The lunge — arguably one of the best lower body exercises you can do in the gym — builds leg muscle, strength, and coordination. Few movements are as adaptable and easy to program as the lunge.
There are many different ways to perform the lunge, but the most popular variation (the forward lunge) involves stepping with one leg, then driving back upwards to return to the starting position. It’s basic, easy to execute, and very effective. That’s why you’ll commonly see lunges in bodybuilding workouts and sport performance programs alike.
This article will take you through the lunge — step by step. Puns aside, you should come away knowing everything (and a bit more) you need to master the exercise.
- How to Do the Lunge
- Lunge Sets and Reps
- Common Lunge Mistakes
- Lunge Variations
- Lunge Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Lunge
- Benefits of the Lunge
- Who Should Do the Lunge
- Frequently Asked Questions
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To perform the lunge, you’ll stand with dumbbells in hand. You’ll then take a step forward roughly 18 to 24 inches and plant your foot firmly to the ground. From there, you will allow your front knee to track forward — aiming between the first and second toe — while your back knee drops straight down to the ground.
Then, while driving through the floor with your front foot, bring your body back to a standing position. Below, you’ll find a step-by-step process on how to perform this exercise properly.
Step 1 — Pick a Target and Step
Your leg length may dictate your step target. Shorter people may be able to take a smaller step than taller people. You’ll take a step forward roughly 18 to 24 inches (one and a half to two feet) and plant your foot firmly to the ground.
Coach’s Tip: Establish your stride length without weight in your hands first. This allows you a safe way to know how far you should step to maximize the exercise. An improper stride length — too close or far — can throw you off balance and ultimately impact the exercise’s effectiveness and safety.
Step 2 — Drive and Sink
Once your foot is firmly planted on the ground, allow the front knee to drive forward — aiming between the first and second toe — as the back knee sinks straight down to the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Do not rush the eccentric. Allow yourself to lower under control while maintaining engagement in your core musculature. To help with balance, keep a slight lean forward with your torso.
Step 3 — Push Through the Floor and Return
Drive through the floor with the front foot and return to starting upright position. In the lunge exercise, the primary mover is the front leg. Once you’re back in the starting position, repeat all steps on the opposite leg.
Coach’s Tip: Do not push off your back foot during the exercise’s concentric (raising) portion. Remember, this exercise aims to place the load around the hip and knee on the front leg. You will train both sides of the body by alternating legs throughout the set.
Since the lunge is a unilateral movement, it’s quite easy for your rep count to get out of hand quickly. However, that doesn’t mean that the lunge isn’t useful in multiple unique ways. Like any good exercise, it’s only worth how you program it. Here are three different ways to plan out your lunge training.
- For Muscle Growth: 3-4 sets of as 10-12 reps with heavy dumbbells.
- To Gain Strength: 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps with heavy weights and a slow eccentric.
- As a Beginner: 2 sets of 12-15 reps on each leg with just your body weight.
Even though you’ve been lunging since you could first walk, in one form or another, you can still make some mistakes when it comes time to perform the movement for a specific purpose. In addition to requiring heaps of balance and postural control, you also have to worry about solid posture and contracting the right muscles. There’s a lot to pay attention to.
Stepping Too Narrow
You want to march (or, realistically, lunge) in a straight line. However, you can mess with your balance if your pathing is too tight. Walking on a “tightrope” puts your base of support too narrow, and you’re liable to stumble or tumble between reps. As such, you don’t want to step inward at any point. Your feet should land directly in front of your pelvis, or even slightly out to the side.
Changing your torso angle might make it easier to feel your glutes or quads working during the lunge. However, you don’t want to have a loose or unstable torso. When you lunge, make sure to maintain a rigid and mostly-upright torso.
Using Your Back Leg
One of the cardinal sins of lunge technique is leaning too much on your non-working leg. When you lunge, the vast majority of your own weight should be on your front leg.
That’s also the foot that you should push off from to begin your next step. Your back leg is basically a kickstand that keeps you from falling over. There’s little muscular tension on it, so don’t use it as a crutch to “push” you into your next rep.
There are many lunge variation possibilities, so instead of outlining them all, we’re going to give you the tools to make your own. Simply pick a loading and height variation to create a unique lunge stimulus.
- Loading Variations: Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbell (in front, on back, overhead), Zercher, sandbag, single dumbbell/kettlebell.
- Height Variations: Stepping to an elevated surface, stepping from an elevated surface, stepping laterally.
They are a lot of ways to alter, progress, and regress the lunge. Here are four alternatives to the standard movement that you can play with to make sure your leg training is custom-tailored to you.
As the name suggests, the reverse lunge is performed by taking a step backward instead of forwards. This is a great variation for beginners working to improve their overall lunge form because the reverse stepping motion is a little easier to control than the forward lunge for some.
The reverse lunge is a great variation to perform because it allows for an increased amount of hip flexion, so it’s a good option for those aiming to train the glutes and hamstrings.
The walking lunge is the closest lunge variation to mimic the forward lunge. It is a great lunge variation to employ because the nature of the step adds a level of focus on balance and coordination, so athletes will often use this exercise as a dynamic lower body training option to train the muscles of the posterior chain.
