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July 22, 2022
No one should skip a leg day. Ever. And what you don't hear as often, but is just as important, is no one should miss single-leg day training. In fact, with so many great unilateral movements, it can be tough to pick the perfect single leg exercises to hit your goals.
Take the split squat vs. lunge, for example. Both moves share some pretty awesome qualities, such as each being a compound exercise that builds leg muscles while improving your ability to complete everyday tasks.
But they also have a few key differences, which is great news for your leg day routine as this means you can potentially include them both. In doing so, you’ll build leg muscles, improve your athleticism, support functional training, and feel that oh-so-satisfying lower-body burn.
We know you want more information on both exercises before working them into your routine, so let’s dig in.
In this article, we’ll cover:
We know you’re anxiously awaiting our answer, but it’s going to be a bit anti-climatic as both split squats and lunges are beneficial and deserve equal props. Now that’s not to say that one version might not be better for you currently. Everybody is different, and if you’re trying to fix muscle imbalances, dealing with an injury or knee pain, or trying to meet specific goals, one of these variations might be better suited for you to start with.
But when all is said and done, whether you include both exercises in one routine or start with a split squat and save the lunge for a future regimen, they both deserve leg day love.
One of the reasons both the lunge vs. split squats are at the top of our lower body list is that they’re single-leg exercises. A unilateral exercise, also called single-leg training, is vital for balancing muscles on each side of your body. If one side is stronger or moves better than the other, injuries are likely to occur and compound over time.
And while back squats and deadlifts are at the top of the bilateral exercises food chain for improving strength, complementing split squats and lunges moves with ones that build muscle while identifying and correcting imbalances is key for injury prevention, athleticism, and overall better fitness levels.
A split squat is exactly what it sounds like. It is splitting your legs into a staggered stance and performing a single leg squat. You can also think of a split squat as a stationary lunge. This isolates the front leg as the working leg and helps correct any muscle or strength imbalances while making it easier to avoid losing balance.
Although you do have both feet on the floor and the back foot helps to support the movement, it’s a unilateral, or single leg, exercise. The split squat requires keeping the feet in a stationary position, making it easier to maintain balance.
More balance means you can better overload the muscles for hypertrophy or strength. Although the split squat is still challenging, it requires less stability, proprioception, and coordination than moving lunge variations.
Before performing splits squat, determine what equipment you’re training with. You can use your bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, and even a barbell, so you’ve got plenty of good options and progression potential. Don't use heavy weight until you've mastered form as proper technique for the split squat is crucial.
To the untrained eye, a lunge and split squat look quite similar. But a big form difference is that lunge exercises always start and finish with your feet together and require moving one leg. This means you are moving throughout the exercise as you bring your leg forward and return it to your body, alternating sides.
There are several lunge variations (we’ll get to this shortly), but they all require a bit more balance, coordination, and explosive power than a split squat.
The most common lunge variation is typically the forward lunge, so we'll focus on that version when comparing the two exercises. The forward lunge improves single-leg strength, balances each side, enhances stability, and increases athleticism.
Similar to the split squat, you’ve got limitless equipment options to choose from. Beginners may want to opt for bodyweight, while more experienced lifters can choose from one or two dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. If you're holding weights, make sure to retract your shoulder blades so your upper back doesn't hunch forward.
When it comes to muscles used for lunges and split squats, both involve several joints and muscle groups that work together to complete the compound exercises.
The main muscle groups trained in both the split squat and forward lunge are:
The key difference between the split squat vs. lunge isn't different muscle groups worked, but rather in how they are worked. Muscle usage between the split squat and lunge differs in that lunges target the hip adductors and hip abductors more as they work to stabilize.
There are several secondary surrounding muscles required to put in a decent amount of work, including the psoas and core.
If you’re holding dumbbells, other muscle groups worked include your forearms as you hold the weight, and your back muscles, particularly the traps, as they help you keep your posture tall, protecting your spine.
Let's start by answering the question: What is performance? Usually, it's defined as getting stronger, building muscle, or increasing athleticism.
You can use the following factors to determine how to best fit these exercises into your routine.
