Alternatives to the Lunge: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
April 22, 2022

The lunge is a classic bodyweight exercise performed for the purposes of strengthening the various muscles of the leg while simultaneously improving the exerciser’s flexibility, stability and muscular endurance capacity.

However, despite these benefits and the relative simplicity of the lunge, some exercisers will find themselves seeking out a potential alternative that can take its place in their workout routine, with the added caveat of fulfilling whatever situation necessitated a substitution in the first place.

Many alternatives exist to the lunge exercise, with each being capable of replicating or even surpassing the particular effects of the lunge while simultaneously meeting the needs of the exerciser and their training goals.

Why Should the Lunge be Alternated Out?

Though the lunge exercise is relatively safe and generally presents little to no significant drawbacks - individuals with a history of leg or lower back injuries may wish to alternate out the lunge with another exercise that places less pressure and stress on these previously injured sites.

dumbbell lunges

In addition to this, even if an individual has no history or inclination towards injuries of the lower body or back, performing the lunges with improper form over a longer period of time can induce overuse injuries and even result in tendonitis.

Apart from the risk of injury or overtraining, lunges can also be deemed ineffective in comparison to more intense exercises that place a greater level of resistance on the various muscle groups of the legs - thereby inducing greater muscular hypertrophy and strength gains at the cost of more intense physical exertion.

How is the Lunge Substituted in a Training Program?

The lunge generally takes the place of a sole lower body targeting compound exercise in preparatory or rehabilitation programs, especially when combined with various range of motion improving stretches and isolation exercises that can aid a patient in returning to proper physical functioning.

In bodyweight training routines, the lunge exercise is used either as a secondary compound exercise or as the primary source of lower body training stimulus - though one that is most often combined with a more intense calisthenic leg exercise, such as the bulgarian pistol squat or the pistol squat.

And finally, in training routines that involve both resistance exercises and bodyweight exercises such as the lunge, it is used either as a warm-up movement in preparation for significantly more intense lower body compound exercises, or as a method of utilizing whatever remaining muscle hypertrophy potential may be left in the muscle.

What to Look for in a Lunge Alternative Exercise

The first and largest characteristic to search for when deciding on an alternative to the lunge exercise is the muscular activation pattern shared between the two - with the primary mover muscles of the alternative exercise being that of the quadriceps femoris, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings.

While it is entirely possible for an alternative to the lunge to only activate one or two of these muscle groups (especially if that is the entire point of the substitution), similar muscle group activation sets are a good indicator of similarity between two exercises.

bodyweight lunge

This, of course, comes with the drawback that any alternative exercise activating such muscle groups will not necessarily do so in an equal manner to the lunge, with some of said alternatives focusing more on the quadriceps femoris or hamstrings, for example.

Apart from muscle group activation set, a good lunge alternative exercise must also share a similar level of complexity and equipment requirement as the lunge itself - accounting for individuals with less experience in resistance exercises or physical rehabilitation patients.

As such, while the complexity and muscle groups trained by the alternative must be relatively similar to that of the lunge, whatever other requirements are entirely up to the exerciser and their own needs - with such matters like medical conditions, training goals and training programming acting as deciding factors as well.

Most Similar Lunge Alternative

In the event that the lunge is being substituted out due to factors characteristic of the lunge itself and not because of shifting training goals or a newly acquired injury, the exerciser’s best bet is to simply replace the lunge with an exercise of near exact similarity to it in terms of training stimulus and equipment usage.

The exercise that most fits this description is the step up, a basic exercise that may be performed with our without the addition of extra resistance by way of the exerciser gripping dumbbells or kettlebells in their hands - and with the only equipment needed apart from this being a slightly elevated platform on which to step on.

Step Ups

The step up is a plyometric exercise with a greatly similar set of mechanics and exercise kinetics to the lunge, though with the added benefit of placing significantly less stress on the hips and knees of the exerciser - all while retaining practically all the benefits of the lunge exercise itself.

The step up is performed by the exerciser finding a suitably elevated platform and repeatedly stepping onto and off of it, as one would when climbing a set of stairs.

This exercise’s relative difficulty and effectiveness is thereby governed by the height of said platform, with higher elevations leading to a more significant level of muscular activation as the exerciser is forced to recruit more muscle groups by stretching their leg higher in a manner similar to that of the lunge.

Advantages of the Step Up as a Lunge Alternative

The primary advantage of utilizing the step up as a potential lunge alternative is in its similar nature, with both the lunge and the step up involving full leg adduction in a unilateral manner that activates the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hips and glutes to a moderate extent.

This similarity in mechanics is somewhat reduced as the particular angle of motion involved in the step up is in the opposite direction to the lunge, requiring that the exerciser raise the distal portion of their lower body instead of extending it at a forward angle.

Disadvantages of the Step up as a Lunge Alternative

Though the step up is an excellent alternative exercise to the lunge, it may present several challenges for individuals with poor mobility and flexibility - of which are some of the primary reasons why the lunge may need to be alternated out in the first place, making the step up a rather poor substitute.

Apart from this, the step up may also be subconsciously “cheated” with the exerciser pushing off against the ground with the rear leg, as opposed to drawing themselves up with the leg that is currently being utilized.

This can result in reduced training stimulus and even a risk of injury when performed in excessive volumes of repetitions.

Lunge Alternative for Bad Knees, a Bad Back or Bad Hips

Among one of the most common reasons why the lunge is substituted out in a training program is due to the exerciser possessing one or multiple physiological conditions pertaining to their range of motion, mobility, flexibility, or even simple strength capacity.

