Lunges are a classic exercise for building lower body size, strength and athleticism, but what muscles does a lunge work? And how can you get the most out of the exercise? In this article we’ll be covering:

Let’s jump straight in.

What Muscles Do Lunges Work?

Lunges are a movement that works your leg muscles unilaterally (one side at a time) specifically the muscles worked by lunges are:

  • Your quadriceps
  • Your glutes
  • Your adductors (To a lesser extent)
  • Your calves (To a lesser extent)

Do lunges work quads or hamstrings more?

Lunges work your quads significantly more than they work your hamstrings. Your quads are the prime mover, meaning that they will do most of the work, whereas your hamstrings function mainly as stabilisers and as such do far less work.

Should lunges be long or short?

Both short and long stride lunges are valid options. Long stride lunges will place a bit more emphasis on your glutes, whilst short stride lunges will place a bit more emphasis on your quads. Pick the version that works your target muscle the most.

Lunge Muscles Worked Diagram

Lunge muscles worked

Lunge Muscles Not Used

Some key lower body muscles are not used during lunges. For a balanced training programme I recommend incorporating exercises to address these missing areas. Some of the biggest lower body muscles not used in lunges or close lunge variations include:

  • Hamstrings
  • Abductors
  • Calves

Are lunges a full leg workout?

No, lunges will not give you a full leg workout as they miss key lower body muscle groups such as your hamstrings and abductors. I recommend exercises such as rdls, hamstring curls, banded glute walks and calf raises to address this.

Lunge Variations and Alternatives

There are loads of lunge variations and alternatives that you can use, here are three of my favourites, plus which muscles they work, as well as why you might use them in your own leg training.

Reverse Lunge / Backward Lunge

What muscles do backward lunges work?

The reverse lunge (a.k.a. backwards lunge) is a basic lunge variation that has you stepping backwards instead of forwards. You’ll still be using your quads, but this variation tends to add a bit more demand to your glutes.

Personally, I’m a big fan of reverse lunges as they allow you to load a decent amount of weight onto a barbell and step out of a rack to perform them. If you’re someone with strong legs and holding heavy dumbbells becomes more of a grip challenge, give barbell reverse lunges a try.

Lateral Lunges (Side Lunges)

What muscles do lateral lunges work?

Lateral lunges (a.k.a. side lunges) still work your quads, glutes and adductors, but the main difference is that these muscles will be worked in the frontal movement plane, presenting a new movement challenge. You’ll also likely experience a deep stretch in your adductors (inner thigh muscles).

Personally I use these exercises with athletes in sports which demand rapid changes of direction. For example, hockey, tennis, football and basketball. That way if you end up in a similar position in game, your body is prepared for it, reducing injury risk.

Curtsy Lunges

What muscles do curtsy lunges work?

Curtsy lunges still mainly work your quads and glutes, but they also add a bit more of a stability challenge, which adds some work to your glute medius as well.

Whilst likely not the best exercise for maximal strength or hypertrophy, curtsy lunges present a movement challenge which is great for developing balance, proprioception and coordination for athletes who require complex and rapidly changing footwork. For example, I like to use curtsy lunges with footballers, basketball players and rugby players as part of their warm ups.

Other Lunge Variations

  • Side lunge
  • Walking Lunges
  • Overhead Lunges
  • Static Lunge (Split Squat)
  • Jumping Lunges
  • Clock Lunges
  • Lunge and Twist

Quick Training Recommendations for Lunges

How many reps should I do for lunges?

The amount of reps you should do for lunges depends on your training goals:

  • For hypertrophy, anything from 6 to 30 reps is acceptable
  • For strength, I would stick in the 6-12 rep range

For clarity, these numbers would be divided per leg, so 30 reps would mean 15 reps per leg, and 6 reps would mean 3 reps per leg.

How many sets of lunges?

I recommend anything from 1 to 5 sets of lunges within a single workout. The amount of sets you do will depend on where you are in your training cycle (e.g. week 1 versus week 4) how sensitive you are to training volume, and how well you recover.

I recommend starting on the low end, as you can always add more sets the next week.

How many times a week should I do lunges?

“I recommend using lunges in your training 1 or 2 times per week.”

Any more lunge sessions than this per week and you’ll likely find that you don’t have the time or recovery resources for the rest of your leg training (squats, RDL’s, hamstring curls etc)

Should you go heavy on lunges?

You should probably not go heavy on lunges. From experience, Heavy lunges (fewer than 5 reps) tend to be a poor choice, as they do not offer enough stability to challenge maximal loads.

Most of your lunge training will likely fall in the 15-30 rep range, as it tends to provide the best stimulus-to-fatigue ratio for most people. In other words, it’ll give you the best leg pump with the least joint and connective tissue fatigue.

Should I do squats and lunges on the same day?

You can absolutely do squats and lunges on the same day, just remember that both exercises target the exact same muscle groups, so you’ll likely need fewer sets of each exercise.

Lunge Muscles Worked Frequently Asked Questions

Will lunges build big legs?

Absolutely, lunges will build big legs, especially in your quads and your glutes. For maximal leg size I recommend also adding in some hamstring exercises such as RDL’s and hamstring curls.

Are lunges or squats better?

Lunges and squats are both great exercises and both target the same muscle groups. Lunges tend to be better in higher rep ranges, whilst squats tend to be better in lower rep ranges. Feel free to use both exercises, or to pick the one that works best for you.

Are lunges a good exercise?

Absolutely, the lunges are a good exercise for lower body size and strength development, especially when you follow hypertrophy (muscle-building) training guidelines.

Are lunges without weights effective?

If you don’t have access to weights, lunges without weights can still be incredibly effective. The trick to using bodyweight only lunges is to increase the rep scheme you use and perform more sets. So if you perform 2 sets of 12 barbell lunges, you’ll likely have to perform 3 sets of 30 bodyweight lunges to get a similar training stimulus.

Are lunges cardio or muscular?

Lunges are more a muscular exercise than they are a cardio exercise. With that said, higher rep lunges will definitely challenge your cardio as well.

Next Steps

Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…

1) Get in the gym and start using some lunge variations to build size and strength in your legs. Or if you need a bit of help planning your training, consider having a look at my custom programme options

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.

3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.

‘Til Next Time


Strength coach

Alex Parry, MSc, BA

Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.

His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.