Many new weightlifters don’t understand the difference between split squats vs. lunges.

They often assume these exercises are identical because they look alike and train similar muscles.

Although there’s some truth here, it’s not entirely accurate—the split squat and lunge have much in common, but they’re distinct exercises with unique benefits.

In this article, you’ll learn the difference between split squats and lunges, the muscles worked by each, their benefits, which is best for you, and more. 

What’s the Difference Between Split Squats and Lunges?

While lunges and split squats look similar, they’re distinct exercises with unique form and benefits.

Let’s explore some key differences between split squats vs lunges, and how these differences impact each exercise.

Split Squat vs. Lunge: Form

The split squat and lunge share similar movement patterns: you start in a staggered stance, bend your knees to lower your body toward the floor down, and then stand back up.

The key difference is that in split squat variations, your feet remain planted. In contrast, lunge variations tend to be more dynamic, often involving stepping forward, backward, or sideways.

To perform a split squat:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Take a long step forward with your right foot—about 2-to-3 feet. Keeping your weight on your front foot, bend both knees until your left knee touches the floor. 
  3. Reverse the movement by pushing through your right foot to straighten your legs and return to the starting position. 
  4. Once you’ve performed the desired number of reps, switch legs and repeat the process.

Here’s how a split squat should look:

To perform a lunge:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Take a long step forward with your right foot—about 2-to-3 feet. Keeping your weight on your front foot, bend both knees until your left knee touches the floor. 
  3. Reverse the movement by pushing through your right foot and leaning slightly backward, allowing your legs to straighten and your feet to return to the starting position, shoulder-width apart.
  4. Repeat the pattern with your left foot (to complete one full rep).

Here’s a lunge should look:

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Split Squat vs. Lunge: Balance Demands

Both split squats and lunges involve taking a split stance with a front leg and a rear leg, which is inherently less stable than a regular, shoulder-width stance. As such, both help you improve your balance. 

That said, split squats are more stable than lunges since your feet remain fixed on the floor. This makes the split squat a better option for beginners, those with less balance and coordination, or people with injury concerns who prefer to avoid “high-impact” exercises.

Conversely, lunges challenge your balance more. This means they likely engage more stabilizer muscles throughout your body and potentially offer greater benefits for athletic performance and daily life.

An exception is the rear-foot elevated split squat, or “Bulgarian split squat.”

In this variation, you elevate your rear foot on a bench, increasing the required balance and mirroring the lunge’s stability demands.

Split Squat vs. Lunge: Application

Split squats and lunges are more or less interchangeable—you can do whichever you prefer.

Better yet, you can alternate between them every few months of training. Doing so helps to keep training fresh and fun, saves you from overuse injuries, and likely causes more balanced and complete growth than doing just one of these exercises.  

That said, in some scenarios, they serve slightly different purposes. 

Split squats may be more suitable if . . .

  • You train specifically for hypertrophy: Because the movement is more controlled, split squats allow you to focus more on depth and the muscles you’re trying to train, which may make them more suitable for those training purely for muscle growth.
  • You’re new to weightlifting: The simplicity and static nature of split squats make them an excellent starting point for beginners or those who find dynamic exercises challenging.
  • You have a history of injuries: If past or present injuries make exercises involving a lot of movement painful, split squats are a useful workaround. 

On the other hand, lunges are more fitting if . . .

  • You’re an athlete: Lunges more closely mirror athletic movements, making them better for boosting athletic performance.
  • You’re time-pressed: Lunges engage more whole-body muscle, which makes them slightly better than split squats for those looking to train as many muscles as possible in the shortest time. 
  • You want to emphasize specific muscle groups: With various options like forward, reverse, and walking lunges, you can emphasize specific muscles more effectively. For instance, to maximize butt development, you might choose to prioritize the reverse lunge since evidence suggests it’s better at training your glutes than other similar exercises. 

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The Muscles Worked by Split Squats and Lunges

Split squats and lunges work similar muscle groups to a comparable degree, primarily the . . .

Both also work your core to a lesser degree. 

The Benefits of Split Squats and Lunges

1. They’re highly adaptable.

Neither the split squat nor lunge requires a squat rack, machine, or bench, so you can perform them virtually anywhere, whether at the gym, at home, or in a hotel room while traveling

Additionally, you can add resistance to both exercises using any equipment you have available, including dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell, or resistance bands. And if you have none of these, you can use just your body weight.

In other words, they’re highly adaptable exercises for training your lower body, wherever and however you choose to exercise.

2. They train your body unilaterally.

The split squat and lunge are unilateral exercises, which means they allow you to train each side of your body independently.

Unilateral exercises are advantageous because they enable you to lift more total weight than you can with some bilateral exercises (exercises that train both sides of the body simultaneously), which may help you gain more muscle over time.

They can also help you establish a stronger mind-muscle connection because you have less to focus on, they’re useful for finding and fixing muscle and strength imbalance, and they may enhance athletic performance more than bilateral exercises. 

3. They’re highly functional.

Lunges and split squats mimic movements we make in everyday life, such as walking, climbing stairs, or stepping over objects. 

Using these exercises to train the muscles involved in these movements (including stabilizer muscles across your entire body) helps develop whole-body balance, stability, and strength that makes day-to-day activities easier.

Split Squat vs. Lunge: Which is Best?

Neither is better or worse than the other. 

If you can only perform one, choosing which comes down to your goals, experience level, and any physical limitations you may have.

Choose split squats if you’re new to training, find they enhance your mind-muscle connection, or have injuries that make them a more comfortable option than other leg exercises.

Alternatively, opt for a lunge variation to enhance your athletic abilities, develop balance and functional strength, or emphasize a specific lower-body muscle group.

Most people don’t need to limit themselves to just one exercise, though.

And that’s why it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of split squats vs lunges. A more sensible approach is to include both in your training. 

A good way to do this is to include the lunge in your program for 8-to-10 weeks of training, take a deload, and then replace the lunge with the split squat for the following 8-to-10 weeks of training.

Then, you can either continue alternating between the exercises every few months like this or stick with the one you prefer.

This is how I like to organize my training, and it’s similar to the method I advocate in my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger

(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)

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FAQ #1: Are split squats better than lunges?

They’re not inherently better but might be more suitable in some scenarios. 

For instance, split squats are ideal if you’re new to weightlifting or have injuries, or they help you “connect” with your target lower-body muscles more effectively.

That said, lunges and split squats train the same muscles and complement each other well.

And that’s why alternating between them every few months is probably the best option. It keeps training interesting, lowers your risk of injuries, and promotes more balanced muscle growth.

FAQ #2: Why are split squats so difficult?

Split squats often feel more challenging than regular squats for a couple of reasons: First, they demand you lift more weight per leg since the load is unevenly distributed. Second, they require more balance, which adds to their difficulty.

FAQ #3: Can reverse lunges replace Bulgarian split squats?

Compared to reverse lunges, Bulgarian split squats place more load on your front leg, require more balance, and have a longer range of motion, which probably makes them slightly more effective for gaining muscle and strength.

That said, if you can’t or don’t want to do them, reverse lunges are a viable substitute, as are walking lunges, forward lunges, and any form of squat.

+ Scientific References