly as possible.

The lunge is also a functional exercise that prepares you for movements needed in daily life.

For instance, it’s a common position people assume to get up from the ground, and it mimics many of the movements and muscle-activation patterns of daily activities, such as walking and running and ascending or descending stairs.

This powerhouse move works many of the muscles of the lower body in a single exercise. It has numerous benefits and is easy to perform. Below, we’ll discuss these points, as well as variations to adjust the difficulty level and emphasize different muscles.

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In a lunge, many muscles work to both mobilize and stabilize the body. They include (1, 2, 3):

  • the quadriceps
  • the gluteals
  • the hamstrings
  • the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus)
  • the transverse abdominis
  • the obliques
  • the multifidus
  • the erector spinae

The muscles of the lower body — especially the quads, glutes, and hamstrings — work both concentrically (shortening) and eccentrically (lengthening) during the lunge.

The most basic version of a lunge is the forward lunge. It involves stepping forward, lowering your body toward the ground, and returning back to the starting position. It’s the version most people will refer to when they say they’re “doing lunges.”

In the beginning of the exercise, your leg muscles have to control the impact of your foot’s landing. Then, you lower your body to the ground further, in what’s called the eccentric phase of the movement.

During this phase, your muscles are lengthening under tension to control the movement. The quadriceps decelerate your landing and work in conjunction with the hamstrings and gluteals to control the descent (1).

The muscles in both the front and back leg are working eccentrically, but studies have shown that the glute and hamstring muscles are working a bit harder in the front leg (4).

The forward lunge’s step-back phase involves a dynamic push back to the starting position. The same muscles forcefully contract to push the body upright. It’s called the concentric phase of the movement, as the muscles are shortening (contracting) to move the body.

One of the reasons lunges are so effective is due to the work required of the body in the eccentric phase. Research has suggested that eccentric muscle contraction is more effective than concentric muscle contraction when comparing hypertrophy and muscle size (5).

Summary

Lunges primarily work the gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings. These muscles lengthen during the eccentric phase as you lower to the ground, and they contract during the concentric phase to return your body to the starting position.

Lunges have multiple benefits. The biggest one is that they work several muscle groups of the lower body at the same time. Thus, they’re an important exercise in many strengthening and injury prevention programs, such as for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury prevention (6).

Lunges are considered a unilateral exercise given the workload required of the lead leg compared to the rear.

This allows you to better improve asymmetries in strength, compared with squats, for instance. Also, lunges challenge and improve your balance and stability in unilateral movements.

The lunge is a great exercise for runners in that the mechanics are similar to running. The step out to landing is similar to the movements of a running stride, but without the large ground reaction force the body experiences when running.

This makes the lunge a great exercise to build stronger muscles with which to absorb the impact of higher intensity movements. One older study found lunges — especially walking or jumping variations — to be very effective at training young athletes (7).

Furthermore, opposing muscles of the legs are worked at the same time in the lunge. This can mean increased efficiency for a resistance program.

If you only have time for a few exercises, it would be better to incorporate exercises that work multiple joints at the same time (8).

Summary

Lunges are important for both strengthening and injury prevention. They’re a functional exercise that works multiple muscles across the hips, knees, and ankle joints at the same time. They also challenge core stability in unilateral movement patterns.

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step forward longer than a walking stride so one leg is ahead of your torso and the other is behind. Your foot should land flat and remain flat while it’s on the ground. Your rear heel will rise off of the ground.
  3. Bend your knees to approximately 90 degrees as you lower yourself. Remember to keep your trunk upright and core engaged.
  4. Then, forcefully push off from your front leg to return to the starting position.

Points to remember:

  • Your lead knee should not go past your toes as you lower toward the ground.
  • Your rear knee should not touch the ground.
  • Aim to keep your hips symmetrical (at the same height, without dropping the hip of your back leg or hiking the hip of your front leg).
  • Contract your abdominals during the movement to help keep your trunk upright.
  • Your feet should stay hip-width apart during the landing and return.

There are multiple variations on the lunge. Each works the same muscles but with more emphasis on certain areas compared with others. You can perform a different version each workout or combine different variations to add variety and challenge to your workout.

Static lunge

The static lunge, also known as the split squat, involves neither the step out nor the return step. Thus, it can be easier to perform for those who have knee pain or as an introduction to lunging exercises.

