Lunges CAN count as a cardio workout — if you know how to make them do so.

As a former personal trainer, I would tell my clients that the rule of thumb, when determining if an exercise is cardio vs. strength training, is how long the movement can be sustained for.

If you’re curling a dumbbell with each arm, technically you’re lifting weights.

But if the dumbbells weigh only a few pounds each and you’re just standing there for 20 minutes curling them—this is actually an aerobic activity.

Whether or not something is aerobic or strength training, as mentioned, is determined by length of duration.

If you get completely out of breath and feel hammered after running 12 mph on a treadmill for 30 seconds, this is anaerobic.

For someone trained at high competition marathon running, they can sustain this pace for a few hours—so for them, it would be very aerobic.

Lunges: Cardio or Strength Training?

If you can do walking lunges for 10 minutes nonstop, that’s aerobic or cardio. There’s a duration component. You’re not stopping; it’s continuous. You may not even be breathing that hard.

For a 250 pound person, however, just 30 seconds of the same walking lunges could leave them exhausted. This qualifies as strength training.

They are struggling to move 250 pounds via lunges, and it’s very stressful to their system, and they can’t sustain it for longer than half a minute—not any more than they can perform repetitions of deep leg presses on a machine.

Now let’s take you again. Suppose you hold in each hand, straight arms, a 25 pound dumbbell.

Suddenly those lunges won’t feel so cardio. You will feel like you’re doing more of a weightlifting workout.

But if you’ve been training good and hard at weighted walking lunges for a while, carrying the added 50 pounds might still not force your body to shift into the anaerobic zone.

It just depends on how fit and strong you are. I’ve seen people lunge walking nonstop endlessly while holding 25 pound plates.

I’ve seen very poorly conditioned people struggle with getting just their bodyweight to the other side of the room via walking lunges, and at the end, they’re panting and rubbing their quads.

Another factor in how difficult walking lunges are is how deep you sink with each step. If the lunging knee is almost touching the floor, this will make the movement more challenging.

  • Always keep your back straight!
  • Don’t lurch forward.
  • Keep your shoulders square.
  • Lunges, by the way, help strengthen the hip flexors.

All of these principles also apply to stationary lunges, whether you alternate legs or do the same leg for a number of reps in a row.

These rules also apply to barbell lunges.

If you have a 20 pound barbell across your back and are either doing stationary lunges or walking lunges, this will be quite easy for you if you’re trained, but for a sedentary, obese person who’s in the gym for the first time, it will be brutal for reps.

If you try to do a single lunge on the Smith machine with 135 pounds…how many more can you do in a row on that same leg?

This is strength training unless you’re considerably conditioned and can actually knock these out in succession for 10 minutes.

If an exercise gets you very winded, this means there’s an anaerobic component.

But not getting winded doesn’t mean an activity isn’t cardio, such as brisk walking for 20 minutes—which in a conditioned person, won’t elevate their breathing much.

If you want to make lunges count as cardio, figure out what it takes to enable you to do them for as long as you’d normally do a cardio routine on a machine, though aerobic activity done for only 10 minutes that elevates your heart rate will still have a training effect.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 

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