10 Alternative Exercises For Lunges (Bad Knees Substitutes)

Leg day is often unappealing. However, if you have bad knees, pain may not only be a demotivator but also a sign of serious injury risk. Many feel torn between wanting personal improvement and wanting to avoid worsening their existing knee issues.  

Luckily, we know many alternative exercises for lunges that are proven to help decrease knee pain. 

If lunges aren’t for you, there’s no need to give up working these areas.

A good substitute for lunges works the same muscles and provides the same balance and stability improvement while causing less knee strain. Some substitutes for lunges work all the same areas, but others may require several combined exercises. If one technique causes pain, simply try another.

1. Goblet Squats 

This is one of the best lower body exercises. It improves aerobic capacity and works the legs, back, shoulders, and core.

  • Lift kettlebell/dumbbell with your legs, not your back, which should stay straight. 
  • Rotate kettlebell/dumbbell upside down. Now hold using both palms or the handles at chest height, just below the chin and near your body. Your elbows should point straight down. 
  • Spread feet slightly further apart than your hips, with feet pointed slightly outwards. 
  • Squat with back straight until upper legs come parallel to the ground. Keep head straight and knees and feet in the same direction. 
  • Squat back to standing.  

This strength-intensive exercise may cause similar issues to lunges, especially if your form isn’t perfect. Keep the movement close to your center of mass, don’t allow your knees to move towards one another, and squat through your heels. Do not continue if painful.

goblet squat

2. Split Squats 

These give all regular squat benefits but focus on one leg at a time. This makes managing injuries easier and allows a more balanced workout. Split squats are less dynamic than lunges, which reduces knee impact. Plus, they build strength and power faster.

This lunge substitute uses the quads, hamstrings, glutes, abductors, and adductors.

  • Stand with both feet together and arms by sides. Look ahead and keep good posture. 
  • Take one large step. 
  • Bend legs and lower back knee to an inch off the floor, with abs tensed and torso upright. The front shin should be nearly vertical, and the front knee should be behind the toes.  
  • Keep 70% of body weight on your front leg. 
  • Stand up, wait, then return to the previous position without moving your feet.  
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.  
  • Once done, step back to bring your feet back together. 
  • Repeat with your other leg. 
Split Squats

3. Bulgarian Split Squats  

While slightly challenging and requiring good balance, these are perfect for people experiencing back pain. Practice will improve your balance if you are struggling. 

In addition to working all the muscles of a split squat, you will improve mobility and balance. Of all the alternative exercises for lunges, these are some of the best for working the glutes.

  • Stand in front of a knee-high bench. 
  • Bend a leg backward to put a foot on the bench. 
  • Hop forward so your feet are in a split stance. 
  • Bend both legs, lowering your back knee to two/three inches off the floor. Keep back straight, look ahead, and keep front shin nearly vertical with the other knee never beyond the toes.  
  • Push down with your front leg until standing. 60% of body weight should be on your front leg. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps with each leg. 
Bulgarian Split Squats

4. Step-Ups  

This alternative to lunges for bad knees is often overlooked but puts much less shearing force on your joints. A healthy form is also easier to achieve by maintaining a vertical shin.

In terms of body strain versus benefits, you will struggle to find a comparable exercise. It is especially helpful for improving stability and core strength.

  • Stand slightly more than hip-width away from a knee-height surface. 
  • Step one leg onto it, placing your foot flat with toes pointed forward. 
  • Lean slightly forward, shifting weight onto your leading leg.  
  • Step your other leg onto the surface, driving with your heel and bracing your core. Ensure all power is generated from the front leg. Keep chest pushed high. 
  • Reverse action to resume initial position, repeat desired reps with each leg.  

To add difficulty and resistance, turn this exercise into a dumbbell walking lunge alternative simply by holding a dumbbell.

Optional Equipment - 8 Best Cheap Adjustable Dumbbells

Step-Ups

5. Wall Squats 

While often incorrectly dismissed as a beginner move, this alternative for lunges puts strain on your muscles instead of your joints. It is especially knee-kind and perfect for fitness fanatics struggling with arthritis. 

