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While popular leg exercises such as squats, leg press, leg extensions, and leg curls are all staples in most bodybuilding routines for the lower body, an exercise you don’t want to forget is lunges. Lunges are an excellent single leg exercise that can not only round out lower body development, but also target balance and improve athletic ability. However, you may wonder exactly what muscles do lunges work, as well as how. This article will look into that, as well as different lunge variations.
As a whole, lunges target the quadriceps and glutes directly, while indirectly targeting the hamstrings and posterior chain. The quadriceps and glutes are worked in opposite fashion, in that on reps where the left knee is forward, the left quadriceps and right glute are being worked. Conversely, the right quadriceps and left glute are being targeted when the right knee is forward.
A topic that bears mentioning at this point would be that of hip extensor involvement. The general consensus is that you should perform lunges with an upright torso, and that having to lean forward while lunging is indicative of tight hip flexors – a flexibility issue that may need to be addressed. However, if a trainee doesn’t have tight hip flexors, then intentionally leaning forward can increase hip flexor recruitment (according to a study performed by the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy). This may be beneficial to you if your hip flexors are actually weak and need to be strengthened.
When lunging forward, the “working” muscles are those that are in the “stretched” position during the movement – this is why the quadriceps and glutes are worked in opposite fashion as mentioned above. The hamstrings are also indirectly targeted, but just as unintentional leaning forward can be indicative of tight hip flexors, an inability to lunge too far forward (or back) can be indicative of tight hamstrings and/or glutes. A smart progression is to step forward to a safe distance for you and increase said distance over time. Don’t let your forward knee travel out over your toes and consider starting with only your bodyweight if you find that you don’t have good balance.
One issue with forward lunges is that because you’re stepping forward and “landing” with your lead foot, it can create a lot of shearing forces through that forward knee. This can lead to injuries or chronic pain over time, especially if your balance isn’t spot on from the beginning. A better option would be to do a reverse lunge instead. This will eliminate the shearing forces, as well as allow you to put greater concentration on keeping your torso upright. When doing a reverse lunge, you’ll also likely feel a great emphasis on the VMO (vastus medialis oblique – the “teardrop” shaped muscle just above the knee) and the glutes.
While still technically a “lunging” exercise, side lunges are quite different than their forward and reverse counterparts in that the quadriceps and glutes are targeted much less. Instead, the abductors and adductors are more heavily targeted – the abductor on the side in which you’re lunging toward and the adductor on the other leg, then vice versa in the other direction. So for example, if you’re lunging to the right, you’ll work the abductor on your right leg and adductor on your left leg.
Just be careful when doing side lunges as they can cause more shearing force than forward/reverse lunges, as most trainees’ lateral (side-to-side) stability isn’t as good as their longitudinal (forward-and-back). This is even more true if you don’t have great balance.
A lunge walk is essentially a forward lunge, alternating legs each rep, only instead of returning to the starting position, you bring the trail leg forward to meet the forward leg. The trail leg then becomes the forward leg, and you repeat. So you’d lunge forward with your left leg, bring your right leg forward to meet it, lunge forward with your right leg, bring your left leg forward to meet it, and so on. This variation puts a lot more focus on the lead leg, and will be especially felt around the VMO.
Lunges are a great overall leg exercise, and implementing them into your bodybuilding routine would be a good idea for more well-rounded development. However, while you might be concerned with what muscles do lunges work when creating your overall program, just ensure that you keep safety in mind. Well-developed muscles aren’t possible if you’re laid up on the shelf with a knee injury because you pushed an exercise too hard and too fast that didn’t need it. Save the heavy and hard work for the squats and leg presses – keep the lunges moderate and controlled.