It's time to step away from training your “mirror muscles.” You know a carved core, beefed up back, and amped up arms are going to make you look good in a t-shirt, but you're missing out on some huge gains by solely training muscles from the waist up. The solution is simple; add these lunge variations into your workout regimen. Aside from filling out those chicken legs of yours, lunges will make you a better athlete.
"Training your glutes will give you more speed and explosive power," says Simon King personal trainer and owner of Cre8 Fitness gym in London, England. All in all, unilateral exercises are a great way to improve flexibility and balance. And, King adds, "Compound exercises like lunges elicit a huge metabolism response, meaning you burn [a ton of] calories. If you're ready to bulletproof your body, reduce your risk of injury with the added reward of strong glutes, lean hamstrings, and toned calves, then let's get started with the 15 best lunge variations.
Here's King's suggested checklist before you begin; it applies to every lunge variation on our list:
- Prepare your body for movement through mobilization and a proper warm up
- Drive through your heel(s) to get maximum glute recruitment
- Keep hips aligned to protect any knee deviation
- Ensure your core is braced to create intra-abdominal pressure
- Your head should remain still throughout every exercise
If you’re a beginner, King suggests starting with a static or walking lunge, concentrating on the quality of each rep. Start with 3 sets of 10 reps each leg. As you become more competent think about challenging your body as much as possible, increasing the amount of reps and sets, even working towards 10 sets of 10 reps on a more advanced exercise like the Rear Foot Elevated Lunge holding dumbbells in each hand.
1. Static lunge
Why it works: "The Static Lunge may be your starting point of developing the movement pattern, however it’s one that places huge stress through your hamstrings, glutes, and quads due to its strong eccentric contraction of your muscles," King says. Working on the eccentric (lowering) phase of this exercise is super important because you want to recruit as many muscle fibers—required for performance and muscle development—as possible. What's more, the static lunge will challenge your balance (since all your weight is loaded through your forward leg) and your hip flexibility (which will determine how deep you can settle in to the lunge).
How to do it: Take a split stance so when you lower yourself into the lunge, both knees are bent at 90 degrees. If your right leg is forward, place most of the load through this foot, aiming to keep it firm and flat against the floor at all times. Your trailing left leg should be used to support and balance you as you drive upwards through the heel of your right (forward) leg. Make sure you stay on the balls of your feet as your left (trailing) leg comes back up.
2. Walking lunge
Why it works: “Until it was made popular by bodybuilding in the 90’s, this beast of an exercise was left confined to the group exercise class circuit,” King says. The Walking Lunge is a simple yet effective variation if you want to target your glutes and hamstrings. Walking lunges place huge demands on your cardiovascular system because you’re activating so many primary muscles, King adds. What’s more, you can increase the challenge by varying your stance and weight. Hold dumbbells in both hands to develop grip strength, place a bar on your back (or even in the front rack position) to place a greater demand on your balance and engage all your major core muscles, or take shorter steps to put more of an emphasis on your quads.
How to do it: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. Step forward with your right leg, placing your foot down as if you were setting up a static lunge, flexing your knees (90 degrees), and dropping your hips. Lower your left knee toward the ground and just before it makes contact with the floor, drive up and forward through your right leg, stepping into a lunge on your other side.
Note: To target your glutes, cycle the leg that’s moving forward higher as you move into each lunge. Your trailing leg is minimally involved apart from stabilizing the lunge.
3. Reverse lunge
Why it works: The Reverse Lunge is a great alternative if you suffer from minor knee pain every now and again. Unlike conventional lunges, the angle at which you’re lunging allows your knee joint to respond in a more favorable way to hip flexion. “And though it may stress the knee joint less, it still delivers big results when it comes to muscle and strength development,” King says. “It can also be used as an assessment tool to evaluate muscle and structure imbalances while developing balance, strength, and hip flexibility through movement,” he adds.
How to do it: The starting position is exactly the same as a walking lunge: Keeping a neutral spine, take a step backward—exactly the same width as you would take moving forward in a walking lunge—with your right leg. Once your knee almost touches the floor, push back up and forward to your starting position, trying to maintain level hip alignment throughout and keep your weight in your back leg. The big difference here is you’re using your front leg to stabilize your body.
4. Curtsy lunge
Why it works: “This Reverse Cross Over Lunge will really help you build a strong, firm butt by targeting the inner and outer glute and thigh muscles,” King says. The unique action of crossing over your legs is the most challenging part; you're putting emphasis on all three gluteal muscles—the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and take a large step back with your right leg, crossing it behind your left (as if you’re about to do a curtsy... yeah, yeah, get over the girliness of it). Your weight should be in your left foot as you slowly bend your knees, lowering your body straight down. Your left (front) leg should be parallel to the floor, your abs tight, and back straight. Push back up to the starting position.
5. Rear elevated foot lunge
Why it works: You’ll see this move used in sports programs because of its positive carry over on performance; namely it improves hip strength and mobility. It’s particularly difficult because your back leg requires an incredible amount of flexibility and strength while in a fully stretched position to be done correctly. “It’s unique in its own right as it engages muscles (glutes and quads) that are not often utilized while stretching out others that are generally overworked and tight (hamstrings and hip flexors),” King adds.
How to do it: Place your right foot on a bench or step, keeping your toes pointed, your foot flexed, and pressure penetrating the ball of your left foot (and the top of your right foot). Once in position, descend under control until your right knee just about touches the floor and drive back up through your left leg to the starting position. Make sure whichever knee is elevated doesn’t collapse in toward your body and the forward knee doesn’t slide past your toes.
Note: How high you raise your rear leg depends on hip flexibility and ankle mobility.
6. Front foot elevated lunge
Why it works: “Front Foot Elevated Lunges are a great way to improve knee stability through its direct recruitment of the vastus medialis, one of the four quadriceps muscles,” King says. This is the perfect exercise to prep you for the ski slopes; skiing places heavy demands on the structure of your knee and the less your knee deviates from its neutral position, the less likely you are to get injured, he explains. To make sure the correct muscles are being recruited, think about keeping your knees aligned over your toes, and make sure your front heel stays in contact with the floor.
How to do it: Place your right foot in front of you on an aerobic step or a 25kg Olympic lifting bumper plate. Keep this foot flat against the surface and stay on the ball of your left foot; this will bear your weight. With your abs tight and back straight, drive your front knee forward so it passes over your toes (which can require a certain amount of ankle mobility) and let your left knee lower naturally until it just about touches the floor. Drive back up through your right leg. This is important: The driving force behind this exercise is your front knee, not your rear knee, King stresses.
Note: What’s vitally important for muscle growth is time under tension. This front foot elevated lunge keeps your front leg under tension consistently through the “lift.” “Another way of maintaining tension throughout the lift is to have one leg placed on a step as the opposite arm holds a cable machine pulley,” King says. “The action of the cable pulling you toward it will work the concentric and eccentric phase of the exercise.”
7. Slider lunge
Why it works: “Most of the movements we do in the gym are static and symmetrical but, at the end of the day, the human body was designed to move as a unit and be tested in all planes of motion,” King says. The Slider Lunge challenges your body because it changes in range of motion; this becomes exceedingly more difficult when you add, say, a weighted vest. This is a great lunge variation if you want to strengthen hip flexion and extension, and work on your body’s awareness and coordination. (Note: The slider lunge can be done using Valslides (plastic sliding workout discs), furniture or carpet sliders, or a paper plate if you’re on hardwood or tile floors.)
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Place the slider under your right foot and push back until your hip is fully stretched and your knee is nearly touching the floor. Bracing your core, apply pressure into the slide and bring your leg back to the start. Remember, the body is designed to move in all planes of motion. Don’t be afraid to get creative and move around in multidirectional angles.
8. Around-the-clock Lunge
Why it works: The Around-the-Clock lunge is a well-rounded, multi-directional exercise that’s perfect for HIIT-style workouts because it trains the lactate threshold of your quads and hamstrings, which is especially great for long distance cyclists and runners, King says. Your body is constantly moving so your heart rate rises rapidly as you try to hit every number “on the clock.” You’re placing your muscles under tension for a prolonged period of time, too.
How to do it: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a clock with the numbers 1-12 around the outside. Your goal is to hit every clock number. Start with your right foot, using your left leg is used as a stabilizer, and lung forward to 12, then forward and slightly right to 1, all the way until you're stepping back to 6. Then, switch feet and finish the other numbers with your left foot. Face forward so your chest points toward 12 o’clock; you’re going to face noon for the entirety of the exercise to make sure you’re moving in a lateral plane of motion each time you push back to the start position.
9. Lunge and reach
Why it works: If you’re looking to build a rock solid butt and fry your hamstrings and glutes in one fell swoop, then the Lunge and Reach variation is for you. “With the additional hip flexion from reaching forward, you’re really targeting the ‘big dog’—your gluteus maximus,” King says. Plus, with your trunk leaning forward, you’re really lengthening your glutes under load, which requires your muscles to fire maximally in order to produce enough force to push you back to the start point. Also, if you’re plagued by lower back pain, this could be a great lunge alternative—if done correctly!—since it takes a lot of the load off your lumbar muscles. Your glutes, hamstrings and quads are the primary movers.
How to do it: Take a dumbbell in each hand and bring your right knee up as high as your range allows, then take an exaggerated step forward, placing your right foot down firmly. At the same time, lean your trunk forward so the dumbbells touch the floor on either side of your right foot. Keep your rear foot in the same position (pressure through the balls of your feet) and explosively push back to the start position, maintaining balance before alternating to your other leg.
