Which Is More Effective: Squats vs Lunges

Understanding the nuances of the differences between squats and lunges is important for practitioners and coaches a like. In this article I aim to outline how these two types of exercises are both similar and very different at the same time. These are both some of the best exercises we have available to use in resistance training, so neither is better than the other, they do however have different use cases.

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Sean Klein
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Sean Klein
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In This Resource
  • What Is a Squat
  • What Is a Lunge
  • How Are The Squat and The Lunge Similar
  • Both Are Squat Variations (Knee Flexion)
  • Effective for Strength and Hypertrophy
  • How Are The Squat and The Lunge Different
  • Squats Are More Effective For Strength
  • Lunges More Effective for Balance
  • Lunges Fatigue The Nervous System Less
  • Lunges Put Less Pressure on The Spine
  • Squats Are A Full Body Exercise
  • Different Mobility Restrictions
  • Why This Is A Redundant Comparison
  • Factors to Take Into Consideration
  • Training Goal

What Is a Squat

There are numerous variations of the squat movement that in the context of this article I will group into one movement even though there are a lot of nuances between them. The squat starts with the feet being placed slightly wider than hip width, with the toes pointing ever so slightly outward then bending at the knees and moving the hips towards the floor and coming back to a starting position.

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What Is a Lunge

There are also numerous variations of the lunge that I will group into one exercise for the context of this article. The lunge involves finding the lunge position where one foot is stepped backwards and then the knee is lower to the floor. This means that one leg is doing most of the work to lift the load. As we can see in the videos below, different variations of the lunge make a substantial difference to their difficulty and how they are performed.

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How Are The Squat and The Lunge Similar

Both Are Squat Variations (Knee Flexion)

Both the squat and the lunge target the lower body through flexion (bending) at the knee. This means that they are both squat variations and will target very similar muscle groups. Both the squat and the lunge work the muscles of the glutes, the hamstrings, quadriceps etc. After doing a challenging sessions on squats or lunges you could have muscular soreness in the same muscles, though this doesn’t make the exercises completely interchangeable.

Effective for Strength and Hypertrophy

Not only do these two exercises target the same muscle groups, they also attempt to progress the same physiological characteristics. By this I mean they both attempt to either increase strength (contractile force) or hypertrophy (muscle growth). This means that these exercises will often be used in strength and hypertrophy training plans in conjunction with one another, and rightly so. They are both extremely effective exercises for creating adaptations in the lower body.

How Are The Squat and The Lunge Different

Squats Are More Effective For Strength

Strength training is where we are trying to increase the amount of force a muscle can produce when contracting. Strength training involves lifting weights that are heavy for the individual, typically over 80% of an individuals max or predicted max. This means that lifting heavy weights is required to make these strength adaptations. Due to the bi-lateral stance in the squat, the movement requires less balance and also means that the knee doesn’t have to touch the floor. These two factors mean that loading the squat is much easier than loading the lunge and that the limiting factor is contractile strength in the squat and not balance or the danger of injuring the knee on the floor in the lunge. Yes strength can be gained through the lunge, but it is much less effective at strength development than the squat (back squat and front squat).

Lunges More Effective for Balance

If you are attempting to improve the balance and stability in the knees and the hips, then the lunge will be more effective at achieving this goal. The lunge is a single leg exercise and therefore requires more balance and more stability than the squat. This is why lunges are crucial for athletes and individuals undergoing rehabilitation. The ability for the hip and knees to maintain balance during lunges is an excellent sign of an ability to exert strength in organic positions that arrive in both sport and life.

I do however feel there is a little too much emphasis on lunges in the physiotherapy profession. Especially when they attempt to come up with certain percentage recommendations of lunges to back squats, they are often very untrained in strength sports and have little real world experience actually getting clients stronger.

Lunges Fatigue The Nervous System Less

This relates more to performing heavy back and front squats, not air squats and goblet squats. The back squat especially can create huge amounts of central nervous fatigue, this will create fatigue during your week of training and during your week in general. If you are going to perform five sets of ten repetitions on a back squat at a load you find challenging, your going to feel the fatigue that this creates a great deal more than you would from performing a lunge variation at a similar intensity. This needs to be taken into consideration, athletes in season after tough matches should avoid sets of tough back squats due to the fatigue accumulation, a CEO who is having a tough time at work might want to make the same decision.

Lunges Put Less Pressure on The Spine

Having a heavy barbell push down on your spine is not an unhealthy thing in my opinion, although some coaches might disagree with me here. If the squat is loaded appropriately for both intensity (weight) and volume (sets and repetitions) then this shouldn’t be an issue for the majority of individuals. However I do understand the decision some coaches take to not perform heavy squats with general population clients. The reality is you can be perfectly health by only performing lunge variations, so you dont “need” to put the body under that stress. In my opinion is worth it when done correctly and the individual is interested in getting strong.

Squats Are A Full Body Exercise

Squats (back squats and front squats) are much more of a full body exercise than lunges. Squats require so much more stabilisation from the core and back muscles than the lunge. This might impact how you design your training sessions and is something to take into consideration when designing an effective training programme.

Different Mobility Restrictions

Mobility restrictions will be very different for that of the squat and the lunge. I have some clients who can squat to full depth without an issue but find lunges challenging in terms of hitting the correct positions due to mobility and others who are the inverse and find lunges easy and struggle to hit parallel in the squat. This just depends on the individual and how their body reacts to the two movements, and it should have a large impact on how you programme for these clients. An personal example, I have a clients who really struggles with squat mobility, we perform lighter corrective exercises in the squat movement and build strength and muscle in the lower body with lunge variations.

Why This Is A Redundant Comparison

The reality is that both lunges and squats are indispensable when it comes to resistance training and both should be used when trying to achieve health or athletic performance. If you are resistance training twice a week, using one squat variation and one lunge variation would be an example of excellent exercise selection. It is important to understand when to use one and when to use another and the differences between them, but they are both extremely effective exercise variations that you should be using on a regular basis.

Factors to Take Into Consideration

Training Goal

Training goal is a key consideration when making decisions around exercise selections. If you are an athlete in pre-season trying to build maximal strength, then the squat is for you. If you are trying to build knee stability after a knee injury whilst skiing, maybe lunges are are better choice. Either way, exercise selection needs to be viewed through the context of the individual, their needs, their goals and a range of other factors that will allow successful exercise selection.

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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

Sean Klein


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