Build Stronger Legs With the Perfect Lunge — Here's How

Lunges strengthen your entire lower body and challenge your balance, making them one of the most functional exercises.
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Lunges are one of the most effective exercises for building lean and strong legs. Best of all, they mimic many activities we do in daily life, like walking and climbing stairs. But doing lunges correctly is key to getting the most out of this lower-body move.

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Here, we dive deep into lunges and explain exactly how to use them in your workouts for the best possible results.

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  • What type of exercise is a lunge?‌ A lunge is a lower-body pushing exercise where you step away from your body, drop your knee toward the floor and then drive back to a standing position. Lunges are a unilateral movement, meaning you primarily use one side of your body.
  • What muscles do lunges target?‌ The primary muscles used in lunges are your quadriceps and glutes.Your core muscles also play a key role in helping you maintain your posture as you lunge. Other lower body muscles, including your hamstrings and calves, are secondary.
  • Are lunges good for your knees?‌ Learning to safely and efficiently perform lunges can build strength and stability in your legs and core, both of which can help protect your knees.
  • Who can do lunges?‌ Lunges can be done by almost anyone, but you should take the time to improve body awareness and build strength before attempting them. Those with preexisting knee issues can often perform lunges with guidance from a certified trainer but should consult their doctor or physical therapist before adding lunges to their routines.

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How to Do a Forward Lunge With Perfect Form

You can achieve multiple goals with lunges: Heavily loaded lunges done with low reps are great for building strength, whereas lighter lunges performed for longer sets can improve muscular endurance. They're also ideal for improving function in daily life and athletic activities. But all of these benefits require proper form.

Forward lunges look basic, but they can be quite challenging: You must be able to decelerate your body, absorb your force and quickly redirect it back in the opposite direction. This requires a high level of lower-body strength and stability.

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Body Part Legs
  1. Stand upright with both feet together.
  2. Step forward with one foot in front of your body. Take a big enough step that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Land with your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes. Drive your back toes into the ground.
  3. Bend both knees and drop toward the floor with control. Keep lowering until your back knee is about an inch off the ground (or as low as comfortable). Keep your chest tall, but some forward lean is OK.
  4. Finish the rep by driving off the floor and returning back to your upright standing position. Bring your front foot back to your back foot.

Is a Lunge Better Than a Squat?

Squats and lunges are both lower-body pushing exercises that target similar muscles, and you might wonder which is a better exercise.

Lunges' main advantage over squats is that they translate more outside the gym. People with low back problems also sometimes find that lunges feel better on their joints than squats.

On the flip side, squats are more accessible and easier to learn than lunges. Those who struggle with knee pain may find that they can squat without pain but lunges pose an issue. Squats can also be loaded with more weight than lunges (important if your main goal is getting as strong as possible).

5 Benefits of Lunges

1. They Build Lower-Body Strength

Lunges are one of the most effective exercises to help you build strong legs because they involve every muscle in your lower body and allow for a large range of motion. Lunges train your muscles to work together efficiently, so you can move heavier loads, and therefore, have stronger quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

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Some lunge variations will emphasize your quads while others are more targeted toward your glutes and hamstrings.

2. They Activate Your Core

Your core muscles are heavily involved in lunges because they help stabilize your body. As you step off the ground with one leg, sideways and rotational forces act on your body. Your core must resist these forces to keep you upright.

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If you add weights to your lunge, the way you hold them can dramatically increase core activation.

Holding weights in front of your chest requires greater core strength and stability than holding weights at your sides. Hoisting a sandbag over your shoulder or using another asymmetrical load increases your core involvement even more.

3. They Open Up Tight Hips

Lunges can help open up stiff and tight hips. Each time you drop into a lunge, one side of your lower body receives a stretch.

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Forward, walking and reverse lunges primarily stretch the hip flexors on the front of your legs. Lateral lunges provide a great stretch for the groin muscles on the inside of your legs. These muscles tend to get tight when you sit a lot, so lunges can help you loosen up and feel better.

4. They Improve Balance

Lunges are a great exercise to improve balance because much of the movement is performed on one leg. You need reflexive core strength and stability (a key part of balance) to catch yourself as you step without falling over.

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Furthermore, lunges strengthen your hips, core and feet muscles — all of which play a central role in helping you stay balanced in various positions

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5. They Can Enhance Athletic Performance

Many popular lower-body exercises, such as squats, leg presses and deadlifts, are performed using both legs at the same time.

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In sports, however, most moves and maneuvers occur in a split stance or on one leg at a time. You're also often resisting forces from multiple directions at once. If you only do bilateral (two-leg) lower body movements in your workouts, you are limiting the carryover to sports — and even daily activities.

One of the best lunge benefits is that they improve balance, coordination, cross-patterning and deceleration (slowing down) strength. They also teach you how to move in one plane of motion while resisting force in another. These are crucial skills if you want to stay healthy and excel on the field, pitch, track or court.

Should You Do Lunges Every Day?

As long as you're moving efficiently and your joints feel good, there's nothing wrong with doing lunges daily. However, if your knees start to hurt, you should back off.

Keep in mind, though, doing lots of body-weight lunges won't necessarily help you achieve your goals. Unless you're a beginner, you'll have a hard time building much strength or muscle with unweighted lunges. You'll need to increase the load with weights if you want to see continued gains in these areas.

4 Lunge Variations

1. Reverse lunge

Reverse lunges are the foundational lunge variation because they require less strength and stability to perform well. You should begin your lunge journey with reverse lunges before working your way up to walking lunges, lateral lunges and other variations.

Reverse lunges are also more knee-friendly than other lunges. When you step back into a reverse lunge, your center of gravity stays in place. This means less forward movement of the knees over the toes and an easier time balancing. You also recruit your glutes more during reverse lunges than other variations.

Body Part Legs
  1. Stand upright with both feet together.
  2. Step back behind your body with one foot. Take a big enough step so that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Land with your back toes pointed into the ground. Keep your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes.
  3. Bend both knees and drop toward the floor in a controlled manner. Keep lowering until your back knee is about an inch off the ground (or as low as comfortable). Keep your chest tall.
  4. Finish the rep by driving off the floor with your front foot and returning back to your upright standing position. Bring your back foot up to meet your front foot.

Tip

You can perform reverse lunges in a few different ways:

  • Your front foot elevated on a small box or weight plate
  • Your back foot on a slider or slide board
  • Adding a balance challenge to the top of the lunge

2. Walking Lunge

After you've built strength with reverse lunges, you may want to try walking lunges. This variation is more challenging than reverse lunges because your center of gravity will now move forward, away from your starting position. More strength and balance are required to step forward, absorb that force and complete each rep without falling over.

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Walking lunges target your quads more than reverse lunges. If you can perform both walking and reverse lunges, it makes sense to rotate them throughout the year to change the stimulus and get the full muscle and strength-building benefits of lunges.

JW Player placeholder image
Body Part Legs
  1. Stand upright with both feet together.
  2. Step forward in front of your body with one foot. Take a big enough step so that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Land with your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes. Drive your back toes into the ground.
  3. Bend both knees and drop toward the floor with control. Keep lowering until your back knee is about an inch off the ground (or as low as comfortable). Keep your chest tall.
  4. Finish the rep by driving off the floor and moving into an upright standing position. Bring your back foot up to your front foot. With each rep, you will move forward as if you're walking.

Tip

You can perform walking lunges in two ways:

  • Bringing your feet together at the top of each rep (easier)
  • Stepping through to the next lunge without putting your feet together (harder)

3. Lateral Lunge

Lateral (side) lunges are a fantastic exercise for building strength in the frontal plane (side to side). Most of the things we do in the gym are in the sagittal (forward/backward) plane, but real life occurs in all directions.

Like forward lunges, lateral lunges require high amounts of deceleration strength to perform well. They should only be attempted after building strength with other lunge variations as well as practicing lateral squats (where your feet stay on the floor as you practice squatting from side to side.)

JW Player placeholder image
Body Part Legs
  1. Stand upright with both feet together.
  2. Step out to one side of your body with one foot. Take a big enough step that your opposite side leg can straighten. Land with your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes. Your other foot should also remain flat on the floor.
  3. Bend the moving side knee and reach your hips back behind you with control. Keep lowering until you can't reach your hips back any further while still maintaining a flat back. Keep your chest tall, but some forward lean is okay.
  4. Finish the rep by driving off the floor and returning back to your upright standing position. Bring your moving side foot back to your stationary foot.

4. Crossover Step Lunge

Crossover step lunges, also known as curtsy lunges, target your hip muscles. Stepping back across your body requires greater hip and glute strength to keep your knees and hips in the proper alignment.

JW Player placeholder image
Body Part Legs
  1. Stand upright with both feet together.
  2. Step back behind and across your body with one foot. Take a big enough step that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Land with your back toes pointed into the ground. Keep your front foot flat on the floor and grab the ground with your toes.
  3. Bend both knees and drop toward the floor in a controlled manner. Keep lowering until your back knee is about an inch off the ground (or as low as comfortable). Keep your chest tall.
  4. Finish the rep by driving off the floor and returning back to your upright standing position. Bring your back foot up to your front foot.

How to Program Lunges Into Your Workouts

Goal

Rep Range

Strength

3-5 reps per side

Muscle-Building

6-12 reps per side (You can also do 3-5 reps and/or 12-20 reps per side)

Endurance

10-20 reps per side

Athletic Performance

6-12 reps per side (You can also do 3-5 reps and/or 10-20 reps per side)

6 Lunge Form Tips

1. Take an Appropriately Sized Step

A common lunge form error is taking steps that are either too small or too big. You might take a small step if you feel unstable or unsure of your balance. Although this is your brain's way of keeping you safe, it can actually place extra stress on your knees. On the flip side, taking steps that are too big can cause you to excessively arch your lower back.

