Building Strength, Size, and Stability in the Legs
Lunges are undoubtedly one of the leg-based exercises for improving single-leg strength, athletic performance, balance, and coordination.
Not only is the lunge a very simple exercise to perform, there is also a wide range of lunging variations that can be added into your training program.
This article will discuss the benefits associated with this exercise and look at a number of effectual lunge exercise variations.
Lunging Benefits & Muscles Worked
The movements involved in the lunge activate a wide range of muscles throughout the body. Be aware that specific variations will work certain muscles more heavily than others.
Generally speaking, the lunge is a hip and knee dominant movement (1) that requires work from the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.
Core musculature also must engage in order to stabilize the trunk as the knee drops down towards the floor.
So, what exactly are the specific benefits associated with working these muscle groups in this fashion?
1) Improved Single-Leg Balance & Coordination
Although both feet are in contact with the floor during the lunge, the exercise is really a unilateral (single-limb) exercise as the drive comes primarily from the leading leg.
In addition, the small base of support that is associated with the lunge also increases the demand for core stability, positional awareness, and joint & muscle coordination.
Unilateral training is an excellent way of developing proprioception which simply relates to the nervous systems control over movement and includes things like balance, coordination, and stability.
This makes the lunge a great accessory exercise for lifters who are primarily on two feet. For example, regularly performing the lunge can facilitate a greater performance in a squat.
Furthermore, all athletes who participate in foundational human movements such as running, jumping, and sprinting can find the lunge to be of great benefit.
2) Building Strong Glutes
As mentioned with the previous point, lunging can facilitate performance and enhance movement efficiency.
Considering that the glutes are the muscles primarily responsible for hip extension, it should be clear that they play a pivotal role in the majority of these movements.
As a result, it is crucial that the glutes are regularly targeted in strength training. Building strong and powerful glutes will have a positive impact on how you perform in the gym or on the field.
In addition, strong glutes will take a lot of the strain off the lower back thus reducing the risk of sustaining an injury or developing low back issues (2).
3) Addressing Asymmetries and Imbalances
As mentioned in the first point, the lunge exercise places the majority of the demand on the front leg meaning that both legs must work individually.
Lifters who are constantly performing bilateral exercises such as deadlifts, squats, and leg presses, may develop strength imbalances between limbs (often without realizing it).
These imbalances and asymmetries have the potential to cause injury, inhibit performance and cause a range of issues with movement and mobility.
Single leg improvements through lunges can help to eradicate any imbalances or asymmetries that exist and consequently have a positive impact on movement and strength.
4) Accelerated Muscle Growth
Adding lunges into your training is an excellent way to increase muscle growth in the legs.
Unilateral exercises like lunges, cause a large degree of muscle activation and neurological activity (3) – a key components for muscle growth.
As a consequence, adding lunges into your training as an accessory exercise can help to increase overall training volume and bring about improvements in size.
For the athlete or lifter, building lean muscle can have a positive effect on force generation & stability, therefore enhancing athletic performance.
5) Reduced Risk of Injury
Improving proprioceptive abilities, such as stability, balance, and coordination, can effectively reduce the likelihood of experiencing an injury (4).
In addition, strengthening the muscles of the legs with exercises like the lunge can promote general knee and hip health.
Having healthy joints is important for everyone, however, it is of even greater significance for the athlete if they aspire to remain injury-free.
5 Lunging Variations for Strength and Performance
This section will detail 5 common lunge variations can be used to efficiently develop strength, size, proprioception, and performance.
Be aware that the type of equipment you use with each variation is dependant on your training goal; a wide range of equipment can be used for the majority of the following exercises.
1) Front Lunge
In a similar way to the split lunge, the front lunge is a great exercise for maximally loading the quads.
The exercise very simply involves stepping forward and into a lunge which places a great load on the front leg.
Once the back knee has dropped down toward the floor, the quads must powerfully contract to extend the knee and bring you back up to standing.
This variation places less of a demand on the glutes and hamstrings, therefore, select a different variation if the training goal is posterior chain development.
2) Reverse Lunge
As the name suggests, the reverse lunge is the opposite of a front lunge and involves stepping back into a lunge.
