Squats and lunges are two of the most beneficial lower body exercises you can do. They both work multiple muscles during the movement and there are tons of variations of both of these exercises to keep your training interesting.
So which one should you prioritize, squats or lunges?
Today you’ll learn the difference between squats vs lunges, different variations of both lunges and squats, and if squats or lunges are better or worse for certain parts of your body.
For the longest time, squats have been considered the king of the lower body exercises. Recently with people focusing more on joint friendly alternatives, lunges have become an effective exercise to build lower body muscle.
At the end of the day, remember this.
There are no perfect exercises. Everyone’s body is different and some people will respond better with squats, while others may prefer lunges. If you are able to train both movements with no pain, they should both be programmed in your workout routine.
A lunge is considered a lower body unilateral movement, meaning you work one leg at a time during the exercise. The advantages of single leg lunge exercises are:
- Increased stability and balance required
- More core activation
- Direct focus on each leg so you can improve a lagging body part
All lunges have you starting with your feet together and then depending on the variation, you’ll step forward, back, or to the side. One is not better than the other since they all have different benefits.
Here are my 3 favorite lunge variations.
A reverse lunge means you’ll be stepping backwards into your lunge, rather than forward.
The advantage is that it’s safer for your knees and easier for beginners to learn. This is usually the first lunge variation I teach all of my clients.
The most important cue to remember with this exercise is when you take your step back, keep your weight on the heel of your front foot. If your weight shifts towards your toes and your heel comes off the ground, you risk injuring your knee.
Check out the form by my client Fabi performing a reverse lunge (holding a dumbbell goblet style to make it tougher).
A more advanced lunge variation is to walk forward. This is the variation that most people are familiar with. When comparing squats or lunges, the forward walking lunge is right on par with squats in terms of how difficult and intense the exercise can be.
Similar to the reverse lunge, make sure to keep the weight in your heel so you don’t drift too much on your toes!
A lunge variation that you don’t see often is a lateral lunge.
This movement has you moving in the frontal plane. That means you are moving left and right, rather than forward and back like most types of lunges.
If this movement is new to you, start with bodyweight only and as you get more comfortable with the exercise, add one or two dumbbells.
The main difference between squats vs lunges is that a squat is a bilateral movement, meaning both feet will stay planted and you’ll be working both legs. A squat is a compound movement (as is a lunge) where you are working multiple muscles during each rep.
The main muscles worked during a squat are your quadriceps (front of your legs) and your glutes (butt).
I’ve written an article with the 12 best alternatives to back squats but for this article, I’ll keep it to the 3 best variations.
I wish I could remember the name of the coach that said this, but he said “You have to earn the right to use weight with your squat”. It may have been Joe Defranco now that I think about it!
It makes perfect sense though. Why would you start loading weight if you can’t properly complete a perfect squat.
Practice this movement until you feel comfortable to go to the next variation.
Once my clients prove they can squat with good form they move to goblet squats.
A goblet squat is when you hold a dumbbell vertically on your chest and go into your squat.
The main advantage of this exercise over the barbells squat, which you’ll learn next, is that you don’t have to put a bar with weight on your spine. This makes the goblet squat a better joint friendly exercise that barbell squats.
If you experience any back pain, this is the squat variation for you. In fact, here are additional leg exercises to try if you have back pain.
The barbell squat is often called the king of lower body exercises. It’s the squat or lunge exercise that allows you to load up the most weight.
It’s crucial that you have perfect form and can squat to parallel before you do a barbell squat.
If you have any pain performing barbell squats, don’t do it and stick to goblet squats or any of the lunge variations.
Here's a client of mine who doesn't experience any pain doing barbell squats getting ready for a big 135 pound lift!
For overall glute development, lunge variations are a better option that squats. In a study done to measure glue maximus activation during different leg exercise, lunge variations slightly surpassed that of traditional squats.
Does that mean you should only do lunges for your glutes? No way! It’s still important to have a blend of squat and lunge exercises in your workout program. Feel free to try out this dumbbell only leg workout.
If you have any knee issues, it’s best to test how both of these exercises and see how your knee responds. I say that because I’ve had clients that can’t do lunges but squats feel fine, and vice versa.
To protect your knees, I would recommend starting with body weight and goblet squats for your squat variations, and reverse lunges for that variation.
The Squat Or Lunge Debate Ends Here
By now you have learned that there is a place for lunges and squats. Everyone should try variations of both exercises and see what feels good. They both will improve strength, build muscle, and improve your body composition.
Remember, never train through pain. There is no perfect exercise so if something doesn’t feel right, either check to see if your form is off or try a different variation.