Both Barbell Lunges and Back Squats are popular choices for building lower body strength and improving overall athletic performance.
But is one exercise a better option than the other for your training goals?
In this article, we will compare the two exercises in terms of muscle activation, benefits, and potential drawbacks. By the end, you should have a better understanding of which exercise might be the best fit for your training program.
Table of Contents
- Bumper Plates
- Squat Rack (Not completely necessary as you can clean and press a bar onto shoulders if needed, but a rack is going to make this a whole lot easier especially if lifting heavier weight)
- Core (stabilizers)
- Unrack the barbell similar to how you would unrack a bar for a back squat.
- Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades and engage the lats to create a stable shelf to sit the bar on
- Place the bar across the traps, brace the core and remove the bar from the rack by standing tall and then walking back out of the rack.
- Once you’ve created enough room for yourself from the rack you can begin the movement.
- Step forward with one leg, giving yourself enough room to drop into a lunge comfortably without feeling overextended.
- Keep the chest as upright as possible and drop the back knee to roughly one inch from the floor.
- Now drive through the heel and midfoot of the front foot to drive yourself back up tall.
- Repeat on the opposite leg and alternate back and forth until all reps have been completed.
When you step out, make sure to keep the feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re feeling very off-balance in your lunge there is a good chance that you are stepping the lead foot directly in front of the back foot (essentially placing yourself on a tight rope).
Keep the front foot flat on the floor when in the lunge position. One of the most common mistakes is raising up onto the ball of the front foot. One of the reasons for this is often the next most common mistake that I see with Barbell Lunges…
Make sure to take a big enough step. Often times I see athletes take way too small of a step. This leads to lunge being extremely cramped and can lead to a whole host of other issues.
Single Leg Movements like Barbell Lunges are an extremely important addition to any athlete’s workout regimen, regardless of sport.
Many (if not most) athletic movements are often done on one leg. This includes sprinting, jumping and cutting.
Single Leg Exercises help improve leg strength, balance, stability and also show any strength imbalances the lifter may have from one side to the other. Single Leg Exercises can also be part of the solution if and when an asymmetry is found.
For more single leg exercises, check out these 9 Barbell Lunge alternatives.
- Squat Rack
In setting up for the Back Squat, athletes choose between the high bar and low bar position. (Personally, I teach a high bar position with athletes)
Regardless of bar placement, the athlete should actively pull their shoulders together and back in order to both create a shelf for the barbell to rest on. This is also to generate as much upper body tension as possible in order to maintain a consistent torso position for the duration of the lift.
A good cue here is to have the athlete pin their elbows down by their sides, similar to the bottom position of a Lat pulldown, before placing the bar on their shoulders.
Generally speaking, the athlete should place their hands as close together as comfortably possible, which helps maintain the aforementioned upper body tightness and shelf for the barbell to rest on.
Certain athletes will experience pain in either their shoulders, elbows, or wrists when setting up for the back squat. Most athletes can work through these issues and squat comfortably by adopting different combinations of the following variables: bar position (high bar and low bar), hand width (wider/more narrow), or adopting a grip with their thumbs over or under the bar.
After setting up properly, the athlete un-racks the bar and walks it out of the uprights, takes a big breath in, braces their core, and initiates the eccentric portion of their squat.
While maintaining a tight brace in their core and tension in their upper back (as mentioned in the setup paragraph), the athlete initiates downward motion of the bar via simultaneous hip and knee flexion until the crease of their hip goes below the knee.
The especially important part of the range of motion is taking the muscle to its full eccentric length, demonstrating that athletes further benefit by taking their squats to the deepest depth that their mobility allows. Once the athlete reaches their lowest position in the squat, they transition from the eccentric to concentric portion.
The concentric portion of the squat involves the athlete rising out of the hole via a combination of knee and hip extension.
In rising out of the hole, athletes commonly experience sticking points either in the hole or when they are just above parallel. These can vary based on each athlete’s relative strengths and weaknesses, or some technical errors to be addressed later. Once the athlete completes the rep, they exhale, and either initiate the next rep or re-rack the bar.
Upon completing the last rep of their set, the athlete should maintain their brace, and walk the bar back into the uprights.
The heels coming up during the squat is a common technical error at the bottom of the squat, where the bar comes forward of the athlete’s center of mass and forces them to lift their heels off the ground.
Two common fixes for this are to have the athlete sit back into the squat to keep their balance over their mid-foot, and to have the athlete actively pull the bar down into their back using their lats.
Athletes who are still having trouble due to poor ankle dorsiflexion, long femur length relative to their height, or a combination of both, can use a device to elevate their feet such as weightlifting squat shoes, an angled plate, or 2.5lb weights to help address the issue.
The Back Squat helps improve overall athletic performance, as it trains the muscles used in activities such as running, jumping, and lifting. Other potential benefits of the Back Squat include:
- Increased muscle size and strength: The Back Squat targets large muscle groups in the lower body, which can lead to increased muscle size and strength over time.
- Improved mobility and flexibility: Squatting requires a full range of motion in the hips, knees, and ankles, which can help improve mobility and flexibility in these joints.
- Improved bone density: Resistance training, such as the Back Squat, has been shown to increase bone density, which can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and other bone-related conditions.
- Enhanced cardiovascular fitness: The Back Squat can be performed with high reps and moderate to high intensity, which can provide a cardiovascular challenge and improve overall fitness.
It’s important to note that the benefits of the Back Squat can vary depending on individual factors, such as training experience and strength.
Barbell Lunge vs Back Squat: Is One Better?
Now, let’s do a side-by-side comparison of the two exercises and see if one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.
Better For Building Size and Strength: Back Squat
I believe the Back Squat is the number one exercise for developing size and strength, so when I say that it’s better than Barbell Lunges it’s not a knock on Barbell Lunges.
Barbell Lunges are also extremely effective for building size and strength, especially single-leg strength.
The two exercises actually complement each other very well and, ideally, both should be incorporated into your training program to maximize results.
Better For Beginners: Toss Up
Both the Barbell Lunge and the Back Squat can be effective exercises for beginners. However, both exercises do have a bit of a learning curve for beginners who are unfamiliar with them. But, both exercises also have variations that can be easier for a new lifter to learn.
The Barbell Lunge is a single-leg exercise that requires balance and coordination, and it may be challenging for beginners who are not yet comfortable with balancing on one leg.
However, the lunge can still be a good exercise for beginners to work on developing leg strength and improving functional movement patterns. Beginners can start with bodyweight lunges or lunges using a light dumbbell or kettlebell to build up their strength and coordination before progressing to a barbell.
The Back Squat, on the other hand, is a compound exercise that involves a lot of muscle groups and may be more challenging for beginners who are not yet comfortable with the movement pattern.
Beginners can start with bodyweight squats or squats using a light dumbbell or kettlebell to build up their strength and technique before progressing to a barbell. It’s important for beginners to learn proper technique and form when performing the back squat to avoid injury and maximize the benefits of the exercise.
I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – Barbell Lunges vs Back Squats. However, the truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program.
Both are excellent exercises for developing lower body strength and muscle mass. Incorporating both exercises into your training program can also add variety and keep your workouts from getting stale.
So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Barbell Lunges and Back Squats in your training plan.