Whether you’re talking about athlete workouts, bodybuilders, or just general fitness enthusiasts, single leg movements are a popular choice for lower body assistance work. Two of the most popular selections are split squats and lunges. However, it’s hard to know which is better – split squat vs lunge. This article will look at both movements, as well as try to show you when you should select one or the other, depending on your needs.
A Look at the Split Squat
If you’re going to compare the split squat vs lunge, you have to first get to know each exercise. Split squats are a squatting motion where the legs are in a scissored position. The working leg is under you and the one that is responsible for moving your body up and down. Your non-working leg is out behind you and there for balance. The novice version of this movement has your trailing leg on the floor, while the desired version has your rear foot elevated on a bench or strap.
The split squat obviously heavily targets the quadriceps of the working leg, especially the VMO (the “teardrop”-shaped muscles just above the knee). The novice version can take a little balance if you’re not used to it, but it’s the rear foot elevated variation is where this exercise really comes into its own.
With the rear foot elevated, your front foot should be positioned such that when you squat all the way down, your lower front leg remains vertical. You should also strive to keep your torso upright through the entire range of motion.
In this position, you get a deep stretch of the working quadriceps at the bottom of the movement. Also because your rear foot is elevated, your opposite glute is contracted hard at the bottom, while the glute on the working leg is stretched thoroughly. In fact, many lifters new to this exercise will tire in the glutes long before they do the legs.
Once you’ve acclimated to performing this exercise, you can really start to pile on the extra resistance in the form of holding heavy dumbbells in each hand. This makes it quite suitable for building strength and size. In fact, there is more than one coach who feels that the split squat is preferable to the barbell squat for developing strength, as it allows you to work each leg individually as well as train legs in opposing fashions at the same time. This is analogous to what happens in the “real world”.
At the same time, those wishing to build strong legs without huge size often prefer split squats. This is because both feet are always planted, you can use more weight than any other single leg exercise, and it can be good in helping to shape your lower body.
Lunges – The Old Standby
If you’re coming from the bodybuilding world, you might think that in the split squat vs lunge debate, that lunges should have been discussed first. This is because lunges tend to be more common with bodybuilders than almost any other single leg exercise.
Regular forward lunges work the forward quadriceps just like split squats, but they tend to hit more of the mid part of the muscle. However, they can be a bit dangerous because of the actual “lunging” of the movement itself. Landing with forward momentum (both from your own body weight and added resistance) can be quite stressful to the knee.
This is why lunges are often performed with much less weight than split squats, with emphasis being put on the contraction portion of the movement and stretch at the bottom. You “sit” deep into the lunge, actually pushing the knee well out past the toes. This leads to a greater stretch in not only the forward quadriceps, but the trailing hamstrings. You’ll want to note that if your hamstrings are tight, that can definitely hinder you.
Reverse Lunges – A Different Alternative
If you’re going to look at split squat vs lunge, then you really should differentiate between forward lunges and reverse lunges. Both are lunging movements, but the reverse variation is quite a bit different than its forward counterpart.
Reverse lunges tend to hit the working quadriceps much in the same fashion that forward lunges do, but because you’re putting your trailing leg behind you instead of stepping forward, there’s not nearly as much pressure put on the knee. This makes it safer and more doable for a number of people.
However, because this essentially turns the movement into a sort of single leg squatting motion, you do have to have a bit more balance to perform it properly. Though you can alleviate this by kicking your trailing leg out to one side a little (picture a bicycle’s kickstand). In fact, if you’ve wanted to work up to doing free standing single leg squats (sometimes called a “pistol squat”), but don’t yet have appropriate strength, this would be a good exercise to utilize.
Because you’re coming up in more of a vertical motion (as opposed to lunging “back” from a forward lunge), these can be good for developing more power out of the bottom position. They’re not quite as good as split squats for this, but are still a great choice for the everyday person vs the competitive athlete.
Some might complain of stress on the Achilles heel when you land on your trailing leg. If this happens to you, you should probably spend more time doing dual leg movements before trying to implement reverse lunges into your program.
Which Should You Choose?
Ultimately, all you’re really interested in is which exercise you should choose. Here’s a quick little guide to split squat vs lunge:
- Split squat – great for athletes or those wanting to use these in lieu of barbell squats to develop strong, sleek legs; excellent for glute development.
- Lunge – good for bodybuilders who want to improve muscle quality by using less weight and focusing on the stretch, then contraction.
- Reverse lunge – excellent choice if you’re not yet strong enough to do free standing single leg “pistol” squats; easier on the knee; good choice for general workout enthusiasts.
Regardless of which you choose, just be safe. All are great exercises that do their individual things well, but can lead to injury if not done properly. Take your time, work your chosen variation slowly, bu methodically, and you’ll see leg development soar. If you enjoyed this article, read our write up on lunges vs squats.