The Lunge is a compound exercise (using more than 1 muscles group) however most importantly it’s a functional movement as we do it in every day life. Think about it, how do you pick up toys from the ground with one hand holding onto the toys sack? When you reach across the bed to grab something. Climbing up stairs even. You have one foot in front of the other, you drop a knee down under the hip and you keep your posture in the neutral position…..you are lunging. The beauty of a lunge is you can do them anywhere, anytime and don’t need weight or much space to perform meanwhile toning and shaping the lower body. Win-Win!
As a Personal Trainer and Les Mills instructor, I see many versions of what a lunge “should” look like. There are so many technique errors that can arise when doing an incorrect lunge. Technique errors mean risk of injury due to stress on joints and muscles therefore no longer becomes a functional movement but a hazard.
So…what is the right way to perform a lunge you ask?
Let’s look at what muscles you recruit so we know why we do a lunge.
Lunges are an easy and efficient exercise to help build strength in your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core. Lunges are also great to help you improve your balance, increase your hip flexibility, develop better coordination, build muscle strength, improving spine health, enhancing your core stability and toning a good variety of muscle groups to provide balance in strength and muscle growth.
All four of the quadriceps muscles work together to extend the knee during the upward phase of the movement. The four muscles in the quadriceps group are: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius and the vastus medialis which adds most of the definition and mass to the inner legs.
The gluteus maximus is the primary muscle worked and is used extensively to extend the hips. The gluteus medius and minimus work to level and stabilise your hips throughout the movement.
Located at the back of the upper leg, they work to dynamically stabilise the knee joint during lunges and also aid the gluteus maximus with hip extension.
The gastrocnemeus and soleus muscles of the calf are both worked differently during lunges. The soleus is worked in the rear leg to plantar flex, or lift your heel off the ground. The gastrocnemeus is used to dynamically stabilise the knees throughout the exercise.
Although lunges are typically thought of as a lower body exercise, they recruit a couple of abdominal muscles as well. The transverse abdominis muscle, commonly known as the six-pack, is used to compress and support the abdominal wall during the lunge movement. The obliques, on the side, work hard to keep your torso upright and stable as you move your hips with each lunge step.
Place your 2 feet under the hips so they are at hip-width apart. Keeping this width, set one foot straight back, keeping it in-line with the hip and not behind the front-placed foot. This keeps the balance in your body.
The Stride between the feet should not be too close or too long. When the back knee drops towards the floor, it should float straight under the hip leaving both legs in a 90 degree angle. If your knee floats too forward, move your back foot a further back; if your knee hardly bends, move your back foot forward.
The Body is set in the middle of the 2 feet with the chest, neck and spine in its neutral position.
Think about moving up and down, as opposed to back and forward. If you lead with the front knee, the movement is back and front which puts strain and stress on that front knee…not good.
Floating the back knee down first, places the body smack-bang in between the 2 feet and the motion is up and down.
With an even weight at the feet, when the back knee lowers, it positions itself under the hip leaving the legs in a 90 degree angle, or square position if you like. NOTE: this 90 degree angle is the target range of motion. If this angle cannot be reached, drop the back knee as low as you can. Build up the strength day by day, week by week, month by month using your own bodyweight until the legs are in the target zone.
The chest stays upright in the neutral position and does not tip forward. The hips to not hinge forward but stay in place and square.
Keeping the weight in the heels, the legs work together as you engage the glutes to push the body up.
Don’t forget the knees must be soft once back in the starting position and be sure not to lock the knees. Protecting the joints is paramount.
Starting with bodyweight lunges to ensure your technique is spot on and the range of motion is at its target, you can add weight to the lunge.
Using weight, a barbell or dumb bells, is the natural progression and there are also specific techniques once equipment comes into play. Why? Because you need to ensure that the basic set-up and movement of the bodyweight lunge is upheld.
Without any weight on the bar, ensure the set-up is right.
Place the bar on the meaty part of the upper back – in between the Cervical and Thoracic vertebrae.
The hands are resting on the bar at a comfortable width for you. Do not pull down on the bar putting pressure on the shoulders, they are there for support not additional weight.
To look after the deltoid muscles (ie. shoulders), bring the elbows under the bar as opposed to flying them out the back like a bird. The latissimus dorsi (muscle in the back, under the shoulder blades) becomes more engaged when the elbows are set under the bar, acting as stabilisers during this exercise. This allows us to recruit the back muscles ….shape and tone – that’s what we want isn’t it?
Now that the barbell is in place, nothing changes in terms of the performance of the lunge. Back knee leads, body floats down between the feet, glutes are activated and knees stay soft at the top.
This progression seems to be the easier of the two however it also deems the most bad-technique-prone. Holding onto a dumbbell in each hand at the side of the body, the risk – or temptation – to float that chest forward over the front knee is high. It is important to ensure that the neutral spine is sustained and the alignment of the back knee, hip, shoulder and head is upheld.
Progression is about challenging and fatiguing the muscles you recruit to perform an exercise. This means progressing at a slow pace as not to injure. Start with a light weight for 1 month, using the correct technique that you have perfected with a bodyweight lunge, then see how you feel and progress from there. Putting on a heavy weight straight up may compromise your technique. Technique is the priority – then progression.
Static, Forward, Reverse, Alternating, Single-Leg, Elevated, Side OH MY!
Moving away from the traditional Static lunge, different muscles in the lower body are enlisted to be challenged, fatigued and strengthened.
Now that you know how to do a lunge properly, what muscles you are strengthening and didn’t ways to challenge yourself, incorporate lunges into every workout so you strive to build lean, tone, strong legs.
While working on your lunge technique, don’t forget to fuel your body with protein using fresh produce that is in season this month. Check out my Kale, Leek and Spinach Bake below which you can prepare prior for convenience.
Stay Active in the Season you are in