The lateral lunge is performed by stepping directly out to the side, then standing up to return to the starting position. The lateral lunge is awesome because it challenges the muscles around the hip responsible for internal and external rotation of the leg.
The lunge is a lower-body multi-joint compound movement that helps place tension on the muscles of the glutes, quads, adductors, and hamstrings. The unilateral nature of this exercise allows for even more focus on each leg individually throughout your sets.
The lunge’s movement pattern allows for a large range of motion around the hip joint, which places large amounts of tension on the glute muscles. The lunge is a great exercise to use if you want to train your glutes within a unilateral exercise.
Although less known, the adductors play a significant role in hip flexion and extension and can be an unappreciated hip extensor muscle — specifically the adductor magnus.
Building up strength in the adductors will allow you to improve other movements that involve hip flexion and extension, such as other lunge variations, back squats, and deadlifts.
Alongside training muscles around the hip joint, the lunge heavily involves the knee joint, which puts a lot of tension on the quad muscles.
Strong hamstrings may not directly impact your lunge performance, but they play an important role in stabilizing the respective joints being loaded.
The lunge offers an array of benefits for all levels of athlete or fitness enthusiast. It’s important to remember that the benefits will vary from lifter to lifter based on their intent and which variation they’re performing. Below, you will find four of the top benefits.
Endless Variation Possibilities
There are a lot of lunge variations you can perform. The movement’s pure versatility alone is a benefit as it’s accessible to both beginners and more seasoned lifters and athletes. No matter why you’re lunging, you can design the movement to make sure it’s working for you.
It’s a Great Assessment Tool
The lunge — and its many variations and alternatives — can be a valuable tool for assessing imbalances and weaknesses in a person’s structure. Everything from the hips shifting to your knees caving in at the bottom of the squat can be addressed using the lunge.
Since the lunge is a unilateral leg exercise that challenges the hip and knee muscles, there can be added coordination demands and increased visibility to limitations or compensations being made per side during the movement.
Improved Performance in Back Squat and Deadlift
The back squat and deadlift involve many joints and increased coordination around the hip and knee. And as the saying goes, you’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. The lunge can act as a one-stop-shop to addressing weak points throughout your range of motion, helping your increase your performance in the back squat and the deadlift.
You Can Tackle Multiple Adaptations
On top of the many variations, the lunge can target multiple training adaptations. This is useful for athletes trying to improve strength, power, and muscular hypertrophy. Alter the move’s loading parameters, sets, reps, and rest times to target various training adaptations.
The lunge is reliable, but it’s not for everyone. Before you plug it into your workout program, you need to make sure the movement is right for you.
The lunge is a popular bodybuilding exercise because it targets each leg individually and places a lot of tension on the quads and glutes. Bodybuilders need to ensure their training aligns perfectly with their personal proportions.
Strength and Power Athletes
Improving the strength and size of the glutes, quads, and adductors is a major key to success for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and strongmen alike. These sports require movements like the back squat, deadlifts, clean & jerk, and many other movements that require significant amounts of leg strength.
Functional Fitness Fans
Strong legs will be necessary for maximizing performance in lower body pressing variations (deadlifts, walking lunge, overhead squats, and Olympic variations) and bodyweight variations (box jumps, wall balls, and burpees).
Lunge to Victory
Almost every well-rounded leg routine you’ll find will contain at least one movement that has you work from one leg. It could be a Bulgarian split squat, a single-leg Romanian deadlift or, perhaps ideally, the lunge itself.
Not only does the lunge mimic and mirror a movement that you perform all the time in your day-to-day life, it’s also a fantastic and versatile training tool. You can load it (or work unloaded) quite heavily if you want to build up serious leg strength, or keep things light and emphasize developing impeccable posture and bodily control. The gains are yours for the taking, so get to stepping.
Are lunges bad for my knees?
Lunges are a safe and effective way to build muscle and strength in the lower body. The lunge exercise requires a certain level of skill to ensure maximal benefit. All around, lunges are a safe and effective way to train the lower body.
Should my knee travel past my toes?
It’s not really a matter of should they. Mechanically speaking, they just will. Depending on the specific variation of the lunge you are performing, you may be more likely to end up with your knee past your toes when at the bottom of the rep. If you have had knee injuries in the past, or have pain during this exercise, choose a lunge variation that does not make your knee travel past your toes.
Should I warmup for the lunge?
The lunge is an exercise that places significant amounts of tension on the lower body, and therefore the muscles around the hip and knee. It is advised that you start with a low and manageable load and ascend the weight-used through your sets. Warming up will help you protect your joints and ensure you do not strain a muscle or irritate a joint.
Should I use dumbbells or a barbell to lunge?
Lunges are an exercise with an almost endless amount of possibilities. You can perform your lunges with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or holding a sandbag or ball. If you are a beginner going from using bodyweight to using free weights, dumbbells or kettlebells may be the easiest place to start.
Can beginners use the lunge?
Absolutely. In fact, the lunge is one of the best exercises for beginners to conquer because it helps strengthen the lower body muscles while also building coordination and body awareness. True beginners should start with the basic forward or backward lunge to get started.
Featured image: Prostock-Studio / Shutterstock