This change of technique places more of a demand on the glutes and hamstrings as they are heavily loaded through the eccentric phase of the movement.
Once stepping back and dropping down, you must then drive powerfully through the front leg to step forward and return to the starting position.
To increase the demand on the hamstrings and glutes, take a bigger backward step. The bigger the distance between the feet, the greater the range of motion and consequent demand.
3) Lateral Lunge
The lateral variation is an excellent choice for the athlete as it is imperative that they are strong in multiple planes of motion.
This variation involves stepping out to the side and bending only the leading leg which places greater stress on the adductors and glutes.
The movement is superb for promoting hip health, building knee stability and developing muscle size.
As well as building strength in a non-sagittal plane, this exercise can also effectively develop movement efficiency, hip function, and reduce the risk of injury to the knee and hip.
4) Crossover Lunge
The crossover lunge is one of the more technical lunging variations which combines the front/reverse lunge and the lateral lunge. Note that this variation can be performed either to the front or back.
Many of the benefits associated with this variation are the same as the aforementioned exercises – improved force generation, stability, and proprioception.
However, the crossover lunge does have a unique benefit in that joint mobility and integrity are highly challenged through this movement which can lead to a reduction in injury risk.
5) Walking Lunge
Finally, the walking lunge is one of the most common variations that is used for challenging strength, balance, mobility, and coordination while in motion.
For this exercise, the lifter must be competent in terms of proprioception and joint stability otherwise the risk of injury may increase.
There are many forces in play during the walking lunge which increases the demand for stability. As a result, the core must work particularly hard throughout the duration of the movement to maintain control.
Walking lunges are a great addition to any strength program and they will facilitate gains in strength and assist in improving performance.
Lunges vs Other Leg Exercises
In this final section, the lunge will be compared to a number of common lower extremity strength-based exercises to help you determine which exercise matches your goals and abilities.
Lunge vs Squats
There is no doubt that both of these exercises are key for building strength, size and stability throughout the body.
The squat is clearly one of the best exercises in existence for leg strength and hypertrophy. The lunge can also be used for this purpose and may be seen as slightly superior for developing athleticism.
Lunge vs Bulgarian Split Squat
If you compare the movements involved in the lunge and the bulgarian split squat, it will become apparent that they are very similar.
The lunge tends to be more complex than the Bulgarian split squat, however, this is dependent on the lunge variation that has been selected.
Both exercises bring the benefits associated with unilateral training and are both highly effective. As a result, it is recommended to use both the lunge and Bulgarian split squat in your training.
Lunge vs Step Ups
Finally, the step up is another useful unilateral exercise that is commonly used to strengthen the glutes and quads while simultaneously improving stability.
Typically, the step up is slightly more challenging than the lunge as it demands a greater range of motion and level of strength.
As with the bulgarian split squat, it may be beneficial to utilize both exercises in your workouts to maximize strength and proprioceptive improvements.
The lunge is foundational accessory exercise that should play a role in most athlete’s training. Regularly performing lunges can bring about substantial improvements in muscular strength & size and cause an array of neurological adaptations.
1-Riemann, Bryan L.; Lapinski, Shelley; Smith, Lyndsay; Davies, George (2012-8). “Biomechanical Analysis of the Anterior Lunge During 4 External-Load Conditions”. Journal of Athletic Training. 47 (4): 372–378. ISSN 1062-6050. PMC 3396296. PMID 22889652.
2-Jeong, Ui-Cheol; Sim, Jae-Heon; Kim, Cheol-Yong; Hwang-Bo, Gak; Nam, Chan-Woo (2015-12). “The effects of gluteus muscle strengthening exercise and lumbar stabilization exercise on lumbar muscle strength and balance in chronic low back pain patients”. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 27 (12): 3813–3816. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.3813. ISSN 0915-5287. PMC 4713798. PMID 26834359.
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4-Riva, Dario; Bianchi, Roberto; Rocca, Flavio; Mamo, Carlo (2016-2). “Proprioceptive Training and Injury Prevention in a Professional Men’s Basketball Team: A Six-Year Prospective Study”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 30 (2): 461–475. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001097. ISSN 1064-8011. PMC 4750505. PMID 26203850