There's more than one way to lunge. You can go forward, backward, sideways, or hit multiple directions. You can also make them either glute or quad-focused by changing a few angles.
Just like squats and deadlifts, lunges are all about angles. There's plenty of internet real estate covering the difference between a high-bar squat and a box squat, but you'll be hard-pressed to find the same passionate talk of lunge variations. Let's change that.
If you like the idea of stronger hams and glutes or avoiding knee pain, then you'll benefit from making your lunges more hip-dominant.
Variations: Forward, Reverse, Walking
The direction you lunge matters. Let's talk about the forward (not walking) lunge. During these, momentum shifts your center of gravity forwards. This drives your knees further forward and places a greater weight on the ball of your foot rather than your heel. In this position, your quads work hard to catch your knees from traveling further forward upon landing.
Your glutes and hamstrings lose leverage in a forward lunge, resulting in a less stable knee. A greater contraction of your calves with a forward lunge can help with stabilizing your knee somewhat, but if your knees are often cranky, your calves can do very little for you in this position. There are better options.
A reverse lunge (stepping back first) is naturally more hip-dominant. It's great for developing an athletic lower body since it's more specific to sprinting and forward locomotion than a forward lunge. Reverse lunges demand greater output from your hamstrings which will help stabilize your knees. They also activate your glutes and hamstrings concentrically to propel you forward – back to the starting position.
Walking lunges are a hybrid between the forward and reverse lunge. While they do drive your center of gravity more forward over your knees, they also have a horizontal component much like a reverse lunge.
We're not putting forward lunges on trial for knee-murder; they have their uses. But reverse lunges and walking lunges are the better options for hip-dominance while also being the most knee-friendly.
Wait, Why Not Emphasize the Quads?
Many lifters have overpowering quads compared to their hamstrings and glutes. That's a recipe for disaster. In isolation, your hamstrings should be at least as strong, if not stronger, than your quadriceps.
You may not have access to an isokinetic dynamometer to test your hamstrings torque at different lengths, but you'll sure know if you've been neglecting them! Making your lunges more hip-dominant can help shift your questionable H:Q ratio, while also strengthening your glutes.
Consider Torso and Shin Angle
By making your lunges more hip-dominant, we're simply encouraging more movement at your hips and less at your knees. We're also encouraging more of a weight shift back towards your hips rather than over your toes. With lunges, this can be achieved simply by adding a forward lean and more of a vertical shin angle.
But it's all relative. Different weights and machines have varying resistance profiles and leverage factors to consider. Comparing a dumbbell reverse lunge to a landmine reverse lunge would be like comparing apples and oranges. Instead, compare something like a dumbbell walking lunge to a dumbbell walking lunge performed with more hip dominance.
Dumbbell Walking Lunge
Now that you've got a reference point, here's a dumbbell walking lunge made to be more hip-dominant. Notice the change in torso and knee angle from the above video:
Dumbbell Walking Lunge – Hip Dominant
Making your lunges more hip-dominant means more glute and hamstring tension and less quad tension. So if you're looking to develop your butt and hams, but don't want bigger quads, you'll want to consider doing your dumbbell walking lunges more like the second video.
Hip-dominant lunges should have more of a vertical shin angle, as evidenced by the hip-dominant walking lunge. This is great for those trying to work around cranky knees.
While this is far from a normal way to do lunges, it'll often decrease patellofemoral pain since you're shifting more weight back over your hips instead of forward over your knees. The additional ham activation will help support and stabilize your knees too.
More Lunge Options
If you prefer not to travel with your lunges, here's how to do a stationary reverse lunge with hip-dominance:
Dumbbell Reverse Lunge – Hip Dominant
Some implements have a profile that naturally swings toward either hip or knee-dominance. A landmine, for instance, naturally encourages a more horizontal movement as you lunge toward the direction of the device.
You also don't have much of an option but to reverse lunge, which lends itself to more hip-dominance anyway. Here's a basic hip-dominant reverse lunge using a landmine:
Landmine Reverse Lunge – Hip-Dominant
In landmine squat and lunge variations, due to leverage factors there's greater weight in the bottom position than at the top. As a quad exercise this would mean you'd be sacrificing a little muscle activation towards the top of the lunge where your quads are strongest.
Fun fact: Quad-focused landmine exercises are best complemented with other quad exercises that have a descending strength curve and load you more towards the top of the exercise. For this reason, even a traditional lunge performed using a landmine could be considered better a glute-builder rather than to develop thick thighs.
For an advanced version of a glute-focused landmine lunge try these bad boys:
Landmine Shouldered Lunge
Landmine shouldered lunges require the load to be on your shoulders. If it were in your hands while you hinged, you'd lose it. These work best contra-laterally, which in this case, means the bar is on my right shoulder while my left leg is doing most of the work in front. I'd also recommend using a squat bar pad for the end of your barbell, or towel, since there will be a significant load on your shoulders that can be uncomfortable.
Once you whip the bar up into position (or set it on a box like you would during Lumberjack squats) set the bar on your shoulders and lean in as close as you can to the plates. For comfort and safety you're actually better off having both hands on the plates rather than the bar. This also allows a more forward-leaning torso and the end of the bar to hinge over your shoulder somewhat.
As you step back into your reverse lunge, push your hips back and hinge your torso slightly. Despite the more forward shin angle, because the majority of the load is in the bottom position these are more useful as a hip-dominant lunge where your glutes are loaded in their lengthened position.
What About Split Squats?
They could be seen as a more stationary form of lunge, and a good opportunity to teach stability, positioning, and lunge pattern. Most of the variations above can be done as a split squat instead by eliminating the step and keeping the back leg stationary. In my own coaching practice I tend to use split squat variations before progressing to lunges.
During any hip-dominant split squat you'd apply all the same principles as a lunge. Ideally there should be a more vertical shin angle, but this can be hard to achieve without compromising the hip angle or using an external cue like a heel wedge under your front toes (toes elevated).
A hip-dominant split squat should also not look like a kickstand (split-stance) Romanian deadlift because there are distinct differences.
For a hip-dominant split squat, focus on nailing the torso angle. Here's a useful hip-dominant cable split squat that really exaggerates the forward lean. If you can handle the complexity, this could be progressed into a reverse lunge too. Coach Jon Chaimberg taught me this variation:
Cable Reaching Split Squat
Use hip-dominant lunges in place of your more traditional lunges to work your glutes and hamstrings harder. If your knees are getting a little clunky from all those knee-dominant lunges, you could also try swapping them out to give your quads and knees a break.