March 20, 2023


Born to perform

The Magic Lunge

7 min read

It seems that 1998 is the year of the “buns”. Every time I turn on the television there is some other informercial touting the latest contraption that can (in less than three minutes) firm and tone your glutes.
When talking to most trainers (especially female trainers) the lunge seems to be the exercise of choice.
So let’s examine the lunge.

There is the walking lunge, the stationary lunge, the side lunge, the dynamic lunge, the barbell lunge, the dumbell lunge, the backward lunge, the Smith machine lunge, the forward lunge and the step lunge.
Which is best?

If you think about it, the lunge is nothing more than a one-legged squat. Your other leg is just helping out for balance. Then why do so many people “feel it” in their other leg? Well, we know the rectus femoris is a two- joint muscle. It not only crosses the knee but the hip as well. The majority of activities we do as humans are in a seated position: driving, sitting at a desk or watching TV. So, when we put our clients in this extreme hip extension, the rectus femoris starts “talking” to them. But we all know the real “work” is done by the front leg.

Since we are standing on one leg, then stabilizing the pelvis is going to be more challenging. Instead of two struts (your legs) spread apart with a wide base, the majority of the weight is now being supported by one strut, over a very narrow base of support.

The same goes for the foot and ankle. Is your client able to stabilize their foot and ankle or are they wobbling all over the place?

Is it better to destroy their hip and ankle joint in order to firm up their glutes?

Here are some things to consider:

The walking lunge:

Before you add weight to the exercise and have your client’s walking around the gym make sure they can:

– stabilize their pelvis each and every rep. Their pelvis should not dip on either side as they lower or raise themselves.

– make sure that the knee tracks over the appropriate toe for each and every rep.

– is the ROM for the knee excessive?

– watch the foot and ankle. Can they control this motion?

Remember any time you walk there will be some momentum moving forward. Every time your knee bends, there is a certain amount of shear force occurring as the femur rolls forward on the tibia. These are the natural mechanics of your knee. However, when you increase the load, the shear force will increase as well. Not to mention the extra stress on the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).

Why are you walking with a load? What is the purpose?

If you have to walk, concentrate on all the motion going up and down or vertical instead of forward.

The same concerns apply to a barbell lunge.

The barbell lunge:

If you are lunging forward with a barbell on your shoulders, the only thing stopping the bar from cutting your neck off is your cervical spine!

I was at a physical therapy clinic at the Veteran’s Memorial hospital and the physician told me that most of the spinal cord injuries occur in the cervical portion of the spine. But hey, at least they’ll have tight buns.

If you’re going to have clients perform any kind of lunging with a load and there is any kind of forward motion, you better have a specific reason for doing so; otherwise just use their own body weight. If you have to use a barbell, make sure the motion is vertical.

Remember, the force is not going through the heel but through the ankle. Your tibia does not sit over your heel but over your ankle, so cue the ankle! If you need weight, then try dumbbells instead.

The dumbbell lunge:

The mechanics of the lunge are the same, but now the load is off of the spine. The limiting factor will be the amount of weight a client can hold in their hands. Straps might be a solution. If the dumbbells aren’t too big, sometimes it’s feasible to rest the dumbells on the client’s side. Be careful though, this isn’t very comfortable for a lot of people.

The step Lunge:

It seems all trainers know the 90′ rule when squatting: You should never lt your knee move in front of your toe or let your knee go down any further than 90′.

But then I see the same trainers have their clients lunge on a step so they can go further than 90′ in an effort to increase their range of motion (ROM).

Any time you go below 90′ with a load, you increase the possibility of wearing out cartilage, bone, or the joint itself. Using the floor will prevent you from going into hyper-flexion which could help save your knee. But hey, they might need knee surgery, but at least they’ll have a tight rear end!

The side Lunge:

I can see many reasons for performing this exercise, all of them sport specific: football, tennis, baseball, racquetball, basketball, volleyball, etc, etc.

All the mechanics are the same. The knee is a hinge joint, it only bends one way. You must be extra careful with momentum out to the side. Lunging violently with a load to the side will incur a ton of shear force to the joint and a ton of stress on the medial and lateral ligaments of the knee, not to mention all the stress on the ankle.

When you lunge to the side in sports (with maybe the exception of football or wrestling) you rarely have a load on your back. Be careful with this lunge when it is loaded.

You might want to construct a small platform at a 30-45′ angle. Place it against the wall and have your client lunge onto this small platform. This will decrease the amount of shear force, as well as the stress to the ligaments.

The dynamic Lunge:

You definitely have type II fibers in your glutes and legs. Therefore, it might be beneficial to train explosively, especially for sports. This is where that 30 – 45′ platform will really come in handy. All the same rules apply to stabilizing the pelvis, foot, ankle and ROM at the knee. Be aware of the amount of weight as well. Have your client lunge forward or to the side with momentum. Without hesitating, use the elastic energy stored from the SEC of a muscle (Series elastic Component; kind of what happens when you pull on a rubber band) and bound back to the starting position. Balance will be a real challenge here.

You’d better have a good reason for loading this type of lunge.

The backward lunge:

When alternating from leg to leg, the backward lunge sometimes works better than moving forward. Most people are a little leery of “throwing” their leg backwards. They can’t see where they’re stepping, so they move slower and place the foot instead of bounding. This works out great, but why are you alternating?This brings me to the last but not least.

The stationary lunge:

If the goal is to work glutes, then the stationary lunge is my first choice. Every time you alternate legs, one leg is resting. Well, as Tom Purvis taught me, ” if your set takes 2 minutes, then one leg rested for half the time (or one minute)”. Transfer that into 2 days a week, 8 times a month, 12 months a year and you end up resting half the year. Why not just concentrate on the one leg? You have slow twitch fibers in your glutes as well. Remember your glute “fires” every time your heel strikes the ground in gait. Work one side hard, then let it rest.

Compare it to alternating dumbbell curls. The only time I do alternating dumbbell curls is when I’m warming up, or trying to isolate with a heavy weight and need to rest the bicep in between each rep.
If you have to add weight, think about a Smith machine.

The Smith machine lunge:

This is also a stationary lunge. It works best when you’re not alternating legs. Remember, you still have a load on your spine. Control is key here. Balancing the weight is not such an issue anymore and the weight being used is not limited by the strength of your grip. The machine will also prevent that unwanted forward momentum.

For anyone with a problem stabilizing their pelvis in a stationary lunge while using dumbbells, the Smith machine is a perfect solution.

Don’t forget to demonstrate the safety collars to your client.

In conclusion, the lunge is a phenomenal exercise. It works the quads just as well as the glutes. It might, however, be an advanced exercise. As you’ve just read, there are many variables, many things to consider and many things to monitor.

What is the goal, what can your client control and what limitations does your client have?

Lunges are not magic. They are what they are.

Respect the body and it will respect you.

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