Split Squat vs Lunge vs Step Up — What Are the Differences?

The split squat, lunge, and step up are three movements that are common unilateral lower body exercises to increase leg mass, enhance movement integrity, and bulletproof an athlete from injury; all of which can be specifically applied to sports performance needs.

Many coaches and athletes, however, may have some confusion as to what exercise should be performed at any given point during a training cycle. Therefore, in this article, I will go address:

  • Benefits of Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups
  • Muscles Worked by Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups
  • Differences Between Split Squats vs Lunges vs Step Ups
  • Who Should Do Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups?
  • How to Integrate Step Ups, Lunges, and Split Squats Within Your Training Program?
  • Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • and more…

Benefits of Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups

Below are three (3) benefits coaches and athletes can expect when including step ups, lunges, and split squats within training programs.

Unilateral Strength and Hypertrophy

Increase unilateral leg strength and hypertrophy can not only improve bilateral performance (for movements like squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts), but can help to address any muscular and movement imbalances that may be the cause for overuse injuries, limitations in mobility, and strength/movement plateaus.

Improved Joint Stability

Increased balance, muscle coordination, and unilateral strength and hypertrophy can all improve joint stability of the knees, hips, and ankles. Including these movements in warm up segments and/or accessory blocks can help increase your injury resilience.

Improved Running and Human Locomotion  

All three exercises require unilateral strength, muscle endurance, balance, stability, and awareness; all of which are necessary for movements like running, jumping, and sports. Integrating these movements into training programs can further enhance sports specific preparedness and force outputs in the specific patterns necessary for such activities.

Muscles Worked by Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups

Below are the primary muscle groups targeted by these three unilateral leg exercises. Note, that nearly all of these exercises target similar muscle groups, with each exercise targeting slightly different groups more/less than others.

Quadriceps

All three exercises develop the quadriceps as they all require a lifter to extend the knee as it goes into extension. Depending on the degree of knee flexion, the quadriceps can be targeted more or less. Exercises like the lunge and the step up are two that when done with greater knee flexion angles will target the quadriceps.

Glutes

The glutes are used to increase knee stability and extend the hips in all of these movements. Increased hip flexion angles, often via wider split stances or step heights, can further increase the demands placed upon the glutes.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings work to support the quadriceps and glutes as the assist in knee stability and hip extension. The more the lifter is bent forwards in the step up/lunge/split squat (increased hip flexion), the greater the loading is placed on the hamstrings.

Differences Between Split Squats vs Lunges vs Step Ups?

All three of these movements are considered unilateral lower body training exercises, in which coaches and athletes can use to address asymmetries, increase muscular development and activation, and further promote movement integrity. To learn more about what unilateral training is and how it can drastically improve injury resilience and performance, take a look at this previous article.

Level of Difficulty

The step up is one of the most regressed unilateral leg exercises that can be programmed for nearly all ability levels. For starters, the step height can be changed to meet the exact abilities of a lifter, either for strength and sticking point purposes, recovery from injury/rehab, and/or to increase muscular development throughout the fullest range of motion.

The act of stepping onto a fixed object (a step or box) allows the individuals to find balance, as well as even gain momentum into this lift.

The split squat is very similar to the lunge, however it does not require the lifter to move dynamically under load. This is a good exercise to progress from step ups yet before lunges, as it teaches proper ankle, knee, and hip joint mechanics under load while in a stationary movement.

Additionally, the lifter needs to have balance and coordination to properly execute this lift. This can be done with (Bulgarian split squat) or without a bench, both viable training options for leg development and unilateral benefits.

The lunge is one of the most complex dynamic unilateral movements around. Many lifters and trainees often perform this incorrectly, failing to properly track the ankle, knee, and hip flexion/extension patterning to best translate over to athletic sports and general movement.

The lunge not only requires the same balance and coordination as the previous two lifts, but also requires an athlete to have greater amounts of proprioception and stability while in a moving environment; therefore maximizing complexity.

Application to Sports

The step up is a great way to develop strength, muscular mass, and isolate specific joint angles (by changing the height of the step) to better individualize and meet a lifters needs. Because the complexity is slightly lower than the other two exercises, many lifters can use higher amounts of loading, making it well-suited for strength and hypertrophy development.

This is a good movement to transition towards lunges, or to isolate a specific split stance patterning to strengthening and stabilization; such as in the split jerk or staggered stances used in athletic events.

