How to Lunge - Variations, Modifications and Mistakes

How to Lunge: Step by Step Static Lunges

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Lunges are a powerful exercise, allowing you to shape and strengthen almost every muscle in the lower body –- the hips, glutes, quads, hamstring and calves. Lunges are tougher than squats because the split stance puts you in an unstable position, which challenges your balance. The stance also changes the load on your body, allowing you to work each leg more independently.

The problem is, some people experience knee pain during some types of lunges. It may be because of previous knee injuries or because of the challenging position lunges require. If you have a knee injury, you should work with your doctor to find the right exercises for you.

If you only feel pain when doing lunges, making sure you're using good form may help you eliminate the pain.

This step by step article explains everything you need to know about lunges: How to do them correctly, variations, modifications, alternatives and mistakes that can put added stress on your knees. Below is your first step towards a safe and effective lunge:

Step by Step: Static Lunges

  • Stand in a split stance with the right foot forward and the left leg back
  • The feet should be about 2 to 3 feet apart, depending on your leg length
  • The split stance will require balance, so hold onto a wall or chair if you feel wobbly
  • Before you lunge, make sure your torso is straight and that you’re up on the back toe
  • Bend the knees and lower the body down until the back knee is a few inches from the floor
  • At the bottom of the movement, the front thigh should be parallel to the floor and the back knee should point toward the floor
  • Keep the weight evenly distributed between both legs and push back up, keeping the weight in the heel of the front foot
  • Repeat for all reps before switching sides

Lunge Variations for Challenge and Intensity

Static lunges are great, but adding variety to your workouts will help you engage the glutes, hips and thighs in different ways and add a whole new dimension to your training. Below are just a few examples of lunge variations:

  • Barbell Lunge - A barbell allows you to use heavier weights since the weight is more evenly distributed over the body. You should have experience and good balance before trying this version.
  • Sliding Lunges - Using a paper plate under the back foot helps you engage more quads and work on balance and stability.
  • Side Lunge - The side lunge emphasizes the inner thighs along with the hips and glutes.
  • Sliding Side Lunges - Adding a paper plate to the traditional side lunge creates more challenge for the inner thighs.
  • Split Squats - Elevating the back leg makes the traditional lunge more advanced and puts more emphasis on the quad of the back leg.
  • Low Lunges - This move offers a tight, small move that really challenges the glutes and thighs of the front leg while engaging the core.
  • Lunge Deadlifts - This advanced exercise engages the hamstrings and glutes of the front leg in a very focused way.
  • One-Leg Lunge with Reach - This move is great for the overall body and will really challenge your balance and core strength.

Adding Lunges to Your Workouts

You don't want to do all of these lunges in one lower body workout but, if you're an intermediate or advanced exerciser, you can choose 1 to 3 different lunges (such as a static lunge, one-leg lunge with reach and a sliding side lunge) for each workout, performing each for 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 16 reps. If you're a beginner, start with one exercise (such as basic static lunges) and do 1 to 2 sets of 10 to 16 reps, adding weight when you feel comfortable.

Lunge Modifications and Alternatives to Avoid Knee Pain

If regular lunges bother you no matter which ones you do, below are a few modifications to try before you give up on them completely. Keep in mind that even modifications may not work for everyone. If you feel pain, skip the exercise and substitute a different version or try one of the alternatives listed below.

  • Assisted Lunges - With this move you use no weight and hold onto a wall or chair for balance. This allows you to focus on your form without other distractions.
  • Smaller Range of Motion - In this move, you only lower down halfway, which may help you keep good form without putting pressure on the knees.
  • Elevated Front Foot - Placing the front foot on a step or small platform may be another modification to try if regular lunges make your knees ache.

Alternatives to Lunges

If lunges won't work for you, there are other exercises that will challenge and strengthen the lower body. Not all of these exercises will work for each person so, as with lunges, you should skip any exercises that cause pain.

Lunge Don'ts: Lunging Too Far Forward

During both squats and lunges, it's easy to put too much stress on the knees by going forward and allowing the knee to move too far over the toes. While your knee may come forward a bit, you should focus on taking the body down as you lunge rather than forward. Another key point is to keep the front knee in line with your second toe throughout the lunge. It may help to tuck the hips a bit as you lunge and check your form in a mirror.

Lunge Don'ts: Externally Rotating the Back knee

Because lunges can compromise your balance, you may externally rotate the back knee in an attempt to find stability. Some people may naturally rotate the back knee due to different biomechanics or ingrained habits they've picked up over the years.

Twisting the knee out or in during a lunge is one move that can lead to pain and injury. The back knee should point to the floor at the bottom of the lunge. If you feel pain in the back knee, check your alignment in a mirror to make sure you're not rotating the knee in or out without being aware of it.

Another factor to be aware of is the flexibility of your quads and hip flexors. If these areas are tight, your form may be compromised and you may even feel a pulling sensation on the kneecap. You can avoid this by either shortening your range of motion and/or stretching the quads before your lunges.

Lunge Don'ts - Stance: Too Close or Too Wide

Another mistake that could cause knee problems involves your stance. Each person will have a different stance based on his height, leg length and what feels comfortable. However, keeping the feet too close together puts much of the force on the knees rather than on the glutes, hamstrings and quads, which is where it should be. Taking the feet too far apart may compromise flexibility in the back leg and add to an already unstable position.

You can avoid this by watching your form in a mirror or, if you don't have one available, check your stance by getting into a lunge position. Lower all the way down, resting the back knee on the floor (make sure you're on a mat or other padded surface). Doing this allows you to check and see if you have a 90-degree angle in both knees. If you don't, you can adjust your stance.

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