Understanding the lunge is essential for any fitness enthusiast or professional. The lunge is one of the seven Primal Pattern(R) movements, the term I created to describe the most important movement patterns that are the keys to optimal human function. (The other six Primal Pattern(R) move-ments are squatting, pulling, pushing, twisting, bending and gait.) By combining two or more of these patterns, all other movements are possible: for example, throwing a ball is a combination of a lunge, twist and push (Fig. 1). Exercises based on the Primal Pattern(R) movements train the musculoskeletal and nervous systems together, mimicking real-life move-ments that translate directly to work and sports activities.
The lunge is also a classic 'Big Bang' exercise, another term I use for exercises that work multiple muscle groups in multiple planes of motion, and which require more than one of the biomotor abilities-balance, agility, speed, coordination, strength, power, flexibility and endurance. The lunge requires activation of the muscles surrounding the hip joint and those of the lower extremity, and also the interaction of the core with the lower limb. It is excellent for improving general strength and stability, balance and coordination. Depending on the variables used when performing the exercise, power or endurance can also be developed.
The lunge has great aesthetic benefits, as it sculpts the glutes and legs, and improves postural alignment, when performed correctly. As it requires balancing your centre of gravity over your base of support, the lunge also has a far greater functional carryover into daily living than all those butt-blaster or inner/outer thigh machines.
A functional exercise is one that conditions the body to meet and exceed the demands of your work or sports environment. So, unless you regularly kick your heels to the ceiling from a crawl position, a butt-blaster exercise has little functional carryover into everyday tasks. On the other hand, the lunge mimics many common daily activities such as walking upstairs and stepping over objects.
Descending and ascending
The lunge performed with just the body's own weight is what I call the 'Primal Standard'. This is the level that most people should be able to do to survive the rigours of daily life. If you cannot perform a free lunge because of strength or balance issues, you need to 'descend' the exercise (make it easier; see box below). Alternatively, those who require a higher level of functionality in the lunge pattern need to 'ascend' the exercise once they have mastered the Primal Standard.
The Basic Lunge (Fig. 2)
As with any exercise, correct technique is essential for reducing the risk of injury.
- Take a deep, diaphragmatic breath (full belly, then full chest) and draw your belly button in towards your spine. This activates the transversus abdominis muscle, a key stabilizer
of the spine.
- Keeping an upright posture, take a big step forward into the lunge. If your step length is correct, your front shin will be vertical. Take care not to 'short-step' the lunge.
- Bending both knees, descend into the lunge as deeply as possible, or until the trailing knee is just off the floor. Be sure to not let the leading knee drop inward towards the mid-line of the body.
- Push off the heel of the front foot
to return to the start position-this activates the glutes. If you have difficulty returning to a standing position with one step, use a double-step method: step up halfway, then take a second step to return to the start position.
- Release your breath through pursed lips as you step back to the starting position, and never let your breath escape unrestricted. This exhalation technique is especially important when lifting heavy loads.
The principles of the Basic Lunge are used in all of its variations, so it is important to learn the correct form as you begin training in this key movement pattern. As you master this pattern, you can add more weight by placing a wooden dowel rod or bar across your upper back and gripping the bar as close to your shoulders as
is comfortable. This activates the scapula retractors and encourages good posture.
Descending the Lunge:
the Split Squat (Fig. 3)
Step into the Lunge position, then lower and raise the body for the required number of repetitions before stepping back to the start position. Do this either free-standing with your own body weight, or use a wooden dowel rod in one or both hands to aid balance by increasing your base of support. Alternatively, perform the exercise in a squat cage, holding onto the cage or bar for support. Only as
a last resort should the Lunge or
Split Squat be performed on a Smith machine, as this encourages you to lean back on the bar and not balance your own centre of gravity over your own base of support.
Ascending the Lunge:
- Begin with a forward lunge but, 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 this in a straight line.
A more challenging version of the Walking Lunge is doing it backwards. Practice the Basic Lunge backwards first, then try a 45-degree back lunge.
- Look backward to get an idea of
the direction you are stepping towards. This is helpful, as many people avoid the 45-degree pattern because it is foreign and requires the brain to orchestrate a new movement.
- While performing the Lunge, it is important to keep your head and eyes forward, and the shoulders
and pelvis square to the front, while allowing the trailing leg to pivot naturally as you drop into the Lunge. A common mistake is to turn the whole body 45 degrees before lungeing.
- Don't allow the knees to drop inward, as this places unwanted stress and torque on the knee joint. The knee and ankle joints are hinge joints, and should never be unnec-essarily twisted during training exercises.
Perform the backward Walking Lunge just as you did the forward version
but, this time, push off with your front foot. Also, remember to push through the heel to properly activate the glutes before stepping backwards.
The Jumping Lunge (Fig. 4)
This is an excellent power exercise.
- Start with your feet together, then jump into a split stance.
- From the Lunge position, jump straight up and switch your stance so that you land in the lunge position, but with the opposite leg forward.
- Continue at a fast tempo for no more than 10-15 seconds. Stop as soon as your speed drops or just 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.
There are many different variations of the Lunge, such as the Lateral Lunge and Multidirectional Lunge. The principles are the same as for the Basic Lunge, but with the stepping leg moving in a different direction or plane. In the Multidirectional Lunge, one leg lunges sequentially to the front, 45 degrees front, laterally, 45 degrees back and directly back. The whole series is then repeated on the other leg. This is a particularly useful lunge as it mimics many common movements found in life and sports activities.
The Lunge is an extremely useful exercise with a wide variety of applications. It can be used by novice exercisers all the way up to experienced athletes simply by changing the exercise variables and parameters. It is important to ascend or descend the lunge as needed, making sure that the exercise does not exceed your current functional capacity, but also ensuring that it's enough of a challenge to produce a training response. As with all exercises, apply the Form Principle; perform every repetition and set in perfect form, and stop before the form breaks down to ensure optimal neuro-muscular conditioning.
Paul Chek is founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an internationally recognized lecturer and educator in the fields of orthopaedic rehabilitation, and corrective and performance exercise. For more information, call 01924 566 091 (UK) or visit his website at www.chekinstitute.com.
Vol. 20 05 August 2009