Sick of the Forward Lunge? Me Too!
The lunge is one of the most powerful categories of lower body movements. It has the ability to simultaneously stimulate hamstring, gluteal and quadriceps musculature. Integrating synergistic contractions of both agonist and antagonist lower body musculature trains an individual to be more athletic, not to mention the fact that it generates a huge amount of tension andf potential for muscle growth and hypertrophy.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. The lunge can be completed with no external equipment and in the smallest of spaces. Variation can easily be added to the lunge by both manipulating the closed-chain foot position along with the upper body and core positioning.
With so many options in variation, an emphasis can be placed on almost any specific muscle group(s) of the lower body that you feel need a little more work to reach your training goals. Variation can also keep thigns fresh and keep you progressing while training the same primitive movement pattern.
The lunge is also a loaded movement that can be progressed over the long haul. In the world of strength and conditioning, progressive overload is king. The lunge provides the necessary makeup for the backbone of lower body strength and hypertrophy development, and will be able to provide a training stimulus for years to come.
Fundamental Movement Pattern
There is nothing more primal and primitive in your movement arsenal than the lunge pattern. It has been said that in terms of lower body movements, there are 2 groups that every movement known to man can be separated into; the lunge and the squat. The lunge is a functional part of everyday life, and plays a huge role in everything we do.
The simplicity of the lunge originates at our neuromuscular development. Before we could walk we obviously had to crawl, and before we could lunge, we first had to gain and maintain a half-kneeling position. Positioning the lower body with one knee in contact with the ground introduced loaded hip stability, and the use of dynamic muscle recruitment in the contralateral limb during an asymmetrical stance.
The key point here is that everyone has the lunge pattern hardwired into his or her brain. Through disuse of certain patterns, and negative external stimuli of life, we temporarily lose the ability to move primitively. This loss of authentic motion causes us to lose our efficiency of movement. The lunge, if practiced properly, will tap back into your lizard brain and link up muscle groups that you may have kissed goodbye long ago!
One of the 7 screening positions utilized in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is the "In-Line Lunge" pattern. This position provides a great way to see if you are capable of moving optimally through the functional lunge, or if you need simplification of setup, or a variation to work your way back to the full pattern. Give it a shot in this general setup below:
FMS In-Line Static Lunge
Foot Position for Muscle Recruitment
There are 2 key variables that can be manipulated during the lunging movement; stance length and width. Let's first focus on stance width. As you decrease the stance width, or move your feet closer together (towards the midline of your body), muscle recruitment is shifted to the anterior chain of the lower body. This can be described as being a more of a quad-dominant lunge pattern. The quadriceps group will be targeted in this stance, while the hamstrings, gluteals and hip adductors play a more key roll in stability of the hip and lower body.
Moving the foot width farther apart will integrate a more powerful dynamic contraction from the hip adductor group that was inhibited in a close stance position. Optimal performance for stance width is found somewhere in the middle. A basic setup will place the feet at approximately hip width distance apart, recruiting the lateral, medial and anterior hip musculature more equally, and focusing on total lower body development.
Secondly, stance can be varied by stride length. The shorter the stride length (forward to backward), the more emphasis is shifted towards recruitment of the quadriceps and anterior chain musculature of the lower body. Conversely, as the stride length is increased, the gluteal muscles along with the hamstring group will be in a more optimal length tension positioning to be recruiting and utilized during movement, thus more of a hip dominant exercise.
Lastly, foot position, in terms of abduction and adduction of the foot/ankle complex, should almost always be practiced on a neutral position. This foot placement will optimize our biomechanical capabilities in the sagittal plane of movement, and increase joint centration up the entire kinetic chain. There are obviously certain instances where this aligned position is not possible, but for 99% of the trainees out there, true neutral is possible, it just needs to be practiced.
Common Movement Problems
The most common technical problem seen with any of the lunge variations is the inactivation of the gluteal group of both the forward and backward positioned legs. The gluteus maximus is a powerful hip extensor, but also plays a roll in lumbar stability along with dynamic hip stability.
The smaller two gluteal muscles, the medius and minimus are tonic stabilizers that maintain optimal position of the hip while helping centrate the head of the femur in the pelvic acetabulum. A lack of performance from the gluteal muscles will cause a cascade of compensation patterns, decreasing both the efficiency and training effect of the exercise.
The lunge is one of the most powerful lower body movements. It has the ability to simultaneously stimulate hamstring, gluteal and quad musculature.
A majority of the time, glute weakness is not the culprit during a sloppy lunging movement. Rather, it is a lack of glute activation that causes a perceived weakness or instability at the lower quadrant in dynamic motion. Without proper glute activation, the secondary hip extensors, including the posterior trunk and spine musculature kick in and compensate to complete the targeted motion. Rep after rep, training session after training session, this is not a viable option to perform at the highest level, and maintain orthopedic health.
For those of you out there wondering why the glutes have a hard time turning on and being active when we need them the most, look no further than the position you are most likely in right now...SITTING! We spend 8-12 hours a day as a Westernized culture in a seated position, where the glutes are not only relaxed, but compressed by our body weight and deprived of blood flow and nutrition. Combined with a slumped posture causing increased tension through the posterior stabilizing lower back musculature, it's not wonder we need to focus on activating our glutes time and time again before training.
To Lean, or Not to Lean....
Go into any commercial gym in American and you can see the good lunge, the bad lunge, and the truly ugly lunge. As covered above in the common mistakes of the lunge, decreased glute activation is the #1 problem most trainees have when completing this motion.
For most, not activating the glutes will cause a shift to lower back musculature compensation patterns, and lastly, the use of momentum through spinal flexion and extension moments. This momentum will bring the upper body over the front side leg during the stepping portion of the lunge, and cause the upper body to be thrown into an exaggerated extension moment when returning back to a neutral starting position.
Let's make this clear, poor form and sloppy technique is never warranted, and needs to be cleaned up immediately to limit the damage done from a dysfunctional movement pattern before it gets serious. Screen the movement before you program it! This is not a guessing game. Earn the right to move!
The forward lean used during compensated spinal flexion and extension in poor form is vastly different than the forward lean programmed by advanced trainees and coaches in the lunge to stimulate posterior chain muscle recruitment. Differentiating variation from poor form is simple, always look at the spinal position!
Optimal position for any movement should always be positioned in neutral, and held with an isometric contraction in that position for the duration of an exercise. The slight forward lean in the lunge can be used to overload the glutes and hamstrings in a lunge. This is a training variation. The spine still maintains a static neutral position, while the only angle changing is at the hip. An emphasized hip angle can be optimal for most trainees using the lunge as a postural and structural exercise.
I teach all lunge variations with a slight forward lean to get the posterior chain more involved in the motion, and recommend that you do as well. Building a strong and functional posterior chain takes focused effort, and adding a little more emphasis to the back side while lunging never hurt!
Variation and Lunge Type
#1 - Barbell Split Squat: Static
#2 - Bulgarian Split Squat (On Bar): Static
#3 - Alternating Forward Lunge: Forward
#4 - Alternating Reverse Lunge: Reverse
#5 - Alternating Reverse Lunge (Goblet Position): Reverse
#6 - Dumbbell Walking Lunges: Walking
#7 - Lateral Lunge: Side
#8 - Lateral Lunge (Goblet Position): Side
#9 - Split Squat Jump: Plyometric
#10 - Alternating Split Squat Jump: Plyometric
Lunge It Out
The lunge takes a backseat to the squat as the king of lower body exercises for strength and hypertrophy, but not by much. The simplicity and ability to add both variation and progressions make the lunge a "need to program" movement in any type of lower body training regimen.
Screen yourself, see what level you're at, and start implementing one of the variations into your routine this week.