Squats and deadlifts are the most popular lower-body exercises, but lunges are the unsung hero of leg exercises. The squat and deadlift are bilateral exercises, which means you’re using both sides of your body at the same time. Lunges are unilateral, which means one leg works more than the other.
The lunge is a very natural movement, similar to walking or running. Since most of your weight is on one leg, you don’t need as much resistance as a squat or deadlift. Less weight means less risk of injury. Lunges are also safer on your knees than the squat, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
With the lunge you can create interesting exercise variations that challenge your balance, strength and endurance. They’re difficult exercises, but worth the discomfort.
Here are 11 variations on lunges to strengthen your body and balance:
1. SLIDER REVERSE LUNGE
When working on your lunge form, it’s easier to start with a reverse lunge than a forward lunge. There’s less impact, meaning less stress on your knees. By adding a slider to the reverse lunge you take the impact out of the exercise completely.
The move: Start standing with a slider under one foot. Your toes should be in the middle of the slider with your heel off the ground. Slide back and drop your back knee toward the ground. Stop before your knee hits the ground. In the bottom position, both knees should be bent at 90 degrees. Pull forward with your front leg to stand up.
2. TRX LUNGE
If you’re struggling to perform a bodyweight lunge, you can use a TRX for some assistance.
The move: Stand, holding the handles of the TRX, and step back a few feet. Lean back against the TRX and step back with one foot. Drop your back knee down until it’s just above the ground, then stand back up.
3. GOBLET FORWARD LUNGE
The move: When you lunge, your torso should be as upright as possible. If you use dumbbells or a barbell for resistance, the weight can push your torso forward. To stay upright while adding weight, use a kettlebell or dumbbell in the goblet position. With both hands, hold the weight at chest-height. By holding the weight in front of you, it’s easier to lean back while dropping down into the lunge.
4. PENDULUM LUNGE
Test your balance with this lunge variation.
The move: Step forward and drop your back knee down into a lunge. Push off your front leg and step back with that leg into a reverse lunge. Drop your back knee down and drive forward, alternating between a forward and reverse lunge. Try to avoid touching the ground as you transition between the forward and reverse lunge to test your balance further.
5. SPLIT SQUAT
This is one of the simplest lunge variations, but it can be the most fatiguing.
The move: Start with a soft pad on the ground. Get into the bottom of a lunge position with one knee on the pad. Both knees should be at 90-degree angles and your torso upright. Keeping your feet in place, lift yourself up and back down to the pad. At the top, your legs should be almost straight. Complete the desired number of reps on one side, then switch legs.
6. REAR-FOOT ELEVATED SPLIT SQUAT
The move: You’ll need a bench or flat surface, like a chair roughly knee-height for this exercise. Stand 2–3 feet in front of the bench and put your back foot on the flat surface. You can either dig your toes in or leave the top of your foot flat. With your torso as upright as possible, drop your back knee down toward the ground. Go as low as you can until you hit the ground or you feel a stretch in your back leg. Then, drive up with your front leg until you’re back in the start position. Stay on one leg until you’ve completed the desired number of reps, then switch.
7. SKATER SQUAT
Think of this exercise as a reverse lunge where your back foot can’t touch the ground. It helps to use light weights, like 5–10 pounds, as a counterbalance.
The move: Stand in front of a pad with the weights in your hands. Drop your back knee toward the ground and reach the weights out in front of you. Your back knee should touch the pad but your foot should not hit the ground. Lean forward and stand up, driving through your front leg.
8. WALKING LUNGE
The move: Making sure you have plenty of room, start with dumbbells in your hands. Step forward with one leg and drop your back knee down into a lunge. Step forward and bring your feet together, then step with the other leg. Keep lunging forward until you run out of room or get tired.
9. REVERSE LUNGE WITH OVERHEAD PRESS
London-based certified personal trainer Lee Ryan uses this exercise to incorporate an upper-body challenge to the lunge, killing two birds with one stone.
The move: Start with a dumbbell in one hand. Step back with the same leg, drop your back knee to the ground, then drive through the ball of your foot to stand back up. Press the dumbbell up in the air as you stand back up until your elbow is straight. Complete 8–10 reps, then switch hands and legs.
10. GLIDER CURTSY LUNGE
The move: Perform this exercise with as much control as possible. Start with one foot on a slider. Slide that foot back and behind the foot that isn’t sliding. Keep your weight on the leg that isn’t sliding. Think about drawing a reverse “J” shape in the ground with your sliding leg, curling around the leg that isn’t sliding. Bend your front leg as much as possible as you slide back.
11. JUMP LUNGES
This is one of the most intense and high-impact lunge variations, so you shouldn’t try it unless you’re in need of a challenge.
The move: Start by dropping down into a lunge position. When both of your knees are at 90-degree angles, jump into the air and switch legs. Land quietly with soft knees, drop down into a lunge and repeat.