The lunge is one of the best exercises you can do in the gym. Unfortunately, the performance of the "lunge" by your average gym-goer is about as baffling as nipples on men. Some things just don't add up.
Whether your goal is improved performance, wheels of steel, or a bigger total, lunges can help get you there. The lunge may not be as sexy as a big squat or deadlift, but once you've learned to lunge effectively it's one of the most potent exercises you can employ in your weight-training arsenal.
Multiple authors have outlined the basic or primal movement patterns. In case your aren't familiar with these, here's the short list:
The lunge is an amazing exercise for many reasons. Firstly, you need little, if any, equipment to perform lunges. Even if you only have a 5'x5' exercise space, lunges are an option.
Another great aspect of the lunge is that it lends itself well to progression. With a squat or deadlift the best way to "progress" is to add weight. With the lunge, there are a whole host of progressions and variations you can use to continually challenge yourself.
Finally, a few years ago in my Single Leg Supplements article, I discussed how lunges are great for balancing strength between legs and developing the entire thigh.
The bottom line is this: lunges are a great exercise and deserve to be done correctly. Let's learn how to do them properly first and foremost.
A Brief Rant
I'd like to rant for a second here: too many people (coaches, personal trainers, and even casual Testosterone readers) are way too focused on writing a sexy training program. There, I said it. Quit worrying about programming until you know how to do the damn lifts!
Instead, more attention needs to be focused on improving movement skills – making sure the execution of all lifts is flawless. If you're a personal trainer or coach, you know what sexy programming gets you when a kid can't do the lift, right? It gets you:
A) A jacked-up kid
B) A lawsuit
C) Taken for everything you're worth (including your Spiderman comic book collection)
D) All of the above
If you answered D, you're figuring things out. Seriously, good programming is great, but it's nothing if you can't perform the lifts properly. Hopefully articles like this one will help!
Let's examine what a good, solid lunge looks like. Chances are you've seen people try to lunge more than a few times, but very rarely is it a clean, crisp lift. We'll use the standard dynamic lunge for our explanation.
To properly perform a lunge, start with an upright posture. One of the best cues you can use here is to make yourself "tall," as this simultaneously improves posture and activates the core musculature. Once we've achieved this posture, take an exaggerated step out, landing softly on your heel.
Lower under control to a point where your back knee is just above (but not touching!) the ground. Keeping the core tight, drive back off the heel to the starting position. While it can be very technical when approached properly, a good lunge should look smooth and effortless.
Two issues that are often brought up when lunging are the stride length and the propulsion point. Changing these two items radically changes the targeted areas.
Stride Length – The shorter your stride, the more quad-dominant
you'll make the movement. There's an increased need for
dorsiflexion at the ankle, and there's going to be a relative
decrease in knee flexion (e.g. you won't go as deep). Both
these add up to more quad-work.
On the flip side, a longer stride will decrease dorsiflexion at the ankle and increase the relative amount of flexion at the knee. In essence, you'll go "deeper," increasing activation of the posterior chain (glutes and hammies).
Propulsion Point – The same rules apply for the propulsion
point. If you push off from the mid-foot to the forefoot,
you're going to increase relative loading on the anterior
chain. If you push through your heel, you're going to increase
relative loading on the posterior chain.
For consistency purposes, I use the heel propulsion point example throughout this article, but utilize the version that best helps you achieve your goals.
Here's are two final examples to clarify this concept:
1. A long-stride lunge where your propulsion point is the heel will be a very hip-dominant movement.
2. A short-stride lunge where your propulsion point is the mid-foot will be a very quad-dominant movement.
Now that we've covered what a good lunge is supposed to look like, let's examine some of the common flaws, as well as how to fix them.
When we're talking about lunging we want to focus on clean, crisp, and efficient movements. This is actually far from the norm! Here's a short list of the most common errors I see in the gym:
Error #1: Forward Lean
You'll see this quite often in people who are tight in their hip flexors/quads or are very quad dominant. You may need to do some static stretching of the hip flexors prior to performing the movement, along with glute activation work.
If you're really having issues with this, you may want to pair a psoas/rectus femoris stretch with a glute bridge, then immediately move into your lunge. This will help ensure proper neural drive to the glutes and posterior chain.
Good coaching cues to break this habit include keeping the chest up throughout the movement and resetting yourself between reps if necessary. With some people it's an actual structural issue (as in the above example), where as with others it's either being lazy or not using the correct cues. Reset and think "tall" before each and every rep.
Error #2: Knee Caves In
This is a very common issue in people with weak glutes, so I'm going to spend a little extra time on it.
When we lunge and are forced to absorb/create force on one leg, we're immediately challenging our gluteals to provide stability and strength in the frontal and transverse planes. When our glutes are inactive (or simply not strong enough), we can't properly decelerate hip adduction/internal rotation, and therefore our knees cave in.
To clean this up, start by performing some glute activation work immediately before lunging – hip corrections, supine clams, and mini-band/X-band walks are all good choices. One set on the weak hip should be sufficient; after all, the goal here is neural activation, not gluteal exhaustion.
Another option requires either a partner or a squat rack. Start by tying the band around the squat rack at approximately knee height, and then step through the band placing it just below the knee. If we're going to lunge with our left leg, we want the band on the right side of our body so it's pulling our knee toward the midline of our body.
This may sound counterintuitive, but this pull into adduction/internal rotation is going to challenge our glutes to counteract this force and produce the proper movement pattern.
Coaching cues include keeping the core tight, landing on the heel, landing under control, and keeping the majority of the pressure on the back/outside of the foot.
Error #3: Foot Caves In
Typically if someone's knee caves in, his foot caves in as well. In geek speak, he overpronates at the foot.
Excessive pronation is typically due to a muscle imbalance around the lower leg. Specifically, the gastrocnemius, soleus and/or peroneals are short/stiff and the tibialis anterior is weak. Some static stretching and foam rolling for the short/stiff muscles, coupled with an activation set for the tibialis anterior, could go a long way to correcting this flaw.
Error #4: Lands on Toes/Produces Force From Toes
Again, this is typically due to muscular imbalance around the hip/thigh. Upon landing the glutes and hamstrings are forced to decelerate the body's movement into hip flexion; when they aren't strong enough, the quads are required to take on the additional load.
As well, when returning to the starting position, a weak posterior chain isn't going to be able to produce the force necessary to get you back up, so again the quads are called upon to pick up the slack.
Please hear me out on this quick tangent as well. I understand that earlier I described pushing off from the toes as being a way to increase quad loading; however, what's good for quad loading may not be good for knee health. I'd prefer a mid-foot propulsion point to ensure that you're hitting the quads without grinding your knee joints into oblivion. Thank you, tangent over.
So what's the easy answer here? Get your posterior chain stronger! If it's a technical issue, cue yourself to keep the weight shifted toward your mid-foot/heels and you'll be golden.
Lunges are great because athletes and clients of virtually any capacity can perform some variation of them. With that said, it helps to have a progression that you can follow. Just because there are a ton of options doesn't mean you're ready for them!
There are two basic ways to progress on the lunge:
1) Type of lunge
2) Use and placement of external loading
Let's examine both and the progressions that I use with my clients and athletes.
Type of Lunge
The type of lunge is actually the easiest way to dictate proper performance; after all, if you can't do the lowest level correctly, why are you using external load?
Here's the progression that I'm currently using:
Static lunge –> Reverse Lunge –> Dynamic Lunge –> Walking Lunge
By starting with the static lunge, we minimize the areas that people can screw up and allow ourselves to focus on proper movement quality. Hey, you're really just moving up and down from the starting position, so this is an ideal place to start.
The next step is a reverse lunge. In this variation, you keep your plant leg in place while taking a step backward.
After we've mastered the reverse lunge, the dynamic lunge is a big step forward (literally and figuratively). Now we're really challenging our body to absorb and produce force in all three planes of movement.
Finally, the walking lunge brings it all together. We're absorbing more force than the dynamic lunge, and we're required to produce more force so we take our body into the next lunge in a smooth and seamless fashion.
Use and Placement of External Loading
After mastering the bodyweight variations, it's time to crank things up a notch with external loading (adding weight). Here's the progression I use:
Bodyweight –> Dumbbells –> Barbells –> Overhead Variations
Dumbbells are the first step in external loading. They add external load, but keep our center of gravity low.
Barbells impose a significantly greater degree of difficulty than dumbbells for two reasons: 1) You can use more weight with a barbell than you can a dumbbell, and 2) It raises your center of gravity, requiring better balance and body control.
Finally, overhead variations pose great demand on the body due to an even further increase in center of gravity, but the loading is typically less than a traditional barbell variation.
If you're an athlete who has a penchant for impeccable balance, want to find different ways to challenge yourself in training, or simply want to get the attention of the sassy vixen on the Stairmaster, feel free to incorporate overhead variations in your routine. If not, the cost-to-benefit ratio of including overhead lunges in your program is probably in question.
If you aren't lunging properly, why the hell are you lunging at all? Leave your ego at the door, do it right, and reap the rewards that a beautiful lunge can do for your performance and physique!