There are enough articles about performing the squat form to fill the library of congress. Why? Well, the squat is a highly technical move that many people struggle with. As humans we are capable of moving extremely heavy loads into very deep positions with the squat and given how different our builds and abilities are there is a lot to write about and consider.
The lunge, however, is another technical movement that is performed commonly in most strength and conditioning programs. And rightly so, this movement is similar to many things we do every day in life and sport. Performing it with safe and efficient form while improving strength with this movement will have a ton of carry over into the things in life you want to do well. There are few articles about the lunge and how to do it well so let’s dive in.
Lunging is more difficult than the squat in some respects but easier in others. Knowing how the movements differ from a stimulus standpoint can help you understand when and how to program lunges more effectively and why the body responds differently during recovery. This knowledge can also help select or avoid a movement when rehabbing from an injury.
How lunges are more difficult than squats:
- The split stance of the lunge puts the rear leg in a less powerful position than the front leg so the potential to lift larger loads is diminished compared to squatting. The lunge emphasizes single leg strength to a greater extent than squatting.
- The shape and size of the base of support created by the split stance demands more lateral balance than the squat. When was the last time you saw someone fall to the side when squatting?
- If doing a lunge that requires stepping forward (as opposed to a drop step or static lunge) momentum is likely to shift weight to the forefoot of the stepping leg causing the heel to elevate and the knee to travel too far forward. This puts increased pressure through the patella (knee cap) often causing pain. This weight in the forefoot with heel elevated position takes the hamstrings out of the picture putting increased demand on the quadriceps with less “help” from the hamstrings.
- There is increased demand on the hamstrings if done correctly. At the bottom of the lunge the front foot should not be anywhere near the glutes. This means there is likely not more than 90 degrees of knee flexion which keeps more tension in the hamstrings throughout the movement. At the bottom of the squat the knees are usually bent much more than 90 degrees if moving through full depth. This deep knee flexion puts slack in the hamstrings rendering them unable to contribute to the movement at that point. So, with respect to the hamstrings the lunge places a higher demand on them then the squat.
How lunges are easier than the squat:
- The split stance position makes it easier to stabilize the pelvis allowing for a more upright torso position. Meaning, maintaining good neutral spine position and lumbopelvic stability is easier when lunging. Why this is easier is due to the rear leg applying a forward force to the pelvis and the front leg applying a rearward force to the pelvis essentially cancelling each other out and stabilizing the pelvis in an upright position (this point could easily be an article in and of itself).
- Depth of lunges are limited by the back leg (knee hits the ground) so there is less hip mobility required unless you are performing some type of lunge variant.
- As mentioned before the stance does not allow a person to lift as much weight as when squatting. So, with lighter potential loads, a more upright torso and easier lumbopelvic stability the lunge is easier on the spine than squatting.
- There is less demand on the adductors when lunging. During the squat, both femur need to spread away from each other to allow the pelvis to drop low between them (knees out). This puts a large eccentric load on the adductors and why a squatter feels sore on the inside of their thighs when pushing themselves. This dramatic drive out does not happen when lunging, hence the lunge is easier on the adductors.
Those are few ways the two movements differ. We could go on but let’s stop here and move into how to perform the lunge correctly.
Just as there are many different squat variations, there are many different lunge variations but for this article we are focusing on the basics and establishing sound principles. With that said, an important thing to keep in mind is that no matter if you are lunging by stepping forward or reverse the form at the bottom position should look the same.
I like to start people off lunging by teaching the drop step (AKA reverse) lunge first. The drop step tends to prevent the front knee from traveling too far forward and more resemble the squat pattern that most are more familiar with.
To Perform the Drop Step Lunge:
- Start with feet together in a narrow stance with feet under your hips and pointed forward.
- Take a large step back but keep the bulk of your weight in the front foot. The step was large enough if when that knee hits the ground it is behind the hip if looking at someone from the side.
- When taking that large step back keep your “core” engaged so that your lower back does not overextend – this will be a challenge for those with tight quads and hip flexors and can actually be a great dynamic stretch of those muscles if brace your core to resist spine extension.
- The knee of the front leg should be positioned somewhere from directly over the ankle to over the midfoot during the entire movement. Another way to think of this is that when looking from the side the shin is vertical to just forward of vertical. If the shin is forward of vertical too far the heel will come off the ground and if the shin behind vertical the front leg is unloaded and too much weight will be in the back foot.
