If you exercise regularly, chances are that lunges and squats feature into your regular workout regimen. It turns out that one of the two is better than the other. Learn which exercise to prioritize and why.
Lunges and squats are fantastic full body exercises to increase muscle mass, build strength, and improve body tone. Both exercises target several important muscle groups, including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, and back.
Few other exercises can deliver so much at once. So if you’re not doing some form of squats or lunges at least once a week as part of your fitness routine, I’m sure you have a good reason, because otherwise you’re missing out big time.
But if I had to choose between lunges or squats, lunges would be my choice hands down. And if you asked me to select among the different variations of lunges, stationary lunges would be the clear winner. As a physical therapist and a strength and conditioning coach, I find stationary lunges to be the safest and most effective exercise for the majority of people.
It’s true that for athletes working on performance optimization, different variations of the squat or lunge may be more beneficial. For example, jump squats and plyometric lunges are great for basketball players who want to jump higher or run faster. But even for these athletes, I believe the stationary lunge is an important foundational exercise.
Lunges Versus Squats
Before we explore why I prefer lunges over squats, let's define what exactly a lunge and a squat is just so we’re all on the same page. A lunge refers to any position of the human body where one leg is forward with the knee bent and foot on the ground while the other leg is behind. A squat refers to any position where the legs are side by side with the knees bent and feet on the ground.
A lunge refers to any position of the human body where one leg is forward with the knee bent and foot on the ground while the other leg is behind. A squat refers to any position where the legs are side by side with the knees bent and feet on the ground.
Why Are Lunges Better Than Squats?
The most important reason why I prefer lunges over squats is because of how common right-left asymmetries are in the body. These differences are often overlooked but are essential for preventing injuries and optimizing performance. As it turns out, squats tend to exacerbate these differences while lunges work to resolve them.
Squats tend to exacerbate [right-left asymmetries] in the body while lunges work to resolve them.
One study looking at elite young soccer players found at least one side-to-side asymmetry in 65% of athletes using the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), a popular screening tool in sports medicine. It’s easy to develop strength differences between the two sides because of past injuries or simply because you have a naturally dominant side.
Some amount of asymmetry is normal, but it tends to get worse over time unless specifically addressed. Research is beginning to show that even a small difference can have a large impact.
Results from a study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association show that differences as low as 5% are associated with reduced physical performance during jumping, sprinting, and change of direction speed tasks in soccer players. Another study of NCAA Division II rowers, volleyball players, and soccer players showed that athletes with just one asymmetry on the FMS test were nearly three times more likely to sustain an injury than those without.
Addressing side-to-side differences is important even if you’re not an athlete. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of my clients who aren’t athletes complain of aches and pains in the back, hips, knees, and legs. These issues are frequently related to asymmetries that have gradually gotten worse over time.
The good news is that side-to-side differences are easy to resolve and it’s why I prefer lunges over squats. When you perform bilateral movement such as squats, your stronger side often compensates by taking on more of the load than your weaker side.
A trained eye can usually see this compensation by a subtle lateral shift of the hips, a twist of the trunk, or a downward dip of the shoulder to one side of the body during a squat. Further testing will often reveal right-left asymmetry as the culprit.
When you perform unilateral movements that challenge one side of the body at a time such as lunges, you correct side to side muscle imbalances and prevent them from developing. The reason it works is because each side is forced to bear the load independently and the same resistance used for the stronger side will be more challenging for the weaker side.
I want to make one thing clear: I’m not saying you should stop doing squats. I believe squats are an important exercise that should be part of most fitness programs. What I am saying is that if you had to choose, go for the lunges, and if you’re doing squats twice a week, make one of those days a lunge day.
While performing lunges, you might notice that one side gets tired sooner or that one side feels more sore the next day. This is a good sign because it means that you’ve identified an asymmetry in your body and the weaker side is getting the work it needs to lessen the asymmetry.
Why Stationary Lunges?
Earlier, I mentioned that if you asked me to select among the different variations of lunges, stationary lunges would be the clear winner. Lunges are like ice cream - there are so many flavors to choose from!
We’ve got forward lunges, side lunges, reverse lunges, walking lunges, twist lunges, jump lunges, just to name a few. So why stationary lunges, the vanilla of lunge flavors?
I find stationary lunges to be the safest and most effective exercise for resolving right-left asymmetry. Yes, good old stationary lunges, where your feet are hip width apart with one foot forward, one foot backward, and your feet glued in place throughout the exercise.
Stationary lunges are safest for your knees and your back because unlike other lunge variations, you don’t have to take a step with every repetition while carrying a load. Your feet are fixed in place so all you have to do is simply lower and raise your body without worrying about additional movements that may cause you to tweak something.
Stationary lunges are also most effective for resolving imbalances because you work one side of your body with minimal rest between repetitions. In other words, you get a higher intensity workout on the side you’re exercising which helps optimize gains.
Some people argue that forward lunges are better for emphasizing your quads while reverse lunges are better for honing in on the hamstrings and glutes. I find with stationary lunges, you can get the same emphasis depending on how you push through the front foot on your way up.
To emphasize your quads, try pushing forward and down at the same time through the ball of the front foot. To hone in on your hamstrings and glutes, try pushing straight down through the heel of your front foot.
Get-Fit Guy’s Stationary Lunge Challenge
Now it’s time for you to put this knowledge to use in our stationary lunge challenge.
Your challenge over the next five days is to perform three sets of 8-12 repetitions of stationary lunges on non-consecutive days. Complete a set on one side of your body and then complete a set on the other side of your body with a short 30-second rest break between sets.
Repeat this until you’ve completed three sets on each side, making sure to use a set of dumbbells or a barbell with enough weight so that your muscles reach failure at 10-12 reps on the first set.
As always, let me know how you feel after you give it a try.