  • Locate a smooth, strong wall with a non-slippery floor beneath. 
  • Stand around 24 inches from the wall, facing away from it. Keep feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Place your back on the wall, sliding down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Shins should remain vertical. Keep your head up, facing forward, and ensure good posture. 
  • Push your back towards the wall using your legs. Do not put your hands on your thighs or hold your breath.  
  • Slide downwards after completion, or place your hands on the wall to stand. 

You can choose to train strength with hard and short bursts of 10-20 seconds or endurance by continuing for as long as possible. 

Wall Squats

6. Glute Bridges  

These can be used as part of a multi-exercise substitute for walking lunges. As well as working the glutes and strengthening the core, they actively improve back pain by stabilizing the core and knee pain by improving thigh control to reduce negative knee motion. 

If knee or hip problems prevent you from doing lunges or squats, glute bridges engage the same muscles with less pressure on your joints. A regular regiment also improves posture, which relieves and prevents further back problems. 

  • Lie down face up with knees bent and both feet flat against the ground. Arms should be by sides with palms turned downward.  
  • Raise your hips from the ground until the knees, hips, and shoulders create a straight line. Tense your glutes hard and keep your abs drawn inward to avoid overextending your back. 
  • Hold the previous position for a few seconds, then ease back down.  
Glute Bridges

7. Single-Leg Press 

This barbell lunge substitute is great for personalized leg strength training. Achieving good form is relatively simple and the backrest support makes it perfect for those with back problems. The safety bars make this exercise much safer than weighted squats or lunges.

  • Enter the leg press with your butt right at the bottom of the seat. Your feet should be flat and shoulder-width apart.  
  • Push the weight upward by extending your legs. Tense your abs and hold the machine’s handles. 
  • Bring the weight down by bending your knees as far as your joint health and flexibility allows. Keep your lower back pressed straight, do not let it round.  
  • Repeat step 2 until just before full knee extension. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

You can choose to focus on your quadriceps by narrowing your foot stance, while wider stances work lower body muscles evenly. 

Read More - 10 Best Leg Press Substitutes

Single-Leg Press

8. Static Lunge 

This alternative to lunges is very similar to the real thing, but the static positioning makes achieving good form much easier. Poor form with regular lunges is where many unnecessary strains and complications occur.  

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  • Step one foot backward and the other forward. Your back heel should be raised and weight across both feet evenly distributed. 
  • Keep your torso upright with good, tall posture and your hands on your hips.  
  • Lower yourself by bending the front leg’s hip, knee, and ankle. Allow the back knee to bend toward the ground. Engage core throughout. 
  • Stop when your front knee is at a 90-degree angle and the back one is 1-2 inches from the ground. Pause and hold. 
  • Push back upward using your front foot, keeping your chest tight and glutes tense. 
  • Finish each rep with shoulders directly above your hips. 
Static Lunge

9. Single-Leg Balance 

While this lunge alternative exercise does not work your muscles as hard, it is brilliant for improving ankle stability and balance. For best results, combine with a manageable strength-based lower body exercise. 

Better balance will make many other exercises on this list easier, so you can gradually work toward more difficult walking lunge substitute routines. Remember, everybody has to start somewhere. 

  • Stand with feet parallel and hip distance apart. 
  • Lift one knee to form a 90-degree angle in line with your hip while engaging your abs and thigh. 
  • Hold for at least ten seconds. 
  • Switch legs. 

If struggling, support yourself against a solid surface with one arm to begin with. This is a great beginner alternative for lunges when starting your post-injury fitness regime. Read more beginner workout tips here!

Single-Leg Balance

10. Clams 

This side lunge alternative is ideal for those struggling with hip pain. They build hip strength and flexibility, allowing more difficult exercises in time. 

