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What Muscles Do Lunges Work? Leg Building 101

Jan 14, 2018

What muscles do lunges work? If you’re asking this question, I’m assuming it’s leg day.

For some of you, leg day is that dreaded workout routine you so often want to skip or avoid.

However, for others, leg day is a glorious day filled with massive potential gains.

But, maybe your gains aren’t coming quick enough. Leg press and leg extensions just aren’t enough.

What are your options? Someone once said something about lunges and now you’re interested.

What muscles do lunges work, really? Will they make your legs grow? Will results happen faster? You’ve come to the right place to find out.

What Muscles Do Lunges Work? - Lifting Straps

First, let’s not forget that heavy lunges can be done much easier with lifting straps.

These Dark Iron Fitness lifting straps will help you lunge with heavy dumbbells, safe and secure.

You always want your grip to be as strong and effortless as possible; this is particularly true when doing lunges.

The last thing you want your mind to be bothered with is your grip when you are performing forward moving lunges — keep focused on the movement itself.

Now, getting to the good stuff — the lunges. What muscles do lunges work?

Well, first let’s talk about what a lunge is and how to properly do them.

Related: The Many Benefits of Squats and Lunges


How to Do Lunges Correctly

The Proper Form

To do a lunge, you’ll want to perfect your form first by going unweighted.

Stand with your legs together and then take one stride forward with a single leg and bend your knee.

Your front leg should achieve about a 90-degree angle with your knee still behind your foot.

With your back leg bent, heel up to the ceiling and knee almost touching the ground, you’re now in the lunge position.

Always remember to keep your back upright, core extremely tight and sightline forward, targeting a static destination.

You don’t want your front knee to travel over your foot, as this will put undue stress on the joints and your hip flexor.

The reason you’ll want your core tight is to keep stabilized, especially while moving forward from leg to leg with alternating lunges.

Once you’ve got the basic form down and feel confident in your strides, you will be set to move on to more advanced lunges.

Form is your friend, and with lunges, foregoing proper form can turn into your enemy.

It will be very easy to recognize improper form, because it’ll throw your balance out of whack and cause leaning and shaking.


Same Form, Different Lunge

Single Leg, Forward Lunge

The great thing about the lunge is that it has such a basic base form. 

But, the even better thing is that there are different styles of lunges you can do.

In my opinion, the forward-moving, alternating-leg, walking lunge is the most popular.

However, that isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea — which isn’t a problem.

You can still do forward stride lunges, but with one leg at a time.

Starting at one side of the room, follow the same basic form, but when you stand back up with your legs together, you’ll go back down into a lunge with the same leg.

Sometimes counting left leg then right leg as one rep will get annoying and make you lose focus.

Doing the forward lunge unilaterally (a single leg lunging forward at a time) can be easier to track reps and give you an intense burn.

Then, on your way back across the room, you will be lunging with your other leg (the back leg from your previous set).


What Muscles Do Lunges Work During a Reverse Lunge?

This style of lunge can be done exactly the same way as the forward walking lunge, with the exception of being done in reverse.

Instead of stepping back up and putting your next foot forward, you step up to the starting position and then lunge by putting your foot back.

Doing reverse lunges can be beneficial because they are going to be putting your body through an extremely unfamiliar movement.

You spend all day walking forward and doing forward-moving movements. When you start doing things in reverse, it feels strange and foreign.

In time, the reverse movement will eventually get easier to do (but not too easy) and you’ll be able to add weight.

I recommend practicing reverse lunges cautiously; if you have terrible balance with normal, forward lunges, doing reverse lunges can be tricky and possibly dangerous.

For some, this style of lunge will be far too uncomfortable and impossible to focus on the mind-muscle connection.

If you have trouble staying focused on the exercise and which muscles you are targeting, it’s okay to skip out on reverse lunges (at least reverse traveling lunges).


What Muscles Do Lunges Work During an In-Place Lunge?

Lunges can be stressful on your stabilizer muscles, your core, your feet, knees, legs and joints if you aren’t used to them.

Some people truly hate doing forward moving lunges and usually lunges in general.

That is why the in-place lunge is a nice bridge for those who want the benefits without doing the movement to the extreme.

With the in-place lunge, you simply go down into the lunge and come back up in the same spot you started in.

These can be done by alternating legs or using one leg at a time to complete your sets.

Doing an in-place lunge is beneficial because there is less stress on your joints and ankles, especially if you don’t have great mobility.

In-place lunges are also similar to Bulgarian split squats, where you perform the lunge occasionally with your back foot on a bench or other surface.

The form is going to be the same as usual, but if you are a beginner, doing your lunges in a static position can be helpful.

Related: The Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats


What Muscles Do Lunges Work During a Side Lunge?

The side lunge is nice to target one side at a time without moving across a room. 

With the side lunge, you can get very low and feel a good stretch.

Performing this style of lunge can feel a little more awkward, as you aren’t going forward, but you get acquainted with time.

You can lunge to the left, go back to your starting position, and then lunge to the right.

However, I would suggest doing a full set of lunges on one side and then switching.

Completely one set of side lunges, per side, at a time will cut down on form issues.

When you are doing side lunges from left to right, you will have to reevaluate your form a lot more.

Though side lunges are great, I prefer traditional lunges or a mix of doing both during your workout.



What Muscles Do Lunges Work? — The Breakdown

Complete Leg Burning Performance

What Muscles Do Lunges Work? Quads on Quads

For your legs, lunges are without a doubt a true phenom.