If maximal strength is what you are striving for, then add split squats to your routine.
The fact that your feet remain stationary allows you to more easily progressively overload. Remember, your weight won't be as heavy as what you use in the bilateral squat, but you can still load the exercise with more weight than a lunge and build impressive single-leg strength.
This is not to say you cannot build similar strength with the lunge. On the contrary, you simply will be able to handle more weight on a split squat; therefore, having a higher ceiling for strength gains.
As far as hypertrophy goes, the split squat will again work best as you can increase the weight you are using more so than a lunge. The formula for hypertrophy (gaining muscle) calls for progressive overload in a specific rep range (we’ll get to sets and reps in a bit, but this article also does a great job explaining how many exercises, sets, and reps each muscle group needs).
This means that exercises that enable you to use more weight have better odds for strength and growth. Again, that is not to say the lunge is inferior to it. The same intensity and progressive overload can be applied to each.
Last but not least, athleticism is a key variable to keep in mind when deciding which exercise to do. Focusing on teaching your body to move better will ensure you are pain-free for the long haul.
This also allows you to increase your agility, so you can move quickly and with grace. It’s tough to do that if you always train standing still, so for this goal, we suggest the lunge. Lunges, including lunge alternatives, involve movement, which is much more functional.
Bonus points go to the lunge for its ability to challenge the foot and ankle. Strong feet and ankles create more strength for your entire lower body. As a side note, if your ankles are a weak point for you, we highly recommend also incorporating some ankle mobility exercises into your routine.
To the untrained eye, the split squat vs lunge look eerily similar, and they do share a ton of great benefits. Here’s what they have in common:
There are also several differences between the two moves, enough so that you could easily include both split squat vs lunge in a leg workout in which you hope to gain strength and mass. The differences between split squat vs. lunge include:
There is a main difference in form between the two exercises. Split squats require you to remain stationary and in a stable position, while the lunge has you moving and picking one foot up off the floor while keeping the rear leg stationary.
Since split squats require less balance than the lunge, you can bump up your weights for this exercise.
This includes the glute medius, a smaller glute muscle on the side of your butt that helps with hip stability and balance, and the adductors and abductors, which are the inner and outer thigh muscles, essential for hip function and joint health. Adding hip adductor exercises and hip abductor exercises to your regimen is a great way to ensure no leg muscle is left behind.
Let’s start by saying both moves will increase your athleticism. But as the lunge is more dynamic and requires more balance as you alternate legs, it’s going to take your plyo box game up a notch.
If the back squat is a cool new smartphone, then the split squat is a classic flip phone. Practical, no frills, and it does the trick. In fact, we could say that about the entire squat family.
Split squat benefits include building muscle mass and balancing the muscle's appearance and performance. The split stance also makes it more stable and easier to perform than the lunge. You could even make this more low impact by performing the split squat on a belt squat machine.
Fixing these imbalances will make you less prone to injuries. This is crucial as once you have an injury your body will continue compensating, creating bigger imbalances that take more time to fix if neglected.
A main difference between the two moves is that lunges will be more effective at improving your athleticism and movement.
In addition, a major difference between lunges and split squats is that lunges provide a greater stimulus to the foot and ankle.
And while split squats likely allow you to lift heavier weights, we feel it’s necessary to mention that lunges have great potential for strength and hypertrophy as well. Performing all your lunge reps one side at a time will effectively put more tension on the muscle than alternating sides if hypertrophy is your goal.
Few exercises can increase your functional full-body strength like the lunge. If you want to move, look, and feel like an athlete (and who doesn't want that?), then this type of functional training is for you.
Options and versatility help keep your weight lifting program progressing. Whether you want to emphasize certain muscles, improve your range of motion, or put your coordination to the test, these split squat variations can help.
You'll resume the same split squat position, but for this move, elevate your rear foot onto a bench or box, remaining in a static position the entire time. Your foot elevated allows for a greater range of motion for the front leg and less assistance from the back leg. Be careful if you have tight feet or ankles, as it can be difficult to lay your foot flat in plantar flexion (back foot flat on a bench).
