June 26, 2020 10 min read

Are you looking to shape and strengthen almost every muscle in the lower body? The lunge will do that. When you do the lunge, you target your hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. Sounds like a miracle exercise, right? That’s because it is. 

If you haven’t started doing the lunge yet, you absolutely need to start doing it. The lunge is actually used in all kinds of daily activities: tying your shoe, bending down to talk to a child, reaching to pick something up, even proposing on one knee! 

Why Proper Form is Important With the Lunge

It’s always important to do exercises with the proper form, but the lunge is an especially important one. Why? Because the lunge is a “gateway exercise” to start doing many more intensive weightlifting moves. Once you’ve mastered the lunge, you’ll start adding weight to your lunge, then you’ll start doing other, more complicated exercises to build even stronger muscles. 

But if you’re smart, you won’t ever totally stop doing the lunge. It will be a regular part of your leg day or your workout from home day. Just because many beginners start out with the lunge doesn’t mean that it’s not a great move for building massive leg muscles. Sometimes the simplest moves are the most effective. 

Because you’ll be using the lunge so much in your workouts - both in building upon it for more advanced moves, and incorporating it into all your future workout routines - you’ll need to get the foundation right. Mastering proper exercise form is like learning music theory when you learn to play the piano. 

No piano teacher would let their student just memorize some songs and then play them. They would have to learn the music theory that goes behind the individual notes played. That way, they have a foundation and understanding that will help them progress so much further in their music career than the student ever could by just memorizing some notes. 

Working out functions the same way. You need to build the proper foundation so that you can progress so much further as you progress through heavier weights and more advanced moves

A girl doing lunges.

Isn’t the Lunge is a Simple Move? 

So why not watch a quick Youtube video and then get on with it? It can be difficult to get the full information you need from a hasty video. Sure, it helps to watch the move in motion, but the lunge is actually a very quick move, so just watching someone dip down and come back up can give you a good idea of what it should like in general. But if you really want to be sure you’ve got the technique right, you should learn all the right techniques and be positive you’re doing them right. 

The other disadvantage of just watching a Youtube video is you often have no idea whether the person showing you even knows if they are doing it correctly! There are a lot of people (even trainers) who don’t know how to explain the proper form the correct way. So if you’re following exercise advice, always make sure your source knows what they are talking about! 

What Muscles Do I Need to Activate During the Lunge?

As we mentioned before, the lunge mainly targets your hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. So the first order of business is to be aware of all these muscle groups to be sure you’re putting the right activity on each muscle group. 

Hips

Since the hips are not actually muscles but rather bones, the main thing you need to know about the hips to hold them straight and keep them from swaying from side to side, bending, or slumping. They are meant to hold your lower body straight so that your legs can get the full effect of the lunge. 

Glutes

The glutes are part of your posterior muscle chain. The posterior works to hold your body up straight and to give you good posture. The reason they’re called ‘glutes’ instead of ‘glute’ is that they’re made of three main muscles: the Gluteus Maximus, the Gluteus Medius, and the Gluteus Minimus. 

The Maximus, as you may have guessed, is the biggest and most influential of the glutes. It is the main one that shapes your butt and is mainly responsible for lifting and lowering your leg. 

The Medius and Minimus mostly work to support the Maximus but are also influential in moving your leg from side to side. They also help to rotate your thigh outward and inward. 

The great thing about the lunge is it actually works all three. 

Quads

The quadriceps are the four muscles that are located in the front of your legs. When you see cyclists, hikers, or bodybuilders with bulging thighs, what you see are the quads. The two most important of the quads are:

  • Vastus Intermedius: This is the deepest part of the quad that stretches directly in the front and center of the leg. For those who are looking to get a ‘thigh gap,’ the Vastus Intermedius would be the main muscle you should target. 
  • Vastus Medialus: This is the part of the quad that goes from your inner thigh to your knee cap. 

Both the Intermedius and the Medialis are the ones you feel deeply when you go into the lunge. If you’re not feeling a deep burn in these areas, you’re doing the lunge wrong. 

Hamstrings

Have you ever wondered why hamstrings are called “hamstrings?” The word ‘ham’ comes from Old English etymology (which originated from German), and it means the hollow of the knee. ‘String’ refers to tendons. The hamstrings are made up of five tendons at the bend of the knee, or just above the knee. 

When you’re doing a lunge, you have to be sure you don’t confuse the bend of the knee with the knee itself. While the hamstrings are responsible for bending the knee, they can get pulled when you put the emphasis on the knee itself rather than the tendons that pull it. When people put their weight on the knee directly, they put stress on the knee. If you’re adding weight to that stress, you could end up with a bad knee injury. 

Calves

These are also part of your posterior chain and they sit in the back part of your lower leg. They are attached to the Achilles tendon in your heel. They are crucial to your leg strength because they stabilize your knees and ankles. They also help with the strength to push a lot of weight upward. You need that for jumping higher, for squats, running stairs, and any other kind of leg exercise that supports a lot of weight. 

To feel the calves in your lunge, you need to feel the pull in the back, middle of your lower legs. You shouldn’t feel it in your ankles or the front of your legs, the shins. 

How to Do the Lunge With Proper Form

Now that you have the anatomy information that is so important to know when you’re looking to strengthen your leg muscles, it’s time to get down to the ‘how to’ part. 

First, let’s do a quick refresher on how to do the lunge. Start with your legs together, standing up straight. Then move your right leg one giant step forward. Position that foot so that it’s secure to balance your weight. 