A proper lunge ends with your front knee at a 90-degree angle or a little bit less. This means your heel will either be directly beneath your knee or slightly behind it. However, if you can't lunge that deep without pain, you can lunge with a shorter range of motion — whatever feels best for you.

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For lateral lunges, take a step that allows you to keep your toe, knee and hip aligned and your opposite leg straight. Use a camera to record your set from the side or recruit a training buddy to help you determine the right sized step.

2. Engage Your Feet

One of the most overlooked and under-appreciated parts of proper lunge form is the effective use of your feet. Your feet provide your base of support and connection with the ground. Not engaging them is one of the biggest reasons why many people feel wobbly and unstable when doing lunges.

When performing reverse lunges, try to actively grab the ground with the toes of your front foot before you step back. For forward, walking and lateral lunges, you'll need to do this immediately upon making contact with the floor. Step into your lunge, grab the floor with your toes, then use this connection to keep stable as you drive out of the rep to stand back up.

Your back foot is also important during lunges because it helps support you and keeps you balanced while you move. Focus on driving your toes hard into the ground regardless of which direction you're lunging.

3. Hit the Right Depth

Many people do lunges with an incomplete range of motion, meaning they don't get low enough. Your back knee should only be about an inch or two off the ground in the middle position of your lunge. If you can't hit this depth, you won't get the most out of your lunge and should spend some time working on your strength and lower-body mobility.

But again, while lunging with a full range of motion is the goal, doing lunges in your available range of motion can help you expand it over time by building lunge-specific strength. Ultimately, go as low as you comfortably can.

4. Lower With Control

When you lunge, don't drop your back knee too quickly and crash into the floor; this is a recipe for banging up your knees.

Instead, practice descending into your lunge in a controlled manner. Practicing control has the added benefit of involving your quads more in the movement.

5. Keep Your Toes, Knees and Hips Aligned

No matter which lunge variation you perform, all your lower body joints should stay in alignment. You shouldn't allow your knees to cave inside your toes and hips.

A little bit of occasional knee valgus (knee caving inward) is OK, but if your knees are consistently not in alignment, your efficiency, and possibly your joints, will suffer.

If you're struggling to maintain proper joint alignment, focus on building more strength in your hips by using exercises like single-leg glute bridges. You can also use resistance bands to provide external feedback on what it feels like to drive your knee out as you lunge.

6. Maintain a Tall Chest

The final element of proper lunge form is upper-body position. In general, you want to keep your chest tall and your upper body relatively upright as you lunge.

However, in practice, you may find that certain variations will be performed with a more forward torso lean than others. For example, reverse lunges are usually more upright whereas forward and lateral lunges usually involve a slight lean. (It's worth noting: A forward lean in lunges isn't always a bad thing. By shifting the center of gravity, it takes some stress off of your knees and moves it toward your hips. This can be beneficial for people with knee pain or anyone who prefers to increase glute recruitment during lunges.)

The way you hold your weights also impacts your upper-body position. Holding a weight in front of your chest is a great way to activate your core and help you stay upright.

On the other hand, you want to be extra conscious about your posture when doing a back loaded lunge or holding weights at your sides. It's much easier for excessive forward lean to creep into these positions when you get fatigued.

3 Beginner Tips for Building Up to Lunges

Can't do lunges yet? Here are some ways you can work toward doing them properly.

1. Practice With Easier Single-Leg Exercises

Use other single-leg exercises to help build the necessary strength and stability for lunges. The single-leg glute bridge is a great place to start, because you're lying on your back and have support from the floor. It allows you to practice driving with one leg while maintaining your hip position and not having to worry about balance.

Once you've nailed down the body-weight version, up the ante by elevating your foot on a box or bench. This increases the range of motion of the exercise, which increases the strength demands on your core and lower body.

As you get stronger, work your way up to split squats, which are essentially stationary lunges. Instead of stepping in and out of position, you will keep your feet planted on the floor throughout your set. This is the best exercise to build strength for lunges because the movements are similar.

2. Work on Your Lower-Body Mobility

The main joints involved in lunging are your ankles, knees and hips. Many people — especially those who work desk jobs — struggle with ankle and hip mobility. Tightness in these areas can make it difficult to perform lunges because they limit your range of motion. It can also contribute to knee pain in some people.

If you're a beginner who wants to work your way up to lunges, you should do mobility drills regularly to open up your ankles and hips. These drills can be done as part of a warm-up or cooldown, in between sets of strength exercises, at home as part of a morning routine or to break up long periods of sitting.

3. Build General Lower Body and Core Strength

For success with lunges, you need a foundation of lower body and core strength. You can build this kind of strength using a variety of popular gym exercises.

Strengthen your lower body using squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, leg press, leg curls, glute bridges and hip thrusts. Build a strong core that can resist the multidirectional forces present in lunges using exercises like dead bugs, Pallof presses, planks and side planks.

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