Almost all of us use this exercise.
But what muscles do lunges work – and where should it sit in your routine for optimal results?
Dumbbell lunges are often thought of a quadriceps exercise.
However, today you’ll put yourself ahead of the pack at your local gym, with some interesting findings from researchers in Sweden that suggests otherwise.
First off, it’s important to state one thing:
Lunges are awesome.
Especially when you bring weights into the equation.
They have so many variations – forward, reverse, pendulum, horizontal, walking, to name but a few.
What Muscles Do Lunges Work?
Lunges are normally placed early in a typical lower body session, after barbell squats.
However, you can improve results from this exercise by saving it until later in the day!
While they are very effective for obliterating our quadriceps, researchers from Sweden published a 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research which pointed out their brutal effectiveness as an exercise for the hamstrings, too. (1)
After putting a team of professional football players through a six week course of walking lunges, the researchers compared the improvements in strength across the quads and hamstrings.
And their findings will change the way you use this exercise forever.
While the lunges did not cause a significant strength increase in the quads, hamstring strength shot up by 35%!
Why was this the case?
Well, the way the lunge is performed gives us a lot of clues as to why these results happened.
When we step forward to perform a walking lunge – with our without dumbbells – we keep our center of gravity on our back leg until we are ready to descend down into the bottom of the rep.
Try it now and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
We don’t transfer gravity to our front leg until we are already quite far into the repetition.
In doing this, it places more direct emphasis on our hamstrings and glutes than our quadriceps.
So while lunges are a decent exercise for burning out our quads in any leg workout, they make an even better exercise to use as you transition between quads work and hamstring work on leg day.
So, if anyone at your gym asks “What muscles do lunges work?” you now know the answer is not the one most people think.
And you also know where to place it in your leg routine for maximum output.
But let’s address another common issue with this exercise.
Essentially it’s a one-legged version of a squat.
It’s crucial to remember that.
Very few exercises can stimulate a burn to match a set of heavy dumbbell lunges.
But over the years as a trainer, I’ve lost count at the number of times I’ve seen a strong athlete squat over 100kg only to go pick up some 8-10kg dumbbells for lunges.
This should not be the case.
Depending how many reps you are going for per set, your lunges should be hard and heavy just like any other leg exercise.
One of the biggest causes for this is poor grip strength.
The weakest link in any chain is the first to break, so you should always expect your forearms to give way before the huge muscle fibers in your quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings.
So if this sounds like you, I suggest working on improving your grip.
In fact, I often finish off my sets of lunges by using straps and going to failure.
This way, your forearms are taken out of the equation after they have failed, allowing you to focus entirely on moving the weight with your stronger muscle groups.
So, to recap!
- Lunges are good for quadriceps
- But excellent for hamstrings
- Ideal placement in your leg routine is to use lunges as a transitional exercise between quads work and hamstring work – for instance, between barbell squats and stiff leg deadlifts
- Go heavy! Work on your grip strength if it lets you down
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1. Jonhagen, S., et al. “Forward lunge: a training study of eccentric exercises of the lower limbs.” J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):972-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00d98.