In this article, I will talk about what a properly executed lunge entails, I will outline some common mistakes that people make when they perform all lunging variations, and I will provide some detailed solutions that will help you take your lunge from flawed to fabulous. Lastly, I will provide you with several of my favourite lunging variations.
A properly executed lunge should involve these key points:
Maintain neutral spinal alignment for the duration of the exercise. When you perform lunges, you want to have a slight forward lean in your torso. If you over exaggerate the lean a little bit (but not too much) and take a slightly larger step, this will make the exercise more hip dominant. Conversely, if your torso is slightly more upright and you take a smaller step, as I did in the picture above, it will make the exercise more quad dominant.
As for your pelvis, you want to keep it as level as possible. I like to use the water glass analogy, although for many, the wine glass analogy might be a better alternative. When you are performing any lunging variation, you want your pelvis to be as level as possible so if it was a cup, the water or wine would not spill out the front or the back. In some instances, when the glute of the working (forward) leg is not doing its job, the hip on the opposite side of the body will collapse towards the floor, and the water/wine will spill out the opposite side. A level pelvis equals a more efficient lunge, and one that is better for improving your overall performance, aesthetics, and health, so be very mindful of your alignment.
Breathing And Core
When you perform any kind of lunge, before each step, you want to take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (I like to pretend that I am about to be hit in the stomach with a soccer ball), and actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in yout midsection). This will keep your body in the right alignment and will allow your anterior core to do its job, which is to stabilize your pelvis and spine. Reset before each lunge.
Do not allow your knee to collapse in or out. Also, as long as your weight remains on the mid/back of your foot and your heel never leaves the surface), it is ok if your knee travels slightly past the toes of your forward leg. Saying that the knees should never travel past the toes is a huge myth. It all depends on your mobility, biomechanics, and anatomy.
In terms of your feet, keep your weight on the mid-back portion of your forward foot, and keep all of your toes down, particularly your big and baby toe. This will dramatically improve your stability. When you take your step into the lunge, you want your feet to remain your regular walking/running width apart the entire time. Many people make the mistake of stepping directly in front of or behind their opposite foot (depending on the lunging variation), like they are walking on a tightrope. This narrower base will dramatically reduce your overall stability, and ability to perform this exercise.
When you are lunging and your front foot hits the ground, your body should travel straight down in a vertical plane. This will allow the desired muscles to work and will reduce the stress to the knees, particularly during the forward or walking lunge. And during some lunging or split squat variations, many people make the mistake, or should I say cheat, by transferring their weight from their working to non-working leg. This takes much of the emphasis off of the front leg and places it on the back leg, and renders the exercise much less effective.
Mistake #1: Leaning Back
When many people perform any type of lunge or split squat, they have a tendency of leaning back. As you can tell that when you lean back (picture below), your rib cage flares and spine hyperextends. Even demo-ing this poor form felt SO gross!
When you perform any type of lunge or split squat, your forward leg should be doing as close to 100% of the work as possible. When you lean back, your weight will shift to the back leg, which is essentially cheating. This breakdown in form will prevent the desired muscles from working to their full potential, limit the amount of weight you are able to lift, hinder your ability to improve your sports specific performance and athleticism, prevent you from achieving as many aesthetic benefits as you could if you were performing the exercise properly, and it will possibly lead to very unhappy joints as even demo-ing this exercise with the bad form felt atrocious! I can't imagine how terrible I would feel if I did it on a regular basis, and while under load.
Many people struggle to perform lunges and lean back because they have an extremely weak anterior core and are unable to resist the extension of the spine, and the subsequent flaring of the rib cage. The more pelvic and spinal stability you have, your form will be significantly better, you will be able to lift more weight, and you will achieve significantly better results, regardless of your goal.
Here are a few of my favourite core stability exercises that will improve your ability to perform all lunging variations as they train the body to be able to resist extension:
Dead Bugs With Kettlebell Resistance
Lie on the floor. Pick your feet up and bend your knees to approximately 90 degrees or more. The greater the angle of your knees, the more advanced the exercise will be. Grab a Kettlebell and raise your arms so they are directly above your chest. Take a deep breath into your belly through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), then forcefully exhale, actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), contract the muscles around your trunk (including lats), and slowly drop one leg towards the floor (move by extending your hip, not your knee) and simultaneously lower the Kettlebell backwards and towards the floor. Bring the leg back to the starting position, and repeat with the opposite leg. Keep your shoulders packed at all times. Reset between each rep. The whole purpose of this exercise is for you to maintain the rib tuck and muscular tension in your anterior core the entire time. You should only feel your anterior core, and your lower back should not arch. In virtually all instances, if you think the exercise is too easy, you are not performing it correctly, end of story.