Usually, people will perform lunges to work their quads.

The stabilization needed, especially with weighted lunges, will promote the burn in your quads.

During your lunge set, you’ll feel the exertion of energy and become fatigued, but right after you finish is when the true pain begins.

But, in this definition, the pain is good. You’re properly breaking down the muscle fibers and with rest, you’ll see your quads grow.

Quad exhaustion and targeting is easier when you lunge in a slow, controlled manner and focus on the muscles being worked.

The mind-muscle connection is extremely important for lunges; this connection allows you to avoid sloppy lunges that can injure joints.

Related: Do Squats Help You Lose Weight on Your Thighs?


What Muscles Do Lunges Work? Gluteus Maximus

A lot of people gravitate towards lunges for the benefits to your glutes.

Who doesn’t want a strong, firm and toned butt?

Men and women would prefer to keep their glutes firm and naturally curved, and that is what lunges can do.

The consistent lowering of your body weight (or added weight), as you lunge, works to stretch your glutes and hip flexors.

You will feel your glutes tighten as you get deep into the lunge, but you should always focus to target these muscles.

Squeezing your glutes when you drop into the lunge and moving slowly will further your progression in glute building.

So, as you can see, glute muscles are what lunges work — and work well.


What Muscles Do Lunges Work? The Core Theory

Doing any kind of lunge requires a certain level of core strength.

If your core isn’t tight and your posture isn’t straight, your body will tilt and shake while lunging.

During the lunge, you’ll be in a position where your core is keeping you upright and steady.

This means your core is the foundation to the workout, and it gets the proper burn, because it is being activated.

The tightness in your core will be similar to doing a plank, as long as you stay slow and controlled.

All core exercises are beneficial, as they translate to all around strength and physicality in other workouts and movements.

So, all of these lunge styles will help you build up core strength — but make sure your core is strong enough to do the lunge in the first place.

Now that we know some great unweighted movements and what they target, how about when you add the weight on?

Let’s find out what adding weight will do to make your lunges better (or worse?).

Related: Ab Wheel Effectiveness


Going Heavy: What Muscles Do Lunges Work When Weighted?

The Benefit of Adding Weight

Adding weight to any exercise will usually optimize it, but also make it tougher to perform. 

Once you overcome the early stages of figuring out form and keeping your core and gait steady during lunges, adding weight is worth it.

The reason weighted lunges are so beneficial is because they literally force you to spend more time under more tension.

In the same vein as bodyweight squats vs. heavy weighted squats, lunges will shine when you can withstand added volume in both weight and reps.

Besides working your body harder, weighted lunges use stabilizer muscles more and even work more muscles than unweighted.

If you become competent enough in bodyweight lunges, I suggest giving weighted lunges a shot, even if it is just with a set of light dumbbells.


Barbell Lunges

Welcome to the pinnacle.

Doing barbell lunges will be your true leg burner and probably most effective approach to lunges.

For barbell lunges, you can use a standard barbell and add your weights, or you can use preset weighted barbells.

Using the barbells that have preset weights is usually a better option and a lot safer.

Preset weights help you avoid the weights shaking or becoming loose.

When you do barbell lunges, keep your back straight and core tight.

Position the barbell across your upper back/shoulders.

I would suggest for weighted lunges, especially using barbell, to add in an authentic leather weightlifting belt, like ours at Dark Iron Fitness.

The safer you are when you do weighted lunges, the better.

Always remember to choose a weight you can handle, as lunges tire you out quickly.

You can expect your quads, core and upper back/shoulders to feel the burn.

Related: Benefits of Heavy Squats


Dumbbell Lunges, Kettlebell Lunges and Weight Plate Lunges

The other weights you can use, which work well, and will amp up the muscle stress are all hand-held. 

Dumbbells work great because you can carry them in each hand and fluctuate the weights easily up and down.

Kettlebells work well for lunges, as you can hold them by the handles, but the weight options are usually more limited.

Using a single weight plate, held with both hands up at your chest, is also a super important lunge style that gives you great control.

A weight plate is beneficial because the weight is centered and stable.

Choose a comfortable weight plate, but preferably a plate that has cutouts to hold and is large enough to balance you properly.

Using dumbbells and kettlebells will also help build your forearms, grip and shoulders, as they are held to the sides of your body.

Basically, adding these types of weights will target muscles, stabilizing muscles and other muscles you didn’t even know were being worked.


Conclusion to What Muscles Do Lunges Work?

So, what muscles do lunges work? 

Well, the answer is very broad and depends on how you perform your lunges.

If you are doing bodyweight lunges only, you’ll probably mostly feel it in your quads.

What Muscles Do Lunges Work? - Dark Iron Fitness Weightlifting Belt

Once you go weighted — and can do slow, controlled reps — you will be targeting your quads, core and glutes immensely.

Furthermore, depending on the weights chosen, you can target secondary muscles like your back, shoulders, forearms and grip strength.

When doing lunges, choose what is equal to your physicality when you start.

Over time, add weight, change the weights and continually progress to lift heavier and lunge deeper.

If you end up doing barbell lunges, look into buying Dark Iron Fitness’ authentic leather weightlifting belt.

For those who prefer using handheld weights, like dumbbells and kettlebells, some lifting straps will work great.

In the end, you dictate which muscles your lunges target the most.

Do them properly, slowly and with high repetitions — you’ll see some great results.

Related: How Long Does It Take to See Results From Squats and Lunges?