5 Leg Exercises That Are Just As Effective As Lunges Without Killing Your Knees

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Talk to any personal trainer about the secret to toned legs and you’ll likely hear the word “lunge.” Yet if you (like so many!) dread this lower-body move, there’s good news, says Jennifer Dene, a celebrity Pilates instructor, personal trainer, and health coach in Beverly Hills, CA. “Lunges are a great leg exercise, but there are others that are equally effective,” she says. “Plus, lunges are not only a challenging exercise in terms of exertion, but they’re also challenging to do correctly.”

Dene says that while some of her clients like to avoid lunges because they cause that muscle “burn” quickly—which isn’t a good reason to stop doing them altogether—others hate lunges because the exercise causes pain. If that’s you, it’s a good idea to steer clear of them, says Dene. “Pain usually happens when someone doesn’t have enough mobility and strength in the knee and ankle joints, or if the knee pushes forward past the toes or falls in or out to the sides of the ankle,” she says. This is when you’re more likely to get injured.

Whether you loathe lunges or not, Dene suggests incorporating these 5 leg exercises into your workout routine.

glute bridges

Glute Bridges

This move targets the glutes and hamstrings, two of the main lunging muscles, without putting strain on the knees, says Dene. “If you have any tenderness in your knees when you do this exercise, squeeze a cushion between your legs,” she says.

Lie on back with knees bent and feet in line with sit bones. Engage abdominals, keep spine flat, and press arms firmly into floor at sides. Squeeze your glutes and, keeping weight in your heels, lift hips away from floor, pressing pelvis toward ceiling and being mindful to keep spine in neutral position. Lower hips to floor and repeat 10 to 30 times.


step ups

This exercise strengthens the same muscles that help to transition your body weight through up and down movements, which is what happens during lunges, says Dene. “The difference is that this exercise requires a smaller range of motion,” she says, “which strengthens the thighs and muscles around the knee with less potential for injury.”

Stand in front of elevated platform, such as stable bench or step. Step up, 1 foot at a time, to stand on top and then step back down. Start with low platform to keep hips as stable as possible while stepping up and down; to make this exercise more challenging, hold pair of 5 lb weights in each hand. Repeat 10 to 30 times.

chair squats
Chair Squats

If lunges aggravate your knees, chances are that squats will too, says Dene. “However, doing squats from a supported position, like in this modification which uses a chair, decreases the range of motion and emphasizes the upward motion of standing, which works the backside,” she says. “Plus, learning how to move your lower body with an upright spine is also really beneficial for the health of your back.”

Sit on bench or chair. Keep feet on floor, hip distance apart and parallel to one another. Squeeze glutes, press into heels, and stand straight up, then slowly return to seated. Keep spine in neutral position. Quick tip: The higher the chair, the easier this will be. You can also move hips closer to front edge of chair to make this move easier.


single leg balance
Single Leg Balance

One benefit of lunges is that they challenge both your balance and ankle stability. You can do the same things with this exercise, says Dene.

Stand 1 arms-distance away from wall or chair, feet hip-distance apart and parallel to one another. Hold onto wall or chair for support, engage thigh muscles and abdominals, and lift 1 knee to 90-degree position in line with hip crease. Stay here 10 seconds, then switch sides.

Quick tip: To increase the intensity of this exercise, don’t use the wall or chair for support.


Don’t be fooled by the fact that this exercise doesn’t mimic the lunge at all, says Dene: It targets the abductors, which are the stabilizing muscles at the side of the hips. “Oftentimes the pain that people experience in their hips and pelvis when they do lunges comes from an instability in the hip girdle, and this move can help create more stability,” says Dene.

Lie on one side, resting head on upper arm or on pillow. Bend knees to 90 degrees. Keeping feet together, rotate top knee toward ceiling, separating thighs and feeling muscles of outer hip contract. Squeeze inner thighs to lower leg back down. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides. The goal is to try to keep your hips completely still, only moving the thigh bone from within the hip socket as you do each repetition.

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