Lunges Are for Sissies - Or Are They?
Lunges have long been maligned as being an exercise for sissies. I’m not sure why or how this gym myth has been kept up for so long, but it’s time to stop it. In terms of functional patterns for the legs there are only three: feet together, standing on one foot, split stance such as in the lunge.
Dont Sell Yourself Short
If you remove lunges from your program, then you’re effectively cutting out a third of the available leg patterns from your options. In addition, the lunge closely resembles gait as it trains the legs in both flexion and extension at the same time.
The smart way to train people is to figure out in which position they struggle for stability, and regress one position from there so that they are working in a pattern where they have greater control. With the lunge being halfway between kneeling and standing, it can be a powerful tool for quickly building performance and function.
Stop Using Tiny weights
One of the reasons I feel the lunge has been unfairly maligned is because of the loads people typically use for it. While it’s true that the weight you use for lunges will never match what you can back squat, there is still the possibility of working up to some very real poundages. World track cycling champion Anna Meares is said to perform Bulgarian squats, a form of lunge with the rear foot elevated, with 165kg for sets of three. That’s a far cry from the Barbie weights usually associated with the lunge, but goes to show the potential for strength in this movement.
A 2009 study used lunges as the subject and broke participants into three groups – one doing walking lunges, another jumping lunges, and then a control group. The study showed that the walking lunge group improved hamstring strength by 35% after six weeks. While this study was conducted on a young group, which is perhaps why the increase was so large, other studies have found that the average increase is still 11% in older athletes.
Force Production Is Where It's At
Returning briefly to the argument about the lunge not being able to be loaded as much as the squat leads me to ask a question. Does the muscle recognize load or just tension? Because if tension is force production, then there is more than one way to produce force in a muscle. You can choose to lift a heavy weight, or, as many forget, you can choose to move something lighter much faster and rely on speed to achieve force development. A great way to do this is to use jumping lunges. The study referenced above showed that jumping lunges show the same increases in strength but added significantly to speed over thirty meters. Just be warned that if you haven’t done these before you are going to experience considerable muscle soreness in the days afterwards.
How To Program The Progression
Now back to programming and how to advance yourself or your clients through lunge variations. One way to figure out programming is to use this simple progression method:
- No load with pattern assistance
- No load and no pattern assistance
- Load and pattern assistance
- Load and no pattern assistance
An example of the first would be bodyweight static lunges (also called split squats) using a dowel to maintain postural alignment, or a band with some RNT (reactive neuromuscular training) action to ingrain correct positioning. Once that has been mastered, you could move onto bodyweight lunges, but remove the pattern assistance.
The next two steps involve load, and may take some time to reach, depending on your ability or those of your client. Pattern three again has pattern assistance, such as band RNT to prevent valgus collapse, while pattern four you would expect perfect form to be exhibited, even under load.
You can then toy with the way the load is placed on the body. You will find some positions are much harder than others. The easiest way to load a lunge is with two weights held in the hands at the sides. You can then progress to racking the weight at the shoulders. This option is also a great way to reinforce the correct pattern, as clients will lose the weight if they tip forward. It also forces the abdominals to brace hard and can work well to help stretch the hips out. From there you can choose to either use a barbell to add much more weight, or keep moving the weight further from the feet and hold it overhead.
If you’re looking to hit as many foundational patterns as possible per exercise, I would suggest loading only one side of the body, holding the weight either in the rack or loading just one side of a bar. If you try this using your normal lunge weight you will find it an incredible challenge that works not just the lunge pattern but also the anti-rotational component of your core significantly too. (As a tip, do not try to clean a bar loaded only one side. Place the weight in a rack and walk it out from there, keeping a tight grip on the bar.)
What If I Can't Even Lunge Yet?
If lunging is a problem, then the same pattern - one hip in flexion and one in extension - can be found in half kneeling. There are many great ways to challenge this position including pressing, halos, and even rotational work, both loaded and unloaded.
The lunge is a great exercise that hits many aspects of functional performance training. Don’t be misled by the hype. Train them fast and slow, heavy and light, and your leg development will improve as well as your resistance to injury and running speed.
1. Jonhagen et al, Forward Lunge: A Training Study of Eccentric Exercises of the Lower Limbs, Journal of Strength and Conditioning 2009.
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