The front leg should be doing most of the work.
- The knee of the front leg should also be pushed out to the side slightly. This will help “screw” the foot into the floor, prevent the knee from collapsing in, clear space at the front of the hip and also engage the glute muscles to a greater extent. The knee is pushed out enough if when looking down at the foot the inside 2-3 toes are visible. That knee position should be maintained on the decent, transition and rise up of the lunge. I will often see the knee dive inward during the transition from down to up so really focus during that time.
- After stepping back into the lunge, kiss the back knee to the ground under control and return to the start position by driving up through the front foot (think about pushing through your heel) and bring your back foot forward even with the front foot. We recommend doing 5 reps per leg before switching. This allows self-corrections of the movement during the set whereas alternating every rep can make it difficult to feel the subtle changes needing to be made.
Perform the forward or walking lunge safely with a small tweak to what was taught above:
- The main difference here is that momentum forward will need to be controlled and reined in so that knee doesn’t travel too far forward putting weight only in the forefoot. To accomplish this take a large step forward but then drop the hips straight down.
- Again, the bottom position of the forward or walking lunge should look no different than the drop step lunge.
These concepts should get anyone lunging or teaching the lunge on the right path. Of course there are million way to perform this movement differently but it’s always best to master the fundamentals before progressing into other types.
In summary, while it does not get near the attention of squatting the lunge should be a part of EVERY strength and conditioning program. Be aware of how and why it’s different and use that as an advantage when programming for yourself or others. Be patient with the reps, think about where your weight should be (especially in the lead foot) and where the knees should be positioned in relation to the feet and hips.
As things stand, it’s honestly good that everyone is not performing the squat for fitness, longevity, health and independence. This is because the elderly, the young and the middle aged all really suck at squatting with any type of proficiency. And squatting poorly will not reap the great rewards of fitness, longevity, health and independence. Squatting poorly will no doubt cause pain, dysfunction and a decrease in quality of life. So, really when the doctor tells Grandma and Great Grandma not to squat because it’s bad for your knees, he’s partially right. However, what he should tell Grandma and Great Grandma is not “you should not squat” but “you should not squat LIKE THAT!”
So what gives? How do we fix this dilemma? How do we get the masses of Grandmas and Great Grandmas to squat well so that they may live well? There are certainly not enough strength coaches, physical therapists, and personal trainers available to even teach your Grandma and mine to squat well, let alone continue to follow them over time to ensure they continue to squat correctly.
Until now, this dilemma did not have a solution but the people at Movement Guides, Inc feel a solution has been created. It’s called the SquatGuide™ and it’s helping people move correctly and get functionally stronger all over the United States. Yes, grandma can use the SquatGuide and in no time be happily getting on and off the toilet safely without a raised seat or hand rails.
The device is the first of its kind in that it prevents the user from going into a poor squat pattern while facilitating the user to squat correctly. The user must control their own range of motion and body weight. The device is adjustable and portable. It is not too large or heavy and best of all not that expensive either. It’s solidly constructed, made in the USA and invented by a physical therapist and US Army Veteran.
The SquatGuide™ is used in physical therapy clinics, strength and conditioning facilities, as well as in homes across the country. While this article focuses on how it can help Grandma, it is just as effective at training young athletes and inexperienced people looking to improve their fitness and to move properly prior to starting a strength or resistance training program.
There is an answer for long term independence with a focus on a one of the most basic movement tasks in life. The Squat.
Move. Like. This.™
The squatguide – Set Up & Use
1. Set the height of the knee guides to the height of your knees.
3. Stand on the SquatGuide™ with your toes touching the front rail and the outside of your foot touching the lateral rail (essentially in the front outside corner of the foot plate).
4. Bring your arms up to shoulder height in front of you.
6. As you lower into the squat make contact with the outside knee guides and
avoid touching the front knee guides.
7. Maintain contact with outside knee guides until you return to standing position.
• As you get lower into your squat it may help to push your knees out to provide stability and minimize the feeling falling backwards.
• Try to prevent your lower back from rounding and your tailbone from tucking under – we advise that you do not squat so low that this happens
• Ideally each knee will be pushed out equally during your squat.
For assembly instructions please view our assembly video at: