Lower body exercises: lunge vs squat

Lunges and squats are two common strength training exercises that can be found in most lower body workouts. 

When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, focusing on lower body exercises is crucial for overall strength, stability and building muscle.

Lunges and squats are compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups. 

curtsy lunge is one of the best lunges for glutes
woman in long sleeve shirt doing goblet squats

Lunges specifically target the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves, while squats primarily work the same muscle groups with an added emphasis on core engagement. Understanding the nuances of each exercise and how they differ in muscle engagement, joint loading, and functional application will empower you to tailor your workout routine to your specific needs and goals.

Understanding lunges and squats

The primary difference between lunges vs squats is that a squat is a bilateral exercise because you use both of your legs in the exact same movement pattern at the same time. The lunge is a unilateral exercise. Your feet are in a staggered stance, one leg is in front of the other. This position distributes the workload differently between your two legs.

What are lunges?

Lunges are a lower body exercise that targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves. They involve stepping out into a split stance and bending your knees to lower the body, creating a lunge position. 

Lunges are unilateral exercises that focus on one leg at a time and activates the gluteus medius muscle for stabilization on one leg. Usually, they require stepping forward or backward, maintaining an upright posture and lowering the body until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. 

They are a functional exercise that closely replicate walking and running.

Benefits of lunges:

  1. Lower body strength: Lunges help build strength in your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, leading to improved functional movement and athletic performance.
  2. Muscle imbalance correction: Unilateral exercises like lunges help identify and correct any strength imbalances between the left and right sides of the body.
  3. Core engagement: Lunges activate your core muscles, aiding in core stability and strengthening.
  4. Joint mobility: Performing lunges through a full range of motion can enhance joint mobility, particularly in the hips and knees.

Lunge variations: 

Forward lunge

woman in red shirt and black leggings doing forward lunges
  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand and place your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Step forward with one leg until the thigh is parallel to the floor. 
  • Push through your heel and lift yourself back up to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

Reverse lunge

  • Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a pair of dumbbells, or kettlebells at your sides
  • Lunge backward with your right leg as far as you can comfortably while dropping your hips downward.
  • Once in the down lunge position, push back to the starting position with both legs at the same time.
  • Repeat with the left leg.
  • Alternate legs for the desired number of repetitions.

Lateral lunge

woman in red long sleeve top doing lateral lunge in gym
  • Start with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  • Take a step out to the side. Push your hips back and bend into your front knee until it creates a 90-degree angle. Make sure your opposite leg remains strong and straight.
  • The non-working leg should be mostly straight and the foot should still be in contact with the floor.
  • Once you reach the bottom position of the lateral lunge, push the floor away by exerting force into the ground and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the same side until all the desired repetitions are complete. Switch to the other side.

Curtsy lunge

curtsy lunge is one of the best lunges for glutes
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • With either your right or left foot, step back and cross your foot behind your opposite leg.
  • Lower into the curtsy and keep your back heel up so your weight rests on the ball of your foot. The front knee should bend at a 90-degree angle. 
  • Lift up from the curtsy and return to the starting position. Repeat on the same side or alternate the curtsy between both legs. 

Walking lunge

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can either keep your arms straight at your side or challenge yourself by adding weights.
  • Step your right or left leg forward, bend into your knee, and lower down while placing your weight into your front heel.
  • While keeping your bent leg in the same position, step forward with your opposite leg and repeat the movement.
  • Gather your balance and continue walking forward, alternating your legs into a lunge position. 

What are squats?

Squats are compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. They involve bending the knees and hips, lowering the body into a seated position and then standing back up. Here’s a detailed explanation of squats:

Squats are bilateral exercises that engage both legs at the same time. They require maintaining a neutral spine and lowering the body by bending the knees and hips, as if sitting back into an imaginary chair. Proper form involves keeping the knees in line with the toes, maintaining a strong core, and ensuring that the weight is evenly distributed.

Benefits of squats:

  1. Lower body strength: Squats are compound exercises that engage large muscle groups known for their ability to build strength in the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes while improving power and stability.
  2. Glute development: Squats heavily engage the gluteal muscles, contributing to a toned and lifted appearance.
  3. Core activation: Squats require core stability to maintain an upright posture, leading to strengthened abdominal muscles.
  4. Increased bone density: Weight-bearing nature of squats can help enhance bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
  5. Enhanced Functional Performance: Squats mimic movements used in daily activities, such as bending, lifting, and getting up from a seated position, leading to improved functional performance.

Squat variations: 

Bodyweight squats 

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, your back straight, chest out, and shoulders down. Your toes should be turned out slightly outward. Engage your core.
  • Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat

Goblet squats 

woman doing goblet squat in the gym
woman in long sleeve shirt doing goblet squats
  • Hold the dumbbell vertically, gripping it with both hands underneath the top of the weight. Keep the dumbbell close to your chest throughout the entire movement.
  • Point your knees in the same direction as your toes.
  • Inhale and begin to squat, sitting back in your hips, keeping your core tight and chest upright.
  • If your level of flexibility allows it, track your elbows between your knees, stopping when they touch.
  • Drive through your heels back to the starting position. Keep your feet flat on the floor throughout the movement.