10. Deficit drop lunge
What it works and why it’s challenging:
Taken and adapted from deficit deadlifts, this is a lunge variation that’s often underutilized, King says. It increases your range of motion (changing something like the height of your movement is a simple way to keep your body guessing), which takes your body longer to adapt to, therefore delaying the dreaded plateau. “You can either drop forward or back off a step both stimulating very different muscles,” King says. “Dropping forward will hit your quads, while the reverse will load your glutes and hamstrings.” (Note: This is a simple yet effective way to boost your explosive power. As soon as you plant your foot, try to create a spring-like push back as quickly as you can while maintaining control. Always warm up for this one as the hip extensors will be placed under excess force.)
How to do it:
Stand on the middle of a step. Lunge forward to the floor below you, say, with your right leg until your left knee touches the floor. Make sure your right foot is fully planted on the floor before pushing back to the start position.
11. Reverse lunge step-up
Why it works: Creating single leg stability is a must if you play contact sports or if your sport involves quick directional changes (this goes for workouts, too). The problem is most leg workouts limit the potential activation of your quads and hamstrings, capping the movement off when your legs come parallel to the ground. “The Reverse Lunge step up gives you a platform where you can massively increase your range of motion,” King says. This is crucial whether you’re trying to become more athletic, add muscle, run faster, jump higher.
How to do it: There are three actions to remember for maximum results, King says: You need to get high, go deep, and power up. Stand on a step or box that’s roughly mid-shin height. Sink into a reverse lunge, say with your right leg, keeping your ankles and knees aligned. As your right knee nears the floor, push through your left heel to drive back up on to the step, and continuing driving up until your right knee is raised up to waist height. You’ll shift all your weight on to your left leg, which results in maximum glute activation.
12. Overhead walking lunge
Why it works: This lunge variation will make you faster, stronger, and more flexible—not to mention it'll shred your entire body. The Overhead Walking Lunge works all your lower body muscles and activates muscles in your core, thoracic, shoulders, upper and lower traps. "With the load coming down from overhead, this forces your core muscles to lengthen and contract more fully, working not only the superficial good-looking core muscles but the ones that lie deep beneath that actually stabilize the body and make you strong," King says.
How to do it: Start light; take a weight plate and hold it directly above your head, elbows in line with your ears and your arms completely locked out. Take a step forward with your right leg into a deep lunge, keeping your arms locked and elbows in line with your ears, then forcefully drive this forward heel into the ground to return to the start position. Continue on the opposite leg. If you want to notch it up a level, use a bar—it's more difficult to keep balanced.
13. Suitcase lunge
Why it works: "If you want to max out on deadlifts and squats, then your obliques need to be conditioned and strong," King says. Enter: The suitcase lunge. This variation hits the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and the whole hip complex while fully loading the obliques. It's a great exercise if you have issues with posture during lifts because it forces you to kinaesthetically feel where you should be throughout the lift, King explains. He also mentions if you're struggling with grip in your deadlift then this can strengthen that weakness and simultaneously hit your stabilizing core muscles.
How to do it: Set yourself up as you would in a static lunge, taking a split stance. Holding a kettlebell in your right hand, keeping it at the side of your body, lower in to the lunge until your right knee touches the floor. Maintain good posture as you drive back up, pushing through the right leg and heel (remember, you're always driving up from the forward leg). Complete your desired amount of reps before swapping the kettlebell to the other side.
14. Jumping lunge
Why it works: The jumping lunge is perfectly suited for HIIT. It's a great plyometric bodyweight conditioning exercise that helps you gain balance, power, and speed (not to mention you'll be sweating almost immediately). "The continued explosive jumping action creates spikes in your heart rate, taking your body outside its comfort zone," Kings says. The more your body stays in this zone, the quicker the results will come.
How to do it: Begin in a split stance lunge position, bracing your core and keeping your upper body straight. Lunge down (starting with your right leg) so your knees are at 90 degrees, then jump high in the air and swap leg positions, bringing your back left leg to the front. Launch straight into the next jump, bending your knees to absorb the impact. If you want to take it to the next level, try using a weighted vest.
15. Windmill Lunge
What it works and why it’s challenging: The step out phase of the lunge works ankle mobility and hip flexion/extension, while the rotational element works on trunk stability. Plus, the external rotation of your arms improves shoulder mobility and improves your range of motion, which is commonly very tight and short in men.
How to do it: Stand tall with a neutral spine, step forward with your right foot, and perform a typical lunge. Then take your left hand and touch the inside of your big toe. In doing so, take your right arm and externally rotate as far as your body allows, aiming for your right hand to be pointed up toward the ceiling. You want the motion to be as seamless as possible, flowing from one side to the other.