Single-leg lower body exercises like the lunge and split squat are fantastic because they come with a ton of variety and provide handfuls of benefits.
It’s fairly easy to see the main differences between the lunge and split squat from a mechanics vantage point, however, the differences in the adaptations produced when loading is changed is much more subtle. For example, if someone is holding a dumbbell on their contralateral side, how does the change muscle activity for the exercise, if at all?
In this article, we’re going to discuss how changing the unilateral loading style in the lunge and split squat can produce slightly different adaptations.
Ipsilateral Vs Contralateral Split Squats and Lunges
When loading the lunge or split squat with one dumbbell, kettlebell, etc., the side you place the weight on will be referred to as ipsilateral and contralateral.
- Ipsilateral: Loading will be on the same side as the planted leg.
- Contralateral: Loading will be on the opposite side of the planted leg.
Understanding the difference is important because it can facilitate better programming for more specific goals.
Before we dive into a few of the difference between these forms of loading, it’s worth recognizing that form and mechanics for the split squat and lunge need to proficient for any of the below to really matter. Brush up on each exercise with our guides linked below:
Differences They Can Produce
The differences that each loading methodology can produce relates to how the body responds to external loads. For an example, stand upright and hold a dumbbell in the right hand and notice the left side of your body — what happens?
The left oblique contracts and the glutes and left side of the body tighten up to maintain the body’s balance and equilibrium. To take it a step further, we can look at the main muscle’s actions at play in our example. The oblique’s main functions are side bending and rotation of the trunk. The external load pulling the torso to the right causes the left oblique to resist rotation and anti side bend.
If we keep this in mind, then we can assess the lower body and make the best judgements possible when programming ipsilateral and contralateral loading split squats and lunges.
Lunge and Split Squat Primary Movers
- Glute Maximus: External rotation and extension of hips
- Glute Medius: Abducts thigh, anterior fibers medially rotate the thigh, posterior fibers laterally rotate the hip
- Vastus Lateralis: Knee extension
- Vastus Medialis: Knee extension
- Vastus Intermedius: Knee extension
- Rectus Femoris: Knee extension and hip flexion
- Semitendonsous: Knee flexion, assists with hip extension, helps with medial knee rotation
- Semaimembranosous: Knee flexion, assists with hip extension, helps with medial knee rotation
- Biceps Femoris: Knee flexion, long head assists with hip extension, and lateral knee rotation
Secondary muscles like the adductors, obliques, abdominals, calves, and tibialis anterior will also be active during various ranges of motion for the split squat and lunge.
For another example, let’s say we’re performing split squats on the right leg and we’re using a contralateral load (left hand is holding the weight).
The left sided external load will be pulling the body in that direction, so to maintain equilibrium muscles like the right glute medius and right obliques will generally feel more tension due to them working against the opposing force to maintain position. The glute medius will be working to resist the medial rotation of the hip and obliques will be resisting side bending and rotation.
From the Research
For an example in a research setting, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2015 compared the differences in muscle activity between ipsilateral and contralateral loading in the split squat and lunge. (1)
Authors has both resistance trained and non-resistance trained individuals perform ipsilateral and contralateral split squats and walking lunges with 5-RM loads. Four muscles were looked at in this study and these include the vastus lateralis, vastus medialias, glute medius, and biceps femoris.
Following the exercise intervention, authors noted a few similarities and differences between the groups. Both split squats conditions and the ipsilateral walking lunges had similar levels of activation for the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, glute medius and biceps femoris.
Interestingly, the non-resistance trained individuals displayed less range of motion compared to the resistance trained group in the walking lunges, but not the split squat. In addition, the contralateral walking lunge group saw higher vastus lateralis and glute medius activation during the eccentric loading pattern.
Authors suggested that this discrepancy between the split squat and walking lunge likely had to do with the landing phase of the walking lunge and how the muscles interact when maintaining positioning. They also point out that the decreased range of motion in the walking lunge for non-resistance trained individuals indicates that the split squat is a better variation for this population to begin with.
Lunge and Split Squat Programming
Both the split squat and lunge are fantastic for building the legs, however, contralateral loading may provide a slight edge when it comes to glute medius and vastus lateralis activity. The type of lunge and split squat can also alter adaptations so that should also be taken into consideration when programming.
- For athletes that play sports that require torso and unilateral lower body stability, then contralateral loading might be the better option for achieving the most bang for your buck, however, ipsilateral also works great. It really depends on the context of your sport and potential imbalances.
- For recreational lifters that want to simply improve across the board, then use both ipsilateral and contralateral loading options and rotate them on a block by block basis.
- For glute medius strength specifically, contralateral loads have generally been recommended as the better bet.
At the end of the day, use both options and rotate them through your program based on current training goals.
1. Stastny, P., Lehnert, M., Zaatar, A., Svoboda, Z., & Xaverova, Z. (2015). Does the Dumbbell-Carrying Position Change the Muscle Activity in Split Squats and Walking Lunges?. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 29(11), 3177-3187.
Feature image from Djordje Mustur/Shutterstock