In your gym life, you might do everything you possibly can to avoid them. “I did leg presses after squatting today,” you might try to bargain with your program. “I’ll do walking lunges next week (read: never).” This move is so deceptively simple that you might forget how tough they are until you actually try to kiss your back knee to the ground.
There’s a reason you may love to avoid this powerhouse of a functional fitness accessory. Walking lunges will jack up your heart rate all while challenging your unilateral leg strength, balance, and even your hip mobility. But try as hard as you might to avoid them, walking lunges come into play in your day-to-day, too. Whether you’re swooping down to pick up children’s toy after children’s toy from the living room rug or just trying to improve your squat, the ability to sink into a lunge, rise, stabilize, and keep going is crucial.
Sometimes, you’re training simply to improve your performance in the gym. Other times, you’re looking to boost your squat one-rep max. Walking lunges are one of those key exercises that will directly serve both goals. With the option to load these up heavy or keep them at your bodyweight, walking lunges also happen to be incredibly versatile. So really, there’s every reason to stop avoiding them and put them into your program stat.
Benefits of Walking Lunges
The squat rack is probably a hot commodity in your gym, and with good reason — they don’t call the squat the king of lifts for nothing. But no matter how powerful, every exercise has its downfall. Since the squat is a bilateral exercise — the right and left sides of your body move as one — you might not notice yourself developing or perpetuating unequal strength and muscle from side-to-side.
Enter the walking lunge. Developing unilateral strength with moves like this is crucial for combating those strength imbalances you might not notice under a barbell. Walking lunges target both sides of the body equally to build maximum lower body strength and help eliminate weaknesses that may be overlooked during an exercise like the squat.
Increased Hip Mobility
Your hips, hamstrings, and ankles all tend to get locked up and less mobile during most people’s day-to-day living. This might not seem like a problem until you realize that limited flexibility decreases the range of motion you can naturally take your joints and muscles into. This reduction in movement efficiency can negatively impact your progress in the gym. (1)
While walking lunges can be beneficial for building strength and muscle, they can also help increase your range of motion because of the greater joint angle. Compared to a single-leg squat, lunges offer peak joint angles — meaning you’ll need to sink into a deeper range of motion. (2) This is especially true for the hip-joint movement during the forward portion of your lunge. (2) It’s not only your hip mobility that can benefit, though. Taking longer strides with your walking lunges increases the demands on your hamstring and ankle mobility, while still challenging your hip mobility in a big way.
Functional exercises are geared toward making it easier to walk, move, and get around in the world on a day-to-day basis. Walking lunges are the definition of functional because they resemble tasks — like walking upstairs — that you may perform everyday that require strength, balance, and mobility. Focusing only on gym-based movements can put you at a disadvantage when it comes to moving through daily motions.
By integrating walking lunges into your leg training, you can increase leg strength, movement integrity, and enhance overall muscular development in a way that specifically targets ranges of motion and movement patterns you use every day. Especially as you age, functionality becomes more and more important. Training functionally can help you maintain muscle mass and strength that you might otherwise lose. (3)
Bigger, Stronger Glutes
Want to build up those glutes? Get lunging. Yes, walking lunges will work your hamstrings and quads, but they’ll pay special attention to your glutes. Through walking lunges, you can activate your glutes to an even higher degree than in squats and some deadlift variations. (4)
It’s not just about aesthetics or any other glute-specific goals you might have, either. Your hips rely on your glutes for movement and stabilization. This muscle group also contributes to posture, balance, and athletic performance. Athletes that run, jump, or change directions quickly need strong glutes, and training them regularly can help improve speed, power, and jump height. (5)
Improved Running Performance
Lower body strength is crucial for athletes that run daily in their sport or just on Saturday mornings. But it’s not all about strength. Movement efficiency plays an important role, too. Although exaggerated, walking lunges closely resemble running movement patterns. Precisely because the motion is exaggerated, it puts your body through an even greater range of motion than running — which helps increase hip mobility.
Having a strong stride will help carry your body farther with each step. The kind of efficiency that you build through walking lunges can also reduce the amount of energy you need while running. This move increases your stamina during a long run and helps strengthen the initial “push off” phase for sprinters. For these reasons, integrating walking lunges into your program helps improve running speed. (6)
Conventional lunges — where you’re standing in one place the whole time — will challenge your balance because you’re moving your legs independently of each other while staying upright. But walking lunges add a whole new layer of difficulty and balance challenges. Implementing lunges into your leg day improves balance and stability for everyday activities and can carry over to sport-specific activities. (7) That’s because you won’t only be balancing while staying in one place. You’ll add a dynamic element to it by having to reset, switch legs, and keep moving forward with every rep.
To keep yourself upright, stable, and moving forward one side at a time, you’ll need a lot of core strength. That’s exactly what walking lunges will develop — especially if you load them with external weights. Your core plays an important role in balance, so if it’s weak, your risk of losing your balance just walking down the street may be higher. Practicing walking lunges can make your core stronger and help you keep that core steady through even more advanced tasks.
