Lunges, along with squats, are among the most well-known and popular leg and glute exercises. It is a basic exercise, but has many variations that allow you to target different muscle groups in the legs. Proper and regular practice of lunges helps in injury prevention, and they are also often part of rehabilitation after injuries. It is a functional exercise that mimics the movement of everyday activities such as walking, running, or climbing and descending stairs
, thus preparing us for them.
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What are lunges and what muscle groups do lunges strengthen?
Lunges are a unilateral exercise, meaning they are performed on one side, allowing any asymmetries in leg strength to be compensated for better than squats, for example. During lunges, many muscles are working not only on the movement itself, but also on maintaining balance:
- Quadriceps femoris muscle
- Gluteal muscles
- Calf muscles
- Abdominal muscles
- Trunk extensors
In addition to strengthening the muscles, stretching occurs, especially improving the flexibility of the tailoring muscle, which is often shortened in people with sedentary jobs. Moving one leg activates the stabilising muscles, developing balance, coordination and equilibrium.
Forward lunges are the most common variation of lunges.
They involve stepping forward and then lowering the whole body towards the ground and returning to the starting position.
For beginners, the biggest challenge is controlling the speed of impact and stability while performing the exercise. With practice, the initial phase of the exercise becomes easier
. The lunge itself then consists of two phases. The first is the eccentric phase, in which the muscles lengthen under tension and control the downward movement. The quadriceps direct the impact and, along with the hamstrings and gluteal muscles, control the speed and balance of the descent.
The second phase is the step back upwards and backwards, or returning to an upright position. This is where the dynamic push-off occurs. This phase is concentric and involves muscle contraction. As this movement requires quite a lot of muscle work, the exercise is very effective in terms of strengthening the lower limbs.
How to perform a proper lunge?
- Start in an upright standing position with your feet hip-width apart.
- Take a step forward longer than a normal walking stride, so one leg is in front of your torso and the other is behind your torso. The foot of the front leg should hit the ground and remain flat throughout the exercise. The heel of the hind foot is lifted during the downward movement.
- Bend the knees to about 90°. Keep the knee of the back leg not touching the ground (but not far from the ground!), keep the torso upright, and engage the abdominal muscles.
- Then forcefully push off the front leg and return to the starting position.
How to prevent injuries during lunges
What to watch out for:
- The knee of the front leg should not extend beyond the toe even in the lowest position
- The knee of the back leg should not hit the ground
- The hips should be symmetrical, about the same height on both sides
- Don’t forget the trunk muscles, the upper body should be straight, upright, abdominals activated and pelvis supported.
- Feet should be shoulder width apart in both positions
Forward lunges are generally the safest as you have the most control over the movement. Backward lunges often result in a loss of balance and sideways lunges can cause a strain to the inner thighs or groin.
Lunge variations – how to strengthen your legs and shape your butt
Stationary lunge (split squat)
The stationary lunge is great for beginners. This variation omits the lunge step, so it is suitable for individuals with knee pain or after an injury. As with the forward lunge, this variation primarily targets the medial and lateral quadriceps.
- Stand up, step forward as if you are about to go into a lunge, but stay in a high stance, lifting the heel of the back foot. This is the starting position.
- Lower to the ground by bending both knees to about a 90° angle. Do not place the knee of the back foot completely on the ground. The thigh of the front leg should be parallel to the mat.
- The upward movement should start from the gluteal muscles and continue by engaging the quadriceps until the knees are straight
If the regular lunge is too easy for you, you can try a lunge with a jump. From the lowest position, push off into a lunge with all your strength, switch leg positions and land again into a lunge with the opposite leg in front. However, lunges are much more difficult!
In a backward lunge, the back leg moves in contrast to a forward lunge. As this is a backward movement, there is more emphasis on the gluteal muscles and the back of the thighs. This variation is also healthier for the knees.
- Start standing with feet hip width apart
- Take a step back longer than your walking stride so that one foot stays in front of your torso and the other is behind. The back foot should rest on the ball of the toes with the heel raised.
- Bend the knees to about 90° and lower to the ground. Remember to keep a straight back and an activated mid-body.
- The back leg will help with the bounce, but most of the work to return to the original position is done with the front (standing) leg.
The backward lunge is technically lighter than the forward lunge, the centre of gravity remains on the front leg and therefore the movement is easier to master. Beginners should focus on improving their backward lunge technique before moving on to forward lunges.
Lateral lunge (sideways lunge)
The lateral lunge is a sideways lunge instead of a backward or forward lunge. In this variation, the hip adductors and medial quadriceps are strengthened more.
- Start standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Step out wide to the side, the foot of the other leg should not lift off the mat.
- Keep the knee of the stepped leg bent and the other leg extended. The body will naturally lean slightly forward in this position, so the shoulders will be in front of the knee as opposed to lunging forward and backward.
- Forcefully push off with the foot to the starting position
Lateral lunges are great for developing balance
, stability and strength. The emphasis here is on the outside and inside of the thighs, cellulite can be alleviated. Although the same muscles are exercised, the movement is performed differently and the muscles work in a slightly different way. Try paying attention to the outside of the thighs and purposefully activate these muscles when performing this variation.
This lunge variation is a great way to target the gluteus medius and hip adductors (inner thighs). The gluteus medius works as a stabilizer for the pelvis when the legs are crossed, and the adductors maintain this position when moving down and up.
- Start standing with feet hip width apart.
- Cross your foot behind the other foot and backwards, with the heel of the straddling foot not touching the ground
- Bend both legs at the knees until the thigh of the front leg is parallel to the ground. Keep your torso upright, center of body activated, and move your knees in the direction of the foot
- Push into both feet simultaneously and straighten knees while lifting rear foot back to starting position
Curtsy lunges are especially great for strengthening and sculpting the butt. Strong gluteal muscles are important for proper posture, as well as for preventing and relieving back and knee pain.
Commonly, lunges in walking are performed facing forward (described below) but can also be performed facing backwards. You will need a good sense of balance and coordination. Among other things, this variation focuses on the middle of the body and improves range of motion.
- Start standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Step forward and bend both knees until they are at approximately 90°, with the front thigh horizontal with the floor.
- Shift your weight to your front leg.
- Push up from both legs, step forward. As in normal walking, switch front and back legs.
There is also a variation of these lunges where one does not continue straight into the next lunge, but stops again standing in the starting position. It is then possible to either switch legs or continue with the same leg before using the other leg to perform the same number of repetitions as the first. This version is easier and requires less balance than the traditional lunge walk.
A great twist on lunges is the sliding lunge. You’ll need a smooth floor and a paper plate, towel, or weighted slider (sliding disc).
- Start standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Keep the toe bellies of one foot on the plate/slider/hand
- Do not fully extend the knee of the shifting leg, the weight should be on the static leg for the most part and the knee of the front leg should not extend past the toe.
- Slowly slide the leg on the plate behind you until the thigh of the static leg is horizontal with the mat, then retract the leg again.
This variation of lunges presents a greater challenge to the abdominal muscles and quadriceps femoris. Be sure to perform the exercise correctly and only perform it in a range that maintains good form. Of course, the sliding disc can also be used for side lunges, or “curtsy lunges”.
Lunges with dumbbells
Lunges can also be performed with weights, which is very useful if regular lunges are too easy for you (at the point where you can perform, say, 30 lunges in a row without any problems). For a beginner or for a significantly overweight person, there is typically no need to add weight. If you want to increase the load, start with less weight than for a squat or deadlift.
The type of load can also vary. You can hold two one-handed dumbbells, one heavier one-handed dumbbell in both hands in front of your body, or a large dumbbell on your shoulders. Holding the weight on your shoulders will work your midsection muscles and trunk extensors more.
Lunges can then be combined into a variety of compound exercises. For example, you can add a biceps lift to a lunge to exercise the upper limbs. For a deeper activation of the midsection and gluteal muscles, you can add a trunk rotation.
The most common mistakes during lunges
- Too deep a lunge – concentrate on the correct execution rather than the length of the lunge. The knee of the front leg should not extend over the toe, ideally it should be roughly flush with the ankle, and the thigh should be horizontal with the mat. The movement should lead down and then back up, rather than forward (moving the body too far forward often puts the knee of the front leg over the top of the foot). For better form, it may help to slightly tuck the pelvis.
- Rolling the knee of the back foot – this is a common mistake, caused either by pre-existing bad habits or by trying to get a better balance. However, turning the knee out or in leads to pain and possible injury. The knee of the back leg should point towards the ground throughout the movement.
- Too wide or narrow stance – the distance of the feet in the lunge varies for everyone, based on height, leg length and what you are comfortable with. However, having your feet too close or too far apart causes more instability and can put more pressure on your knees. Check your stance by going into a lunge with the knee of your back foot on the ground (preferably on a soft surface). Make sure both knees are at about a 90° angle. If not, adjust your stance.