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Lunges vs. Squats: Which Exercise Wins on Leg Day? 

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lunges vs squats: Woman doing lunges at the gym

Gearing up for leg day? Chances are you'll see lunges or squats programmed in your workout.

Lunges and squats are two of the most common — and effective — lower body exercises. In a single movement, you work your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and core. Plus, lunges and squats can easily be modified or progressed to suit your athleticism, helping you reach your fitness goals.

So, in a head-to-head — lunges vs. squats — what’s better? Neither is necessarily "better" than the other, and I encourage you to include both exercises in your lower body workouts. Below, I explain the value of lunges and squats, modifications for each, and why both exercises hold a place in your workouts. 

Lunges vs. Squats: The Benefits of Each 

lunges vs squats: Woman doing squats

Both lunges and squats are compound strength training exercises, meaning they work multiple muscle groups in a single movement.

Both lunges and squats increase strength in your entire posterior chain (all the muscles on the backside of the body), engage your core, increase your range of motion, and help build leg strength. Both leg exercises are used continuously in workouts because they're incredibly versatile (more on this below). 

While I'm an advocate for both exercises, here are specific benefits of each.

The Benefits of Squats 

Squats build strength in your posterior chain, which is essential for power, strength, and injury prevention. Studies show that muscle activation in your posterior chain muscles — i.e. your glutes and hamstrings — is essential to preventing injuries in your knees, calves, and achilles. Performing squats (and thereby building up strength in your glutes) helps absorb the shock caused by running, bounding, and jumping, thereby decreasing injury in your lower legs.

Here's another benefit: With back squats, you can lift heavy. Unlike lunges, both feet are firmly planted on the ground in a squat, allowing you to build strength and muscle mass. Muscle growth, in turn, can help boost your metabolism, leading to weight loss. These are just a few reasons why I’m big fan of different squat variations, including Hindu squats and sissy squats.

The Benefits of Lunges 

Like leg squats, lunges help build strength in your posterior chain. Unlike squats, lunges are done on one leg, which comes with its own set of benefits.

When you perform single leg exercises, you isolate the muscles on that leg — i.e., no compensating with the other. Performing single leg exercises allows you to take note of muscle imbalances and weakness, which can help prevent injuries. In fact, performing single leg exercise is a useful technique in repairing your ACL and other injuries

Performing single leg exercises, like lunges, helps improve your balance and stability. This is imperative in almost every sport and exercise (think about it: When you're sprinting down the street, you're always balancing on one leg, not two). In addition, the instability caused by single leg exercises forces you to fully engage your core and stabilizer muscles, transforming this leg exercise into an abdominal exercise.

Lunges vs. Squats: Progressing Each Exercise To Suit Your Fitness Level 

Woman exercising at home

Lunges and squats can easily be modified to suit your fitness level. Below, we’ll dive into lunge and squat variations to make these exercises more challenging.

1. Add Weight

Adding resistance is the easiest way to increase the challenge of an exercise. You can grab a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells, or add another plate to the barbell for either exercise. If you don't have access to weights, you can also use bands to add resistance (these bands are incredibly useful for at-home workouts). Here's what you do:

  • Lunges: Place the middle of the resistance band underneath the center of your front foot. Grab each side of the band with both hands, and perform a lunge (depending on how tight your band is, you may need to "choke up" on the band, grabbing it closer to your foot).
  • Squats: Step both feet on the center of the resistance band. Grab both sides of the band with either hand, and perform a squat

2. Add a Pulse or Hop (or Both!) 

Adding a pulse or hop at the bottom of a movement helps burnout your quads and glutes. To make either exercise more challenging, try the following: 

  • Lunges: Drop into a forward lunge. At the bottom of your lunge (your front leg is at a 90 degree angle), perform a pulse, raising halfway to your starting position, before dropping down again. Now, add a hop, lifting your front foot just two inches off the ground. Perform 12 reps to burnout your right leg, before switching to your left.
  • Squats: Drop to the bottom of a bodyweight squat position. Add a pulse, raising up halfway before dropping back to a parallel squat. Finally, explode into a vertical jump. Perform 12 reps. 

3. Add a Source of Instability 

Adding a source of instability increases the challenge of the exercise, while forcing you to fully engage your core. The source of instability could be standing on a Bosu ball, balancing on one foot for squats or hovering one foot off the ground for lunges, or moving away from your center of gravity. 

Here are two squat and lunge variations that add a source of instability to the exercise: 

  • Lunges: One of the best ways to add a source of instability with a lunge is to move away from your center of gravity in a curtsy lunge. To perform this exercise, you'll do a reverse lunge — but instead of bringing your left leg behind you, you'll swing your left leg back and toward the right side of your body. This may throw you off-balance, forcing you to fully engage your glutes and core. 
  • Squats: A great exercise to add a source of instability in the squat is the Bulgarian split squat. Place your back foot on an elevated surface, such as a bench (to really throw you off-balance, try looping your back foot through a TRX). Drop your back knee toward the ground, bringing your front leg to a 90-degree angle

4. Adjust Your Stance 

Adjusting your stance — even slightly — can completely change the exercise. Changing your stance allows you to work different muscles, muscles that might otherwise get ignored. 

Here are two ways to adjust your stance in both squats and lunges, and therefore completely change the exercise: 

  • Lunges: Most people perform forward walking lunges or reverse lunges, but performing a lateral lunge targets completely new muscle groups. A lateral side lunge works your inner thighs and gluteus medius.
  • Squats: Taking a wider stance in a sumo squat position helps target your inner thighs, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. To perform a sumo squat, place your feet much further than shoulder-width apart (i.e. almost double the width). 

Lunges vs. Squats: Why You Need Both in Your Fitness Routine

Lunges and squats are two of the best exercises programmed in leg workouts. Why? Because they work.

Lunges and squats work your glutes, hamstrings, core, and quadriceps in a single movement. Plus, they can be modified or progressed to fit your fitness level.

In the lunges vs. squats debate, I would never say one is better than the other. Instead, I would reiterate what I've said many times before: Follow a well-rounded fitness routine, one that encompasses all four pillars of fitness — strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery.

You can add resistance to lunges or squats to make it more of a strength-based exercise. Or, you can add a pulse or jump between reps to make it more cardio-based. After each workout, consume a high-quality protein source, and recover by stretching and foam rolling.

I hope you found this post helpful. Are you up for a challenge? 

I created a new program that is designed to optimally prepare for a Spartan race or any other obstacle race. It incorporates ideas for healthy recovery respecting fatigue. You can find more details here.

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