The Top 7 Lunge Variations
The beauty of the lunge is that you can manipulate the stride length, torso position, and how you hold the weight to change the training stimulus. Here are seven lunge exercises to try out.
Basic lunges are usually performed with an upright torso, but they should be done with your torso bent slightly forward at a 45-degree angle. That way, at the bottom of each rep, the dumbbells end up on each side of your front foot instead of by your hips.
An upright torso places much more emphasis on the quads while a forward trunk lean can increase the recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings. And the torso angle can be tweaked. The more forward the torso is leaned, the more demand you place on the glutes and hamstrings, which reduces the demand on the quads.
The 45-degree forward lean provides a nice middle-ground torso position that places more demand onto the glutes and hams than the conventional style (with an upright torso) while still placing an overload demand on the quads.
Also, if you're doing reverse lunges, try increasing the range of motion by standing on a weight plate or small platform like an aerobic step. You should be able to lightly touch your knee to the floor on your rear leg at the bottom of each rep. If you can't drop your rear knee below the level of your elevated front leg you're defeating the purpose of doing it elevated.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing lunges with an upright torso position. In fact, if you're looking to focus more on the quads, an upright torso position is best.
Taking a longer stride (with a vertical tibia) is more hip-oriented version; taking a shorter stride with a slightly angled tibia is a more knee (quad) oriented version. So, if you're really trying to hammer the quads, you'd combine an upright torso with a slightly reduced stance length that creates a tibia angle similar to one involved in a standard squat.
That said, it's important for females to place an emphasis on hamstring-oriented exercises, like leaning lunges and RDL lunges. Women are more quad dominant than men, tend to have weaker hamstrings, and therefore may be more prone to knee injury.
A great example of an extreme glutes and hams dominant lunge is the RDL lunge, often called an anterior lunge. Due to the exaggerated torso lean and minimal knee-bend involved, the RDL lunge places much less demand on the quads because almost all of the stress is on the glutes and hamstrings (and low back).
There are several versions of this exercise: an in-place version, a walking version and a lateral version.
I call this the fighter's lunge because it sort of resembles the motion of a fighter throwing a knee strike. With this one, you'll perform all reps on one side before switching to the other side. If you're stepping backwards with your right leg, the dumbbell in your left hand should be outside of your left hip, and the dumbbell in your right hand should be in front of your right thigh.
You can perform the reverse lunge with either a forward leaning or upright torso position by stepping backward with your right leg. As you return to the standing position, allow your right thigh to meet the center handle of the dumbbell. With the dumbbell against the middle of your right thigh, flex your hip and raise your knee just above a 90-degree angle with the floor.
Your thigh should meet the dumbbell gently rather than smashing into it. Lift the dumbbell with your hip, not your arm. Step backward again with your right leg and repeat.
A 2015 study of walking lunges and split squats compared leg and hip muscle activity when holding a single dumbbell on the front leg side (ipsilateral) to holding the dumbbell on the back leg side (contralateral).
While activation of the quads was similar in both carrying positions, the glute medius (your upper glutes) was activated to a much greater degree when the dumbbell is held on the back leg side.
In other words, your butt works harder during lunges when you hold a single dumbbell in the hand that's opposite the working leg (i.e. on the same side as the back leg). To synopsize, you can maximize glute recruitment when doing lunges by using an offset load while utilizing a forward-leaning torso position.
Now, if your lower-body strength demands you use a weight that's greater than what you're able to hold with one hand, you can still use an offset loading strategy by holding two unevenly loaded dumbbells – holding the heaviest of the two dumbbells on the opposite side of the working leg. So, if you're doing reverse lunges and you're stepping back with your right leg, you'd hold the heavier dumbbell on your right side.
If you're using two unevenly loaded dumbbells, there should be about a 35 to 65 light dumbbell to heavy dumbbell loading distribution. The heavier of the two dumbbells should make up roughly 65 percent of the total weight you're holding. And don't allow your shoulders to rotate or tilt toward the heavier side; keep your shoulders even throughout.
The next time you're doing walking lunges, try doing upright torso lunges, 5-10 steps each leg. Then turn around and perform leaning torso lunges or RDL lunges on the way back for another 5-10 steps each leg. This not only helps to make things more interesting, it also changes the muscular focus and activation.
The logic of starting with upright torso lunges and then following them with a more hip-oriented style lunge is because your hips are usually stronger than your quads. Starting with the easier of the two movements and then hitting the stronger exercise allows you to maintain control and alignment more effectively
The same concept used above in the walking lunge can also be applied to in-place lunges. Instead of walking in one direction and then reversing course, stay put while still alternating between the two versions.
The best way to do this is to perform reverse lunges for 6-8 reps each leg, followed by RDL lunges for 6-8 reps per leg. Another option is to alternate between the two exercises.
For example, you'd alternate between reverse lunges and lateral RDL lunges. The sequence would work as follows: reverse lunge left, reverse lunge right, lateral RDL lunge left, lateral RDL lunge right. All that would equal 1 rep. You'd then repeat that sequence for around 6-8 reps.
- Farrokhi S et al. Trunk position influences the kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activity of the lead lower extremity during the forward lunge exercise. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2008 Jul;38(7):403-9.
- Schütz P et al. Joint angles of the ankle, knee, and hip and loading conditions during split squats. J Appl Biomech. 2014 Jun;30(3):373-80.
- Youdas JW et al. Comparison of hamstring and quadriceps femoris electromyographic activity between men and women during a single-limb squat on both a stable and labile surface. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):105-11.
- Kannus P et al. Peak torque occurrence in the range of motion during isokinetic extension and flexion of the knee. Int J Sports Med. Nov 1993;14(8):422-426.
- Anderson AF et al. Correlation of anthropometric measurements, strength, anterior cruciate ligament size, and intercondylar notch characteristics to sex differences in anterior cruciate ligament tear rates. Am J Sports Med. Jan-Feb 2001;29(1):58-66.
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- Stastny P et al. Does the Dumbbell-Carrying Position Change the Muscle Activity in Split Squats and Walking Lunges? J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Nov;29(11):3177-87.