Your legs get a workout just getting you through your day. Standing, sitting, walking or running to make a lunch date on time, your legs engage every time you move. Lunges are a great exercise to tone and strengthen your legs since they emulate a common, everyday motion. Lunges work multiple muscles of your lower body in a single motion and can be performed in several different ways.
Lunges move your body through an exaggerated step forward or backward. The staggered stance of a lunge with one foot forward and one foot back with the forward knee bent immediately wakes up the muscles of the glutes and the quadriceps. The recovery phase where the legs straighten and feet are brought back together again wakes up the hamstrings and outer thigh muscles as well as nudging the calves and shins. Though the emphasis is on the muscles of the lower body, your core plays along in this exercise as well, helping to decelerate your forward momentum as you enter the lunge, keep you from falling over while you’re in the lunge, and then initiating a healthy internal shove, generating the momentum to bring the legs back together again.
Alternating lunges are performed in one spot. As the name suggests, each leg takes a turn coming forward and bearing the weight of the motion. Ideally, the forward leg bends until the thigh is parallel with the floor with the knee over the ankle or toes, and the rear leg bends so the knee touches, or almost touches, the floor. A push through the heel of the forward leg straightens both legs to return to a standing position so you can move right into repeating the same motion with the opposite leg forward.
Both legs take turns in traveling lunges also but, as opposed to stationery, alternating lunges, you’re actually covering ground and moving forward with traveling lunges. Traveling lunges engage the same muscles as alternating lunges but recruit more muscle fibers since the legs move through a full gait cycle. A full gait cycle involves a stance phase where one foot is on the ground and a swing phase where one leg is in the air moving forward to the next stance phase. The swing phase with forward momentum creates a more unstable plane and demands more of the core and stabilizing muscles to steady the forward leg as it lands in the proper lunge position after the swing phase.
Both alternating lunges and traveling lunges effectively work the lower body. Alternating lunges can be performed stepping backward as opposed to forward, generating a slightly different challenge for the muscles of the rear leg. In alternating or traveling lunges, a smaller step focuses work more on the quadriceps and a larger step engages more of the glutes. Both alternating and traveling lunges can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell for added weight. Regardless of which type of lunge you choose, be sure the knee stays over the ankle or toes and push through the heel of the forward foot when striding through or when returning to a standing position.
Jullie Chung writes regularly for various websites. She is a nationally certified fitness trainer and performance enhancement specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and trains regularly in yoga, flatwater kayaking, boxing and mixed martial arts. An avid outdoor fan, she regularly hikes, climbs and trail runs.