This is a question that has plagued many people since the dawn of time. Well, since the dawn of working out, anyhow.
And for a number of years, I didn’t really have a definitive answer to it myself. All the sources I turned to for an opinion were pretty much evenly divided, and there just didn’t seem to be any clear consensus one way or the other.
As it turns out however, they were all right. Lunges target both the glutes and the quads, in fairly equal measure, depending on a few simple variables.
And the great thing about this versatile exercise is that you can stack those variables one way or the other, to make it either glute-dominant or quad-dominant.
As a result, these days I no longer prescribe just a generic “Lunge” to an athlete as most coaches do, whether it’s with a barbell, dumbbells, or whatever.
Instead, I prescribe either a quad-focused Lunge (which I call a Short Lunge), or a glute-focused Lunge (which I call a Long Lunge), depending on which muscle group I want the athlete to focus on in that particular session.
Let’s take a quick look at the difference between the two.
When performing a Lunge movement, you have the option of taking either a short step forward or a long step. This is a major determinant in which muscle group does the majority of the work.
Performing a short Lunge leads to the quadriceps muscle working harder than the glute, for two main reasons:
- Greater flexion of the knee joint.
- A shorter moment arm from the load point (your foot) to the glute muscle. This creates a lesser torque on the hip joint, which makes the glute’s job easier.
There are 3 simple rules to observe for performing an effective quad-dominant Short Lunge:
- Take a short step forward so that your front knee positions itself over the top of your toes, or slightly past them. Some sources warn against allowing your knee to extend past the front of your toes, however this isn’t necessarily harmful as long as you don’t experience any discomfort in the knee.
- Keep your torso upright to minimize the flexion of your hip joint.
- Push through your heel and forefoot equally.
Performing a long Lunge leads to the glute working harder than the quadriceps muscle, for two main reasons:
- Lesser flexion of the knee joint, meaning less work for the quad.
- A longer moment arm from the load point (your foot) to the glute muscle. This creates a greater torque on the hip joint, which makes the glute’s job more difficult.
There are 3 simple rules to observe for performing an effective glute-dominant Long Lunge:
- Take a long step forward so that your front knee positions itself over the top of your ankle (therefore making your lower leg vertical), or even slightly behind it.
- Lean your torso forward slightly to increase the flexion of your hip joint. This places a greater stretch on the glute and therefore causes it to contribute to the force generation to a greater degree.
- Push only through your heel, since pushing through your forefoot tends to cause activation of the quad muscle.
Rear Lunges vs regular Lunges
Generally speaking, because of the mechanics involved, regular Lunges (performed neither long nor short, as described above) inherently tend to focus a little more so on the quadriceps than the glutes. The reason why becomes clear when you break down the movement.
During the concentric phase of the lunge, where you’re raising your bodyweight, your body moves upwards and slightly backwards at the same time. Conversely, during the eccentric phase your bodyweight is resisted as it moves down and slightly forwards at the same time.
For both of these phases, a little more emphasis is placed on knee torque over hip torque, which is generated by the quadriceps muscle.
Simply put therefore, the quads generally have a slightly tougher job with this movement.
Rear Lunges are similar to regular Lunges, differing only in the fact that to perform them you step backwards instead of forwards. In contrast, they generally tend to focus slightly more on the glutes than the quadriceps.
During the concentric phase of a Rear Lunge, where you’re raising your bodyweight, your body moves upwards and slightly forwards at the same time. Conversely, during the eccentric phase your bodyweight is resisted as it moves down and slightly backwards at the same time.
For both of these phases, a little more emphasis is placed on hip torque over knee torque, which is generated by the glutes.
In this variation the glutes therefore need to work a little harder.
That being said, all the rules described above for regular Lunges involving the knee position, torso angle, and location of the effort point on your foot apply exactly the same to Rear Lunges.
The most glute-focused possible lunge is therefore a Long Rear Lunge, and the most quad-focused possible lunge is a Short Front (regular) Lunge.
Stationary Lunges are neither Front (regular) Lunges nor Rear Lunges, but in a manner of speaking, something in between.
Since both feet remain stationary in fixed positions on the ground, the movement involves neither stepping forward nor stepping backwards. From this perspective, they’re probably as glute/quad neutral a lunge as you can achieve.
To make a Stationary Lunge more glute-focused or more quad-focused however, you can again simply apply the exact same rules described above to achieve Long Stationary Lunges (for the glutes) or Short Stationary Lunges (for the quadriceps).
When you consider the mechanics involved in a Walking Lunge, you can see that they’re simply a combination of the eccentric (lowering) portion of a regular Lunge, and the concentric (raising) portion of a Rear Lunge.
It can therefore be argued that they don’t really favor the glutes or the quadriceps. Once again however, they can be made to do so by making them either long or short lunges respectively.
Other glute/quad exercises
These simple rules for achieving quad-focused or glute-focused movements actually apply to a number of leg exercises. Two obvious examples, which also involve lunging mechanics, are Bulgarian Split Squats and Step-Ups/Step Downs.
The concept also translates well to Leg Presses.
Placing your feet low on the platform causes your knees to ride over or past your toes, and simulates a short movement to focus on the quads. In this situation you would also push through both your heels and forefeet.
Placing your feet high on the platform, on the other hand, causes your knees to remain over or behind your toes, and simulates a long movement to focus on the glutes. In this situation you would push only through your heels. If possible, you could also adjust your torso angle forward to close up your hip joints more and therefore further focus on the glutes.
The mind-muscle connection
One final point.
Another tool, for want of a better term, for focusing more so on either the quadriceps or the glutes, is to simply focus mentally on the particular muscle group you’re trying to target during the exercise.
Muscle EMG studies have shown that this is effective in increasing activation of the target muscle group and deactivation of the non-targeted synergist muscle groups. In other words, if you’re trying to emphasize your glutes, mentally focus on your glutes. And if you’re trying to emphasize your quads, mentally focus on your quads.