Kettlebell lunges are one of my go-to leg exercises. They’re a simple exercise to set up, they don’t need much equipment, there’s little technique to learn and they deliver excellent results. They’re a unilateral exercise as well, so they have additional functional fitness benefits too.
There’s not much more you can improve on there.
In this article we’re going to look at kettlebell lunges in more detail, explaining why they need to be part of your leg training repertoire. We’ll also discuss the different types of kettlebell lunges, how they differ and what you can use them for.
These are some of my favorite lunge variations. The article is full of useful information. Consider it a kettlebell lunge guide to help improve your fitness levels and your knowledge about programming lunges!
- Muscles used in a kettlebell lunge
- Benefits of kettlebell lunges
- Common kettlebell lunge variations
- How to program kettlebell lunges
- How kettlebell lunges will benefit you
- Lunges and squats are complimentary
Muscles used in a kettlebell lunge
Kettlebell lunges activate the quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, calves. They activate the quads more than the hamstrings (as you’d expect with knee flexion exercises), but where they come into their own is with glute activation.
As a quad-dominant leg exercise (as opposed to hip dominant such as a deadlift), kettlebell lunges share a movement pattern with squats. Although they use similar patterns, there’s a greater activation of the glutes with lunges, when exercises are standardized (using the same equipment).
Further study into muscle activation of lunges shows heavy recruitment of both the quads and glutes, leading the researchers Mayor et al to suggest lunges are…
‘not only are recommended for their rehabilitation purposes but also should be recommended for performance objectives and strength improvement in the lower limbs.’
The core plays a role during lunges, but it’s not a primary muscle group. It aids technique of course, but beyond that it’d be remiss to suggest that lunges are a core exercise. A more accurate description is that lunges are a leg exercise that uses the core muscles too.
The same can be said for calf muscles and hips. They’re recruited, but they’re not primary.
Benefits of kettlebell lunges
There’s a wide range of benefits to kettlebell lunges, so I’ll break the major ones down into subheadings. These benefits include fitness, physique, athleticism and rehab…
Kettlebell lunges emphasize one limb at a time, making them a unilateral exercise. This is different to a barbell squat for example, where both legs work at the same time. The benefits of a unilateral exercise are a reduction of strength imbalances, improved athleticism and better injury resistance from the removal of weak points.
Great for balance
Thanks to the narrower balance position (lunges are one foot forward, whereas squats have parallel feet), lunges can be used to train balance whilst under load. This has a couple of major benefits – it allows for a more thorough rehab process, because being stable with weight is important.
It also helps us athletically, because a lot of sporting endeavors occur when we’re off-balance or working from a single leg. Many jumps, direction changes and sprints start from a single-leg stance.
Helps protect against injury
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The human body is no different. By isolating each side and forcing them to lift, you don’t allow a dominant side to take over the movement. It means that by both legs working independently, you’ll strengthen both equally and prevent vulnerabilities to injury.
Hip, knee and lower back injuries can be prevented this way.
Logistical benefits in the gym
Kettlebell lunges are a great exercise to perform when the gym is busy, because you don’t need much equipment. You can perform any lunge variation here with nothing more than kettlebells, a bench and a little room to work in. No waiting around for equipment, so no delays in your training.
Better range of motion
Lunges offer the chance for a better range of motion than squats. Some people (for various reasons) don’t squat as deep as they should. The lunge position encourages deeper knee bend at the front, allowing for a greater range of motion at the knee joint and improving body mobility.
Common kettlebell lunge variations
There are lots of exercise options open to us with kettlebell lunges, and a great program will take advantage of several of them. I’m a firm believer that with exercise there’s no ‘best or worst’, there’s different exercises for different jobs.
Use the versions of the kettlebell lunge that are appropriate to your goals…
Dual Kettlebell Front Rack Walking kettlebell lunge
This is my preferred option when it comes to kettlebell lunges. I like the fact that they require stability and control. Those help with the execution of great technique. You get all of the benefits of lunges in a normal sense, with the added challenge of the movement. This is an exercise that provides a serious cardio challenge too, if you lift heavy weights. Keeping the hands at chest level engages the shoulders too. This is a great lunge option when you have the space.
Suitcase kettlebell lunge
The suitcase lunge is a simple exercise that adds a legitimate core element to the exercise. By loading only one side at a time, you make the trunk activated to keep you upright. This is a great exercise to use for rehab and balance purposes as well. It’s a good exercise for forcing activation of muscles in the hips and obliques. The heavier the weight, the more you need to keep your body tall and focus on the lunge pattern.
Kettlebell front rack rear foot elevated split squat
This isn’t technically a lunge, but it’s the same movement pattern so I’m including it. The stable element of the back leg means this is an exercise I use for heavier weights. It’s a very challenging exercise and one that builds serious muscle. It’s probably the most challenging exercise in the list, so give it some respect! It’s a way to build serious lunge strength. This also works on core stability.
Kettlebell overhead walking lunge
This is a two-exercises-in-one play for me, and if done properly is one of the best lunge techniques. The extension overhead of the dumbbells is a great way to engage the upper back and shoulders. The core is engaged to maintain position, then there’s the walking lunges to train the legs. I tend to program this with medium weights and get the conditioning benefits with higher rep ranges. It’s a great movement for athletes.
Walking lunge with rotation variation
This is an exercise in a similar vein to the suitcase carry in that it requires a little more core activation. I tend to use this to re-establish movement patterns after a period of time away, because the core activation is gentle. The kettlebell lunge element is still effective for the lower body however. It’s a beginner friendly introduction to these movements.
Single Arm Kettlebell Overhead Lunge
This is an exercise that mixes multiple versions of the other lunges in the list. You’ve got the instability and the core element of the suitcase lunge. The overhead kettlebell position makes for a tough shoulder challenge too. In other words, the one arm overhead kettlebell lunge has huge athletic potential thanks to the sheer amount of muscle being trained. If you ramp up the reps you will get the heart rate climbing very too! Keep your core tight throughout.
How to program kettlebell lunges
You can use lunges as a primary exercise or an accessory. Personally I use them as a primary leg exercise when I’m focussing on volume. For the absolute strength days, I’ll use barbell squats.
I’ll go for multiple large sets of lunges as I’ve found this is the best way for me to program them.
Sets and reps
As a general rule I’ll shoot for 4 or more sets of lunges. I’m willing to sacrifice outright weight and instead accumulate volume across several high rep sets. The obvious exclusion being the rear foot elevated split squats, which I treat as a strength exercise.
Obvious tip – lunges are a unilateral exercise, so make sure you program sets in even numbers. That way you won’t do more reps on one side than the other! It’s all about body balance here!
How kettlebell lunges will benefit you
Here’s a few of the benefits you’ll experience by adding kettlebell lunges into your workout routine…
This one goes without saying – resistance exercise improves strength. You’ll develop strength across the major muscles lunges use, but in particular you’ll benefit the glutes and quads. Stronger muscles contribute to all kinds of athletic improvements, aesthetic improvements and injury prevention. If you look at the overhead kettlebell work, it’s a way of working on whole body development, not just legs.
Same as above. If you hit good numbers of reps at a high intensity level, watch your legs and glutes grow! It’s not uncommon to see you add an inch to your quads in a few weeks with lunges as your primary leg exercise. Keeping reps in the hypertrophy rep range and adding lunges into a whole body kettlebell workout will work wonders for your body conditioning.
Balanced strength across both legs is important for athletes. Being able to spring, twist, accelerate and change direction from both legs is a huge asset. By performing lunges you help to develop these capabilities on both sides. Making sure both legs are strong is vital for jumping sports.
Research shows that lunges can also help to improve running speed. If you want to be a lifetime athlete, sprint speed is very important.
More injury resistant
Lunges strengthen the glutes. The glutes have been identified as key muscles for maintaining strength and stability at the knee joint. Research suggests that strengthening both the quads and glutes help people to recover from meniscus surgery faster and more effectively.
They also have protective benefits against future re-injury. Lunges don’t just make you look and perform better, they also help you feel better as well!
Lunges and squats are complimentary
A lot of people pit lunges and squats against each other, suggesting if you do one then the other isn’t needed. In my opinion that isn’t true. You do need both, you just use them differently. Both are a valuable lower body movement.
A barbell squat is far easier to add weight to than a kettlebell lunge. Use those for your big numbers, then use your kettlebell lunges for your more refined work. Get the volume in on the lunges, adjust the techniques and enjoy the benefits.If you don’t use kettlebell lunges, I’d urge you to start now. They’re a vastly underrated exercise, but one that if you can do, you should be doing. They offer unique benefits that will boost how you look, feel and perform regardless of your current skill level.