The split squat, can be used to bridge the gap between lunges and step ups, as it allows a lifter to have slightly more stability yet mimic certain movement patterns found in sport. For example, weightlifters may prefer to perform split squats and presses in the split to better familiarize and strengthen the split stance and muscle needed during a certain lift, making this another option for increased complexity and/or great specificity to sport.

Additionally, the split squat can be performed with the back foot on a bench (Bulgarian Split Squat) to increase complexity and demand upon the lead leg.

The lunge is a very good movement for overall athletic development, hypertrophy, and real-world strength. Because lunging is very similar to other forms of human locomotion (uphill walking, sprinting, sports, etc) it can have a strong correlation with movement and performance, making this a very common staple for most athletes at all levels (assuming they have properly been progressed to meet the demands of this complex movement.

Muscle Recruitment Differences

Depending on the degree of knee and hip flexion (done by altering the box height), coaches and athletes can easily manipulate what muscle groups will be primarily working.

For shorter heights, knee flexion will be the primary mover, making quadriceps and some glute to be active, whereas deeper steps will increase glute and total leg development, very similar to squats.

I have found the split squat to target the quadriceps muscle dramatically, with increased loading done when the front foot is elevated. Split squats will have a slightly limited range of motion depending on the height and depth between the lifters back knee and the floor, however this can be manipulated (a wider stance, where the front foot is stretched out further in front) to better target and elongate the hamstring and glutes.

Depending on the length of each step, a lifter can increase overall leg development, target the quads (shorter steps), or really isolate the hamstrings and glutes (longer steps). The lounge will also allow for a good amount of loading, making this a prime mover for some serious mass development. Beware however, that there is a very strong eccentric aspect to this lift, which can lead to high amounts of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Who Should Do Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups?

Below are three common groups of individuals that can benefit from including step ups, lunges, and split squats within training programs.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes rely heavily on lower body leg strength, muscle mass, and movement performance. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts can be enhanced by the inclusion of these exercises in accessory blocks; as they can help to address muscle imbalances and minimize overuse injury often not addressed in bilateral leg exercises.

Sport and Endurance Athletes

Sport athletes and runners (as well as endurance athletes as a whole) can benefit from including unilateral leg exercises within training programs. Increased unilateral leg strength, improved balance and stability, and enhanced muscular development in sports specific patterns are just a few of the benefits of unilateral leg training for runners and sports athletes.

General Fitness and Wellness

All three exercises offer general fitness goers and active individuals the benefits of lower body strength, joint stability, and muscular development in the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Additionally, all three exercises can be used to increase unilateral leg strength and performance and minimize muscular imbalances and movement asymmetries that could lead to overuse injury over time if left unaddressed.

How to Integrate Step Ups, Lunges, and Split Squats Within Your Training Program?

Below are three (3) ways to integrate these three unilateral leg exercises within your current training program. You can find further set, repetition, and intensity recommendations in the following section.

Movement Prep

Each one of these exercises can be integrated into movement preparation segments to prime movements like squats, deadlifts, and human movement (running, jumping, etc). Many of these can also be built into dynamic warm ups and/or paired with resistance bands to enhance neuromuscular patterning (such as with reactive neuromuscular training)

Strength Blocks

As discussed below, these three exercises can be used as the primary strengthening exercises for athletes and individuals. While squats and other bilateral exercises are key for developing overall leg strength, unilateral exercises like step ups, lunges, and split squats can be used as primary strength exercises when looking to increased unilateral strength, address movement and muscle imbalances, or during rehabilitation periods.

Accessory Exercises

All three exercises can and should be integrated within training programs to increase unilateral strength, movement patterning, and joint stability. Failure to integrate unilateral exercises within training programs could result in overuse injury, muscular imbalances, and movement asymmetries which could then impact overall strength, power, and fitness performance.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Recommendations

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the split squat, lunge, and step up into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program these three unilateral leg exercises.

Strength – Reps and Sets

For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 3-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Which Unilateral Leg Exercise is the Best?

All three exercises offer athletes and coaches benefits of increase leg strength and muscle hypertrophy, joint stability, and application to sports and movement like running, jumping, and more. Coaches and athletes can integrate the above exercises within training programs equally to best develop a well-rounded lower body program.

Featured Image: @curry0531 on Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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