The lunge is an essential exercise for anyone to have in their exercise arsenal and regularly include in their fitness programme. It is one of the seven ‘Primal Pattern’ movements, a term I created to describe the most important movement patterns that are the key to optimal human function. The other six are the squat, pull, push, twist, bend and gait.
By combining two or more patterns, all other movements can be completed, for example, throwing a ball is a combination of a lunge, twist and push. Exercises based on the Primal Pattern movements train the musculoskeletal and nervous systems together, mimicking real-life movement and translate directly to work and sports situations.
The lunge is a classic ‘Big Bang’ exercise – it works multiple muscle groups in multiple planes of motion and requires more than one biomotor ability. The exercise requires activation of all the muscles surrounding the hip joint, those of the lower extremity and also the interaction of the core with the lower limbs.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
It is excellent for improving general strength and stability, balance and coordination. Depending on the acute exercise variables used – reps, sets, loads, tempo and rest periods – when performing the exercise, power or endurance can also be developed.
Great aesthetic benefits
The lunge has great aesthetic benefits, sculpting the glutes and legs and improving postural alignment when performed correctly. In fact the lunge does more than the inner/outer thigh machines do, packaged in one exercise. All the above points assume that the lunge is being performed functionally, where my definition of functional is to improve the working of the exerciser’s body to meet and exceed the demands of their work, sports or fitness environment.
Any particular exercise is not necessarily a functional exercise for everyone. For example, an office worker who likes to play golf at the weekend has very different functional demands than his work colleague who is a competitive rockclimber in her spare time.
It is important that your exercise programme addresses your functional needs, but most people will benefit from including some type of lunge at some point in their training – so long as it is performed with excellent technique. It is just a question of deciding which type of lunge is best for you.
Descending and Ascending the Lunge
A body weight lunge is what I call ‘Primal Standard’ – this is the level that most people should be able to perform to survive the rigours of daily life and requires that you balance your own centre of gravity over your own base of support.
If someone is unable to perform a free lunge due to strength or balance issues, they will need to descend the exercise. Alternatively, many fitness trainers or athletes require a higher level of functionality in the lunge pattern and so will need to ascend the exercise once they have mastered Primal Standard.
Performing the Basic Lunge
As in any exercise, correct technique is essential to reduce the risk of injury.
The Basic Lunge
*Take a deep, diaphragmatic breath (full belly, then full chest) and gently draw your belly button inward toward your spine. This will activate the transversus abdominis muscle, a key stabiliser of the spine.
* Hold an upright posture and take a big step forward into the lunge. If your step length is correct, your front shin will be vertical. Take care not to ‘shortstep’ the lunge.
*Bending both knees, descend into the lunge as deeply as possible, or until the trailing knee is just off the floor. Do not let the leading knee drop inward.
*Push off the heel of the front foot to return to the start position – this encourages activation of the glutes. If you have difficulties returning to a standing position with one step, you may use a double-step method (step up half-way and then take a second step to the start position).
*Release the air through pursed lips as you step back to the start. Do not let the air just escape unrestricted. Using this technique is especially important if you are lifting heavier loads.
The principles of the basic lunge are carried out in all the lunge variations, so it is important to take the time to learn correct form as you begin training this key movement pattern. As you master it you can add more weight by placing a wooden dowel rod or bar across your back and gripping the bar as close to your body as comfortable. This activates the scapula retractors and encourages good posture.
Descending the Lunge
If you find a body weight lunge challenging, then descend the lunge by one or two levels until you are able to perform a less demanding exercise. As soon as you are able, advance to Primal Standard.
*Step into the lunge position, then lower and raise the body for the required number of repetitions before stepping back to the start position. This can be done free-standing with body weight, or using a wooden dowel rod in one or both hands to aid balance by increasing the base of support.
An alternative is to perform the exercise in a squat cage, holding onto the cage or bar for support. Only as a very last resort should the lunge or split squat be performed on a Smith machine, as this encourages the exerciser to lean back on the bar and therefore not balance their own centre of gravity over their own base of support.
Ascending the Lunge
Depending on your sports or fitnessrequirements, the lunge can be ascended to very demanding levels of strength, power and agility. Here are some examples:
*Begin with a forward lunge.
*Instead of pushing off with your front foot and returning to the start position,push off with your back foot and step straight into a second lunge.
*Continue in a straight line.
A more challenging version of the walking lunge is the backward walking lunge. Practice the basic exercise first then try a 45-degree back lunge:
*Look backward to get an idea of where you are stepping. This is helpful since many people’s bodies will avoid the 45-degree pattern because it is foreign to them and requires that the brain orchestrate a new movement.
*While performing this lunge, keep your head and eyes forward, shoulders and pelvis square to the front and allow the trailing leg to pivot naturally as you drop into the lunge. A common mistake is to turn the whole body 45-degrees and lunge.
*Do not allow the knees to drop inward.This will place unwanted stress and torque on the knee joint. The knee and ankle joints are hinge joints and should not be unnecessarily torque during training exercises.
Perform the backward walking lunge just as you did the forward walking lunge. This time, you will need to push off with your front foot, remember to push through the heel to properly activate the glutes and step backwards.
The jumping lunge is an excellent power exercise.
*Start with your feet together.
* Jump into a split stance.
* From the lunge position, jump straight up and switch your stance so that you land in the lunge position with the opposite leg forward.
*Continue with a fast tempo for 10-15sec. Stop as soon as your speed drops or right before you lose your form.
*You may add a twist to this exercise as well. Hold a medicine ball or weight with both hands and bring it over your head in an arch as you jump, ending with the ball by the thigh of the front leg.
The Jumping Lunge
“From the lunge position, jump straight up and switch your stance so that you land in the lunge position with the opposite leg forward”
There are many different variations of the lunge, such as the lateral lunge and multidirectional lunge. The principles for these are the same as for the basic lunge, with the stepping leg moving in a different direction or plane. In the multi-directional lunge, one leg lunges to the front, then 45-degree front, laterally, 45-degree back and finally directly back. You then repeat the whole series on the other leg. This is a particularly useful lunge as it mimics many common movements in life and sport.
The lunge is an extremely useful exercise with a wide variety of applications and can be used by novice exercisers all the way through toexperienced athletes simply by changing the exercise variables and parameters.
It is important for each person to ascend or descend the lunge as needed, making sure that the exercise does not exceed your current functional capacity, but also that it is enough of a challenge to induce a training response.As with all exercises, apply the ‘Form Principle’ – perform every repetition and set with perfect form and stop the exercise before form breaks down, this will ensure optimal neuromuscular conditioning.