The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for your posterior chain. But it can cause quad or hip flexor strains, so proceed cautiously. Feel free to utilize barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells. Look straight ahead to help maintain balance and ensure correct form as this is a more advanced exercise and will challenge you.
This is the inverse of the Bulgarian split squat. The front foot is elevated this time, allowing your hip flexion to exceed 90 degrees, which is where normal split squats and lunges stop.
This means your quads don’t need as much weight to activate. This can be challenging for people with mobility issues (we suggest testing your mobility to see where you stand) and can be helpful for taller lifters searching for enhanced control and a deeper range of motion with less weight. Just be careful of hip hyperextension as you can move more freely in this exercise. Any weight options can be added.
Tired of front lunging? Why not switch to a back lunge, side urge, or curtsy lunge? Walking lunges are also another great version of the forward lunge. Just make sure to clear some space before doing the walking lunge.
Back lunges, or reverse lunges, are better for maintaining healthy knees as it keeps your shins more vertical as you step backward and drop down. You will be able to safely add the most weight to this version. Newer to lifting? Try holding some lighter dumbbells. More advanced? Challenge yourself with double kettlebells in the racked position (like a front squat).
To perform the reverse lunge, simply do the reverse of the front lunge. Take a step backward with one foot, keeping the front foot stationary and firmly planted on the ground. Lower down, and then push through the front leg to bring it back to the opposite leg and starting position, alternating legs.
Lateral lunges work in the frontal (side to side) plane and test your hip mobility. Rather than step forward, step out to the side about 2 to 3 feet, sitting your hips back to drop into a lunge while keeping your stationary leg straight.
Important muscles in this plane are the adductors and abductors as well as the muscles of the feet responsible for inversion and eversion (these are the muscles that resist a rolled ankle). Less weight is required for these due to their dynamic nature. This is a great example of one leg body weight exercise.
This exercise will also challenge you in a side-to-side movement pattern. This time you’ll take your other leg behind and across your body diagonally as you drop down into a lunge, knee bent.
Curtsy lunges do a great job of targeting the corner of the hip including the glute medius and minimus. If you control the movement, you’ll be able to sculpt your glutes and strengthen the muscles that help stabilize the hip (gluteus minimus exercises are great for building stronger hips). If you're new to this move, just your body weight will be workout enough.
Alternate sides so you work both legs equally.
Bear with us as we answer this question with another question: Why choose one of these exercises when you can easily choose both?
The lunge and split squat are packed with benefits, build muscle mass, and will take your unilateral exercises to the next level. And while you may not want to do them both on the same leg day session, there are several ways you can make room for both in your workout split.
If you follow a 4-day split with two upper and two lower body days, you can have a workout A and a workout B for both your upper and lower body. It’s a great way to incorporate more exercises and ensure you have variety. Following this logic, you could do split squats for workout A and forward lunges for workout B.
Alternatively, you could follow an 8-12 week program that includes one of these exercises, and then at the end of the program, swap one variation for the other. If you’re having a hard time deciding which to do first, take a look at your current goals, and how you’re measuring your performance.
When figuring out where to place the split squat and lunge, have them follow your biggest lift of the workout. Your first move should be main compound exercises such as the deadlift or back squat.
After your first big movement (squat or deadlift), you can fit your single-leg exercises in. Remember to choose the variation that works best for your body and fitness level.
Here are our suggestions for programming sets and reps for split squats based on different goals:
Here are some set/rep options for lunges and their variations. Keep in mind if side-to-side movements are new to you, start with 1-2 sets. Progress to 3 sets and then add weights.
Remember, there’s certainly room for both exercises in your leg workouts, but if you’re planning to include one in your current program and the other in a future routine, let these factors help guide you.
Focusing on balancing both sides, improving muscle mass, working toward strong legs, and taking your sports performance to the next level? Include the forward lunge and split squats in the same workout on separate training days.
Do not be married to one variation of an exercise, and be prepared to swap one out for another as you move through different weight lifting programs, or even try to tackle the oh-so-challenging 6-day split. We promise you can’t go wrong when you have nothing but great exercises to choose from.
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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