As more people are starting to focus on their health and working out at home, bodyweight exercises such as lunges are becoming even more popular. However, many athletes and even trainers perform them improperly in a way that is both less challenging and more prone to injury. The amount of “bad” information from fitness gurus on the internet is staggering! Hopefully this article will challenge some of those misconceptions and help you lunge (and ultimately train) safely and effectively!
Why do we Lunge?
There are many reasons why we choose certain exercises. People do certain exercises to build muscle mass and bone density, get toned for a beach body, for the sake of lifting heavier weights, or just to get healthier. I believe one of the most important factors in choosing a certain exercise is to train our body for what we are specifically doing or want to do. If you want to burn extra calories and build muscle mass, you pick the most efficient exercise to challenge those muscles. If you want to become a competitive athlete and improve your performance, you choose exercises that recreate and challenge those same movements that you perform on the field or on the mountain. Ultimately, how you perform the exercise and your rationale for doing it is much more important than cranking out as many sets and repetitions as you can.
I’ll say right off the bat that I see little value in the traditional lunge and almost never prescribe the traditional lunge to my patients or athletes*. In the traditional lunge, the trunk is completely upright, both the front and rear knees are bent, the rear knee is hovering over the ground, and the front knee is behind the toes. Most fitness blogs, infographics, and trainers teach this method of lunging. However, there is a better way of lunging that is safer, challenging, and more sports-specific all while being even less stressful/painful when compared to the traditional lunge.
*unless patients are in the early stages of recovery after hip surgery with range of motion restrictions
In my professional and clinical opinion, the proper way to do it is:
The Hinged Lunge
How to perform the hinged lunge:
- Start in a staggered stance with your feet a “medium distance apart” and the back leg straight. (play around to find the comfortable distance)
- Engage your core muscles by tilting your pelvis back, flattening your spine, tightening your abs, etc.
- In one fluid movement, lean your trunk forwards so that your chest is pointing slightly downwards (hip hinging) as you bend your front knee .
- As you lunge, shift your bodyweight forward onto the front leg. Most, if not all of your weight should be on your front leg.
- Optional: move your opposite arm up to mimic the arm swing during running/sprinting
- Finish: shift your weight back into the starting position or push through the front leg to stand upright into a “hip drive” position
- The back leg is straight and spine is flat throughout the whole exercise.
The hinged lunge is the safer, efficient, and functional version of lunging. There are many reasons why the hinged lunge is better than the traditional lunge in almost every aspect. Here are a few reasons why:
Functional Movements and Sport-Specific Training
The goal of exercise, especially sports-specific training, is to refine our movement patterns. Functional exercises are those that recreate what we do in our daily lives or in a given sport/activity. The traditional lunge is not functional because most people rarely ever need to do that. You don’t kneel down to tie your shoe with your trunk pointing towards the sky and your rear knee hovering over the ground. I can’t even think of nor seen a single athletic movement that mimics the traditional lunge.
However, you see the hinged lunge all the time. Reaching down to tie your shoes, picking something off the ground on one leg, lunging for the ball just out of reach, pitching a fastball, sprinters exploding off of the starting block, and many other athletic and non-athletic movements. Most people naturally do this hinged lunge position without realizing it! It utilizes the larger muscles of the legs, generating more stability and power. It recreates the exact movement patterns that athletes have to do on the field. That’s why the hinged lunge is the more functional and sport specific exercise.
Hip Hinging and Muscle Recruitment:
Hip hinging is one of the most important functional movements. It is essential for weightlifting and athletic performance. When properly hip hinging, the core muscles are able stabilize your spine and promote a “neutral spine”. This helps protect the spine and allows athletes to better transfer energy through the kinetic chain to generate power into their movements. However, the largest benefit of the hip hinge is recruitment of the posterior chain (gluteals, hamstrings, lumbar extensors). The posterior chain muscles are considered the “powerhouse” and include the largest and strongest muscle of the body, the gluteals. As a result, the hinged lunge is able to utilize the posterior chain to generate the most force and power and reinforce efficient movement patterns for athletes.
In contrast, the traditional lunge relies mainly on the quadriceps. Compared to the glutes, the quadriceps are unable to generate as much force by itself. This is detrimental to athletic performance! Not only is the traditional lunge less efficient in terms of performance and strength training, but it also places heavier stress through the knee joint (see point 3). This could cause long-term issues and injuries down the road if over-utilized and performed incorrectly.