The emphasis is on the medial and lateral quadriceps muscles, as is the case with the forward lunge.

How to perform:

  1. Stand in a split-stance position with your feet hip-width apart and one foot in front of the other. Your back heel will be off of the ground.
  2. Lower yourself toward the ground by bending your knees to a 90-degree angle.
  3. Initiating the movement from your glutes and then firing into the quadriceps to straighten the knee, push into both feet and return to the upright position.

To make this exercise an advanced plyometric exercise, make it a jumping lunge. From the bottom of your lunge, explosively push off of both feet, switch them in mid-air, and land in a lunge with the opposite foot in front.

Jumping lunges are very difficult, so consult a trainer first if you’re unsure if they’re appropriate.

Back lunge

The back lunge is performed just as the forward-stepping lunge, except your rear foot is the one that moves.

Because the motion of the exercise is backward through space, there’s less emphasis on the quadriceps muscles and more emphasis on the gluteals and hamstrings. As such, there’s less impact on the knee (9).

How to perform:

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step backward longer than a walking stride so one leg remains ahead of your torso and the other behind it. Your back foot should land at the ball of your foot with your heel lifted.
  3. Bend your knees to approximately 90 degrees as you lower yourself. Remember to keep your trunk upright and your hips level.
  4. Forcefully push off from the ball of the back foot to return to the starting position.

Lateral lunge

The lateral lunge involves a step out to the side instead of forward or back. Because of the lateral movement pattern, the inside groin muscles (the adductors) are more active in this variation than in the other types of lunges. It also emphasizes the medial quadriceps (10).

How to perform:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step out wide to the side while keeping your other foot flat.
  3. Bend your “stepping” knee while keeping the other knee straight. Your body will hinge forward slightly, and your shoulders will be slightly ahead of your knee compared with forward and backward lunges.
  4. Forcefully push off from your foot to return to the starting position.

Curtsy lunge

The curtsy lunge is a great way to add more emphasis on the gluteus medius and hip adductors (or inner thighs).

The gluteus medius works throughout this exercise to stabilize your pelvis while you lunge in a crossed-leg position, and the adductors work to hold your legs in that position as you lower.

How to perform:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step one leg behind the other and out to the side, crossing your legs in the process. The heel of your back foot will lift off of the ground.
  3. Bend both knees, lowering until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your chest lifted, your core engaged, and your knees moving directly over your toes.
  4. Press into your legs (especially the front leg) to straighten both knees, simultaneously lifting your back foot to bring it back to a hip-width, parallel stance.
  5. Switch legs, alternating as you go, or stay on one leg at a time if balance is a challenge. Be sure to complete an even number of reps on both sides.

Walking lunge

The walking lunge is usually done walking forward (described here), but it can also be done walking backward. It puts a greater emphasis on the gluteal muscles, medial quadriceps, and hamstring muscles (1).

How to perform:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step forward and bend both knees, lowering until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Shift forward onto the lead leg.
  4. Push off on both legs and step through, lifting your back leg and bringing it forward so your rear foot lands ahead of you in a lunge position.
  5. Shift forward again and repeat.

One variation of the walking lunge is to lunge forward, but instead of stepping through with the rear foot, you step it forward to land parallel to the lead foot, straightening both legs. This returns you to the starting position. Then you can alternate and step forward with the opposite foot.

This version is easier and requires less balance than the version in which you step through.

Adding weight to your lunges

If you add weight, start with a lighter weight than you would expect to use on a squat or deadlift. This is most important when performing a lunge that involves stepping out away from your center of gravity.

To add weight, you have a few options. You can hold two dumbbells. Or, you can perform the lunge with a barbell on your shoulders, as you would during a barbell squat. Your back extensors and core muscles will work more to stabilize the weight.

Alternatively, as you lunge, hold one dumbbell in the opposite hand as the lead leg. This adds emphasis to the upper gluteal muscles, as well as the oblique muscles to stabilize the trunk (11).

Summary

There are multiple variations to the lunge. These include the static lunge, backward lunge, lateral lunge, curtsy lunge, and walking lunges, to name a few. You can also add weight to increase the difficulty level and work your trunk muscles more.

The lunge is an excellent exercise to work the muscles of the lower body. It offers multiple variations to emphasize the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and more. The variations allow you to scale the exercise if you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter.

Incorporate this movement into your exercise program and enjoy the variations to keep it interesting.