  • Lie down on your side with shoulders and hips forming a straight line. 
  • Bend your knees until your thighs are at 90-degrees to your body. 
  • Stretch one arm overhead and rest your head on it. Keep your neck long and head neutrally positioned. 
  • Bend your top arm, placing the hand in front of your chest on the ground. 
  • Align your hips with one another vertically and do the same with your shoulders. Use your ab muscles to maintain this alignment.  
  • Rotate the top knee toward the ceiling, separating your thighs. Your outer hip muscles should contract. Keep your toes together and maintain hip alignment. 
  • Slowly return knee to its initial position. 
  • Repeat desired rep amount, then switch sides. 
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Woman Doing Clams

How Lunges Impact Your Knees, Hips & Ankles (Substitute Benefits)

For lunges with good form, you need to: 

  1. 1
    Stand with your upper body straight, keeping your chin up and shoulders relaxed. 
  2. 2
    Lower yourself by the hips until both knees are bent at 90 degrees, with one leg forwards. This knee stays in line with the ankles, and the other shouldn't touch the floor.  
  3. 3
    Maintain body weight on both heels.  
  4. 4
    Switch legs and repeat. 

When done correctly, this benefits core stability, hip flexibility, spinal health, balance, and strengthens the buttocks and legs.

However, these benefits only occur with perfect form. Those with injuries or who are still developing their strength and mobility may struggle to achieve this every time. In these cases, lunges can be demoralizingly painful and often do more harm than good in terms of joint stress.  

For those struggling, alternative methods exist that give the same positive results without the unnecessary pain or injury risk.  


What Muscles Should Lunge Replacement Exercises Work?

Quadriceps

One of the primary muscles worked by lunges, these are both lengthened when lowering downwards and contracted when returning to the standing position. Step-ups are perfect for replicating this without excess strain.

Gluteals 

Glutes are another of the primary focus areas of lunges. They are strengthened with the same lengthening and contracting process as above. However, many lunge alternatives for bad knees work the glutes, such as step-ups, split squats, glute bridges, and static lunges.

Hamstrings

The final of the three main muscles worked by the lengthening and contracting process of lunges, hamstrings work along with gluteals when controlling your descent. Glute bridges, step-ups, and static lunges are all great alternative exercises for lunges that work the hamstrings similarly. 

Calves

The calves are worked when you push through to standing with the balls of your feet while performing a lunge. Most of the exercises listed above work the calves, including step-ups, split squats, static lunges, and wall squats. However, for strength training, the single-leg press works wonders.

Transverse Abdominis

Or the abs, for short. These are worked when you engage your core to achieve perfect lunge form. Of all the substitute exercises for lunges types, goblet squats and glute bridges most effectively work the abs, but everything listed above will improve their strength, apart from the single-leg balance.

Erector Spinae

Your erector spinae are the postural muscles located in your back, which are worked by maintaining perfect form throughout a lunge. However, any substitute exercise for lunges focusing on good posture will benefit your erector spinae. The best examples are split squats, wall squats, glute bridges, and static lunges.


Common Lunge FAQs

Will lunge alternatives make your thighs bigger? 

Yes, many alternatives to lunges will enlarge the thighs if they work these muscles. The best exercises focus on strength-building, such as goblet squats and single-leg presses.  

As with any exercise, to build muscle mass (and therefore size), you want to focus on doing a small number of reps of greater intensity instead of many smaller reps. 

Which exercise above is the best for walking lunge substitution? 

The best walking lunges substitute exercises will be those that work to strengthen the legs, core, hips, and glutes at once. 

On our list, the best two exercises for achieving this strength-building balance are split squats and step-ups, especially if you add resistance by holding dumbbells. 

Which exercise above is the best for smith machine lunge substitution? 

Smith machine lunges target strength-building in the quads, with the option to focus on the hamstrings and glutes if you change your stance’s foot width.  

This means the best smith machine lunge alternative on our list is the single-leg press. These also utilize machinery for safe strength-building and provide the same option to shift muscle focus by changing your stance. 


Conclusion

As you’ve seen, just because you are struggling with an injury to your knees or elsewhere, you don’t have to give up on leg day! 

A variety of safe alternatives exist that put less strain on your joints and allow you to rebuild your strength, as well as decrease your pain level by improving mobility, stability, and flexibility.