Split Squat vs The Lunge

Hi Dr. Bell, I was on the hunt for a new workout and found one that incorporates Split Squats. I know what Split Squats are, but I was wondering if Lunges pretty much do the samething?  With a crowded gym, I thought it would be easier to use dumbbells instead of a squat rack.

Do Split Squats and Lunges do “pretty much the same thing?”  Yes… and no. While they both are similar looking exercises and work many of the same muscle groups, they each affect the muscles differently. And because of differences in stance of the 90/90/90 Split Squat and Lunge, the lunge would increase risk of injury to your personal training client. If you are comparing the Bulgarian Split Squat or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat then a lunge may actually be the less risky exercise, especially for a relatively beginner personal training client who has done very little Balance, Core or Functional exercise training.

All of the exercises; Split Squat, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat and Lunge, will exercise the Quadriceps, Hamstrings and Glutes as well as many Core or Functional muscles, but each exercise and stance you take for each exercise will move the emphasis towards one or more muscles while decreasing the emphases on other muscles. An easy way to see an example of this is in the Bulgarian Split Squat or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat.

Imagine you or your personal training client in Bulgarian Split Squat Position in Proper Alignment:

  • Stand Cross Ways to the Bench
  • Rear Foot Elevated with the ball of the foot and toes on the bench
  • Stand Upright with head, Shoulders (retracted), Back, Hips, knees in proper alignment over the ankle.
  • Leg Extended behind the body to allow the “90-90 Position” at the bottom of the Bulgarian Squat: 90-90= Knees bent at 90 degrees; Back Upright 90 degrees to thigh, straight/Upright Position.
  • The Stance should be spaced as the body can travel from the Top: Standing Position to the Bottom: 90-90 Position, while keeping the head and torso Upright and the scapula retracted.
  • The stance should allow the hips/torso to travel straight up and straight down without bending or arching at the hips, back or waist.

If you move your front foot a few inches further forward (without violating the proper alignment), you will shift the emphasis to your groin, glutes and hip flexors. You will feel the “Stretch” in the bottom position and “feel” greater contraction in these muscles as you push upward through your heel.

If you move your front foot a few inches further backward (without violating the proper alignment), you will feel the emphasis move to your quadriceps and also your knee capsule. This stress in the knee capsule can be good, if your knee is healthy, as this will strengthen the vastus medialis oblique (the primary stabilizer for your knee) and the fascia, tendon and ligaments supporting your knee capsule. This stress can be very, VERY BAD if you have damaged tissues in the knee capsules.

When in doubt, see an Orthopedic Specialist or Physical Therapist. Remember Rule #1 for IFPA Certified Personal Trainers: DO NO HARM!

If you want to become a successful personal trainer, you must focus on both safety and effectiveness.

There are a few differences between the Split Squat and the Lunge. First, from a safety advisory: the Split Squat 90-90 Position, where both the knee and hip stop at 90 degrees of flexion, causes far less stress on the back, especially the Lumbar Vertebrae. There is less dorsiflexion of the rear foot (this may be essential for a new tight personal training client) and may be a substantially more stable exercise then the Lunge.

From an effectiveness viewpoint, the predominant and current research indicates that the Split Squat increases recruitment of the Hamstrings and Glutes when compared to the Lunge and may create just as much strengthening of the quadriceps as the Classic Weightlifters Squat (there is only one research report with preliminary results showing the Split Squat revealed MORE increase in strength than the classic Squat. I would like to see additional research on this topic, before I jump on the bandwagon, as this is remarkable news).

Imagine the benefit of the relatively LOW Intensity required in the Split Squat, if all your back-pain clients could perform LOW-LOAD Split Squats. For many back pain clients, fully LOADED Squats are far too risky. This would be GREAT NEWS if confirmed.

When comparing the Lunge to the Split Squat, one of the obvious differences is the “Walking Lunge” or Alternate Lunge requires you to switch the forward leg with each rep while the Split Squat targets one leg at a time. Obviously, this makes the Split Squat a HIGHER INTENSITY exercise than the alternating lunge.

Both the Lunge and the Split Squat are exercises that will work Flexibility on the rear leg while working strength on the front leg, though the typical Lunge uses a wider stance, putting more emphasis on Flexibility.

Caution: Many times your personal training client will complain about pain in their hips, glutes, groin and thighs the day after performing Lunges. This usually means they have “Over-Stretched” and caused damage to the painful tissues due to exceeding the muscles Functional Range of Motion (FROM). Avoid this issue and you will avoid losing personal training clients, all their referrals and a valuable amount of Good Will when they complain to everyone who will listen about how much pain and injury you have caused them.

Lunges can enable greater FROM that could increase quadriceps activation. The greater FROM at the knee and ankle could be beneficial in a healthy knee and ankle, but could be damaging to already-damaged tissue or scar tissues.

Warning: The Lunge, and especially when “Over Striding” in the Lunge, i.e; stepping too far forward, can cause loss of balance and injuries due to avoidable falls.

There is also a tendency in the Lunge to exceed the Knee-toe-line. One of the greatest risks is the tendency to increase Lumbar Hyperextension so please make sure to follow ALL the Safety Guidelines you learned for both Back Safety and Knee Safety when performing Lunges.

One other area of major concern is that many of your personal training clients will exhibit poor knee alignment when lunging. You must ensure that your knees track directly over your toes. Poor knee alignment, easily seen as your personal training client’s knees move inside their feet, can severely damage the knee capsule and surrounding tissues. The shearing forces increase dramatically on the femoral-patellar joint and the fascia, tendon and ligaments that struggle to keep the femur aligned with the tibia can be overwhelmed and damaged.  Some experts like the lunge to be used to strengthen the Vastus Medialis Obliques (VMOs), but your form needs to be perfect to accomplish this goal.

Also, if your big reason for not wanting to do Split Squats is because you need a Squat Rack… Be of good cheer; Split Squats work just fine when you use dumbbells, negating your need for a Squat Rack. If you’re worried your grip will fail before your hips and thighs… use straps and work on strengthening your grip.

There are a lot of form and technique guidelines available for you in the IFPA Book on Personal Training- please continue to use it as your best Reference Tool.

Good Luck in all your training!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jim Bell


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