Lunge Ultimate Guide & Muscle Groups Worked

In this extremely comprehensive lunge exercise guide, we discuss common lunge variations, exercise demos, benefits, and determine if the lunge is the best unilateral exercise for muscle growth, athletic performance, and injury prevention. Let’s dive in…

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5 Lunge Variations

Below are five common lunge variations that can be done with most lifters to increase leg strength, balance, coordination, muscular hypertrophy, and performance. All lunge variations can be performed with any type(s) of equipment or training means. For example, the dumbbell lunge, overhead barbell walking lunge, or front loaded kettlebell reverse lunge, just to name a few.

1. Front Lunge

Comparable to the split squat, this lunge variation places a great loading on the quadriceps as it has the lifter step forward, placing a greater amount of weight in the lead leg. To finish the lunge, the lifter must forcefully extend the knee, done via the quadriceps. There is less hamstring and glute specific loading on this variation, therefore better options below can be chosen if that is the primary training goal.

2. Reverse Lunge

Unlike the above lunge variation, this lunge movement has the lifter step backwards, placing a greater loading onto the hamstrings and glutes to eccentrically control and withstand the negative aspect of the lunge. To complete the lunge, the lifter must extend the knee and step forward. Greater hamstring and glute loading can be done by modifying the distance at which the lifter steps their foot back. A bigger step means a deeper lunge, therefore increasing greater muscular and movement demands across the board.

3. Lateral/Side Lunge

Non-sagittal movements are key to building a better 360 degree athlete. Increasing adductor, gluteus, and leg strength in non-sagittal planes can work to increase hip function and health, enhance knee stability, and build new muscle fibers in the inner thigh and glutes. This is a very important lunge for most athletes, as this can be used to increase movement integrity, hip health and function, and help to prevent injury at the knee and hip.

4. Crossover Lunge

This crossover lunge movement is a combination of a forward/reverse lunge and a lateral lunge. Many of the same benefits are offered by this variation as the above lunges, with the added bonus that this can work to increase stability, force production, and joint and movement integrity against non-traditional movements often resulting in injury, loss of balance, etc if not properly trained. Note, that this crossover lunge can be done either to the front or to the back.

5. Walking Lunge

The walking lunge is a variation that includes the need for balance, strength, mobility, and coordination while in motion, often creating the need for a lifter or athlete to be 100% competent in their joint function and control. Walking lunges can also lead to a whole new classification of lunges, and are a great way to add variety and progress for stable and less dynamic lunge variations.

Muscles Worked

Below are the muscle groups involved with the lunge movement. Note, that the lunge is a very broad movement category, as there a various variations (see above) that can be done to target some of the below muscle groups more than others. Nonetheless, these are some of the key muscle groups targeted.

  • Quadriceps
  • Gluteals
  • Hamstrings
  • Vastus Medialis Obliquus (VMO)
  • Soleus and Gastrocnemius

Benefits of Lunges

Below is a listing of the benefits lunges can offer athletes of all sports, as well as any fitness goer and individual concerned with better movement, joint health, and leg development. You can read a more comprehensive benefits article here.

1. Improved Unilateral Balance and Coordination

Unilateral training is a great way to challenge balance, stability, and movement coordination, with the lunge being no exception. The lunge (any variation) is a unilateral movement, meaning that the lifter needs to support their body weight (and any external loading) on a smaller base of support, therefore increasing the need for core stability, awareness, and proper joint and muscles coordination to promote movement. These are great for lifters who are typically on two feet (see #5 below) and any athlete who is involved in human locomotion (basically all forms of running, jumping, sprinting, cycling, etc).

2. Greater Glute Activation

Lunges are a great gluteal exercise to build muscle, strength, and movement patterning to assist in things like running, sprinting, squatting, and any other form of movement. Seeing that the glutes play a vital role in hip health and performance, as well as are a key hip extensor muscle that otherwise would force the lower back to overwork, creating a plethora of issues. Better glutes means better squats, deadlifts, and performance.

3. Correct Muscular and Movement Imbalances

Unilateral lunges attack the legs individually, meaning that for lifters who are constantly doing bilateral squats, pulls, and other movements may not realize that they have developed compensation patterns and muscle/movement imbalances. This can lead to injury, stalled progress, and a cascade of other movement and muscle issues, making lunges an easy way to build better movement patterning for bigger strength, power, and fitness lifts.

4. Enhanced Muscle Growth

Unilateral leg training can increase muscle size, neurological activity, and muscle activation, all key to increasing long term muscle growth and performance. Lunges are a great movement to add to lower body routines and functional fitness workouts to achieve all the above benefits and build serious muscle. The more lean muscle mass one has, the better odds the have to properly train those muscle fibers to promote force, increase stability, and enhance performance.

5.Injury Prevention

Better balance, coordination, muscular development, and symmetry are all key to injury prevention. Lunges, and other leg dominant unilateral exercises, are key to knee and hip health, especially in athletes and fitness goers who run, jump, sprint, lift, and compete.

Lunge vs Squats, Bulgarian Split Squats, and More

In the below section, we recap some of my previous articles that compare the lunge to other leg dominant exercises, and offer some insight how how to determine which move is best for you and your goals and needs.

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Lunge vs Squats

Both movements are key to optimal leg development, and can co-exist as two of the top leg exercises for all foals. The squat is still one of the best strength and hypertrophy lifts out there, however the lunge can be done to increase sports performance, unilateral performance, and joint integrity. You can read the very detailed comparison guide here.

Lunge vs Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat and the lunge are two very, very similar movements, both offering many of the same benefits to a lifter. Depending on the lunge variation selected, lunges may or may not be a more complex movement that the Bulgarian split squat, however generally speaking lunges are more complicated of a unilateral lower body exercises. In my comprehensive comparison guide, which you can read in depth in this article comparing the two, I suggested that you use both of these into your training program on a consistent basis.

Lunge vs Step Ups

Similar to the above comparison, the lunge is yet again a very effective lower body unilateral movement, that also has a wide array of variations (many very similar to the lunge). Generally speaking, step ups will be more complex (when done correctly) than most lunges, as the range of motion and needs for both greater strength and mobility is elevated due to the added demands of stepping onto a higher base. That said, both movements can and should be varied into a training program for best results.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this ultimate lunge guide not only riveting, but extremely helpful and jam packed with resources and gold nuggets of training wisdom.

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