Carryover Into Squats
Ultimately, using walking lunges to combat side-to-side imbalances and improve your balance and coordination translates into stronger squats. No, you won’t be building up to a one-rep max with your lunges, so you won’t be building strength in exactly the same way. But every little thing you do during your walking lunges — including increasing your hip mobility — turns around and benefits your squat.
Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock
With better unilateral strength, your movements under heavy weight become more efficient. When you’re more efficient, you can push more weight. Improving your balance and coordination offers a similar boost to your squat max. Increasing your hip mobility can also help you get further down into your squat more comfortably. Putting less effort into achieving the right position to begin with means putting a lot more effort into moving ever more weight.
How to Do the Walking Lunge
The walking lunge is similar to a regular lunge, except you’re — you guessed it — walking forward. This more dynamic movement can improve your mobility while increasing your lower body strength.
- Stand up tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- While keeping your shoulders pulled down and back and your gaze directly ahead, step straight forward with your right foot until your feet are staggered.
- Lower your body straight to the ground by bending both knees at the same time.
- Once they’ve both reached 90 degrees, press through your front heel to stand back up.
- Once your hips are fully extended, start to step your left foot forward and repeat the same motion.
- Continue to walk forward until you reach a desired distance or rep count.
Walking Lunge Variations
The lunge is one of those exercises that has plenty of variations that each offer their own unique benefits. You can load pretty much any variation with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell to maximize benefits and progressively overload your training.
The name pretty much gives this variation away. Instead of stepping forward into a lunge, you’ll step backwards. The reverse lunge helps put more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings versus your quads.
This version is also easier for many people to balance, possibly because there’s less pressure on your knees. If you’re new to lunges, this can be a good one to start with.
You may not be ready to add walking into your lunges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get similar benefits. The forward lunge uses the same movement pattern as the walking lunge without the actual walking part.
You’ll still work all the same muscle groups, but the demand for balance is slightly lower.
Combine the dynamic movement of the walking lunge with a forward and reverse lunge to get the pendulum lunge. Swinging your leg back and forth requires a lot more balance, stability, and core strength.
This movement is especially transferable to sports-related activities because it requires so much balance under more momentum. This variation builds lower body strength while improving speed and agility.
To build power and speed, you need to practice movements that incorporate both. Up the intensity of your lunge training by adding a plyometric element to it.
The jumping lunge recruits the same muscles as the other lunge variations, but you’ll need to generate more power to pull this one off. You’ll also be increasing the conditioning benefits of the move too, since this variation will really get your heart rate going.
Overhead Walking Lunge
Maybe you’ve mastered the walking lunge and its other forms and you need a new challenge. You might also want to build lower body strength and stability while challenging your overhead strength and thoracic mobility. The overhead walking lunge requires similar shoulder mobility and stability as you would need in an overhead squat — adding a lunge puts in yet another dynamic element to increase the benefits.
You can hold dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell overhead while you walk forward. This exercise forces your core to control and stabilize your body through the movement even more than other versions of the lift.
Lunge it Forward
Whether it’s a skip in your step or a lunge in your walk, staying functional with your movements is going to help you inside the gym and out. Since walking lunges require little to no equipment — depending on which variation you choose — you can do them anywhere from the gym to your living room. Adding lunges into the mix will help you step your lower body strength, balance, and mobility to the next level.
- Pallares, Jesus G., Hernandez-Belmonte, Alejandro, & Martinez-Cava, Alejandro. Effects of range of motion on resistance training adaptations: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.14006
- Comfort, Paul, Jones, Paul Anthony, & Smith, Laura Constance. Joint Kinetics and Kinematics During Common Lower Limb Rehabilitation Exercises. Journal of Athletic Training. 2015; 50(10). doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-50.9.05
- Liu, Chiung-ju, Shiroy, Deepika M., & Jones, Leah Y. Systematic review of functional training on muscle strength, physical functioning, and activities of daily living in older adults. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. 2014.
- Neto, Walter Krause, Soares, Enrico Gori, & Vieira, Thais Lima. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2020; 19(1).
- Gallego-Izquierdo, Tomas, Vidal-Aragón, Gerardo, & Calderón-Corrales, Pedro. Effects of a Gluteal Muscles Specific Exercise Program on the Vertical Jump. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020.
- Jonhagen, Sven, Ackermann, Paul, Saartok, Tonu. Forward lunge: a training study of eccentric exercises of the lower limbs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009; 23(3). doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00d98
- Marchetti, Paulo H., Guiselini, Mauro A., & da Silva, Josinaldo J. Balance and Lower Limb Muscle Activation between In-Line and Traditional Lunge Exercises. 2018; 62. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0174
Featured Image: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock