man doing alternative to lunges
Fitness

8 Best Alternative to Lunges – Work Around Pain or Injury

Lunges are one of the fundamental lower body exercises, being highly functional, and working the entire lower body and core in one exercise. Lunges are used to improve the range of everyday activities and sporting movements.

Lunges activate everything from the gluteal muscles, quads, and hamstrings, to the abdominal and back muscles – not to mention dozens of other stabilizing synergist muscles.

Despite this, lunges are a highly technical exercise, with many trainees finding barriers to performing them. Different versions of the lunge work across the hip, knee, and ankle joints, and troubles with these joints can hinder one’s ability to lunge effectively and without pain.

This article provides alternatives to lunges that you can use to work around injuries or other issues with any of the involved joints. Use them to work around your barriers and keep experiencing the benefits of strength training.

Alternative to Lunges for Hip Pain

1. Hamstring Curls

A great isolation exercise for the hamstrings that allows the hip to stay in a stable and supported position, the hamstring curl can be done on a seated machine or a prone lying machine, depending on what you have access to.

How to perform:

  • Adjust the machine so you can lay face down with your knees hanging just past the end of the support, with the weighted pad behind you lower calves.
  • Holding the handles and bracing the core and glutes, curl your heels toward your butt.
  • Slowly control the pad down to the starting position.

Start with three sets of 12 repetitions, or try a single leg version with three sets of 10-12 on each side.

2. Leg Extension

The leg extension is one of the best isolation exercises for the quads, strengthening and toning the front of your thighs. This machine also allows your hip to stay supported in the seat, not requiring any painful movements at the joint.

How to perform:

  • Set up the seat so the bend of your knees is just past the edge of the seat with the pads secured over your thighs above the knees.
  • Adjust the lower pad to the shins above the front of the ankles.
  • Hold the handles, and brace your core as you squeeze the quads to straighten the legs.
  • Hold for a second at the top before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position.
  • Make sure your knees don’t bend past 90 degrees under load on this machine.

Try three sets of 15 reps on this exercise, and you can also perform this move one leg at a time.

Alternative to Lunges for Knee Pain

1. Calf Raises

This exercise is a great way to strengthen the lower leg, which is crucial for balancing and supporting the body during a lunge movement. The superficial calf muscles also cross the knee joint, helping in knee flexion in a closed chain position.

Calf raises can be done with a step and some free weights, or on a calf raise machine.

How to perform calf raises on a machine:

  • Set the shoulder pads so you can position the balls of your feet on the step with the knees only very slightly bent.
  • Take the load on your shoulders and stand tall.
  • Flex your calves and raise your heels as high as possible onto the balls of your feet.
  • Hold for a second, then lower down far enough to feel a good stretch at the bottom of the movement.

The calves have a high tolerance for work by performing plantar flexion every time we take a step, so they can handle a higher workload during training. Try three sets of 20, and if you notice a difference between each leg, you can do the single-leg version to correct the imbalance.

2. Stiff-leg deadlift

This deadlift variant allows you to hit the entire posterior chain without requiring any movement at the knee.

How to perform:

  • Start with the bar or dumbbells in front of the thighs.
  • Keeping your back flat, lower the weight down the front of the legs until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
  • Try to hinge at the hips and avoid bending the lower back under load.

Start with a light weight to practice your form with three sets of 10-12 reps.

Alternative to Lunges for Ankle Pain

1. Clamshells

This hip external rotation exercise allows you to strengthen some of the most important muscles for good lunge form while completely taking the weight off the ankles.

How to perform:

  • Lay on your side with the hips and knees bent, supporting your head with your hand.
  • Keeping the feet together, lift your top knee up and outwards by squeezing the side of your glutes.

Perform three sets of 15-20 repetitions on each side, focusing on really squeezing the muscle to control the movement.

2. Glute Bridges

Another great bodyweight exercise for the primary hip extensors – the gluteus maximus, the bridge takes some load off the ankles and allows them to stay in a stable position throughout the movement.

How to perform:

  • Lying on your back with the hips and knees bent and feet flat on the floor, drive down through your heels as you lift the hips up.
  • Squeeze your butt hard at the top of the movement, and lower down to just off the floor before repeating.

Try three rounds of anywhere from 10-20 reps, and hug your knees to your chest for a good lower body stretch in your rest breaks.

Alternative to Lunges for Toe Pain

1. Smith Machine Squat

These leg exercises are more compound movements, training all the major muscle groups of the legs together while allowing your feet to stay flat and not have to bend, putting a strain on the toes and balls of the feet.

How to perform:

  • Setting up for a squat in the smith machine, load the appropriate weight onto the bars, set up with the bar across your upper back, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Unpacking the bar locks, initiate the movement by shifting the hips backward as you bend the knees and lower down into a squat position.
  • Driving through the heels to avoid pressure in the toes, keep your chest up as you return to standing.

Make this one of your heavier lifts, with three sets of 6-10 reps after a warm-up set or two.

2. Single Leg Press

This compound lift more closely resembles a lunge while leaving the trailing foot out of the equation, avoiding any bending at the toes.

How to perform:

  • Using a 45-degree leg press machine, set up with the foot of your working leg on the plate and your other foot on the floor.
  • Sit back into the backrest and hold the handles.
  • Driving through the heel, extend your leg without fully locking the knee, and slowly lower down to the starting position.
  • Focus on keeping your knees in line with your hips.

Perform three sets of 15 reps on each side, and get ready for the burn!

Don’t let troublesome joints stop you!

We hope this article has helped inform you of some of the many options available to you in place of lunges. Give them a try and let us know your favorite alternatives in the comments below!

Frequently Asked Questions


What can I do instead of lunges for bad knees?

In addition to the exercises mentioned in this article, there are many other exercises, both isolation and compound moves, that work the major leg muscles without aggravating the knee. That being said, if you are struggling to find solutions to training with your knee pain, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a health professional such as a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist in order to rehabilitate your knees and find appropriate exercises specific to your case.

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Should you do lunges if you have bad knees?

Lunges would only be contraindicated if they are causing you pain when performing the exercise. Especially for those with bad knees, it may be a matter of performing a variation of the lunge that places less stress on the knees, or even just improving or changing your technique to allow other areas to take more of the load.


Why do I struggle to do lunges?

While they may seem simple at first glance, lunges are a highly technical exercise requiring coordination between many muscle groups, joints, and the nervous system. Difficulty in performing these movements could come from technique, coordination, or weaknesses in any of the involved muscles. If you have access to a personal trainer or even a group fitness trainer at your gym, don’t hesitate to ask for help in assessing your lunge form.


How do you modify lunges?

While the exercises in this article provide alternative exercises to do in place of lunges, there are many variants of the exercise that may allow you to perform them. For example, instead of a walking lunge, you could try reverse lunges in place, working the same muscles while requiring less balance and coordination, and placing less stress through the knees. You could also perform your lunges near a bar or wall for support, using your upper body for balance and maybe even to help pull you up a little while you build leg strength.

Jesse Hyson

Jesse Hyson is an Accredited Exercise and Sports Scientist with over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. Jesse is currently completing a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, Australia.

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