Compound movements -- deadlift, squat, push, pull, press, and dip -- comprise some of the best and most time-efficient exercises that you can do as an athlete. Social media seems to have made squats and lunges, in particular, quite popular, and it doesn’t take long to find a ton of various types of exercise regimes that promise a more toned backside, bigger legs, or both. The exercises responsible for these great promises: the squat and the lunge.
Throughout the rest of this post, I’ll go into further detail about squats and lunges and will compare the different muscles worked and what the benefits are to each exercise. One isn’t definitively “better” than the other, per se, because the worth of the exercise depends largely on what your goals are in the first place. That said, I think I’ll be able to make the case that you should definitely include both squats and lunges in your exercise routine to help ensure all-around health and to help prevent injuries.
First things first, though; what exactly are these exercises, and what do they entail?
You’ve been doing squats since you were literally a baby, and it was at that point in your life when your form was probably the best, too! It’s actually pretty impressive to watch children squat -- with legs apart and with their bodies so deeply crouched down that it’s a small wonder that their little booties don’t hit the floor -- because if most of us, as adults, tried to squat that low, we’d quickly lose our balance and fall over.
In layman’s terms, squats are one example of a compound, full-body exercise that you can do for both strength training and for injury mitigation. You typically start in a standing position, with your legs shoulder-width apart, and then bend your knees and shift your weight toward the ground. After you bend your legs at the knees, you slowly bring your body to the ground, at whatever depth you’d like, and then straighten your legs again and return to your standing position. There is a veritable flurry of different types of squats you can do, but which one you should do depends on your goals. You can even do squats as a bodyweight exercise.
Lunges are another compound exercise that you’ve likely been doing for your entire life but haven’t ever necessarily known it. Lunges are what their names suggest: a movement that begins in a standing position and that ends in a position much further out from the original. Simply stated, with lunges, you typically start with one leg positioned behind the other, with the knee bent, while you have your other foot flat on the ground. At the beginning of the movement, you start in a standing position, then you move into a position that typically has one kneecap touching the floor with the other leg at a 90-degree angle, and then you finish the movement standing again.
While both squats and lunges are compound movements, they use different muscles differently.
Squats are great exercises for training various thigh, hip, buttocks, and quadriceps muscles, in addition to the hamstrings. In general, squats are a fantastic exercise for your lower body simply because you can target so many different muscle groups so quickly and with one exercise.
Lunges, on the other hand, are additionally great exercises for the lower body and are compound in nature, suggesting that they implicate an array of muscle groups with one movement. Lunges usually work the gluteus muscles in your hips and butt, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles, and the large muscles in your abdominal areas and in your back help to stabilize the movement as well.
If you’re familiar with other compound movements, you may be wondering what the difference is when we talk about squats and deadlifts.
There’s seemingly an entire field in exercise science that delineates and debates the differences between squats and deadlifts, but for simplicity’s sake, I think we can say that the deadlift is primarily a hip-hinge motion whereas the squat is a squat movement, appropriately enough.
In addition, when you complete a squat, you typically begin with the weight already lifted -- either a barbell on your backside or dumbbells in your hands, for example -- whereas when you complete a deadlift, you begin from a standing position and then move toward the ground to lift up the object. It’s only when you complete the deadlift movement (via hinging at your hips) that you return the lifted object to the ground.
While squats and deadlifts both use and activate muscles in our core, backside, and legs, they do so differently -- and therein lies the difference, in the big-picture sense.
As we’ve discussed so far, lunges and squats alike carry with them tons of benefits for athletes and for runners in particular. Athletes should include both exercises pretty routinely in their regimes, and runners in particular stand to benefit a lot from the leg, glute, and core development -- as well as the ancillary back support -- that they can confer from lunge and squat workouts.
Runners in particular tend to have really strong quadriceps but embarrassingly weak and tight hamstrings. Regularly including squats and lunges can help mitigate these muscle imbalances and in effect can help mitigate runners’ injury risks.
Lunges, specifically, can be a boon to runners because they are single-leg exercises and running, at its core, is a single-leg activity. If you think about the running motion, it’s essentially a series of hops on one side to the other, over and over again. Lunges, in their single leg activation, can be a great way for runners to develop stronger glute medius muscles and help, in turn, strengthen their hips as well.
Answering which exercise is better is somewhat an exercise in futility, to be honest. Both exercises are among the best ones you could be -- and should be! -- including in your exercise regime pretty routinely. If you’re an avid endurance runner, then squats and lunges should absolutely be part of your strength training routine, regardless if you’re using your own bodyweight or are progressing it by adding barbells or dumbbells.
If you’re not a runner, again, deciding which exercise is superior to the other will largely depend on your goals. For the everyday athlete, however, someone who’s looking to get stronger and have more well-defined musculature all around, including both exercises in your routine would be my own personal recommendation.
Squats and lunges alike are both incredibly worthwhile exercises that every athlete should be including in his/her workout routine fairly regularly and consistently. Luckily, there are several different types of variations for both squats and lunges, so in the event that the basic movement isn’t sufficiently challenging for you or for your fitness goals, you can also modify it accordingly.
One last word about squats and lunges: part of their beauty is that they’re so accessible. You can do them literally anywhere and with no equipment besides your own body, if you’d like. You can absolutely do them in a gym, with a ton of progressed equipment to make the workout more challenging for you, but it’s not totally necessary for everyone. In fact, you can still make solid fitness gains simply by using your own bodyweight for these exercises.
What are you waiting for? In the time you’ve been reading this post, you could have easily knocked out a few of each by now. Get after it, and you’ll be glad you did.