Ab Wheel Rollouts
The ab wheel rollout is an amazing exercise for the anterior core...IF it is done properly. Most people totally butcher this exercise by rolling out way too far when they don't have the strength or stability to keep their body in the proper alignment. The entire point of this exercise is to resist extension, NOT hyperextend the lumbar spine. Greater range does not mean better if your form is lousy! You can do these from your knees or feet, but start out from your knees.
Before you go, take a deep breath into your belly through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), then forcefully exhale, actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), contract the muscles around your trunk (including lats), squeeze your glutes, and roll as far forward as you can while maintaining proper alignment. Inhale as you are returning to the starting position. Make sure that your shoulders remain packed for the duration of the exercise, and keep your shoulder blades drawn to gather and down. You can pretend that you are trying to tuck your shoulder blade into the opposite back pocket of your pants. Reset and repeat.
Medicine Ball Slams
Medicine ball slams are a great way to relieve stress, and are an absolute favourite of many of my clients. They are a also great exercise for developing power, and strengthening the anterior core.
Grab on to a medicine ball. I prefer the balls that don't bounce. If this is the case, when the ball hits the ground, squat down to the ball to pick it up and maintain a neutral spine.
Set yourself up so you are in a stable and athletic stance. A partial squat stance usually works best. Before you extend your arms overhead and lift the ball, take a deep breath into your belly through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. While maintaining this alignment, keep your shoulders packed and extend your arms, forcefully exhale, and smash the ball down to the ground as hard as possible. Maintain a neutral spine, and have a slight forward lean in your torso. Keep your weight so it's pressing through the mid-back portion of your feet, and keep all of your toes down, particularly your big and baby toes. This will dramatically improve your stability and ability to perform this exercise. Reset between each rep.
Half Kneeling Pallof Presses
Pallof presses are a fantastic anti-rotational core exercise. The half kneeling Pallof press mimics the lunging stance, hence why I am including this variation.
Get in a half kneeling position. Set the cable attachment so it is about chest height, grab the attachment with your outer hand (farthest away from cable machine), and lightly rest the fingertips of your inside hand on top of the other hand. When you extend your arms, the cable and your arms should form a 90 degree angle, so position your body accordingly. Take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine). Now extend your arms, forcefully exhale, brace your core (imagine that you're about to block a soccer ball with your stomach), actively tuck your rib cage towards your anterior pelvis (close the space in your midsection), and lightly engage your glutes. Hold your arms in the extended position for 1-2 seconds before you bring them back to the starting position.
As you bring your arms back in towards your body, stop when your elbows touch your sides. Relax your arms so they do not dominate the exercise. Keep your shoulders packed, and your shoulder blades retracted and depressed (together and down towards your opposite hip). Maintain a tripod foot (weight on the mid to back of your foot, and keep your big and baby toe down) for the duration of the exercise.
Maintain proper alignment for the duration of the exercise. There should be no rotation occurring in your shoulders, torso or pelvis, and your body should not tilt laterally. Do not allow your knee to deviate medially or laterally.
Reset before each rep.
When many people perform lunges, it is incredibly common to see their knee shifting medially and/or laterally. While this can also be the sign of weak and unstable feet, it is often the telltale sign of weak glutes. Here are a few of my favourite exercises that will help address this problem:
Double Banded Toe Taps:
Place one resistance band just above your knees, and one directly below. If the bands vary in thickness, the thicker band should go above the knees. Get into a partial squat position. While remaining in the partial squat stance for the duration of the exercise, lightly reach laterally with the other leg, return to the starting position and repeat. When your non-working leg is moving laterally, the glute of the planted/working leg has to work big-time to prevent your knee and femur from deviating medially or laterally.
