Lunge Vs. Split Squat — What’s the Main Difference?

Lunges and split squats have a ton of benefits for every type of athlete!

The lunge and split squat are both popular unilateral lower body training exercises for every level of fitness athlete. Both of these movements are great for lower body strength, endurance, and hypertrophy, so how do you choose which is best for you?  To the beginner, these movements can seem eerily similar, but there are a couple major differences between them.

To help you out and assist when trying to program lunges and split squats, we made a video covering the major differences between the two movements. Long story short, if you want to build bigger, stronger legs, then it’s a good idea to perform both the lunge and split squat and program them based off of your current workout’s goals.

Lunge Vs. Split Squat Differences

Difference #1 — The Movement Itself

The first major difference between these two movements is the way in which they are performed. The lunge will be performed walking or with a step forwards, backwards, and sideways, while the split squat is static. This makes the lunge slightly more dynamic and the split squat a more static movement.

No matter the direction in which you are stepping, the lunge will utilize both legs pretty equally to successfully complete a successful rep. Note, this will vary slightly based on direction, but both legs will be more active compared to the split squat. This makes the lunge a great option for those trying to target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, as the stepping motion requires a push and pull from the opposing legs to complete reps.

The split squat will primarily work the front leg, while the back leg remains close to rest. Note, the back leg will always be slightly active, however, it will be active in the sense of simply serving as an anchor to promote stability. Typically, coaches will recommend putting anywhere from 80%-90% of one’s emphasis on the front leg and allow the back leg to rest comfortably.

Lunge Vs. Split Squat
Lunge Vs. Split Squat

Difference #2 — The Intent of Their Performance

The second — are arguably most important — difference that closely shadows the first is the intent in which you are using each movement. We mentioned it briefly above, but the lunge and split squat will be slightly better at targeting different muscle groups based on how they’re performed.

Lunges and Muscles Worked

  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings

Split Squats and Muscles Worked

  • Glutes 
  • Quadriceps

The lunge is great for targeting the lower body musculature as a whole, while the split squat is phenomenal for quadriceps isolation. It’s not mentioned in the lists above, but both movements will also each have carry over to the smaller pelvis stabilizer muscles as well.

Outside of intent for targeting certain muscle groups, the lunge and split squat can also be performed in different situations based on various needs. The lunge is a great option for beginners and athletes trying to perform unilateral training in a variety of ways, and the split squat is a great tool for teaching unilateral movements in general to beginners. 

Benefits of the Lunge and Split Squat

There are multiple benefits that come along with performing lunges and split squats for every type of athlete. These benefits will have carryover for each movement, and every level of fitness can employ them to their advantage.

1. Balance Asymmetries

The first benefit that comes with performing lunges and split squats is their ability to balance and highlight potential asymmetries in the lower body. Like most unilateral movements, these exercises can be great at bringing attention to lagging or weaker areas on the body.

  • Example: If one legs goes valgus and the other does not during a lunge, then there may be issues worth exploring with the glutes on the valgus side of the body.
Lunge and Split Squat Benefits
Lunge and Split Squat Benefits

2. Great for Any Fitness Level

Whether you’re brand new to lifting, or you’re an experienced powerlifter, unilateral training has a ton of upside in any program. Lunges and split squats can help improve lower body hypertrophy, muscle, and endurance, which will have carryover to multiple athletic endeavors and outside of the gym activities.

3. Can Be Performed Anywhere

Lunges and split squats can be performed with one’s bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells, so they’re incredibly easy to perform in any setting. If you’re on the road, or at your normal gym, then there’s a good chance you can perform at least one variation of the lunge and split squat.

4. Improve Balance and Coordination

As with any movement that limits points of contact, or shifts the body in unconventional ways, the lunge and split squat can also be useful for improving balance and coordination. Walking lunges and rear foot elevated split squats are two variations that will not only improve muscle and strength, but also proprioception, which can have carryover to multiple aspects in life.

Which Is Best?

There is really no true “best” when it comes to deciding between the lunge and split squat. Both the lunge and split squat hold plenty of benefits — it really comes down to how you want to use them and the intent in which you are.

  • Goal = Balance, coordination, and overall leg growth — Lunge
  • Goal = Isolation of the quadriceps — Split Squat
  • Goal = Improve lower body strength and work capacity — Lunge & Split Squat

One way to think about these movements is to consider how you want to use them, as this can then suggest which will be “best” in your current training plan.