After you’ve stabilized your right, go down with your left leg. Keep your left toes on the ground, and dip the left knee down to kneeling position. Don’t go down so far that you rest on the knee, but just let it barely touch the ground and then move back up. 

Some people do a standing lunge where they don’t move forward or backward but stay in the same position. But we recommend the walking lunge, which is a more logical position and helps you to move easily between your right and left legs, getting equal strength building in each leg. 

If you’re in a public gym, you can often just move your lunge across the gym floor and back. You can often do 20 lunges just in one round. But even if you’re at home and can only do four lunges before you have to turn around, it’s still a useful method. 

Here are the areas that you especially need to be careful of when you do the lunge:

  • Posture: Since the main muscles you’re targeting are in your posterior chain, you’ll need to make sure your posture is straight and confident. Focus especially on your lower back. Since the lunge is a lower body exercise, it’s important to make sure the lower back is straight and doesn’t dip inward. That’s a common mistake many beginners make. 
  • Toes: You may not expect the toes to be a crucial focal point of the lunge, but they are the most important thing to think about when you do it. Make sure you point them forward, straight ahead. So many people automatically point their toes off in an outward or inward direction, but that can throw off the entire balance of your move. 
  • Knees: Don’t hold your weight in your front knees or back knees. The knees are not a muscle that needs to be built, but rather your joints. They help with bending your legs of course, but they should not have any more weight dropped on them than necessary. To get the results you’re looking for from the lunge, you need to focus all your weight and emphasis on the muscles we’ve outlined in this article. 

When you go down into the forward lunge, you need to feel the emphasis on your calves and hamstrings (the muscles responsible for lowering your body). When you come back up, you should feel it in your quads and glutes (the muscles responsible for raising your body back up). 

  • Eyes: Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t look down or up when you go through the motion. However, you will need to look down and make sure your feet, toes, knees, and body are in the right position. When you’re first getting used to the lunge, you can think of the move in 3 segments. 

Segment 1 - Stabilizing your body: This starting position is where you take the big step.  Place your front foot in front and position your toes and knees correctly. 

Segment 2 - Going down into the lunge: This is where you move your back leg into position and go down so that the knee barely touches the ground. 

Segment 3 - Moving up from the lunge: This is when you raise your body back up, being conscious of your posterior chain muscles and then switch legs to go back down into your second lunge. 

Before each segment of the lunge, just take a split second (or however long you need) to look down at your body and make sure everything is positioned where it should be. If you have a full-length mirror to look at, that provides a good perspective too. 

But if not, it’s just as effective to take a look and double-check that your toes are pointed straight, your posture is straight, and your knees are positioned directly in front of your body, not pointed outward or inward, or thrusting out beyond the edges of your body width. 

Once you take that quick look down, bring your eyes back up to looking forward to be sure your neck isn’t strained in an awkward position. As with all exercises, it’s always better to perform just a few of them while you practice getting the motion right. There’s no rush. It’s fine to make your first week at the gym a practice week.  and perfect the form. Then make your second week your first week of building muscle and weight loss progress. 

Lunge Variations: Adding Weight to Your Lunge

Once you’ve mastered the right form and have built up enough strength that you can do about 20 lunges, you should start adding weight. Having that extra resistance is going to do much more for you than doing an excessive number of reps on your lunges. 

When it comes to weights, you can use dumbbells or a barbell to fit in with the more traditional ways of doing things. If you don’t have those or you’re looking for something less traditional, you can also use kettlebells or sandbags for the process. Some would say you can use tin cans of food or jugs of milk, but those will hardly add any weight to your process. 

Once you start using weights, you’ll see that you get stronger very quickly. You’ll want to have access to varied, incremental weights that you can use to adapt to your rapidly growing leg strength. If you go to the gym, that’s going to be simple. All gyms keep a stock of plated weights to add to your barbell, varied sizes of dumbbells, and most gyms have a variety of kettlebells too. 

If you’re at home, that can be tricky since many people are not ready to invest in a full home gym right from the get-go. That’s why the sandbag can be a really effective option when it comes to a home workout. You can easily find an affordable sandbag online, that includes many options for adding or taking away extra weight. 

Adding weight is a pretty simple process, but you just have to keep a few things in mind when it comes to the form.

People working on in a gym doing lunges.

Barbell and Sandbag

When you use the barbell, hold it with both hands, located at shoulder width. Hold it with your palms facing down and a firm grip. Place the barbell behind your head on your shoulders, not your neck. Always remember to keep your head straight forward so you don’t accidentally let the weight slip up onto your neck. 

The sandbag will be the same. All you need to do is add bodyweight for more leg resistance. So just hold the sandbag behind your head on your shoulders. If you want to, you can hold it in front of you, but that will put more strain on your arms and may limit the amount of weight you can carry. 

Most people start with the barbell on a barbell rack above their heads. They can just slip their body under the barbell and then use their whole weight to lift. This gives you the opportunity to use more weight. Unless you’ve already developed your upper body strength, it’s going to be more of a challenge to start with a deadlift and bring that weight up off the ground before you even start your lunge. 

Dumbbells and Kettlebells

You’re going to hold these like you would hold the farmer’s carry. Just grab them with a firm grip and hold them on either side of your body. You don’t have to do anything advanced, just hold the weights. 

That will give your body the extra weight it needs to develop impressive strength. At some point, you may decide to work your arms at the same time by doing an overhead press at the top of the lunge. But for now, just stick to the basics!