Also, do not allow your pelvis, torso, or shoulders to rotate, or shift laterally. Your body should remain completely centered the entire time, and should not lean towards the side of the glute that is working. This is cheating! Maintain a tripod foot entire time. Select a tension of resistance band that allows you to do this. Go until you burn out or your form fails, and repeat with the opposite side. If you are doing this exercise properly, your planted leg should remain completely stable and should not move at all, and your glute should be on fire.
Single Leg Deficit Hip Thrusts
This is one of my favourite exercises for the glutes. Because it is unilateral it really forces each side to work equally so you cannot compensate by using your stronger side.
Set yourself up so your upper back/shoulders and elbows are on a bench or box, and your foot is on a box that is the same height (or it can be slightly lower). Before you drop into the hip thrust, take a deep breath in to your belly (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (imagine that you're about to block a soccer ball with your stomach), and actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection). Now drop your hips down as low as you can, and once you hit the bottom position, drive through the mid/back of the foot that is on the box, squeeze your glutes, pick your hips up so your body is level, and pause for a good count at the top. Pay attention to your alignment at all times. Your spine should remain neutrally aligned, your back should never hyperextend, and your rib cage should never flare. Many people compensate for weak glutes by arching their lower back. One last tip in terms of form. Make sure that you engage the glute of the nonworking leg as well, and also the muscles in your anterior core. Failure to do so will allow your nonworking hip to drop faster, which will cause your pelvis and spine to rotate. Obviously this is not ideal.
Start out with bodyweight, as this in itself is very challenging. Once you're able to perform 10 to 15 reps with perfect form, you can slowly add additional weight.
Deficit Split Squats
The deficit split squat is a great lower body exercise that will help prepare you for all lunging variations, and it really strengthens and develops the glutes.
Stand on two boxes/steps/benches. You should be on the toes of your back foot (some people prefer to rest the top of their foot on the box/step/bench), and the mid/back of your front foot (but keep all toes down, particularly your big and baby toe). Your legs should be regular split squat width apart, and you should have a slight forward lean in your torso. Before you initiate the movement, take a deep breath into your belly (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (imagine that you're about to block a soccer ball with your stomach), actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and slowly descend into a split squat. Go as low as your mobility and strength will permit, while maintaining good form. Contract the muscles in your quads, hamstring, and glute of the forward leg and return to the starting position. Reset, and repeat. Maintain a neutral spine at all times, and do not allow your knee to deviate medially or laterally. Your body should travel in a vertical plane, not horizontally.
If you want to make this exercise more hip dominant, adopt a slightly greater forward lean in your torso, and a slightly longer distance (lengthwise) between your feet.
When many people perform lunges, it is very common to observe their big or baby toe lift off the floor. When the big toe picks up, it is common to see the foot roll out and the knee shift laterally. Conversely, when the baby toe picks up off the floor, it is common to see the arch drop, and the knee shift in a medial direction. Weak and unstable feet will cause a chain reaction of instability and dysfunction throughout your entire body, and will significantly impact your ability to perform this exercise properly.
Here are two of my favourite exercises that will help you improve the strength and stability of your feet and lower legs, and will improve your ability to perform all lunge variations.
Single Foot Stance + Weight Transfer:
Stand on one foot, and keep your weight so it is on the mid-back portion of your foot, and keep all of your toes down, particularly your big and baby toe. While maintaining this ''tripod foot'' base, balance and full body alignment, pass a weight or kettlebell from hand to hand. This great exercise forces your foot to stabilize in many different directions. You will also notice that if you are doing this exercise properly, you should feel your glutes in the planted leg.
Eccentric Heel Drop + Concentric Calf Raise
Set yourself up so your forefoot is on a box, step, or I like to use rubber weight plates as my foot won't slip. While keeping all of your toes and forefoot on the surface, take a few seconds to lower your heel down, and then try to push up to your toes as explosively as you can, and while maintaining control and full body alignment. Make sure to use your full range of motion. In many instances, this might mean using less weight. Make sure that you press through all of your toes, and do not allow any (particularly your big and baby toe) to leave the surface. Do not arch your back or allow your rib cage to flare. Only add weight once you are able to do all of the above.
As I mentioned above, some great lunge variations include the reverse lunge (my favourite variation), forward lunge, walking lunge, lateral lunge, and the forward to reverse lunge combo. Here are two videos of the reverse lunge, and the walking lunge.