Learn the Lunge for Better Balance and More Leg Muscle

Strength athletes of all levels will benefit from the lunge. Here's how to do it.

The lunge — arguably one of the best lower body exercises one can do — builds leg muscle, strength, and coordination. And 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 forward with one leg, then driving back upwards to return to the starting position. It’s basic, easy to execute, and very effective. 

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the lunge, including:

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Lunge Video Guide

BarBend‘s former training editor Jake Boly walks you through the right way to do a lunge, plus mistakes to look out for and variations, in the video below. 

How to Do the Lunge

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

Lunge Step 1

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.

Tip: Establish your stride length (step target) 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

Lunge Step 2

Once your foot is firmly planted on the ground, allow the front (lead) knee to drive forward — aiming between the first and second toe — as the back knee sinks straight down to the floor.

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 — Drive Through Floor and Return to the Start

Lunge Step 1

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.

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.

Benefits of the Lunge

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. We’ll go over more of those below, but this movement’s pure versatility alone is a benefit as it’s accessible to both beginners and more seasoned lifters and athletes. 

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.

Muscles Worked by the Lunge

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.

Man doing forward lunge
Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Glutes

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.

Adductors

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.

Quads

Alongside training muscles around the hip joint, the lunge heavily involves the knee joint, which puts a lot of tension on the quad muscles.

Hamstrings

Strong hamstrings may not directly impact your lunge performance, but they play an important role in stabilizing the respective joints being loaded.

Who Should Do the Lunge

Here’s a breakdown of the different populations that can and how they can benefit from the lunge.

Bodybuilding and General Fitness

The lunge is a popular bodybuilding exercise because it targets each leg individually and places a lot of tension on the quads and glutes.

Strength and Power Athletes

Improving the strength and size of the glutes, quads, and adductors is key to many strength and power athletes’ success. These sports require movements like the back squat, deadlifts, clean and jerk, and many other movements that require significant amounts of leg strength.

CrossFit Athletes and Sports Training

CrossFit athletes and those training for sport can use the lunge within their programming to help increase lower body strength and muscle mass, especially in their quads, glutes, and adductors. 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 Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Here are general set and rep guidelines or folks looking to build strength, muscle, and conditioning using the lunge. 

For More Muscle

It is suggested to train across a wide range of rep ranges and training volumes to maximize muscle growth. Do three to five sets of six to 12 reps with moderate weight. You can also manipulate training tempos — like slowing down the eccentric or pausing at the bottom — to increase time under tension for the quads, glutes, and adductors.

For More Endurance

To increase the lunge’s endurance — or metabolic demand — you can do three to five sets of 12-20 reps with low to moderate weight.

For More Strength

Because the lunge is a unilateral move, we don’t suggest lifting maximally. Instead, use it as an accessory to your strength movements. Do three to six sets of four to six reps with moderate to heavy weight

Lunge Variations and Alternatives

They are a lot of ways to alter, progress, and regress the lunge. Here are four alternatives and variations plus directions on how to create your own variation of this stellar leg exercise. 

Reverse Lunge

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.

Walking Lunge

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.

Lateral Lunge

The lateral lunge is performed by stepping directly out to the side, then standing up to return to one’s starting position. The lateral lunge is awesome because it challenges the muscles around the hip responsible for internal and external rotation of the leg. 

Drop Lunge 

This lunge variation helps place more challenge on the glute max (the largest glute muscle) by allowing for a larger stretch and range of motion. The drop lunge is performed by placing both feet on an elevated box, then dropping one foot diagonally behind your body as you bring your belly button to your inner quad before returning to the start position. Once you’re back in the starting position, repeat all steps on the opposing leg. 

Create Your Own Variation

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.

FAQs

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.

More Exercise Guides

The lunge is a great exercise, but it’s just one of many. Here are some other popular exercise guides from BarBend

Featured image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock