Lunging is an exercise that most are familiar with. Some love them for how they make their legs feels, some hate them for the very same reason. Some avoid them because they are afraid they might hurt their knees. But you cannot deny the lunge exercise is a staple of any functional training program.
The lunge exercise is one of the primitive movement patterns that we all should be able to do and at some point in our life were able to do just fine. But for a variety of reasons, many lose the ability to lunge effectively and it may be contributing to pain or dysfunction.
In this article I want to share drills that will help you learn how to correct some of the biggest compensations that arise when lunging. You will build the skills to do a proper lunge Before we get into the fun stuff, we must look at why do you lunge in the first place.
What is the Lunge Exercise?
Most won’t deny that lunging is an important movement to include in a workout program, both bodyweight lunges and weighted lunges, but when you ask why you want to adopt a lunges workout, it gets a little unclear. It is not because of how it burns the legs of the lower body either. If you enjoy that, then that is just a bonus!
When you grasp the reason behind why you should be doing lunges in the first place, it is easier to start understanding how to improve it in the gym. We get tremendous amount of benefit from the lunge, but we will break it down into three main reasons. These include, the ability to decelerate, the ability to lower your center of gravity, and to increase the strength and stability in the sagittal plane. Now let’s dive into each of these deeper.
Deceleration and Lunge Exercise
I want to start with deceleration for a few reasons. First, it is imperative that you learn how to slow your body down before you do anything else. Sounds strange I’m sure. But, if I put two cars in front of you, one with a bad ass engine that can tear down the road, but no brakes, and the other with a normal engine, and great brakes, which would you pick?
Even if you are like Ricky Bobby and want to go fast, you better pick the car with brakes. Our body works the same way. If you want effectively produce more force and go faster, you have to learn how to slow your body down first. In fact, most non-contact injuries in sport and in life are a result of inefficiency in deceleration.
So what does this have to do with lunging. The movement of stepping forward and lowering down to the ground is just an exaggerated way to decelerate. As you step forward gravity is pulling your down and your body must work as a unit to fight against that pull.
Another example that may help see this, would be to set up two lines about 10 yards apart. Start at one and sprint to the other as fast as you can. Get to the other link quickly but do not step over the line. You will slow your self down before you get to the line. If you freeze at the end of this drill and we take your picture, I am willing to bet if you look down you will see one leg forward with your knees bent in a lunge position. Getting better at lunges will ultimately help you control deceleration forces which will help avoid injury, help change direction faster, and help you eventually accelerate more efficiently.
Moving on to the next major reason to adopt lunge exercise is you can lower your center of gravity. We need to get to the floor for many reasons and then we need to get back up. When you squat you also lower your center of gravity, but most people do not have the ability to squat all the way down to the floor and then get back up. The lunge will be the preferred pattern to accomplish this task.
If you can’t lunge you will have a harder time getting to the floor and getting back up. Later in life this becomes a life altering factor. If you are younger you may not be concerned yet, but now is the time to master this movement so you can do it better in the future.
Getting down to the floor maybe a position of rest as well. If you have not figured out yet the best way to rest in a bucket carry, now you know. You don’t put the bucket on the ground. This will require even more energy to pick it back up. Instead you lunge or take a knee and rest the bucket on your leg. Then you can grab the bucket and just stand back up.
Another important factor that we will discuss later is, this position allows you to rest in the ½ kneeling posture, while freeing your upper body to do something else. You should have the ability to stabilize your lower body while moving your upper body, and visa versa.
This is often a lost quality that must be improved during a lunge. You must have the ability to separate or disassociate the upper and lower body. Without this ability you reduce your force you can generate, and you open yourself up for more potential injuries.
The final piece is the ability to stabilize and create more force in the sagittal plane. In case you have not heard that term before, the sagittal plane refers to movement going forward and backwards. The traditional lunge is a sagittal plane exercise when you either step forwards or backwards.
This is important for many reasons. Imagine your car ran out of gas and you had to push it or if you have a sled in front of you that you need to push for a workout. Try to do this with your feet lined up like a squat. This is not impossible and can be done, but you will never be as strong this way versus the split stance or lunge position. This posture is how you can generate the most force and be the most stable. When you improve this pattern, you will have a better ability to push and pull things with your entire body. Last time I check, most Spartan races involve some type of pushing or pulling challenge.
So now that you understand why this is more than just a leg exercise, let’s look where the lunge goes wrong and what you can do about it.
While like with most exercises, there are many things that can go wrong with the lunge. When these compensations come up and are not addressed, we start to get strong in the wrong position. If you notice these compensations when you lunge it is important to take a step back and correct them before adding more weight and more reps into your workout.
How To Do a Proper Lunge: 3 Common Issues
Here we will focus on 3 common issues that come up and some lunge drills you can do to fix them.
The first issue is lack of disassociation. This topic was mentioned earlier so we can elaborate here. Disassociation refers to the ability of the lower body to work independently of the upper body. Like I mentioned earlier, you should be able to kneel, stay stable with your lower body, and have the freedom to move your arms around, while your core keeps everything stable so you don’t fall over.
But what we often see is individuals who must rob movement from the upper body during lower body movement. During a lunge you will typically see someone go into flexion or round forward when they lunge. This is a sign of a few potential things, but mainly the body is going into a guarded position because it doesn’t trust the movement can be completed without help. There may be a lack of core stability or a lack of lower body strength. Sometimes it is just a lack of awareness as well.
In the video below, you can see a few drills to help with this. First you can create awareness by using a dowel rod on your back to determine if you are unable to keep an upright posture. This is a great assessment as well as drill to practice perfecting your movement.
Along with this you can try a few drills to help improve this concept of disassociation. Start with half kneeling exercises. It could be as simple as getting comfortable balancing in this position or adding pushes or pulls. Just make sure as you move you do not see any lower body movement.
Then you can progress to lunges using a sandbag. With the front-loaded sandbag lunge, by pulling the bag to your chest and engaging the torso stabilizers, it will help reduce movement from the upper body during the lunge. Then finally you can add rotations to see if you can keep the same lower body pattern while creating upper body rotation.
The next compensation we should address is the step length and leg alignment. There are a variety of lunging variations out there. But it is important to realize if you are intentionally doing a specific variation or if it is something you cannot avoid doing. For example, sometimes it might be warranted to step shorter or longer in a lunge. You must understand why you would be doing that in the first place.
The most common issue with step length would be stepping too big and involving too much hip extension. The lunge exercise and drill video below will show this compensation in action and what you can do about it.
When you over-stride a few things go wrong. First, you are pulling on your hip flexor. This can be tricky because sometimes it feels good to have that hip flexor stretch. If you look closer though you can see that this pull will create a forward pelvic tilt. This tilt leads to increase stress on the lumbar spine. If you are holding weight you are at an even higher risk for issues to come up.
The second problem is because you are relying on this stretch you are not fulling engaging the lower body muscles. There is a good change you are using lunges in your program to strengthen the lower body and help with hill climbs, running, and things like that. But if you are using the stretch versus the muscle strength you are selling yourself short.
To help correct this, the obvious solution is to take shorter steps. Be careful though, you can take too short of a step as well. To help get the right position we are going to use half kneeling exercises to help lock in this position. You can add exercises like Band Press Outs to help learn to stabilize this position better. Once you feel comfortable in this position we can progress to an up down where you go from tall kneeling, to half kneeling, to lunging, and return.
The final issue you mind experience with lunge exercise is a loss of knee stability. Here you will see your front knee start to drift in during the lunge. This position, known as knee valgus, will put you at risk for a number of knee issues.
There are two relatively simple lunge exercise fixes for this. First, is to create more stability with your feet. This can be down by being more active with your feet. You will push your feet into the ground more. This includes the back foot as well. Both legs are active during the lunge. Think about grabbing the floor with your front foot and pushing the ball of the back foot in the floor. Many times, this is enough to correct the knee position.
Another simple lunge exercise drill is to wrap a band around the front knee and pull into in. While this sounds backwards, when you pull the knee further in it give feedback to the person lunging. Now they have something to pull from and get into the correct position.
Well hopefully you are still with me. The idea of an article on lunge exercise was not to have you do all of the drills mentioned. Instead, learn what compensation you may be creating when you lunge. When you see where you are going wrong you can find the drill that best gets you back into the best position for your lunge.
If you can figure this out you will see better workouts, but more importantly better progress outside of the gym in your racing or in your everyday life.
Mike Deibler is an SGX coach and hosts the OCR Underground podcast.