Lunges: What They Do for Your Muscles and How to Perform Them Properly

lunge muscles

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

When it comes to simple and effective workout moves, lunges rank very high on the list. This straightforward exercise requires no equipment and doesn’t involve any movements that may be unfamiliar to you. Like squats, lunges are a staple of any HIIT, barre, or lower body strength workout. 

Because they are such a basic move, lunges can begin to feel repetitive quickly. Luckily, there are numerous variations on lunges to keep you engaged and interested throughout your workouts. To help us understand what muscles lunges work, who should and shouldn’t perform them, and how to do all their different variations, we asked Ryan Lasure, fitness instructor and CEO of Koja Fit, and Steve Stonehouse, NASM, Director of Education for STRIDE Franchise.

Meet the Expert

  • Ryan Lasure is a fitness instructor and CEO of Koja Fit
  • Steve Stonehouse, NASM, is director of education for STRIDE Franchise.

What Muscles Do Lunges Work?

Lunges are a lower-body move, so the muscles worked are predominantly in your legs. 

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

Though they aren’t a core move, Stonehouse notes that lunges also require stabilization from your back and core. 

Who Should Do Lunges? Who Should Avoid Them?

When it comes to who is a good candidate for incorporating lunges into their workout routine, Lasure suggests that “if you have no lower-body injuries, and have good balance, you've got the green light!” Stonehouse agrees, mentioning that they “are a quality exercise that fits well into any generalized strength & conditioning program.” He also says that they’re beneficial for runners and active walkers. Basically, if you are free of injuries and can balance one leg when needed, lunges can be a healthy addition to your routine.

As for who should avoid lunges, anyone with balance difficulties is not a good candidate for them. Additionally, any lower-body injuries, including knees, may also prevent them from being a fit. Lasure suggests that you strengthen your core first so that you have the stabilizing muscles needed to keep you in alignment while doing lunges. 

How To Do A Basic Lunge

Chances are, you’ve done a lunge at some point in your everyday life. Like squats, lunges are a natural movement that is turned into an exercise by being made into a more precise, deep, and deliberate move. We’ll talk about variations next, but first, here is how to do a basic lunge. This method starts from the “bottom” of the move to ensure that you have your balance rather than the top. If you are more advanced, feel free to start from the top of the move, then bend. 

  • Stand with one foot in front of the other. Lasure says that the foot in front should be “planted flat on the floor, with your knee at a 90-degree angle over your ankle.” 
  • Place your other leg behind you, bending it at 90 degrees. Lasure suggests that you press the ball of your foot into the ground. 
  • Press your weight into your front heel. Simultaneously, squeeze your glutes while keeping your knees in line with your toes. 
  • Push upward to a standing position.
  • Repeat, pressing back down to 90 degrees and pushing to up again to standing. To finish the move, bring your back leg forward. You can then repeat it on the other side. 

It’s important to keep your core engaged throughout the move and to avoid bending your upper body. 

Lunge Variations to Try

There is no shortage of lunge variations to try! Here are some of our trainers’ favorites; we’ve chosen moves that vary in intensity.

01 of 05

Reverse

  1. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. 
  2. Lift your right foot and step it back. Stonehouse says you should “land on the ball of your foot, and keep your heel off the floor.”
  3. Bend the knees of both your legs. Stonehouse suggests that you bend until the quad of one leg and the shin of the other are approximately parallel to the floor. He notes that “your torso should lean slightly forward so your back is flat and not arched or rounded. Your left knee should be above your left foot, and you should engage your glute and core.”
  4. Pushing through the heel of your back foot, return to your starting position.
02 of 05

Curtsy

The easiest way to envision this move is to imagine a curtsy. You’ll be making that motion while incorporating a lunge. 

  1. Sand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Step one foot back diagonally behind you, so that it crosses behind the front leg. Lasure says to “avoid twisting your torso as your step back.”
  3. Lower your back knee. It should be at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Once lowered to 90 degrees, use your quads to push yourself back into a standing position.
  5. Return your back leg to the front, shoulder-width apart again. 
  6. Repeat on the same side, or alternate repetitions by next performing this with the other leg moving diagonally behind you.
03 of 05

Side Step

  1. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. Stonehouse suggests placing your hands on your hips. 
  2. With one leg, take a wide step outward. 
  3. The foot of that leg reaches the floor, hinge forward at your hips, and bend the outer leg. The leg that you did not step out with should remain straight as the other knee bends.
  4. Lower into a lunge.
  5. Stonehouse recommends that you pause here for a brief moment.
  6. Push off of your outer leg, and return to your starting position. 
  7. As with other lunge variations, you can repeat on the same side or alternate sides by taking a wide step outward with your other leg.
04 of 05

Walking

  1. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. As with the side step, placing your hands on your hips may be helpful.
  2. Step forward with one leg.
  3. Bend the knee of the leg you stepped back with, then lower it. Your front thigh should be parallel to the floor. Stonehouse says to try not to rest your back knee on the ground.
  4. Shifting your weight to the forward leg, and press upward, back into a standing position.
  5. Repeat on the other side, moving forward each time you alternate legs. Unlike a static lunge, this walking move requires some space beyond a mat.
05 of 05

Lunge Jump

Lasure mentions that this plyometric move is particularly intense compared to a standard lunge. Be sure that your balance is strong and your body is ok to do jumping motions before trying it for the first time. 

  1. Begin with the first part of a standard lunge. One foot should be in front of the other, and you should be bent with your front quad at 90 degrees.
  2. From there, jump up into the air. Lasure says your jump should be “driving with force through your forward foot,” then landing back in a bent lunge position. 
  3. Repeat, either on the same side or by switching to the other foot in front.

For even more intensity, Lasure suggests switching legs in mid-air, landing on the opposite side.

The Equipment Option

Once you have mastered lunges and they feel less challenging to you, you can amp up their difficulty level by adding weights. The best way to begin this is by holding light dumbbells in each hand while performing a standard forward or reverse lunge. When you have grown to where this is comfortable, you can opt to hold heavier dumbbells in your hands.  

How To Incorporate Lunges Into Your Routine

Because they don’t require any equipment, and (unless you’re doing the walking variation) they take little space, you can easily incorporate lunges into your workouts. They can be done at any point in the workout and are especially useful when done at the end of an upper-body routine. That’s because when you have gotten your blood flowing strongly through your arms, it’s helpful to finish by balancing that back out; lunges will successfully draw blood back into your lower body too.   

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