Squats are unquestionable in first place as the most effective lower body exercise, but the lunge is in the race for second. With numerous variations and ways to make the exercise more challenging, lunges can help anyone transform their appearance and achieve their athletic and physical fitness goals.
Before getting into the types of lunges and their benefits, it’s important to make the distinction between a lunge and a split squat. With split squats your feet are stationary, whereas with lunges the exercise begins with one foot moving. The working foot can move forward, backward, sideways, or even at a diagonal – they are all lunges. With this terminology, the so-called Bulgarian lunge would more appropriately be called a Bulgarian split squat. And if you place your feet on a high platform and step up, the exercise is called a step-up, not a lunge or split squat.
Lunges are often associated with the “step-aerobic” classes introduced in the 80s by Gin Miller that were designed for the general population to increase aerobic fitness and provide a low level of strength training. More recently, many strength coaches have found that unilateral limb training with lunges can help their athletes resolve structural imbalances from sport-specific training.
The lunge most people are familiar with is performed by taking a step forward, and the resistance can be increased with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, or a barbell. With this type of lunge, your base of support shifts forward as you take a step. It’s essential to keep your knees in line with the feet (specifically the long toe) as you step, which may be difficult for those who lack lower body stability.
Those with flat feet, for example, often buckle their knees as they perform the lunge. Such misalignment could increase the risk of an injury, especially overuse injuries as the kneecap doesn’t track properly. Also, this structural imbalance forces the trainee to use especially light weights.
Another issue is that some individuals will not be able to perform the forward lunge properly because they lack flexibility in their calves. Using weightlifting shoes may help as these have a raised heel. Also, weightlifting shoes provide more lateral support to enable the knee to stay in optimal alignment with the foot. The popular (although pricey) Nike Romaleos 3 come with two interchangeable insoles, one soft and one firm, so the user can determine which one provides the best support.
One solution for those with tight calves or knee stability challenges is to perform lunges by stepping onto a low platform, such as an aerobic step. Because more of the bodyweight is on the back leg, this type of lunge requires less ankle and knee stability; the raised platform also helps compensate for mobility issues. If knee stability is still an issue, it would be better to perform split squats (which can also be performed with the front leg elevated) or reverse lunges, which are more stable as the base of support is more on the front foot, which doesn’t move.
Wearing knee sleeves can increase proprioceptive feedback (i.e., body awareness) to ensure proper form. Having a strength coach, personal trainer or training partner watch your form is a good idea when you are first learning the exercise, and beginners may find it helpful to lunge in front of mirror for their first few training sessions to ensure their knees are tracking properly. You can also place a mark, such a piece of tape or a chalk line, at exactly the distance you want to step to ensure consistency. Finally, perform all the reps for a set with the weaker leg first so you can focus more on technique and to ensure you complete all the reps.
The length of the stride influences the training effect of the lunge. A shorter stride will be felt more in the upper quads, and a longer stride will be felt more in the hamstrings, adductors, glutes, and the lower portion of the quads. Often, beginners need to use a shorter stride but can eventually go wider as they become more comfortable with the exercise.
It’s easier to stabilize the body holding dumbbells at your sides rather than holding a bar behind your head; you can reinforce your grip with lifting straps to enable you to use more weight. Ideally, the back leg should be nearly straight, but this takes a considerable amount of flexibility (which may eventually be developed performing the exercise on a regular basis). Although some individuals can lunge comfortably with their feet pointed straight ahead, turning the foot slightly outward (about 5-10 degrees) is usually more natural and should be used by those who find the exercise causes a “pinching” sensation in their hips.
Those with good form can also try lunging off of a low platform (about 4-6 inches), a variation often called a drop lunge. This variation increases the eccentric load on the quads; if you spend a minimal amount of time on the floor, you also create a plyometric effect that increases power. The drop lunge would be a sport specific exercise for figure skaters and hockey players, but is valuable for any athlete whose sports involve sudden stopping (such as basketball) or a rapid change of direction (such as soccer).
There has been controversy about whether or not the knees should extend beyond the toes in lunges (and for that matter, squats). Consider that in many sports, such as cycling and fencing, the knees go in front of the toes and these athletes don’t suffer a significant amount of knee injuries compared to athletes in other sports. Also, if extending the knees beyond the toes is harmful, what about the back leg -- as you lunge forward, the rear knee travels in front of the rear foot!
Lunging to the side is a variation called the side lunge. Whereas the regular lunge emphasizes the middle quadriceps muscle called the rectus femoris, the side lunge focuses more on the side quadriceps muscles called the vastus lateralis and the inner thigh muscle called the adductors. In addition to working these muscles, side lunges can be a great exercise as a warm-up for squats or Olympic lifting movements.
As with the front lunge, stepping sideways onto a low platform is much easier for those with mobility or stability issues; and for advanced athletes who want a plyometric effect, stepping off of a low platform can be done. To make the exercise more challenging, at the lowest levels holding a medicine ball or weight plate against your chest will suffice, but it’s difficult to perform this exercise using dumbbells or kettlebells as your legs get in the way; instead, a barbell should be used. Barbell front lunges can also be performed inside a power rack for maximum safety.
Although it’s a bit of a stretch, the jerk performed in Olympic lifting competition could be considered a variation of the lunge (although you are moving both the front and back leg at the same time). Weightlifters also turn the front foot slightly inward – not outward, as is recommended for the front lunge, to increase lower body stability. Timing a leg drive and split with heavy weights and at maximum speed is an extremely complex task and should not be performed without competent coaching.
For equipment, the plastic steps used in aerobic classes can be used with light weights, but for heavier lunges a low, sturdy platform should be used. Several exercise equipment manufacturers offer adjustable steps made of metal that will safely handle weights used by the stronger athletes.
Lunges are versatile exercises that can be used for not just aerobic fitness, but also for general strength training and athletic fitness. Make it a point today to add lunges to your exercise toolbox to help you achieve your goals.