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January 13, 2022 9 min read

The side lunge is a popular leg-strengthening exercise with a full arsenal of variations that can add a great deal of variety to your regular workouts. It is important to vary your technique to help you emphasize different muscles or parts of those muscles.

This article will show you how effective they can be when it comes to improving your overall lower-body strength.

Using Side Lunges in Your Daily Life

The side lunge can help you prevent injuries, and it is an excellent rehabilitation tool after injuries occur. It can also be considered part of a foundational strength program or rehab protocol, because it helps athletes and casual exercisers to return to their sport or workout routine as quickly as possible. 

This is an extremely functional exercise that prepares you for many of the movements you will make in your daily life.

Many people lunge naturally to get up from the ground. The movement of the lunge is similar to many of the movements and muscle-activation patterns of daily activities like walking and running or using stairs. Lunges are excellent lower-body exercises to train a lot of muscles at once. 

Muscles Worked

When you do a side lunge, many muscles work to both mobilize and stabilize the body. These muscles include the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the gluteals,the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus), the transverse abdominis, the multifidus, the obliques, and the erector spinae. The muscles of the lower body, namely the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, work both concentrically (shortening) and eccentrically (lengthening) during side lunges. 

The most basic version of a lunge is the forward lunge.

It involves stepping forward, lowering your body toward the ground, and returning back to the starting position. This is what most people mean when they say they are “doing lunges.” In the beginning of the exercise, your leg muscles work together to control the impact of your foot’s landing. As you lower your body to the ground further (the eccentric phase of the movement) your muscles are lengthening under tension to control the movement. The quadriceps decelerate your landing and work with your hamstrings and gluteals (glutes) to control your descent. 

The muscles in both the front and back leg work eccentrically, but the glute and hamstring muscles tend to work a bit harder in the front leg. The step-back phase involves a dynamic push back to the starting position. The same muscles forcefully contract to push the body upright. This is known as the concentric phase of the movement, because the muscles are shortening (contracting) to move your body. One reason a side lunge is so effective is because of the amount of work it takes out of your body in the eccentric phase.

Research shows that  eccentric muscle contraction is more effective than concentric muscle contraction in terms of both hypertrophy and muscle size.

So to recap: most lunges mainly work the gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings of your legs. All of these muscles lengthen during the eccentric phase as you lower to the ground, and they all contract during the concentric phase when you return your body to your original starting position.

The side lunge is a common warm-up exercise for both weight training and general athletics, and it is often performed simply until you feel enough burn, rather than for a number of reps and sets. If you want to think of them in those terms, you can consider ten lunge movements to be equal to one set and each lunge can be equal to one repetition. 

Main Benefits of Lunges

Lunges offer a ton of benefits. Perhaps the biggest one is that they work several muscle groups of the lower body at the same time. This makes them important for many strengthening and injury prevention programs, such as for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury prevention.

Lunges are considered a unilateral exercise due to the workload required of the left leg compared to the right leg.

As unilateral movements, side lunges improve your balance and stability. The mechanics of the lunge are similar to those of running. The step out to landing is similar to the movements of a running stride, but without the large ground reaction force. This makes the lunge a good way to build stronger muscles to absorb the impact of higher intensity movements. 

Also, the opposing muscles of the legs are worked at the same time when you do side lunges. This can mean increased efficiency and a better resistance program. If you only have time to do a few exercises, it is always better to choose those exercises that work multiple joints at the same time.

All of this means that lunges are very important for both strengthening and injury prevention. They are functional exercises that train a wide range of muscles across the hips, knees, and ankle joints at the same time.

They also  challenge your core stability in a variety of ways by simply forcing your body to make unilateral movement patterns. 

How to Do Side Lunges (Form)

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Step forward longer than a walking stride so one leg is ahead of your torso and the other leg is behind. Your right foot should land flat and remain flat on the ground. Your rear heel will naturally rise off of the ground. 
  3. Bend your knees to about 90 degrees as you lower yourself. Keep your core engaged and your trunk upright. 
  4. Finally, forcefully push off from your front leg to return to the starting position. 

A few pointers:

  • You should not let your right knee go past your toes as you lower toward the ground. 
  • Your right knee should not touch the ground. 
  • Keep your hips symmetrical at the same height, without dropping the hip of your back leg or raising the hip of your front leg. 
  • Contract your abdominals during the movement to keep your trunk upright. Keep your feet hip-width apart during the landing and the return.

Some Lunge Variations

Once you have mastered the basic lunge, you can choose from a wide list of variations in your workouts. Each variation works the same muscles but puts more emphasis on certain areas as opposed to others. You can do a different version each workout or combine different variations to add a level of variety and challenge to your workout. 

Static Lunge

The static lunge, also known as the split squat, involves neither the step out nor the return step. This makes it easier to perform for those who have knee pain or as an introduction to lunging exercises. This exercise is similar to the forward lunge because it works the medial and lateral quadriceps muscles.

Follow the step-by-step instructions below to learn how to do this variation:

  1. Stand in a split-stance position with your feet hip-width apart and your left foot in front of the other. Your back heel will be off of the ground. 
  2. Lower yourself toward the ground by bending your knees to a 90-degree angle. 
  3. Initiating the movement from your glutes and then firing into the quadriceps to straighten the knee, push into both feet and complete the range of motion by returning to the upright position. 