As such, the ideal candidate exercise alternative for such a situation would be the glute bridge, a very low impact movement of the closed kinetic chain variety generally performed while laying on the floor - with practically little to no risk of injury or a worsening of any injuries therein.

Glute Bridges

The glute bridge has no equipment requirements save for a comfortable space on the floor, and its form mechanics are just as simplistic and easy to perform.

glute bridge

To perform the glute bridge, the exerciser will simply lie on their back prior to squeezing their gluteus muscle group, which should have the intended effect of the exerciser’s hips and lower back raising off the ground as the muscle contracts.

If done properly, the exerciser’s pelvis should be in a straight angle to the torso, with the glutes and core stabilizers bearing the majority of the exerciser’s bodyweight, thereby activating the lower back muscles in a static capacity without risking injury - save for the case of the exerciser raising their pelvis too high.

Advantages of the Glute Bridge as a Lunge Alternative

The largest advantage the glute bridge presents as an alternative to the lunge is the rather low impact and non-existent risk of injury it presents, allowing individuals and physical rehabilitation patients with all manners of injuries to perform it without compromising their recovery process.

In fact, the glute bridge may even accelerate this recovery by stimulating a hypertrophic response in the soft tissues of the exerciser, something that is only combined with the fact that the glute bridge can increase the range of motion of the hips, pelvis, and lower back.

In terms of training potential, the glute bridge is admittedly less effective at inducing training stimulus to the quadriceps femoris and calf muscle groups - though it can make up for this by retaining a similar level of muscular activation in the gluteus and hamstring muscle groups, all alongside a significantly more powerful core muscle activation.

Disadvantages of the Glute Bridge as a Lunge Alternative

The largest disadvantage characteristic of the glute bridge when used as a lunge alternative is in its rather low level of intensity, making it a very poor alternative for individuals seeking an exercise that retains the same training stimulus and muscular activation set as the lunge exercise itself.

Apart from this, there is little disadvantage to substituting out the lunge with the glute bridge in a physical rehabilitation or low impact bodyweight training routine - so long as proper form is followed and the exerciser avoids compressing their spinal column discs by overarching their lower back.

Lunge Alternative for Higher Intensity

For athletes or gym goers wishing to replace the lunge in their training routine with something that induces a significantly more intense form of training stimulus, the goblet squat is an excellent choice.

This is primarily due to the fact that it is a free weight resistance exercise and as such places more tension on the various muscle groups of the lower body - though also due to the fact that the general squat motion and its subsequent mechanics present a muscular activation pattern quite similar to that of the lunge, only with more muscle fiber recruitment.

Weighted Goblet Squats

The weighted goblet squat is a type of squat generally performed with a kettlebell or single dumbbell gripped between both hands of the exerciser at a handbreadth distance away from the torso.

While still being held in this position, the exerciser will execute a standard squat, ensuring that they are following the correct form cues and mechanics so as to prevent any injuries or improper resistance loading of the musculature.

If performed correctly and with an appropriate amount of weight, the goblet squat should more than induce the kind of training stimulus that is found in the lunge exercise - resulting in more intense training results as well.

Advantages of the Weighted Goblet Squat as a Lunge Alternative

The largest advantage the weighted goblet squat has over the lunge is in the significantly more effective muscle group activation it presents, recruiting the entirety of the lower body’s muscle groups to an extent that is difficult to recreate with the simple bodyweight lunge.

This will often lead to faster and more intense muscular hypertrophy and strength gains, though at the cost of less volume per set, and somewhat more strain being placed on the knees, lower back, and hip joint.

As such, the weighted goblet squat is the most suitable alternative for athletes and bodyweight exercisers wishing to intensify their lower body workout routine with the help of additional exercise equipment.

Disadvantages of the Weighted Goblet Squat as a Lunge Alternative

Though the weighted goblet squat comes with its own set of disadvantages, the largest of such is its relatively complex form in comparison to the lunge - with the exerciser requiring a level of bodily coordination and awareness that may be difficult to achieve for inexperienced individuals.

In addition to this is the fact that the weighted goblet squat requires equipment that may be otherwise unavailable to individuals whom regularly perform the lunge, with a dumbbell or kettlebell being required for such an alternation.

References

1. Krause DA, Elliott JJ, Fraboni DF, McWilliams TJ, Rebhan RL, Hollman JH. ELECTROMYOGRAPHY OF THE HIP AND THIGH MUSCLES DURING TWO VARIATIONS OF THE LUNGE EXERCISE: A CROSS-SECTIONAL STUDY. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Apr;13(2):137-142. PMID: 30090671; PMCID: PMC6063068.

2. Marchetti PH, Guiselini MA, da Silva JJ, Tucker R, Behm DG, Brown LE. Balance and Lower Limb Muscle Activation between In-Line and Traditional Lunge Exercises. J Hum Kinet. 2018 Jun 13;62:15-22. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0174. PMID: 29922373; PMCID: PMC6006536.

3. Muyor JM, Martín-Fuentes I, Rodríguez-Ridao D, Antequera-Vique JA. Electromyographic activity in the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and rectus femoris during the Monopodal Squat, Forward Lunge and Lateral Step-Up exercises. PLoS One. 2020 Apr 1;15(4):e0230841. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0230841. PMID: 32236133; PMCID: PMC7112217.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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