Split Squats, Lunges & Step Ups – Spot The Difference

Split squats, lunges and step ups are probably the most common single leg exercises that I programme for my clients to increase muscle mass, improve their movement and bulletproof them against injury. However, a common question I get asked is, ‘What’s the difference?’ Hopefully, in this article, I can give you the answer.

Benefits of Split Squats, Lunges & Step Ups

Before I go into the differences, I want to give you a bit more information of why I use single leg exercises when I’m programming for my clients. I know a lot of people don’t like them, so I want to make sure you understand the method behind the madness.

  • Single Leg Strength & Muscle Mass

Increasing single leg strength and muscle mass can help improve the big compound lifts such as your squat and deadlift. This is because these exercises can address muscular and movement imbalances that may increase the risk of injury; break through plateaus in strength and muscle building, as well as improve movement.

  • Improved Joint Stability

Being able to improve balance, muscular coordination, as well as increasing strength and muscle mass, can have a big effect on improving joint stability of the knees, hips and ankles. Including these exercises as accessories in a workout or in a warm up can have a big impact on reducing the risk of injury.

  • Improve Running & Human Movement

All three exercises, as mentioned in the last two points, require single leg strength, muscular endurance, balance and stability. From a sporting point of view, these variables are very important for movements such as running and jumping. These movements are also what we do as humans on a daily basis. Having split squats, lunges and step ups in a programme can enhance sport specific preparedness and force outputs in the movements I’ve just mentioned.

Muscles Worked by Split Squats, Lunges & Step Ups

Alongside why I use split squats, lunges and step ups, I want to let you know what you should be actually feeling when you do these exercises to understand the differences.

  • Quads

All three exercises target the quads as they all involve knee extension. However, depending on the amount of knee flexion, the quads can be targeted more or less.

  • Glutes

In all three of these exercises, the glutes are involved in increasing knee stability and extending the hips. When the angle of hip flexion is increased, usually with a wider split stance for the split squat or a higher box for the step up, the amount of glute activation can be increased.

  • Hamstrings

The hamstrings jobs are to support the quads and glutes in keeping knee stability and extending the hips. The further you lean forward in all three of these exercises (within reason), creating greater hip flexion, the greater the activation of the hamstrings.

Differences between Split Squats, Lunges & Step Ups

The step up is probably the easiest of the three exercises for any level of ability. This is because the step up height can be altered depending on the person to meet their needs, whether that be strength, rehabilitation from an injury or to increase muscle activation to work the full range of motion.

Along with this, as you are stepping on a fixed object, it allows you to not have to worry about balance. With this in mind, there is the potential to load the step up a lot heavier than the split squat and lunge. This could be through holding heavier dumbbells or having a barbell on your back. There is also the potential to make the step up more of a power exercise for athletes as you can do this exercise at speed and under load compared to the split squat and lunge because of stepping on a fixed surface.

I would then say that split squats follow the step up in levels of difficulty, even though the split squat is a similar exercise to the lunge. However the split squat allows you to learn proper ankle, knee and hip joint mechanics under load whilst in a stationary position. Why this is harder, and is the next progression from the step up, is because it requires you to have proper balance and coordination to do the exercise correctly.

Baring in mind the split squat does require more balance and coordination, it should be noted it will take a lot longer to be able to load this exercise up heavy. It should also be noted, that there is more muscle activation in the hamstrings and glutes than the quads, depending on the amount of knee flexion. Therefore, the actual crossover to help the bigger compound lift of the squat might not be as much. However, it has been shown that the muscle activation in the rectus abdominis and erector spinae, basically your core and back muscles, is similar to that of the squat. It could be suggested then that the split squat might not help increasing quad strength, but improve squat technique by reducing the risk of your chest falling in the squat.

Finally, the lunge would be top of the difficulty scale. This exercise can be done incorrectly quite easily if you fail to properly track the ankle, knee, and hip flexion and extension pattern. Alongside requiring the same level of balance of coordination as the step up and split squat, the lunge also requires you to have a good amount of proprioception and stability when doing this exercise. That is why the lunge is the most difficult out of all three of these exercises.

Take Home Points

Hopefully from what you’ve just read, you can see that split squats, lunges and step ups are highly beneficial when it comes to training. They can increase leg strength and muscle development, joint stability, reduce imbalances and have a high carry over when it comes to movements like running and jumping.

The main factor to keep in mind, that even with all that said, you have to make sure that you pick the right exercise based on your ability level. It’s all well and good doing a split squat, lunge or step up, but if you can’t perform it correctly, you’re losing out on a whole host of benefits.

Thanks for reading,

Coach Steve

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