If you suffer from bad knees or toe pain when performing lunges then this is the article for you.
I often get asked, “What can I do instead of lunges?”
The lunge is such an important movement pattern that ignoring it all together would be a big mistake. The lunge strengthen the legs, hips, buttocks, core, improves balance and increases hip mobility.
So below I have listed 5 alternatives or modified lunges for you to use instead of the regular lunge.
With a little practice and consistency most people can return to the regular lunge without experiencing any knee pain again.
Let’s get started:
Kettlebell Lunge Alternatives for Weak Knees
For many people the feeling of pain within the knees is due to muscle weakness and instability.
Strengthening the muscles of the legs, hips and buttocks can take a lot of pressure away from the knee joint and subsequently make lunges possible again.
Here are 2 kettlebell lunge alternatives you can use:
1 Kettlebell Step Ups
Kettlebell step ups are my first choice when replacing the lunge exercise.
The step up is a very functional exercise that replicates climbing the stairs and so is excellent for seniors.
Another reason why I like the step up exercise is that you can easily progress the exercise by increasing the step height to further the demands on the buttocks, hips and legs.
You can also hold one kettlebell in two hands or two kettlebells, one in each hand.
The ultimate step height takes the front knee joint to 90 degrees as shown in the image above. A 90 degree bend in the front knee will fully activate the buttocks and not just the quadriceps.
Care should be taken so that you pull yourself up onto the step from the front leg rather than pushing up from the back leg.
One way to prevent cheating with this exercise is to keep the grounded leg straight and the toes pulled back.
My favourite variation of step ups is to keep the front foot on the step at all times and only move the rear foot.
Get started: keep the top foot on the step at all times and just move the rear leg. Aim for 10 – 15 reps on each side and work up to 3 sets.
If the exercise still hurts your knees then try lowering the step height.
2 Kettlebell Goblet Squat
The kettlebell goblet squat is the ultimate leg, hips and buttock strengthener.
As both legs are equally used for the goblet squat this exercise can often be tolerated when the lunge exercise cannot.
Feet should be a little wider than shoulder width apart and the knees kept out as you squat down.
Keep all your weight back on your heels rather than your toes and do not let your heels lift off the floor.
Look forwards, keep your chest up and sit backwards as if sitting into a chair.
Ensure your thighs reach parallel with the floor in order to fully activate the buttock muscles and not just your thighs.
Get started: sets of 10 repetitions is a good start. If your squat technique is not good then begin by practicing without a kettlebell before adding one when you can perform 3 sets of 10 reps.
Discover more: 7 kettlebell squat variations you need to know
Watch a video of the kettlebell goblet squat exercise below:
Kettlebell Lunge Alternatives for Serious Knee Pain
If you suffer from serious knee pain and cannot perform the above 2 kettlebell exercises then the following lunge substitutes will strengthen the legs, hips and buttocks but in a slightly different way.
3 Kettlebell Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg kettlebell deadlift exercise will strengthen the legs, hips and buttocks, along with your balance and stability.
Due to the fact that the single leg deadlift does not require a deep knee bend this exercise is often tolerated better than the step up or squat exercises.
Holding just one kettlebell reach back with the opposite leg and keeping the core and back muscles engaged allow your body to tilt forwards. The front leg should have a slightly bent knee.
There should be a straight line from back heel to the shoulder throughout the entire exercise.
Keep your hips square at all times and do not allow the one hip to roll outwards by keeping the rear toes pointing down towards the floor.
Move slowly and with control.
Get started: keep repetitions lower for this exercise, 3 sets of 5 reps on each side is a good target. Beginners should practice the exercise without a kettlebell reaching the hands forwards towards a wall.
Discover more: Master the single leg kettlebell deadlift exercise
Watch a video of the kettlebell single leg deadlift exercise below:
The bodyweight bridge exercise is excellent for beginners and those who find full weight bearing exercises painful on the knees.
You will predominately strengthen your buttocks, core, hamstrings and some of your thighs with this exercise.
The bridge is often performed badly and the lower back is excessively arched so be careful to only push from the hips and stop when level.
Squeeze your glutes (buttocks) tight at the top of the exercise to protect your lower back.
Drive from the heels rather than the toes to fully activate the buttocks correctly.
Advanced variation: for many the basic bridge gets easy quite quickly so you can increase the difficultly by raising one leg towards the ceiling.
Keep the one leg up and perform the same exercise from the grounded leg. Keep your pelvis square not allowing the raised leg side to tilt towards the floor.
Get started: 10 slow and controlled repetitions is a good start. Aim for 3 sets of 10.
Learn more: 3 beginner bodyweight workouts
Kettlebell Lunge Modifications for Toe Pain
If you find curling your toes back painful then the regular lunge will be painful too.
All of the above lunge alternatives can be used but if you find them all too easy and want to still really challenge the lunge movement pattern then here is a modified lunge option for you.
5 Kettlebell Bulgarian Lunge
The Bulgarian lunge involves raising the rear foot in order to intensify the load on the front leg.
This is a superb exercise that I use a lot and it does not require much weight, if any, to really challenge the lunge pattern.
If you suffer from toe pain when performing the lunge then you can perform this variation with your toes pointing backwards on a step, couch, or bench.
Using just bodyweight can be very challenging if you are not used to the exercise so beginners should start there.
Once you get the hang of the exercise you can hold one kettlebell on the open side of the body.
Be sure to lower your front thigh down to at least parallel with the floor in order to fully activate the buttocks.
When you reach the top position lock out the front knee before performing another repetition.
As you become more advanced you can add hops, overhead presses, two kettlebells and other fun things to really intensify the exercise.
Get started: perform 8 – 15 reps on each leg for 3 sets. Start with just your bodyweight and then add a kettlebell once you can perform the 3 sets.
Discover more: 16 kettlebell lunge variations for you to try
Conclusion to 5 Kettlebell Lunge Alternatives
The lunge is one of our 5 most important movement patterns and simply removing it from your workout due to knee or toe pain would be a mistake.
Most knee pain is due to a lack of stabilisation and strength in the hips, glutes and quadriceps.
Above I have listed 2 kettlebell exercises that you can use to strengthen weak knees, plus 2 more exercises for those who find most knee bending exercises painful.
Finally, if you suffer from toe pain when performing the lunge I’ve also included a lunge variation that you can still use.
Most people can return to pain-free lunging if the above exercises are used 2 – 4 times per week.
Have you tried any of these kettlebell lunge alternatives? Let me know below….
The lunge can be classed as a knee dominant exercise and so the squat can be used instead of the lunge. You will still activate the glutes and quads with the squat but without the additional single leg overload and balance issues.
Lunges are a challenging exercise due to the single leg overload and balance issues they generate. You can replace lunges with squats or step ups while you develop more strength.
Step ups work very similar muscles to the lunge but have a very practical carry-over. You can also increase the height of the step to further activate the glutes.
This is great. I currently have a damaged spine but intended to start doing lunges again anyway but about 3 months ago I tripped and fell and 2 more toes pulled apart. I didn’t think anything much of it after a week but since I tried to do lunges I can only do one leg unable to alternate as the toes won’t bend on the on I hurt. It’s driving me mad I’m so fat and only lunges really help me tone. So cant wait try these. Thanks
Robin S ARNOLD says
Thank you – for those of us with patellofemoral arthritis, lunges are painful not necessarily due lack of strength, but to the irritation of osteocytes that have formed. I have had one knee replaced and trying to keep the patella as pain free as possible is a top priority!
Katie Phillips says
Greg, thank you so much for this article! I am 37 and lunges have always been hard on my knees and toes, but they have been near impossible since I had toe surgery 2 years ago for hallux limitus. These alternate kettlebell moves are exactly what I need, especially since I like working with kettlebells. I just can’t thank you enough for posting this because I was having such a difficult time finding reasonable alternatives. You have taken a great weight off my shoulders…and knees…and toes. 🙂