by: Anthony Campo
Lunges and all of their variations are a great unilateral (single-leg) exercise that can serve a multitude of purposes when training. Lunges can be a great tool that helps tremendously with strength and muscle gains, fat loss and conditioning, and all around function. Most repetitive functional activities we do during a day such as going up and down stairs are single leg movements. In order to help prevent wear and tear on the body it would be in our best interest to learn how to do a basic single leg movement like squats correctly, in order to train the proper muscles that will help protect our joints in the long run. From a strength perspective, lunges help bring balance in the development of the body, which means along with promoting strength gains; you will build a better more symmetrical physique. Once the movement is learned, and able to be performed correctly, lunges can also be done in certain intensities to help give you an improved cardiovascular system. Training these things utilizing the tool of lunges will get you stronger, get you more muscle, keep you healthier and injury-free, and allow you to train at a higher intensity which is the long term solution to proper fat loss.
The first reason people often have trouble with single-leg movements such as lunges are balance. When looking to improve balance, you must first learn proper breathing. Breathing correctly will get you “tight,” and optimize your motor unit recruitment. Many people can help train and fix balance deficits through proper breathing. If you are breathing properly, and getting optimum recruitment, but still have balance issues then you should look into other areas such as ankle strength and vestibular testing. Proper breathing consists of taking your time in-between every rep, taking in a big breathe of air, swallowing the air into the stomach, and holding it tight through the movement. The air should come out passively as you complete the movement. The idea is to repeat this for each rep, and not hold your breath for too long, or for too many reps. Along with the recruitment you are facilitating through this type of breathing, you are also getting the oxygen that you need to fuel each repetition.
Biomechanics of the Lunge
For the sake of this article I am going to specifically use the walking lunge to go over mechanics. These basic mechanics hold true for any lunge variation, but just may have to be adapted depending on how/where you are stepping to.
The basic walking lunge means that you are taking a step forward, dropping the back knee all the way to the ground, pushing through your front foot’s heel, stabilizing through both legs, and pulling yourself up with the front leg to bring the back foot even to the front.
– Head/Chest/Upper Back – Shoulder blades must be squeezed together in order to stabilize the lumbar spine (lower back), and keep the back in proper alignment. There should be no movement of the spine itself (flexion/extension) during a lunge. Pinching shoulder blades together and staying tight will maintain this. To also help facilitate this movement keep your eyes looking up, and your head in cervical retraction. Stick your chest out (“chest high”) to also help facilitate proper movement. Notice this is very similar the mechanics of the squat as discussed in the “Squat Mechanics for the Beginner” article.
Take a long enough step so that your feet are far enough apart to bring the knee straight down to the ground. A problem I often see is that the step is not long enough, which means the person will shift their weight too far forward as they go down to account for the shift in the center of gravity. Things like this will translate energy, which essentially means you are wasting you energy, and making the movement less efficient. Also training and learning these improper mechanics will mean that you most likely are doing single-leg functional movements like stairs throughout the day incorrectly. This improper movement will wear down the joints over time, and can cause a variety of health problems. Also for proper alignment, make sure that when you step both feet are pointed forwards. Not everyone will be able to have both feet pointed completely forward depending on how they are built, imbalances, and their level. Just remember to keep them as straight forward as possible. From my experience, as someone gets stronger, many times some of these small postural issues will clear up as long as the person is focusing on correcting them each time.
To review what has been gone over so far, take a big breathe to keep your head/chest/upper back in proper alignment, and take a long enough step in which the back knee goes into a straight line right down to the ground.
Hips/Knee/Ankles – Make sure you bring your knee all the way to the ground, but do not just drop it to the ground. It should be brought down under control, and just lightly tap the ground. The majority of your weight should be the heel of the front foot, and you should keep your shoulder in alignment with your hips throughout the movement. Leaning too far forward or back will again translate and waste energy. To come up, drive that front heel through the floor in order to pull your body up and your back foot up so that it is even with the front foot. Stand tall with the same good posture at the top of each rep. Once you complete the lunge on one side, take another big breath and step with the other foot to repeat.
In Part II I will discuss how to modify and progress lunges, so that you can train to be able to do a full lunge.