What Is the Difference Between a Lunge and a Split Squat?

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The lunge involves stepping forward.
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Lunges and split squats are two of the most effective exercises you can do to strengthen and build your legs and glutes. Because they're both done in a split stance, people often confuse the two. However, there is a slight difference that distinguishes one from the other.

Tip

The main difference between a lunge and split squat is that a lunge involves a step forward, back or to the side, while the feet stay stationary in a split squat.

Lunges vs. Split Squat Technique

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

In order to fully understand the differences between the two, it helps to try each one out for yourself. Here is a primer on how to properly execute each one, according to ExRx.net:

Move 1: Forward Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Maintain an erect torso with your chest slightly puffed and your shoulders back and down. Contract your core muscles for stability. This is your starting position.
  2. Take a big step forward with one foot, landing gently on the heel of the foot, rolling forward so the whole foot is flat on the floor.
  3. Bend both knees to 90 degrees and allow the heel of your back foot to rise up. Your back knee should almost be touching the floor.
  4. Press through your right foot and forcefully extend through your knees and hips to come back to your starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then switch legs.

Move 2: Split Squat

  1. Stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Maintain an erect torso throughout the exercise and keep your core muscles contracted.
  2. Take a big step forward, as you did in the lunge. This is your starting position.
  3. Bend both knees and allow the heel of the back foot to come up. Your back knee should almost touch the floor.
  4. Return to the starting position by extending at your knees and hip.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then switch legs.

Tip

To do reverse lunges, the technique is the same, but you're stepping backward from the start position. For side lunges, you take a big step out to the side and land so that your ankle is under your knee. Your other leg stays straight. Keep your torso up as you lower down, then rise up and push off your foot to return to the start.

Muscles Worked With Each Exercise

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 are activated to provide stability.

But one muscle group is doing more of the work than the others — this is called the "prime mover" or "agonist," according to the American Council on Exercise. In both of these moves, ExRx.net identifies the quadriceps along the fronts of the thighs as the prime mover. If you're looking for an exercise on leg day to target the quads, either of these will be a good choice.

But several other muscle groups are working, too. These include the gluteus maximus — the largest of the three gluteal muscles, according to Dartmouth Medical School. According to ExRx.net, it also works the adductor magnus muscle on the inside of thigh and the soleus — the smaller muscle of the calf 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 larger calf muscle (the gastrocnemius) and the gluteus medius and minimus.

Read more: 5 Dumbbell Moves You Haven't Tried Before

Lunge and Split Squat Variations

When you've mastered the basic technique, you can move on to adding weight and trying some more challenging variations. Including weight and variety in your workout will promote continual growth and prevent you from plateauing.

You can add weight 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.

Lastly, you can use a cable machine to add resistance. For a split squat, you'll position yourself facing the weight stack and hold the handle with the hand opposite your front foot. Keep your arm extended as you sink down into the squat and rise up against the resistance. The cable will try to pull you forward, so use your strength to resist that and keep your torso erect.

Read more: Advantages and Disadvantages of Plyometric Exercises

To do a cable lunge, stand facing the weight stack, but hold the handle in both hands. Step back a few feet from the weight stack. Lunge forward, then rise up back to your starting position.

You can also make the movements more unstable, which will test your balance and further challenge the small stabilizer muscles in your legs and core. In a split squat, place your back foot up on a bench or step. Make it even more challenging by placing the foot on a stability ball or in a suspension trainer. For lunges, use a balance cushion under your static foot, or stand on a balance board for an even greater challenge.

You can make lunges a plyometrics (jump training) exercise by jumping through the transition between sides. Instead of stepping back to the start position, powerfully extend through your knees and hips and jump up as you switch legs in the air and land into another lunge. Keep your hips as stable as possible and your torso erect during the move.

Similarly, you can do plyometric split squat hops. Lower into the squat as you normally would, then extend with force through your knees and hips and hop up into the air. Land softly and go back into another repetition.

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