Lunges are one of the best lower-body strengthening exercises because the movement pattern works multiple muscle groups and is considered a “functional exercise“ for activities such as walking, running, and jumping.
While most people intuitively know that lunges strengthen leg muscles, which muscles do lunges work specifically?
Knowing the muscles worked by lunges will help you decide which types of lunges and variations of lunges you want to perform in your workouts and what other exercises to include in your lower-body workouts to prevent muscle imbalances and reach your strength goals.
In this exercise guide, we will answer your question, “what muscles do lunges work“, and then look specifically at some variations of lunges and how these modifications alter the muscles worked by lunges.
We will cover:
- What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
- What Muscles Do Lunge Variations Work?
Let’s get started!
What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
Lunges are primarily a lower-body strengthening exercise.
The primary muscles worked by lunges are the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.
However, the specific muscles lunges work will depend on the type of lunge or how you perform the lunge exercise.
For example, answering the questions: “What muscles do reverse lunges work?” and “What muscles do side lunges work?” will elicit some variability in the specific muscle groups strengthened by the exercise.Let’s see how these muscles worked by lunges are involved in moving and stabilizing the body during lunges.
Of all of the muscle groups worked by lunges, the “primary movers” of the exercise are the quadriceps, also known as the “quads.”
The quads are a group of four muscles that include the:
- Rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap
- Vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh
- Vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh
- Vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center
The quads are biarticular muscles, which means that they are responsible for moving two different joints: the quads extend the knee (straighten the knee) and flex the hip (lift the thigh up towards the trunk).
When you perform a lunge, the quads contract concentrically and eccentrically at different stages of the exercise. Concentric contractions are the shortening contractions, and eccentric contractions are when the muscle is lengthening under tension.
When you perform a lunge, the quads on the front leg have to contract eccentrically when you initiate the movement and go from the standing position down to the forward lunge where your front knee is bent and your front thigh is parallel to the ground.
Your front leg in the lunge exercise has to resist the load of the weights or even just your body weight as you descend with gravity.
The quadriceps have to contract to prevent your knees from rapidly buckling under this load by instead controlling the gradual movement of your body working with gravity.
The quads on the front leg contract concentrically to straighten your knee as you stand back up. This is the explosive portion of the exercise where you are pressing with your legs by using your quadriceps to stand back up.
Note that you can increase the workload on your quads during lunges by moving as slowly as possible during the eccentric portion as you lower your body.
This increases the time under tension, and studies have found that the eccentric contractions trigger greater muscle protein synthesis and gains in hypertrophy and muscle strength.
Additionally, when comparing the muscles worked by lunges vs split squats, Bulgarian split squat muscle activation is greater for the quads than it is during regular lunges where your feet are level because elevating the back foot in the Bulgarian split squat modification concentrates the workload on the quadriceps on the front leg.
The glutes, also referred to as the gluteal muscles or the gluteal muscle group, are the strong, powerful muscles in your buttocks composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus muscles.
There are also many other smaller muscles in the gluteal area, such as the piriformis, obturator muscles, and gemellus muscles.
These smaller glute muscles aid in controlling and stabilizing the hips during lunges.
In fact, when comparing the muscles worked by lunges vs squats, you’ll see greater glute activation by doing lunges vs squats because of the added difficulty of stabilizing the body with a unilateral movement pattern and narrow base of support.
The glutes are involved in the hip extension portion of the lunge, at the end of the movement, when you stand back up and extend the leg at the hip.
Also, if you are performing walking lunges or reverse lunges, your glutes in the back leg contract when you initiate the movement and go from standing down to the lunge position or extend your leg backward for the next lunge rep.
The hamstrings are one of the muscle groups worked by lunges, though to a lesser degree than the quads.
Additionally, when comparing the muscles worked by forwards lunges vs reverse deadlifts, reverse lunges target the hamstrings more directly.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris—that run along the back of your thigh from their attachment at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) at the bottom of your pelvis to the back of your knee.
The hamstrings are antagonist muscles to the quads on the front of your thigh, so these muscle groups work in opposition to one another.
Whereas the functions of the quads are to extend the knee and flex the hip, the hamstrings help extend the hip (along with the glutes) and flex the knee.
Therefore, during lunge exercises, the hamstrings assist the glutes in extending the hip at the very end of the movement just as you are standing back up to the erect position, or when you reach your leg backward when initiating the reverse lunge movement pattern.
The hamstrings do not have to do much work in terms of flexing the knee when you squat down because gravity and your body weight and weights you are using naturally push your knees into the flexed position.
This is why the quads are targeted so much more with the lunge.
The quads have to power the extension motion back up from the lowered position to standing and control what would otherwise be rapid knee flexion as you descend into the lunge to prevent your knees from buckling under your body weight, gravity, and whatever dumbbells or barbell weights you are adding to lunges in workouts.
The hamstrings do have to contract eccentrically to control hip flexion on the front leg with a forward lunge as you first drop down into the lunge (again to prevent your body from collapsing under the load as you work with gravity).
That said, when comparing the muscles worked by lunges, generally, the quads are working harder than the hamstrings.
#4: Calves and Shins
There are a number of small muscles in the lower legs, but the primary lower leg muscles worked by lunges are the muscles in the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus) and the tibialis anterior muscle on the front of the shin.
The muscles in your lower leg are activated during lunges because the soleus helps stabilize your tibia on the front leg, and the gastrocnemius powers the ankle plantarflexion portion of the triple extension movement when you press through your front heel to rise back up to standing.
Additionally, the calf muscle group in the back leg stretches or contracts eccentrically as you lower down into the lunge and then contracts concentrically to help you stand back up.
One of the benefits of lunges in workouts is that you can strengthen the calves and shin muscles in a functional movement pattern, which can then translate to improvements in your running and walking gait patterns and vertical jump height.
This is because when you are doing lunges, these muscles (especially the soleus and gastrocnemius) have to contract to stabilize the tibia as your thighs, hips, and torso in the same unilateral movement patterns that you carry out during other types of exercise, sports, and everyday functional movement patterns like climbing stairs or stepping off curbs.
Building stability or the ability to keep the tibia relatively vertical even when the rest of the body is loaded and moving can help support proper biomechanics when walking, running, or standing for long periods of time, and can improve stability in your ankles for trail running or walking on uneven terrain.
#5: Core Muscles
Although the primary muscles strengthened by lunges are those in the lower body, lunge exercises also work the muscles of the core, including the abdominals, pelvic floor muscles, and lower back muscles.
This is because you have to activate your core muscles to support your spine, brace the core, and stabilize the hips and pelvis, particularly because you have a narrow base of support when you are doing a lunge or a split squat vs bilateral squat.
What Muscles Do Lunge Variations Work?
The specific muscles worked by lunges vary somewhat depending on the particular type of lunges you are performing.
While all lunges will work the aforementioned muscles, you can target specific muscle groups more than others by adding different types of lunges and split squats into your workout routine.
Below, we will point out a particular muscle or muscle group targeted more by the type of lunge variation:
- What muscles do reverse lunges work? Quads and glutes
- What muscles do side lunges work? Adductors and abductors, especially gluteus medius (along with glutes, quads, and hamstrings)
- What muscles do curtsy lunges work? Adductors and abductors, especially gluteus medius and minimus (along with glutes, quads, and hamstrings)
- What muscles do walking lunges work? Works core muscles and lower-body muscles.
To supplement your lunge workouts, check out our guide to the best posterior chain workout here.