Lunges are an exercise you probably include in your routine, yet, you may not realize all the benefits you get when you do lunges and lunge variations. You probably think of lunges as an exercise that mainly targets the quadriceps muscles, the muscles in the front of your thighs. It’s true that the standard lunge is quadriceps focused but when you do this power move you’re also working your hamstrings, glutes, and calves as well. Even your core gets in on the action since it acts as a stabilizer when you lunge. Just as importantly, you can also tweak this familiar exercise to better target certain areas. Let’s look at some of the fitness benefits you get when you lunge.
It’s a Functional Movement
You probably weight train to change the composition of your body, for enhanced muscle definition and to shed fat, but, in the bigger scheme of things, functional fitness is just as important. Functional exercises are ones that mimic the daily movements you do in everyday life. It’s not hard to see how lunging with weights improves functionality. When you lunge, you’re mimicking movements you make when you walk or run.
You might think that squats are the king of functional exercises but lunging might steal that prize. Whether you want to be better at sports or improve your ability to carry out the tasks you do every day, lunges will help you accomplish your goal. Plus, if you do forward lunges, reverse lunges, AND lateral lunges, you build functional strength in the sagittal and frontal planes of motion. It’s good to work your body in different planes of motion.
It’s a Compound Exercise
Compound exercises are those that work more than one muscle group or joint. Not only are compound exercises more effective for improving functional strength, but they also burn more calories and elicit more of a metabolic response than isolation exercises, like triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and biceps curls. These exercises only work a single muscle group. That’s why compound exercises should make up the bulk of your workout, especially if you want to see real change. Isolation exercises are helpful for correcting imbalances but you get more return for the time you spend when the bulk of your moves are compound.
If you’ve ever tried to hold weights in your hands and lunge deeply, you know it challenges your balance skills. Unlike squats, where your feet are spaced at least shoulder level apart, your feet are close together when you lunge. That creates a balance challenge and a chance to improve your sense of balance through repetition.
What if you feel shaky or off-balance when you lunge? If it’s difficult to balance when you do lunges, increase the distance between your feet when you lunge. This gives you a more stable platform. As you become more confident, you can bring your feet closer together. Another trick is to focus on a spot in front of you when you lunge. It also helps to wear a pair of shoes that offer good foot and leg support.
If you have balance issues, start with static lunges where you lunge up and down without stepping forward or backward. Static lunges are easier from a balance standpoint. Over time, work up to doing forward and backward lunges.
Helps Lengthen Hip Flexors
What happens when you sit all day? Your hip flexors shorten and our glutes and hamstrings lengthen and become lazy. As a result, you could end up with chronic back pain. Lunges can help. As you lower into a lunge, you dynamically lengthen your hip flexors. Of course, if you have tight hip flexors, you’ll need other stretches, especially if you spend lots of time sitting, but lunges are a good place to start. To further compensate for tight hip flexors, strengthen your glutes. The best way to do this is to go deeper into a lunge. If you lunge superficially, you’re mostly working your legs. The deeper you go, the more you recruit your glute muscles. Also, do reverse lunges. Forward lunges target the quadriceps more while reverse lunges hit your glutes.
Squats are one of the most effective lower body exercises but they work both sides of your body equally. If you have more development in your lower body on one side, you can correct it by targeting the weak side using lunges, since lunges are a unilateral exercise.
How to Take Lunges Up a Notch
Once you’ve mastered static, forward, reverse, and lateral lunges, try a few lunge variations. Walking lunges add an additional balance and cardiovascular element and burn more calories than lunges where you stay in one place. When you walk and lunge, especially holding dumbbells, you target your glutes and hamstrings more. To place more emphasis on your quads, shorten your steps. Increase the calorie burn and work more body parts by doing biceps curls or overhead presses as you lunge. Warning: This is an advanced move.
Another advanced variation that adds a greater balance challenge and increases hip mobility is to elevate your back leg on a riser when you do a “static” lunge. This variation is ideal for targeting the glutes. Finally, you can develop greater power in your lower body and burn more calories with jumping lunges. You’ll also elevate your heart rate more.
To do a jumping lunge, get into a lunge position with your right leg in front. Lunge down to 90 degrees and jump into the air while switching the position of your legs. When you land, your left leg should be in front. Without resting, repeat the movement for 30 seconds while switching the position of your legs back and forth.
The Bottom Line
This is by no means an exhaustive rundown of lunge variations – there are more. The purpose is to motivate you to do lunges regularly and then tackle more advanced variations. If you’re trying to strengthen your hamstrings (most women have weaker hamstrings than glutes), do more reverse lunges, go deeper, and elevate your rear leg when you lunge. Whatever you do, make sure lunges are part of your lower body routine.
On Fitness November/December 2010. “Lunge for Powerful, Athletic Legs”
J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):972-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00d98.