There's no debating that lunges are one of the best exercises for your lower body. Any variation of lunges — forward, reverse or lateral — can strengthen your lower body, improve your balance and fix muscle imbalances that you might not notice when you do squats and deadlifts.
However, many people struggle with lunges due to injuries, limited mobility or poor balance — others just plain dislike them. And that's OK! Lunges aren't the only way to train your quads, hamstrings and glutes. If you can't do lunges for whatever reason, try these alternative exercises to keep your legs in great shape.
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If You: Have Knee Pain
Do: Squat Progressions, Then Split Squats
The best lunge alternative for someone who has a knee pain will depend on the specific injury, says Theresa Marko, DPT, board certified orthopaedic clinical specialist in physical therapy and owner of Marko Physical Therapy.
"If the person is unable to stand up or has pain with bending their knees while standing, then standing exercises aren't the most appropriate for them," she says. In the case of a severe injury, "they would need to do non-weight-bearing exercises, such as lying straight leg raises, or seated knee extensions."
But, for the purposes of generalization, Marko says the best way to navigate minor knee pain is to start with squat progressions.
Move 1: Squat Progression
- First, stand on one leg to find out if you can bear your weight without pain.
- If all's well, start with quarter-squats. Stand with feet hip-width apart, then bend your knees slightly as you hinge your hips back. Only go a quarter of the way down.
- As you start to feel stronger and more stable, continue to push the depth of your squat deeper, as long as you don't feel pain.
Once you can reach full depth in a squat, you can progress to split squats, which are essentially a stationary version of lunges.
Move 2: Split Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Step one foot back so that your feet are a few feet apart front to back but still hip-width apart side to side.
- Bend both knees to 90 degrees (or as low as you can go without pain).
- Straighten your legs and repeat.
- Do all your reps on one side before repeating on the other.
If You: Have an Ankle Injury
Do: Single-Leg Balance, Squat Progressions or Exercises Lying Down
The reality is that most people who have an ankle injury won't be able to do standing leg exercises, because they all require movement in the ankle joint, Marko says.
"Most people who have some sort of ankle injury have difficulty standing on one leg due to instability," she says. "So I would start there and see if they can do it." If they can't balance on one leg, Marko says that's the first step in eventually progressing to a lunge.
From there, move on to quarter-squats, then half-squats and eventually full squats. If standing, weight-bearing exercises aren't doable, start with lying leg raises, lying hip abductions and other non-weight-bearing exercises, Marko says.
Move 1: Lying Leg Raise
- Lie on your back with your legs out straight and your hands under your tailbone for support.
- Engage your ab muscles as you raise both legs off the floor and lift them up to 90 degrees.
- Lower back down with control, stopping just before you get to the ground.
Move 2: Lying Hip Abduction
- Lie on your side with your bottom arm under your head for support and your top arm supporting your upper body.
- Lift your top leg up as far as you can without rotating your hips or shoulders.
- Lower back down with control, stopping just before you get to the ground.
If You: Have Tight Hips
Do: Single-Leg Glute Bridges and Chair Squats
If you have tight hips, Marko says the first thing you should do, naturally, is work on your hip mobility. You need adequate range of motion in your joints and flexibility in your muscles to properly perform lunges.
"Each person is a puzzle," Marko says, and must address their specific mobility shortcomings before trying lunges.
Then start with single-leg glute bridges. If you can't extend your leg behind you, lying glute bridges strengthen the hamstrings and glutes while stretching the quads, so this exercise is a double whammy for people with tight hips.
Move 1: Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and pointed up to the ceiling, feet near your butt.
- With your arms extended along your sides, press into your feet to lift your hips and back off the floor. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to knees.
- Lower back down with control and repeat.
Nicholas Rizzo, biologist and fitness research director at RunRepeat, says he may also point clients to chair squats. "With your chair backed against a wall, chair squats provide support, safety, and a reduced range of motion, all while targeting the same muscles," Rizzo says.
Chair squats are also a great starting point to progress from, he says. "If you can only squat half way down comfortably, then you can work on that part of the movement with a slightly higher chair."
Move 2: Chair Squat
- Place a chair behind you and step several inches away from it, standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees and hinge your hips back until you're sitting on the edge of the chair. Try not to put too much weight it in — just enough to support your balance and get you back to standing.
- Press through your feet to return to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.
As you improve your mobility, strength, and form, you can progress parallel box squats to deepen the movement.
If You: Lose Your Balance
Do: Chair Squats or Split Squats
When your balance feels a bit wobbly in lunges, chair squats can help here, too, by building a base of strength and comfort, while also improving balance and stability, Rizzo says.
Once you feel comfortable with chair squats, you can progress to split squats, which "are like the training wheels of lunges," Rizzo says. "By keeping your feet planted during split squats, you remove the need to maintain balance throughout the movement."
Split squats are especially great as a lunge alternative, as the movement pattern is nearly identical, and it targets the same muscles as lunges, Rizzo says, making split squats the perfect alternative for those struggling with balance and stability.
If You: Just Don’t Like Lunges
Do: Single-Leg Glute Bridges, Single-Leg Deadlifts and Step-Ups
If you have the requisite balance, stability, mobility and strength to perform lunges, but you just can't stand them, you have so many other options to choose from — no need to neglect your legs because of one movement you dislike.
Of course, squats and deadlifts are fantastic lower-body exercises, but if you're looking to train single-leg strength, you'll want to try some unilateral exercises. Rizzo recommends single-leg glute bridges and single-leg deadlifts to target the glutes and hamstrings.
"These two movements also require your body to work by maintaining balance throughout the movement," he says, "while effectively targeting two of the main body parts the lunge targets."
Move 1: Single-Leg Deadlift
- Stand on your right leg while holding a dumbbell at your side in your right hand.
- Keeping the right knee slightly bent, perform the deadlift by bending at the hip, extending your free leg behind you for balance or resting the top of your foot on a bench. During this movement, make sure your hips remain square.
- Continue lowering the dumbbell until your upper body is parallel to the ground.
- Keeping your back flat, return to the upright position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
And step-ups can also present a unique challenge for advanced exercisers who don't like lunges. With step-ups, you'll target the same muscles as lunges, but with a slightly different movement pattern.
Move 2: Step-Up
- Place your right foot on top of the chair and squeeze your glutes as you step up onto the chair, driving your left knee into the air.
- Make sure to keep your left hip in line with your right hip.
- Lower down with control and switch sides.