If you’ve ever set foot in a gym or exercise class, chances are you’ve done a lunge or two. This seemingly simple, go-to exercise has been a fundamental part of getting in shape since well before the age of group classes and boot camps. And for good reason: done properly, lunges give you a lot of bang for a little buck.
“Lunges are important because they strengthen each leg individually, work on balance and stability, and work all of the major hip, glute, and leg musculature,” says Alfonso Moretti, founder of the Merge Workout. “Lunges work the major muscles of the glutes, hips, quads, hamstrings, some calves, and even a little lower back, abs, and core.”
Because they work each leg individually, lunges force the muscles to work harder than moves that require two legs (squats, for example). This means a bigger challenge—and a better workout—that goes beyond just leg day. “Because lunges are a unilateral movement (one leg operating at a time), they place extra emphasis on the core and stabilizing muscles to maintain balance during the exercise,” says personal trainer Nikki R. Veit. “Practicing various types of lunges regularly—walking, reverse, split, Bulgarian, plyometric—will improve your balance, mobility, and overall lower-body strength and endurance.”
Put more simply, working one leg at a time means you can’t rely on the other leg to stabilize you, so every muscle has to work harder.
Mastering the Basic Lunge
The basic lunge may look simple, but it can take a while to truly master it. Start with your feet together, then take one step forward and lower your back knee while also bending the front knee. Make sure your front knee never bends past the toes. “A true lunge consists of lowering your back knee as close to the ground as possible while maintaining 90-degree angles with both legs, and then ascending back up while bracing the glutes to finish,” says Veit. “Try watching your profile in the mirror to strive for those perfect 90-degree angles!” As you bend your knees, keep your shoulders “packed”—down and back, as if you’re putting them in your back pocket—and your spine erect.
To start, Moretti says, “Shoot for three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each leg, with a rep speed of two seconds up and two seconds down. Once you’ve grown comfortable with the basic lunge, you can increase your reps or try one of the many lunge variations out there.”
No matter what kind of lunges you do, you’ll find that they’ll improve your fitness, both in the gym and out. “Everyday movements will become easier: climbing stairs, standing up from sitting or lying on the floor, stepping into/out of the shower, and of course walking and running,” Veit says.
The woodchop lunge is a great way to add upper-body work to a regular lunge.
Start by standing with both feet together. Hold a dumbbell with your hands on either end of the weight just above your left shoulder and close to your ear. As you lunge forward with your right leg, pull the weight across your body in a chopping motion until it reaches your right hip. As you step back to standing, bring the weight back up to shoulder height. Do a set of 10, then repeat on the other side.
Reverse Lunge (courtesy of Alfonso Moretti)
While standing up with your feet shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your hips and slowly step backward with one leg. You should feel like you’re slightly overreaching with the back leg. Try to keep your body upright and all of the weight in the heel of your front foot. As your rear toe hits the ground, slowly bend both legs at the same time to lower your body at a controlled pace. Continue lowering your body until your back knee almost touches the floor. In returning to the start position, try not to push off your rear leg, but instead load your weight onto the heel of your front foot and press your body up to the start position.
This is a fun and challenging way to add upper-body and core work to your lunge.
Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in your left hand and take a big lunge step forward with your left leg. Pass the weight under your leg and into your right hand. Return to standing position and repeat on right side, passing back under to the left.
Always consult your health-care practitioner before beginning a new exercise practice.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.