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Split Squat vs Lunge: How They’re Different + Why You Should Do Both

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Certain exercises seem so similar that one may be confused with the other, or different terms might be used to describe the same movement pattern. One of the most frequently confused pairs of exercises that exemplify this type of conflation is lunges and split squats.

Beginners, and frankly even more experienced athletes, often use the terms “lunge“ and “split squat“ interchangeably when describing workouts or when trying to follow a workout plan. However, there are actually differences between the split squat vs lunge.

Therefore, although split squats and lunges are admittedly quite similar in the movement pattern and muscles worked, substituting one or the other, rather than incorporating both in your workout routine, can compromise your potential gains because you will not be deriving the unique benefits of each exercise.

In this guide, we will cover: 

  • Are Lunges the Same As Split Squats?
  • Split Squat vs Lunge: The Differences Between The Two

Let’s get started!

A person doing a kettlebell split squat.

Are Lunges the Same As Split Squats?

Mechanically and muscularly, split squats and lunges are quite similar. Essentially, both exercises involve staggering your stance so that one foot is in front of your body and one foot is behind your body, and then you drop down, lowering your torso towards the ground by bending both knees. 

Therefore, split squats and lunges are both unilateral exercises because each leg is performing a different movement pattern.

This is in contrast to a regular squat, which is a bilateral exercise because your two legs are working parallel to one another to facilitate the movement.

Because the movement pattern is similar when performing split squats and lunges, lunges and split squats target the same muscle groups—namely the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, while activating the core and calves as well.

Split Squat vs Lunge: The Differences Between The Two

Despite these similarities and the significant overlap between split squats and lunges, there are some differences in the movements themselves.

Two people doing side lunges.

#1: Lunges Are Dynamic, and Split Squats Are Static

The primary difference between a split squat vs lunge is in how each exercise is performed.

Split squats are a static movement. Your feet stay planted in the same position on the floor while just your body moves up and down by bending and straightening your knees and ankles. On the other hand, a lunge is a more dynamic exercise because it is performed in motion

Rather than staying in one place and just raising and lowering your body by the degree of flexion in your knees and ankles, with lunging, you step forwards, backward, or to the side, either traveling in that direction with every subsequent rep or stepping back to the starting position with both feet together before doing another rep.

For example, with a forward lunge, you will begin standing upright, and then take a giant step forward, drop your body down into the split squat position, and then either bring your trail leg forward to take another forward lunge in front of you or step completely back into the starting position standing upright before performing another lunge.

A person doing a suspension lunge.

Furthermore, one complete rep of a lunge uses both legs and works the muscles on both sides of the legs fairly equally. You first push your leg forward and then pull your leg back.

This means that your muscles are more active doing a lunge vs split squat.

Because a split squat is stationary, the exercise primarily targets the muscles in the front leg. The back leg is primarily serving as an anchor, and although a split squat can increase the mobility in your ankle and knee on the leg that’s behind your body, the majority of your body weight and resultant muscular workload is concentrated on the front leg.

Of course, when you are performing sets of split squats, you should perform an equal number of reps with each leg in front to balance out the workload on both legs. 

However, although this theoretically balances out the work so that both legs ultimately get the same workout, in the end, the individual reps do not equally distribute the workload on your legs.

People doing split squats with their foot on a couch.

#2: The Foot Positioning Is Different With A Split Squat vs Lunge

In most cases, split squats are also performed with the rear leg, or leg in back, elevated up so that your toes or the top of your foot rests on a box or bench.

This helps isolate the muscles in the leg in the front so that a split squat is more of a unilateral strengthening exercise compared with a regular squat.

In contrast, when performing a lunge, both feet are usually on the ground or at equal heights.

However, lunges can be performed where the front leg is stepping or lunging up onto a box or platform.

For example, you might perform a lateral lunge and step your leading leg up onto a 6-inch step instead of simply out along the floor.

Two people performing split squats outisde.

#3: You Work More Muscles With Lunges vs Split Squats

Because of the dynamic nature of a lunge vs split squat—in that a lunge involves stepping forward and then backward—lunges are unilateral lower-body exercises that work the muscle groups in your legs rather evenly, whereas the split squat is better for isolating or targeting your quadriceps specifically.

Additionally, lunges can be performed in different directions, shifting the emphasis on the muscle groups that are worked.

Forward lunges, in which you step your leg forward before dropping down into the split squat position, especially target the muscles of the anterior chain, namely the quadriceps and hip flexors.

Reverse lunges, in which you step your leg backward before dropping down into the split squat position, especially target the muscles of the posterior chain, namely the hamstrings, and glutes.

Finally, lateral lunges, which involve stepping your leg out to one side (right or left relative to your body) before dropping down into the split squat position, especially target the muscles of the hips, glutes, and inner and outer thigh, such as the gluteus medius, vastus lateralis, and adductor muscle group.

A person doing a weighted lunge in a gym.

#4: You Can Lift Heavier With a Split Squat vs Lunge

Both split squats and lunges can be performed as bodyweight exercises, or you can add various free weights, such as dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells, to make the exercise more challenging.

In fact, although not necessarily an absolute rule per se, one of the differences between the split squat vs lunge is that you can typically load a split squat with more weight because you are in a static position rather than moving with a lunge.

Advanced athletes certainly use weights with lunges during many workouts, but because a lunge involves moving from one place to another rather than just up and down, it can be safer to use heavy loads with a split squat vs lunge.

There’s a greater risk of falling or compromising your form, body alignment, and joint positioning when using heavy weights with a dynamic exercise like a lunge rather than a static exercise like a split squat.

For this reason, particularly when doing hypertrophy training to build muscle or resistance training to increase strength or power, it can be more effective to do explosive split squats vs lunges with barbells and heavy weights.

This is because gaining size, increasing muscular strength, and increasing power and explosive speed are best accomplished with heavy resistance training.

A person doing a weighted lunge in a gym.

#5: You Can Increase Muscular Endurance and Compound Movement Patterns With Lunges vs Split Squats

On the other hand, if you are trying to increase muscular endurance, coordination, and improve functional movement patterns, it may be optimal to do lunges vs split squats.

Because lunges are dynamic, they better replicate real-life and athletic movement patterns, and especially if you are doing bodyweight walking lunges or performing a lunge matrix as part of a dynamic warm-up, you can do tons of reps, which will help increase muscular endurance.

Moreover, particularly with lunges vs split squats, you can also combine 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 with an overhead press (among other combinations).

A person doing a lunge in a gym.

This can be a great training strategy for people with limited workout time or who want to increase the metabolic demands of the exercise by incorporating more muscle groups.

In sum, lunges and split squats are similar in that they are unilateral lower-body strengthening exercises that involve a similar movement pattern. However, there are benefits and specific training purposes for each exercise. 

Lunges are great for increasing muscular endurance, functional strength, balance, and proprioception. Split squats are more effective for building muscle, increasing strength and explosive power because you can load the exercise safely with heavier weights and target just the front leg to maximize the training stimulus.

Now that you know the difference between split squats vs lunges, what about trying them with some compound exercises?

For a long list of compound exercises to maximize your time in the gym, you can check out our very own list in the following article: Complete List Of Compound Exercises To Spice Up Your Training.

Three people doing lunges in a gym.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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