How to Do a Lunge (and Why They’re So Good for You)

Lunges primarily target the lower body muscles, but they’ll call on your core muscles, too, because they’re a unilateral (one-sided) exercise.

Medically Reviewed
Lunges help build functional strength, which makes everyday movements (like walking) easier.iStock

Lunges can be a top strength exercise to add to your fitness routine. There are dozens of ways to vary them, either by altering the move or adding resistance — and the payoff for doing them is big, namely a stronger lower body.

Here’s what you need to know to get started with them.

What Muscles Do Lunges Work?

Lunges work the biggest muscles in your lower body — mainly the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and the adductor magnus (the muscle in your inner thigh). Other muscles that come into play are the hamstrings, gluteus medius, calves, and core stabilizers, says Susane Pata, content strategist for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and NASM-certified personal trainer based in Miami.

It doesn’t matter what lunge variation you do, as all of these muscles will be targeted, says Jonathan Olonade, a corrective exercise specialist and NASM-certified personal trainer with Life Time in Cinco Ranch, Texas.

Yet which muscles are working the hardest will change based on which lunge variations you’re doing. “The angle of the work required to perform different lunges can affect how much one muscle is activated versus another,” Pata says. Even the size of the step you take can affect how much of a specific muscle is used.

For instance, if you’re doing front and back lunges, you’ll primarily be working the gluteus maximus, adductors, and quadriceps. Side lunges will work the gluteus medius more. And if you’re taking bigger steps forward and back, you’ll use more of the glute muscles, while smaller steps will target the quadriceps more.

What Are the Benefits of Lunges?

So why does any of this matter? Lunges build functional strength. “You’ll be equipped to handle everyday life movements better,” Pata says. For instance, your muscles will be better at running, walking, and climbing stairs.

Another reason lunges are so effective? They’re a form of unilateral training, which means you’re working only one limb or side of the body at a time.

And unilateral training is a more effective way to build functional strength (than using both legs) because these types of movement mimic other everyday motions, like walking and climbing stairs — and not just to the working leg. Research suggests the strength gains to the nonworking side are about half of the strength gains of the working side.

And with unilateral training, because it involves balance, you’re working your core muscles, too, according to the American Council on Exercise.

Plus, the strength and stability you’re building in your hips with lunges translate to protection for your knees. “The stronger you can make your hips with lunges (and other lower body exercises), the less likely it is that your knees will become the victim of pain and injury,” Pata says.

Are Lunges Safe for Everyone?

Depending on your fitness level and injury history, lunges are safe for most people. “Lunges are a wonderful exercise for [most] everyone, as long as there’s no pain,” Pata says.

If you’ve had a hip or knee injury (or knee pain), lunges may not be advised until after the inflammation has subsided and you’re cleared for movement. Check with your doctor first before adding lunges to your routine if you’ve had that type of injury, or have any other health issue that may interfere with your ability to safely exercise.

Lunges are generally okay for women who are pregnant, as long as they’ve been exercising before and throughout pregnancy. “They can continue the lunges they've already been doing,” Pata says.

If you’re new to exercise or rebuilding strength, consider starting with modified lunges. You can do this by making the movement smaller; your muscles will still be working, but you should be able to maintain proper form (more on correct positioning below). Over time, you can lengthen your stride and go deeper into the move.

How Many Lunges Should You Be Doing and How Often?

Strength training all the major muscle groups at least twice a week is recommended for adults in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PDF). But you want to work specific muscle groups on nonconsecutive days to give muscles time to recover from the work and actually get stronger. Allow your muscles 48 hours to rest after an intense lunge workout, Pata says.

How many sets and repetitions you do should be based on your personal fitness goals.

If you’re new to lunges and want to work on form, technique, and starting to build some muscular endurance, you can do higher repetitions, anywhere from 12 to 20 repetitions per set. Start with one set if you’re a beginner, and add more as you get stronger.

If you’re doing lunges with challenging weights with a goal to increase strength endurance, do fewer repetitions per set. You might do two to four sets of 8 to 12 repetitions, Pata says.

Meanwhile, if muscular development is your goal, you might opt for using even more challenging weights that only allow you to do 6 to 12 repetitions for three to six sets, Pata says.

How to Do a Lunge Correctly: 3 Variations

There are several variations of lunges, but three of the most common are front, side, and back lunges. Here’s how to do each of them.

Front or Forward Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
  2. Step your right foot forward one to two feet, keeping your torso upright, so that your knees are over your toes.
  3. Bend your right knee to a 90-degree angle with your right thigh parallel to the floor.
  4. Pushing through the heel of your right foot and shifting your weight to your left foot, step your right foot back to starting position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Back or Reverse Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
  2. Step your right foot about one to two feet behind you, landing on the ball of your right foot. Keep your torso upright.
  3. Lower toward the ground by bending your right knee to a 90-degree angle.
  4. Push through the ball of the right foot and return to starting position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Side or Lateral Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
  2. Keeping your left foot planted, step your right foot to the side about two to three feet.
  3. Lower toward the ground until your right knee forms a 90-degree angle with right thigh parallel to the floor. Keep your left leg straight.
  4. Push through your right heel to shift weight into your left leg to return to starting position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.