Most lifters will use the squat and lunge within their training programs regardless of their training goal. Size, strength, and even athletic performance can benefit from these exercises.
A squat is a bilateral exercise targeting the quads and glutes. At the same time, the lunge is a unilateral exercise but targets the same muscle groups. The squat is better for strength development, while the lunge is an excellent complementary exercise to the squat for building massive legs and is typically better for building the glutes.
But this isn’t the only difference between the squat and lunge. So how do you know which is better for you?
What Is A Squat?
A squat is a bilateral lower body exercise that targets the quadriceps and glutes. Bilateral means the exercise is performed with both legs. The squat can be performed as a bodyweight exercise, with the weight held in the goblet position, with a barbell on the shoulders or upper traps.
Each of these squat variations emphasizes different muscle groups and allows varying loads to be used. For example, the goblet squat is limited by the weight you can support with your arms.
In contrast, the back squat is supported by the upper back and torso, allowing you to challenge your legs further. Also, the squat allows the greatest knee flexion as you sit deep in the hole.
What Is A Lunge?
The lunge is a unilateral lower body exercise that also targets the quadriceps and glutes. Unilateral means performing the exercise predominantly with one leg. The leg that steps take most of the load as you step forward, sideways, or backward.
As the exercise is unilateral, there is a greater balance component, meaning the movement can’t be loaded as heavy as a squat. Further, you’ll typically get greater activation of the stabilizing muscles around the hip, such as the adductors and glute medius.
You can’t descend as deep as a squat because your back knee limits your range of motion when it touches the floor.
How To Squat
The squat pattern is basically identical regardless of where you support the weight. Here’s how to do it:
- Position your feet slightly outside shoulder width with your toes turned slightly out. This will allow your knees to track out so you have space to sit in the hole.
- Initiate the squat by breaking at the knees and hips simultaneously. Push the knees out, so they track your middle toe.
- Control the descent as you sit between your legs while maintaining a big chest and straight back. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Once your hamstrings smush your calves, drive with your legs until they are straight.
How To Lunge
The forward lunge involves taking a step forward followed by a powerful push back. It is usually the first lunge variation taught after the split squat, as it is the easiest to learn. Here’s how to do it:
- Take a moderately large step forward and slowly lower yourself until the thigh is parallel to the floor. Your front knee should be above or slightly in front of your toes, with your back knee bent and slightly behind the hips.
- With the front leg, push back until your legs are together again at the starting position.
- Maintain an upright torso throughout the entire movement.
Step slightly out to the side instead of straight ahead when you step forward to lunge. This will provide you with a broader base and more stability.
The lateral lunge involves taking a step to the side and a powerful push laterally. This is the most advanced lunge variation and requires hip mobility to perform well. Here is how to do it:
- Take a relatively large step to the side and lower yourself until your thigh is parallel with the floor. You should turn your foot slightly out, and your trailing leg should be straight. The trailing leg should be flat on the floor.
- The knee should track in the same direction as the foot. With the bent leg, push laterally back to the starting position.
The lateral lunge may cause pain in the groin area for those who are very tight, and it can be difficult for some to keep their feet flat due to mobility issues. Only go as low as you can tolerate.
The reverse lunge involves taking a small step back and a powerful push forward. It makes an excellent lunge variation to target the glutes. Here’s how to do it:
- Step back so the back knee is under the hips and lower yourself until the front leg thigh is parallel to the floor. You should bend the back knee to approximately 90°.
- With the front leg, push forward explosively until your legs are together again at the starting position.
Like the forward lunge, step back, and slightly out to the side. This will widen your base giving your more stability.
The walking lunge is performed just like the forward lunge, except the back leg comes past the front leg, so you are walking forward. This is a great way to challenge yourself by lunging a prescribed distance if you have the space. Here’s how to do it:
- Step forward and lower yourself until the thigh is parallel with the floor. The back leg will be bent with the knee slightly behind the hips, identical to the forward lunge.
- Push up and forward with the front leg and in one motion, bring the back leg through until the foot touches the ground in front of you.
- Repeat the motion for the desired number of reps.
Don’t walking lunge like you’re on a tightrope. Balance becomes an issue when walking instead of being in place when lunging. So, step slightly out to the side to widen your base and increase stability.
Squats vs. Lunges Muscles Worked
Squats primarily target the quads, glutes, and highly activate the lower back . The lunge works the quads and glutes but places greater stress on the adductors and abductors of the hip.
Squats vs. Lunges For Mass
You can build serious leg size with either of these exercises. In my experience, you should perform both exercises regardless. That doesn’t mean you have to perform both in a heavy or high rep fashion. You could pick one as your main lower body movement and the other as a lighter supporting exercise.
It’s important to do this as no other exercise will take your knees and hips through the range of motion a squat will, which can keep you healthy and mobile in the long run.
Further, if you are prone to lower back or knee pain, choosing the lunge as your main muscle-building exercise will keep you healthy.
Squats vs. Lunges For Glutes
Both the squat and lunge are great for building bigger glutes. Interestingly, the walking lunge increases gluteus medius muscle activation . This can be enhanced by holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand to the forward leg .
In my experience, the lunge is a better choice if your priority is to develop a giant butt. Especially when you perform the reverse lunge with the front foot elevated for further glute emphasis.
Squats vs. Lunges For Athletes
Rarely will I use the lunge for athletes outside of movement variability and providing exercise outside of axial loading for robustness. If our goal for strength training with athletes is to enhance force production that can be transferred to their sport, then the squat is far superior to the lunge.
However, the lateral lunge is a favorite of mine because very rarely will an athlete perform exercises that require force production side to side. In contrast, they may encounter these forces often when playing their sport.
Therefore, strengthening these positions is great for developing robustness and resilience.
Squats vs. Lunges For Runners
At first glance, it may seem like the lunge is the best option for runners since they closely mimic each other and are performed on one leg. But strength training isn’t about mimicking the sport or activity. It’s about maximizing transfer from the gym to the sport or activity.
Runners can perform the squat and lunge and would make a good exercise rotation across training cycles for variation. Just be aware that muscle soreness and fatigue may reduce running performance due to the relatively high reps performed when lunging.
Squats vs. Lunges For Skinny Legs
While you can use either squats or lunges to turn skinny legs into oak trees, I advise squatting as a way to get there. Lunges are great but difficult to load heavy enough to maximize mechanical tension, a key mechanism of building muscle .
Lunging close to failure is one way of increasing mechanical tension and metabolic stress with lighter weights. However, doing this weekly is impossible to sustain long term. In contrast, you can squat heavy and stay further from failure reducing burnout and your risk of injury while growing huge legs.
Squats vs. Lunges For Hamstrings
Neither the squat nor the lunge are great for building big hamstrings. The hamstrings are biarticular muscles meaning they cross two joints – the hip and the knee. They primarily function as knee flexors and hip extensors.
When squatting or lunging, the knee and hips flex simultaneously, shortening the hamstrings at the knee and lengthening the hamstrings at the hip, creating a near net zero change in muscle length. Hence why there is minimal hamstring muscle activation when performing these exercises.
Why Do Lunges Hurt More Than Squats?
Neither exercise should hurt when performing them. If you have pain when performing a squat or lunge, then make a modification so you don’t have this pain. This could be reducing the range of motion or changing your lunge direction.
If we are talking about delayed muscle soreness or DOMS, I find lunges cause more muscle soreness than squats in my glutes because of the greater stretch and increased activation when stabilizing. However, try performing 20 rep squats, and you’ll also find extreme muscle soreness!
Squats vs. Lunges: Which Is Better?
There is rarely a time when one exercise is better than the other, as it is purely driven by a person’s training goals and history. For example, if you have a history of lower back pain and squats cause problems, lunges are a better exercise for developing the legs.
The overarching message is to choose the exercise that fits your goals and body. If you can safely perform both, use both as they each have benefits you can reap.
Grow Enormous Legs That Won’t Fit Your Jeans
A leg specialization program to bust through muscle growth plateaus and finally throw away those skinny jeans.
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