Ask The Doc: Making Most Of The Lunge

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 consider and write about.

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 everyday life and sports.  Performing it with safe and efficient form while improving strength in the 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 could be viewed as more difficult than the squat in some respects but easier in others.  Knowing how the movements differ from a stimulus and stress 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 different types of 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 and teases out 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. Controlling this forward momentum is difficult but should be a point of emphasis.

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.

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 be expanded and 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. 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 resembles the squat pattern they already know (I typically teach squats before lunges but I’ve heard compelling arguments from both sides on which to teach first. Simply put, have a reason for why you are teaching either and when).

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