Barbell squats (Back squats)

woman standing in squat rack with barbell on upper back for barbell squats
woman in lower end of barbell squat
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the standard barbell resting on your traps.
  • Your arms should make right angles as you grip the bar.
  • Keeping your core tight, lower into squat position while keeping your upper body upright
  • When reaching the lower part of your squat, push through your heels and return to the starting position

Front squat

woman standing for front squat with arms criss crossed
  • Using a squat rack, place the loaded straight barbell at shoulder height
  • Wedge the bar in the crook of your shoulder
  • Place your hands just beyond shoulder-width and try to get the base of your four fingers around the bar
  • Drive your elbows up, so that your triceps are parallel to the floor
  • Stand up to lift the bar from the rack
  • Take a step back and set your squat stance 
  • Bend at your knees, while trying to sit between your thighs to stay more upright
  • Stop once your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly below
  • Push the floor away to stand up

Bulgarian split squat

dumbbell bulgarian split squat starting position
woman in long sleeve doing dumbbell bulgarian split squats
  • Stand in front of a step, bench or elevated platform with your back toward it.
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand at hip level. 
  • Place your right leg on the top of the bench and take a step forward with the opposite leg.  
  • Brace your core and lower yourself by bending your left knee until it reaches 90-degrees.  
  • Push through your foot and bring yourself back to the start.  
  • Finish your set and switch legs.  

Pistol squats (TRX assisted)

  • Stand facing the suspended TRX, gripping both handles.
  • Using the TRX as support, lower yourself down into a pistol squat, then return to the start position. 
  • Repeat 

Muscle Engagement: Lunge vs squat


Lunges are excellent exercises for engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Primary muscles targeted in lunges:

  1. Quadriceps: Lunges effectively target the quadriceps, the muscles located on the front of the thighs. These muscles play a crucial role in knee extension and are responsible for straightening the leg.
  2. Hamstrings: Lunges engage the hamstrings, located on the back of the thighs. The hamstrings help in knee flexion and hip extension, providing stability and power during the exercise.
  3. Glutes: Lunges activate the gluteal muscles, including the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. These muscles are essential for hip extension, abduction and overall lower body strength and shape.
  4. Calves: Lunges also work the calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus. These muscles assist in ankle flexion and contribute to overall lower body stability.

Leaning your upper body forward in a lunge means more work for your glutes and hamstrings. Keeping your upper body upright makes quads do most of the work.

Importance of stabilizer muscles in lunges:

Lunges require the engagement of stabilizer muscles to maintain balance and control throughout the exercise.

These muscles include the core muscles (abdominals and lower back), hip stabilizers (such as the hip abductors and adductors) and ankle stabilizers.

By incorporating lunges into your workout routine, you can improve your stability and enhance the strength of these supporting muscles.


Squats are renowned for engaging multiple major muscle groups simultaneously. Primary muscles targeted in squats:

  1. Quadriceps: Squats heavily target the quadriceps muscles located at the front of the thighs. These muscles are responsible for knee extension and provide power during squatting movements.
  2. Hamstrings: Squats also engage the hamstrings, the muscles at the back of the thighs. The hamstrings assist in knee flexion and hip extension, contributing to lower body strength and stability.
  3. Glutes: Squats are highly effective at activating the gluteal muscles, including the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. Strong glutes not only enhance aesthetics but also improve hip stability, posture, and overall lower body power.
  4. Calves: The calf muscles, particularly the gastrocnemius and soleus, assist in ankle flexion during squats. They play a role in maintaining balance and stability throughout the exercise.

Importance of core engagement in squats:

Core engagement is crucial during squats as it helps maintain stability and proper form throughout the movement. The core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques and lower back, act as stabilizers, supporting the spine and maintaining a strong, upright posture.

Engaging the core during squats improves overall strength, balance and functional movement.

Functional movements and everyday application

Functional movements are exercises that mimic movements in daily life and have practical applications in daily activities. Both lunges and squats play a significant role in functional fitness.

How lunges mimic movements in daily life

Lunges closely replicate movements we perform in our daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs or getting up from a seated position. By incorporating lunges into your workout routine, you can improve your ability to perform these activities with greater ease and efficiency.

Lunges specifically target the muscles used in these movements, strengthening them and enhancing your overall functional fitness.

Squats’ relevance to functional movements and activities

Squats are highly relevant to functional movements and activities due to their ability to replicate bending, lifting and squatting motions required in everyday life. Here are a few examples of how squats are applicable to daily activities:

  1. Lifting and carrying: Squatting down to lift heavy objects from the ground and carrying them involves the same movement pattern as squats. By practicing squats, you develop the necessary strength and technique for safe and efficient lifting.
  2. Sitting and standing: Squats mimic the motion of sitting down and standing up, making them beneficial for maintaining and improving functional mobility, especially for older adults.
  3. Sports performance: Squats contribute to better athletic performance by improving explosive power, jumping ability, and agility. Many sports involve movements that resemble squats, such as jumping, lunging, and changing directions quickly.

Incorporating both exercises

Including both lunges and squats in your workout routine can provide a well-rounded lower body training workout with numerous benefits.

Benefits of including both lunges and squats

  1. Comprehensive muscle engagement: Lunges and squats target overlapping but also distinct muscle groups. By incorporating both exercises, you ensure comprehensive engagement of the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, leading to balanced lower body development.
  2. Varied movement patterns: Lunges and squats involve different movement patterns, providing variety to your workouts. This variety helps prevent boredom, challenges your muscles in different ways, and promotes overall functional strength and mobility.
  3. Core stability and balance: Both lunges and squats require core engagement for stability and balance. By regularly performing these exercises, you strengthen your core muscles, enhancing overall stability and improving posture.
  4. Joint mobility and flexibility: Lunges and squats performed through a full range of motion promote joint mobility and flexibility, enhancing your overall movement quality and reducing the risk of injury.
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