Split Squat vs. Lunge: What's the Difference?

Learning the difference between a split squat and lunge can help you get more from both lower-body strength moves.
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Lunges and split squats (sometimes called split lunges) are two of the most effective exercises you can do to strengthen and build your legs and glutes. But because you do them both in a split stance, it's easy to confuse the two. However, there is a slight difference that you need to know.

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Split squats vs. lunges: What is the difference? In split squat (aka split lunges) your feet stay put, never leaving the ground. Lunges involve taking a step forward, back or to the side.

Lunge vs. Split Squat Form

To the average eye, there isn't much difference between a lunge and a split squat. The position of your legs is basically the same, and the technique is very similar. But there is one fundamental difference: In a lunge, you either step forward, backward or sideways, whereas with a split squat, your feet do not move.

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To fully understand the differences between the two lower-body exercises, it helps to try each one out for yourself. Here is a primer on how to do them.

Dumbbell Forward Lunge

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Body Part [ "Legs", "Butt", "Abs" ]
  1. Stand with your feet together and hold a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides. You can also do a lunge without weights, a barbell, kettlebells or a medicine ball. Pull your shoulder blades back and down, brace your core and keep your torso nice and tall.
  2. Take a big step forward with one foot, landing gently on your heel and rolling forward so your whole foot is flat on the floor.
  3. Bend both knees and let the heel of your back foot to rise up. Lower as far as comfortable or until your back knee almost touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel with the floor.
  4. Press through your lead foot to raise up and step back to your starting position.
  5. Do all reps, then switch sides.

To do reverse lunges, the technique is the same, but you step backward with each rep. For side lunges, take a big step out to the side and land so that your ankle is under your knee. Your other leg should stay straight. Keep your torso up as you lower down, then push through your foot to rise up and return to start.

Barbell Split Squat

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Body Part [ "Legs", "Butt", "Abs" ]
  1. Get in a split stance and hold a barbell across your back. You can also do a split squat without weights, dumbbells, kettlebells or a medicine ball. Pull your shoulder blades back and down, brace your core and keep your torso nice and tall.
  2. Bend both knees and let the heel of your back foot to rise up. Lower as far as comfortable or until your back knee almost touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel with the floor.
  3. Press through your lead foot to raise up without moving your feet.
  4. Do all reps, then switch sides.

Muscles Worked During Split Squats vs. Lunges

Both of these moves are compound exercises, meaning they use more than one muscle group at a time. With both exercises, all the muscles in the lower body and hips are working, and the core muscles provide stability.

During any exercise, though, one or two muscle groups are doing more of the work than the others. These called the "prime mover" or "agonist." In both of these moves, your gluteus maximus — the largest of the three gluteal muscles — and your quadriceps are the prime movers, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. If you're looking for an exercise on leg day to target the hips and thighs, either of these will be a good choice.

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Other muscles working during split squats and lunges include the adductor magnus on the inside of thigh and the soleus — a deep-lying calf muscle that attaches to the Achilles. Lastly, certain muscles play smaller but still important roles as stabilizers. In both the lunge and split squat, these are the hamstrings along the back of the thigh, the more visible calf muscle (the gastrocnemius) and the gluteus medius and minimus in the hips.

A main muscular difference is that the human body is naturally stronger when the feet stay in place, so you can move more weight with split squats than you can with lunges. Any time you add a degree of instability, like by temporarily standing on one foot during a lunge, you decrease the amount of force your body is able to generate, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Still, lunges are great for improving balance, and they also move your hips through a greater range of motion.

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4 Tips for Lunge and Split Squat Variations

1. Hold Free Weights

You can use weights in a few different ways: holding dumbbells with your arms long by your sides, with a barbell across your upper back or by holding a kettlebell in front of your chest. You can also hold a weight plate with both hands extended above you — just make sure you have a good grip on the plate so you don't drop it on your head.

2. Use a Cable Machine

You can also use a cable machine to add resistance. Position yourself facing the weight stack and hold the handle with both hands. Keep your arms extended as you sink down and rise up against the resistance. The cable will try to pull you forward, so use your strength to resist the cable machine and keep your torso tall.

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3. Add Instability

Making the movements more unstable will test your balance and strengthen the small stabilizer muscles in your legs and core. A Bulgarian split squat, in which you place your back foot up on a bench or step behind you, is a great variation, according to the American Council on Exercise. Make it more of a balance challenge by placing your foot on a stability ball or in a suspension trainer like a TRX. With lunges, placing a cushion or pad under your static foot, or standing on a balance board, turns the strength move into a balance-focused exercise.

4. Explode

For a plyometric lower-body exercise, try scissor or jump lunges. Instead of stepping back to the start position at the top of each rep, powerfully extend through your knees and hips to jump up and switch your legs in the air. Keep your hips as stable as possible and your torso tall.

Similarly, you can do plyometric split squat hops. Lower into the exercise as you normally would, then drive through legs to hop up into the air. Land softly back in the split stance.

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