Lunge. Like. This.

​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:

  1. Start with feet together in a narrow stance with feet under your hips and pointed forward.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

4.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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Tweak to then perform the forward or walking lunge safely:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 than the squat 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.

Kyle Sela, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, CSCS

Kyle is a physical therapist who is a board certified specialist in sports and orthopedics. He completed a sports medicine fellowship at Duke University in the Management of Division I Athletes and served as a physical therapist on active duty in the US Army where he cared for a Brigade Combat Team during a deployment to Iraq. His passion is in movement efficiency and maximizing every patient's potential to live life to the highest quality. The SquatGuide™ reflects years of experience teaching people to squat with great form and efficiency so that they may benefit from this great exercise.

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