Squats and lunges are among the two most common lower-body strength training exercises. Squats and lunges can be performed in various ways, with modifications and variations that increase and decrease the difficulty of the exercise for people of different fitness levels and that target slightly different muscle fibers to improve overall strength.
Although many of the same muscle groups are worked by squats and lunges, each exercise has its own benefits. The differences in movement patterns between lunges vs squats affect the muscle activation and benefits of each exercise.
In this article, we will discuss the benefits of lunges vs squats and when you might want to perform one over the other based on your fitness goals, workout, and available exercise equipment.
We will cover:
- Is It Better to Do Squats Or Lunges?
- How to Do a Squat and How to Do a Lunge
- Lunges vs Squats: Comparing The Benefits and Effectiveness Of Each
Let’s dive in!
Is It Better to Do Squats Or Lunges?
First and foremost, it’s important to establish that when comparing squats vs lunges, there isn’t a definitive “winner” regarding which exercise is better in every circumstance.
There are shared, and unique benefits to both squats and lunges, and the differences between the two exercises can make it better to do lunges vs squats in some cases and squats vs lunges in others.
Factors such as your primary fitness goal, the strength training equipment you have available, your current fitness level, and the other types of exercise or workouts you perform in your training plan will all impact whether it’s better to do squats or lunges.
With that said, almost every athlete, regardless of fitness level, training goal, and preferred types of exercise, can benefit from performing both lunges and squats in their workout routine.
The primary difference between lunges vs squats is that a squat is a bilateral exercise because both of your legs are performing the exact same movement pattern in tandem side-by-side.On the other hand, a lunge is a unilateral exercise. Your feet assume a staggered stance, such that one leg is in front of the other. This positioning distributes the workload differently between your two legs.
How to Do a Squat and How to Do a Lunge
- Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Your chest should be up, shoulders back, spine tall and neutral, gaze forward, and abs engaged.
- Keeping your glutes and core engaged, bend your knees and hips to squat down, sitting your hips back as far as possible as if reaching your butt back to sit in a chair. You can press your arms forward straight in front of your body to act as a counterweight.
- When your thighs are parallel to the floor and your knees are bent to 90 degrees, press through your heels to stand back up to the starting position, bringing your arms back to your sides.
Note that when you’re at the lowest position of the squat, your shins should be as perpendicular to the ground as possible without your knees extending far beyond your toes.
Here are the steps for doing a basic alternating bodyweight forward lunge:
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips.
- Take a giant step forward with your right foot and drop down into a lunge, bending each knee 90°. Your front thigh should be parallel to the floor.
- Press through your foot front foot to stand back into an upright position and then switch legs.
- Continue alternating legs, making sure to bend each knee to 90°.
Lunges vs Squats: Comparing The Benefits and Effectiveness Of Each
Deciding whether you should do lunges vs squats depends mainly on your primary fitness goals and the other types of exercise and workouts you are doing. With that said, most people will benefit from doing both.
Let’s look at some of the differences and benefits of lunges vs squats and squats vs lunges.
Muscles Worked With Squats vs Lunges
Back squats, in particular, have been shown to activate the quads and erector spinae.
In general, lunges are especially beneficial for working the core muscles and smaller stabilizing muscles of the hips, such as the gluteus medius. This is because the lunge is a unilateral exercise, so more balance is required.
Plus, lunges are more dynamic because you are moving forwards, backward, or sideways rather than just going up and down.
Studies suggest that the activation of hip abductors and stabilizing muscles is even greater during forward walking lunges when you hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand.
There are also numerous variations of squats and lunges that target other lower-body muscles.
For example, a sumo squat and a lateral lunge will work the adductors and abductors in the glutes and inner thighs.
Squats vs Lunges for Building Muscle
In general, squats are ideal for building strength and size in the quads and glutes.
You can build power or explosive strength by loading up the squat and performing high-speed, powerful, and heavy squats.
For this reason, squats have been shown to improve athletic performance and power, particularly in regard to explosive speed and jumping ability.
Lunges can also be performed with added weights, but generally, less weight is used since it’s a unilateral exercise and more dynamic in nature.
Remember the ideal loads and rep ranges when trying to increase strength and size (hypertrophy).
For strength, it is usually recommended that you lift 85-100% of your 1RM for 1-5 reps max, whereas hypertrophy is best achieved with loads that are at least 65-85% of your 1RM for 8-12 reps.
It’s easier to safely load squats with more weight because you are more stable with both feet on the ground and not moving or stepping between reps. Therefore, if you’re looking to build muscle and increase strength, choose to do squats with maximal weight as the better option.
Lunges vs Squats for Athletes
Whether it’s better for athletes to do squats or lunges depends primarily on the sport. However, again, it’s important to restate that both squats and lunges have their unique benefits, so athletes of all sports and ability levels should consider adding both to their workout program.
With that said, for sports like running and cycling, it’s often better to focus on lunges vs squats because running is a unilateral activity, so strengthening your legs with a unilateral exercise like lunges will translate more closely to the functional demands of your sport.
In contrast, if your sport involves a lot of jumping or power, such as basketball or football, squats can be better to do than lunges.
Lunges make a particularly great exercise for dynamic warm-ups before any type of workout. Walking lunges, reverse lunges, and lateral lunges help open up the hips and activate the glutes, quads, hips, and hamstrings before you run or do heavier resistance training.
In terms of programming your actual strength training workouts, it’s ideal to add a variety of both squats and lunges to maximize the strengthening benefits of each exercise.
Some examples of squats to incorporate into a training program include regular squats, back squats, front squats, goblet squats, sumo squats, squat holds, single-leg squats, and hack squats.
For each of these, you can vary the resistance training implements you use, such as barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, and medicine balls, to modify the exercise in different ways and challenge your balance.
You can also add instability by doing squats on a BOSU ball, which will further activate your core muscles.
Then, there are plyometric options like jump squats, and you can do split squats, which are essentially stationary lunges.
With lunges, you can again use different types of weights, including weighted vests, and you can use unilateral weights (such as holding a dumbbell or kettlebell on one side) to challenge your core muscles.
Try forward lunges, walking lunges, reverse lunges, and lateral lunges. You can also step up onto a short plyometric box when you lunge forward.
You can also combine lunges and squats with other compound exercises for more of a full-body, multi-joint movement.
For example, you can do a lateral lunge with a biceps curl or a reverse lunge or squat with an overhead press (among other combinations).
Keep your workouts varied, and you’ll continue to get stronger and fitter!
For even more lunge and squat variations, check out our guide to each: