Powerful Single-Leg Movements
Take this popular exercise to the next level if you want big legs, great glutes, and healthy knees. Here’s what to do.
If you want to get stronger overall, increase leg size, and improve your big lifts, the lunge is non-negotiable. It ought to be, at least. But hundreds of spastic-looking steps where you fling your body forward and then back to standing don’t count.
Use these variations instead. They’re the most powerful single-leg movements you could do.
The split squat is a foundational lunge variation. Both feet stay on the ground, and when done right, it’ll give you one of the most brutal quad pumps of your life. Nice thing is, it can actually minimize knee stress as well.
Notice in the video that I’ve elevated both feet. Do this to increase the ROM or range of motion. Use exercise steps or stack weight plates on the ground to gain 2-3 inches of elevation. This increases the bottom range of motion by a few inches.
Don’t let your back knee hit the ground without the front hip fully flexing. This will engage the glutes even more.
Starting to train the split squat can be pretty humbling in terms of relative load used in this position. But remember, single leg variations are used to enhance the hip and core stability while targeting the quads and glutes more directly.
Do these with higher reps, between 10-20. Keep constant tension on the quads and glutes, move smoothly in and out of the extended range of motion, and you’ll see how demanding this is on the legs and the lungs.
Elevate your rear foot on a bar. Why? Because it’ll keep you from screwing up the setup and limiting your ability to train this exercise effectively.
Normally, lifters will set up on a standard bench. But leg length and anthropometry are not standard, so it doesn’t make sense for everyone to use the same bench height.
Too low of a bench wouldn’t be ideal for a tall lifter (over the height of around 6’2″). But a problem arises when smaller lifters are using too high of a bench. As the bench gets higher, the back leg’s range of motion becomes more limited due to mobility restrictions through the hip flexors. An overly elevated back foot combined with less-than-optimal hip flexor mobility places the spine into a hyperextended position, especially at the bottom of the range of motion.
Using a bar is a simple fix because you can customize the height of the back leg and get a full range of motion with a perfectly neutral spine. The average lifter’s height will be between 12-16 inches.
Once you do this, it’ll be like taking the parking brake off your mobility. It’ll also allow you to go heavier. Never overlook the setup. The better your setup, the bigger your results.
If you’re training around knee pain or just want to make the lunge feel right, try reversing it. Wait, lunge backward? Yes, but the change of direction isn’t the only difference between the reverse lunge and the more common forward lunge.
The forward lunge involves a more vertical torso and increased shin angle, making it a more knee-dominant exercise. It increases activation and force production at the quads. The problem with only using the forward lunge? Very few people actually need more direct anterior chain (front of the body) work due to the postural “demands” of our modern lives. We’re generally chained to desks, cell phones, and car seats.
As a result, the world is full of weak asses. The reverse lunge will help solve and prevent this problem.
By changing the direction of your lunge, a few key mechanical alterations happen, mainly the increased angle of the torso (a more chest-pointing-down position) and the shin staying in a more vertical position relative to the ground. Though this angle change at the torso and shin is slight – between 10-25 degrees – it’s just enough to change the force distribution between the anterior and posterior chains.
This variation strengthens the glutes and hams to a larger extent, and it’s far more knee-friendly than the forward lunge. Go heavy, keep the reps smooth and controlled, and try a hold at the bottom.
Add an isometric hold on the last rep of each set to increase metabolic stress while sparing the joints. Remember to do it for both legs. Hold for as long as you can without losing your form.
The walking lunge is a powerful quad-builder, but there’s a better way to train this bad boy. Why does it fall short? Mainly the lack of constant tension.
When targeting a muscle, keeping some level of tension throughout a set is a necessity. But by alternating legs, there’s about a 2-3 second “rest” period on each leg, which allows blood flow to rush out of the targeted muscles, taking away both muscular emphasis and metabolic stress.
By leading with the same leg, you’ll place more stress on the quads without fully relaxing the muscles between reps. If you’re used to the alternating forward lunge, this will be a huge challenge and will cause a quicker, more painful training effect on the quads. The increased accumulation of blood into the tissues creates an occlusion effect, which is maximized during constant tension movements. That’s exactly what you want if you’re trying to build muscle.
This one is for iron addicts who love searing pain. With the same leg, you go from forward lunge to reverse lunge. This exercise can put a fire in your legs and lungs. And you really don’t have to load it up heavy.
As you alternate between one leg finishing up the forward lunge and pushing back into the reverse lunge, there’s a period of perceived instability at the hip and core as you glide through the neutral leg and hip position without ever touching down between reps. This transition causes what’s scientifically known as an “oh crap moment” in the brain. The fear of falling over will cause you to tense and recruit the stabilizing musculature through the shoulders, hips, and core.
Train with higher reps, between 8-12. Count one rep as both a forward and reverse lunge. The CNS will go into overdrive, escalating the heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, and making you sweat. This response makes it a great finisher on any lower body day.
Since the CNS is being hammered, there’s no need to load this movement with near maximal weights. Start with bodyweight and slowly work up your loads while keeping an emphasis on movement quality. Go smoothly, move slowly, and hold little pink dumbbells in each hand. It’ll build character, bro.