Lunging and Knee Pain
One of the most common complaints from patients is anterior (front) knee pain while lunging. People that have an unresolved knee injury or a history of knee pain typically have trouble with the traditional lunge. One reason is increased stress and abnormal movement of the patellofemoral joint. The patella (knee cap) contacts and glides along the femur (thighbone) as the knee moves. When the knee is loaded and bent to 90 degrees, the patella has the greatest contact with the femur and experiences the most stress. The traditional lunge also relies mainly on the quadriceps, which acts to pull and compress the patella against the femur. The heavy quadricep emphasis combined with the 90 knee bend heavily stresses the knee joint during a traditional lunge. A healthy athlete will have no problems with the traditional lunge. However, those with a history of knee injury or who overuse the traditional lunge can aggravate the knee joint and worsen the pain.
Photo credit to: orthoinfo.aaos.org
One of the mainstays in the rehabilitation of knee injuries such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, osteoarthritis, ACL reconstructions, etc is gluteal strengthening. The gluteals protect the knees from twisting and caving inwards, especially while lifting, running, jumping, and cutting/pivoting. They keep the knees properly aligned and minimize shearing forces/stress in the knee joints.
The hinged lunge distributes more of the muscular work to the gluteals. The quadriceps are still trained, but since both muscle groups are sharing the load there is less patellar compression through the patella compared to the traditional lunge. Additionally, due to the forward trunk lean you can place all of the weight onto the leading leg without being forced into the 90 degree knee bend. Not only does the hinged lunge train the stabilizing muscles and minimize patellar compression, you can actually train harder with less knee pain. The hinged lunge is the reason why many of my athletes and patients who previously couldn’t lunge, could finally do it without pain or discomfort.
The Lunge as a Single-Leg Exercise:
The lunge was meant to be a single-leg strengthening exercise. As a single-leg exercise, the goal is to progressively load the leg to promote muscle hypertrophy (growth) and improve stability compared to a double-leg exercise. The traditional lunge is not actually a single leg exercise, it’s a double leg-exercise. Due to the upright trunk position and your body’s center of mass, you are forced to put a large percentage of the weight through the rear leg. This defeats the purpose of single leg strengthening.
Due to the forward position of your trunk and purposeful weight shifting forward, the hinged lunge is a true single-leg strengthening exercise. If done correctly, you will feel more muscular work through the front leg, especially the posterior chain. To illustrate this point, I compared a traditional lunge and a hinged lunge with my forward leg on a scale. You can see below how much weight is being placed through the scale:
I weigh 140 lbs. With the hinged lunge there was 80% body weight on the front leg compared to 55% body weight with the traditional lunge. While not very scientific, these numbers suggest that the hinged lunge bears more weight than the traditional lunge, making it the more effective exercise for single leg strengthening.
Side Note: the traditional lunge is not a regression of the hinged lunge. Just because there is less weight through the leading leg, does not make an easier alternative (see points 1-3).
Hinged Lunge progressions:
Pictured below are examples of some lunge progressions. There are many other variations, but here are a select few that I frequently prescribe:
- Static Partial Lunge
- Shift your weight forward as forward as you feel comfortable and hold
- Walking Lunge (with linger)
- Linger (optional): at the lowest point of the lunge, shift all your weight onto the leading leg and slightly lift the rear leg up. Keep low and hold for 2-3 seconds
- Drive up through the leading leg into the hip drive position.
- Repeat and alternate legs to walk down
- Goblet Lunge
- Hold a weight close to your chest and lunge
- Tighten the core and don’t let your chest collapse
- Forward Medicine Ball Press
- Press a medicine ball down towards the ground as you drop into the lunge in one smooth movement
- Medicine Ball Catch
- Toss a medicine ball as you drop into the lunge position
- Try to catch the ball right before it hits the ground
- Take a medium sized step to the side
- At the lowest point make sure your shoulder-hip-knee-foot are stacked in-line over each other
- Don’t let your knee go past the toes
Elevated Split Squat
- Hinge at the hips as you lower down
- Hold a weight close to your chest
- Tighten the core and don’t let your chest collapse
- In sets of 10-20 seconds, rapidly perform as many split squats as you can.
- Goal is to be explosive and fast
- Single leg hop
- Slowly lower down into the split squat
- Explode up and hop into the air with the rear foot still planted
- Land on the leading leg with control and repeat
Alternating Lunge Jumps
- Start in the lowest point of the lunge and explode up into the air
- While midair, switch feet so that the rear leg now becomes the leading leg
- Absorb the impact and land softly, then repeat
Some exercises are popular and convenient to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you are healthy and never had any knee or hip injuries, there is nothing necessarily bad with the traditional lunge. Our bodies can be incredibly resilient and adaptable. But why continue with the traditional lunge when there are better ways of doing it?
My job as a sports physical therapist is to keep people healthy, active, and able to do whatever it is that they want to do. Every exercise that I prescribe to my patients and athletes is meticulously thought out to achieve its intended purpose. While everyone is different and there is no end-all-be-all exercise, the hinged lunge is still the superior lunge to get people back onto the field and build on their athletic performance.