By Mike Clausen
Lunges are a great exercise that works your whole lower body and core. They're also an exercise that targets muscles in the way they're used throughout daily functional tasks, not to mention in sports. Developing strength in lunges enhances gait proficiency, as well as running or sprinting performance. The lunge promotes ideal posture, optimal joint synchronization, and joint stabilization. Performing a lunge correctly will help to increase your ability to perform both forward and backward movements. Yet most people do their lunges ineffectively. So really, it's worth devoting some time to getting your lunges better than good.
Where Lungers Go Wrong
Generally, lunges are done incorrectly because people have muscle imbalances throughout their lower bodies. This often means that their hip flexors and psoas are tight, and can even mean that they have tight calf muscles and/or improper flexion and extension in their ankles. Any of these muscle imbalances will lead to a disruption in the kinetic chain, and will negatively impact flexibility, decreasing the effectiveness of the lunge.
To avoid these problems, make sure that your muscles are not overtight. To find tight muscles, and particularly if you also feel knee pain, use a foam roller, especially on your IT bands, hamstrings, and quads (see Billy Polson's how to article on using Foam Rollers).
In general, you want to be careful with lunges. If you have had knee surgery, or prior knee issues, consult your physical therapist before attempting the lunge. It is an exercise that puts a lot of pressure on both your patella (knee cap) and quadriceps tendon, causing pain, which is usually felt beneath your knee cap.
The Lunge Perfected
Below is the proper technique you should use when doing a lunge. While there are many different types of lunges, we are going to look at the stationary lunge to check your form. Ideally you have a dowel rod to hold onto to provide balance and check your posture, but if not, find something similar that you can hold onto and check your form in the mirror. Once you've mastered correct form with the stationary lunge, you can export that feel to other lunge variations, of which there are many. Even so, you should periodically check back in with yourself and make sure you haven't let your form drift.
- Begin with your feet staggered one in front of the other, about two feet apart. To start, you want to activate your core, and "suck in" your gut. Draw your belly button in towards your spine. This activation should be maintained throughout the entire exercise. It will allow your core to be tight, giving you a stable center from which to move, and will help you with your upper body posture.
- Your shoulders should align directly over your hips, and your trunk should remain vertical throughout the exercise. Your chest should be expanded, rib cage elevated, and thoracic spine extended. You want to be upright, with no excessive leaning either forward or backward.
- Bend your forward knee as you sink down toward the floor through the opposite knee and thigh. The knee of the front leg should align over the mid-foot. The knee of the trail leg should be aligned slightly behind the hip. If you drop down incorrectly, the knee of the front leg will move over or beyond the toes and the heel will elevate from the floor. Likewise, the knee of the trail leg will often move forward of the hip. There is no concrete fact that shows you should not extend your knee beyond your toes, but we all kind of view this as a "no-no," because of the excessive strain it places upon your legs, and it means that you are imbalanced, which is the bigger issue. That being said, the ideal way to perform a lunge is to have the front knee move perpendicular to the toes, so that there is a 90-degree bend between the calf and the hamstring.
- In the bottom position of all lunges, the front knee should align with the second toe and the weight should be distributed evenly throughout the foot. You want to mentally activate the gluteus medius during this motion. The lunge is a great exercise in which to work on your glutes, so you should always feel these during your motions. Don't forget to keep activating your inner core all the while. After you have held the lunge position, with your weight dropped down through your back knee and thigh and front knee bent, come straight up, keeping your front foot flat on the floor and pressing upward so that you work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes when coming up.
- Forward or walking lunges add the stepping motion that brings the front leg forward. When you do these more complicated lunges, as you step onto the leading leg, you should first land with your heel, and then follow with your toes. Remember you want to have a flat foot, so that all areas of your lower body are being worked.
To make a full lunge workout, you can piece together several types of lunges—stationary lunges, walking lunges, reverse lunges, and multidirectional lunges. RealJock has more than a dozen video demonstrations of lunge variations to choose from. You can superset all of these exercises (put them back to back, with no rest in between; try 20 for each leg for each type of lunge). This will give you a great lower body workout involving just your bodyweight. You can also add dumbbells or barbells to increase the load you place upon your legs.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.