To make this exercise an advanced plyometric exercise, make it a jumping lunge. From the bottom of your lunge, push off with both feet, switch them in mid-air, and land in a lunge with the opposite foot in front. Jumping lunges are tricky, so discuss them with your personal trainer if you need more guidance. 

Back (Rear) Lunge 

The back lunge or rear lunge is similar to the forward-stepping lunge, except your rear foot is the one that moves. Because the motion of the exercise is backward through space, there is less emphasis on the quadriceps muscles and more emphasis on the gluteals and hamstrings. This allows for less impact on your knees.

Follow the step-by-step instructions below to learn how to do this variation:

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Step backward longer than a walking stride so one leg remains ahead of your torso and the other behind it. Your back foot should land at the ball of your foot with your heel lifted. 
  3. Bend your knees to about 90 degrees as you lower yourself. Keep your back straight, your trunk upright, and your hips level. 
  4. Forcefully push off from your back foot to return to the starting position. 

Lateral Lunge 

Lateral lunges involve a step out to the side instead of forward or back. Because of the lateral movement pattern, the inside groin muscles (the adductors) are more active in this variation than in the other types of lunges. It also emphasizes the medial quadriceps.

Follow the step-by-step instructions below to learn how to do this variation:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Step to the side while keeping your other foot flat. 
  3. Bend your “stepping” knee while keeping the other knee straight. 
  4. Your body will hinge forward slightly, and your shoulders will be slightly ahead of your knee compared with forward and backward lunges. 
  5. Forcefully push off from your foot to return to the starting position. 

Curtsy Lunge 

The curtsy lunge is another good way to focus on your gluteus medius and hip adductors (or inner thighs). The gluteus medius works throughout this exercise to stabilize your pelvis while you lunge in a crossed-leg position, and the adductors keep your legs in that position as you lower.

Follow the step-by-step instructions below to learn how to do this variation:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Step one leg behind the other and out to the side while crossing your legs. The heel of your back foot will lift off of the ground. 
  3. Bend both knees and lower until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. 
  4. Keep your core engaged,your chest lifted, and your knees moving directly over your toes.
  5. Press into your legs (especially the front leg) to straighten both knees while you lift your back foot back to a hip-width, parallel stance. 
  6. Switch legs, alternating as you go, or stay on one leg at a time to keep your balance. Do an even number of reps on both sides. 

Walking Lunge 

The walking lunge is usually done walking forward, but it can also be done walking backward. It really works your gluteal muscles, medial quadriceps, and hamstring muscles.

Follow the step-by-step instructions below to learn how to do this variation:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Step forward and bend both knees, lowering until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Shift forward onto the lead leg. 
  4. Push off on both legs and step through, lifting your back leg and bringing it forward so your rear foot lands ahead of you in a lunge position. 
  5. Shift forward again and repeat. 

Another variation of the walking lunge is to lunge forward, but instead of stepping through with the rear foot, you step it forward to land parallel to the lead foot as you straighten both of your legs. This returns you to the starting position. Then you can alternate and step forward with the opposite foot. This version is easier and requires less balance than the version in which you step through. 

Adding Weight to Your Lunges 

If you decide to start adding weights to your side lunges, start with a lighter weight than you would expect to use on a squat or deadlift. This is most important when you are performing a lunge that involves stepping out away from your center of gravity. Weights that are too heavy can cause you to become unbalanced very quickly.

To add weight, you have a few options:

You can hold two dumbbells or kettlebells or you can perform the lunge with a barbell on your shoulders, like a barbell squat. Your back extensors and core muscles will work more to stabilize the weight. Alternatively, as you lunge, hold one dumbbell in the opposite hand as the lead leg. This adds emphasis to the upper gluteal muscles, as well as the oblique muscles to stabilize the trunk. 

If you suffer from pre-existing injuries, start with light weights if you use any weights at all.

If you feel any type of discomfort in your shoulder or elbow joints, this might be a sign you are overdoing it. Try to switch your weights for smaller dumbbells that weigh even less. Even with light weights, you will get some of the benefits of this type of cardio.

There are many different ways for you to do side lunges as part of a HIIT workout. Some of these include the static lunge, backward lunge, lateral lunge, curtsy lunge, and walking lunge. You can also add different types of weights to the exercises to increase the difficulty level and work your trunk muscles a little more.

Overall Evaluation

Side lunges are the ideal leg exercise for working the muscles of your lower body. The range of variations allow you to emphasize your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and more. You can also scale the exercise depending on whether you are a beginner or an experienced lifter. Use side lunges with the proper form in your leg workout exercise program and try as many variations as you can to keep your body guessing.

Adding Lunges to Your Workout

In addition to using your core, lunges can really tone the muscles in your thighs and calves. If they are done along with  other workouts that target your legs, lunges can help to increase overall lower body strength and prevent injuries down the road.

Combining all of your workouts with adequate recovery periods is also important for your overall bodybuilding goals. Add the  Pro Series Mass Stack to the mix and you have a recipe for solid strength and muscle gains that will transform your life.