I would choose lunges if I could only choose one exercise to do while I am stuck in my house. Most people view lunges as a torturous group fitness exercise that has you parade around the gym in a conga-line while burning out your quads and hurting your knees. Walking lunges are a staple of the lunge matrix. There are better ways to make this exercise more fun and knee-friendly while getting you increasingly strong and stable. Lunges may be the most versatile exercise we have in our arsenal.
Various Planes of Motion
First, it is important to understand that we can move in three different planes of motion: sagittal (front to back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (rotational or combination of first two planes). Most traditional exercises that are performed in the gym are done in the sagittal plane. This includes movements like squats, forward lunges, forward step ups, bench press, pullups, pushups, bicep curls, etc. This is beneficial but only to a certain extent. Every day we encounter movements that occur in the other planes of motion.
Most sports or competitions require proficient control in the frontal and transverse planes. Having control in these areas helps to perform cutting, running, throwing, hitting, swinging, or jumping. We need to have variety in our training to be prepared for the forces of competition to optimize performance and decrease risk of injury.
I always recommend starting in the sagittal plane (forward/backward) when initiating an exercise. Reverse or step-back lunges are the easiest on the knees. I recommend performing reverse lunges when focusing on improving strength/power in the posterior chain. Forward lunges are a progression and result in an increase in quadriceps demand. They are a great exercise when working on eccentric control and deceleration. However, these lunges tend to place more pressure on the front of the knee. Walking lunges are the most difficult variation in the sagittal plane due to the challenges of stability, coordination, and eccentric control while sauntering about the gym.
Lateral lunges are the natural next step once you are ready to progress into the frontal plane. Start with your feet together, then step out to the side with one leg while maintaining the other in place. Keep the stationary leg straight while you bend the hip and knee on the moving leg to absorb the forces and gradually lower yourself down. I recommend reaching forward or across your body with the opposite hand to drive the hips back and allow for decreased strain on the front of the knee. You want to feel a stretch into the adductors, and the glute on the moving leg should fire. Stand back up and return to the starting position.
This is an excellent variation to initiate change of direction activities. This will help to improve lateral hip strength, single leg stability, groin flexibility, hip mobility, and shock absorption. This exercise has been a staple in my warmup for about a decade now, and I continue to load it weekly in my exercise routine.
Exercises in the transverse plane are more advanced because of the greater degree of difficulty to control the forces of rotation. Rotational exercises will help to improve power, but it is crucial to have good trunk and single leg stability to be able to take full advantage of exercises in the transverse plane. You will be at a higher risk of injury if you do not have adequate stability.
We utilize the curtsy lunge to improve hip mobility and gluteus maximus power. This exercise places the fibers of the glute max on stretch which increases the demand on this muscle allowing for improved motor unit activation. You can perform diagonal multiplanar lunges to improve hip mobility and single-limb stability in various positions. Transverse plane exercises allow for increased movement variability and expression of different movement patterns that are similar to sport-specific activities.
An exercise complex is when you pair 2+ variations together into one fluid movement pattern. Performing a lunge complex helps to flow between the variations in the lunge matrix. Most commonly, you may be familiar with this concept when performing a forward lunge into a reverse lunge.
My favorite combination is lateral lunge to curtsy lunge because it is a great hip opener and works to improve strength in the frontal/transverse plane. We can also perform lunges with diagonal steps (ex: 2:00-8:00 or 10:00-4:00) while maintaining a pivot foot on the ground. These exercises are typically very taxing and only require about 4-6 repetitions each set.
If lunges are too difficult, you can perform all of these variations from a static position. These exercises are called split squats and may be performed to improve stability while learning the movement pattern. Split squats are easier because there are less moving pieces. Both feet remain statically planted in the ground throughout the performance of the exercise. We progress people from split squats, to slider lunges (if necessary), to lunges. Each patient must demonstrate proficiency in strength, eccentric control, and stability prior to progressing to the next phase. Below is an example of a progression of exercises:
Split Squats → Lateral Split Squats → Reverse Lunges → Lateral Lunges → Forward Lunges → Curtsy Lunges → Complex Lunges
The versatility of the lunge is what makes it one of my favorite exercises. We can change directions, vary load intensity, adjust speed of contraction, or increase time under tension to create progressive overload. All of these variations allow for us to continuously progress this simple exercise and make it useful across the spectrum of rehab to training. Exercise versatility is great when you are stuck at home or traveling on the road with minimal equipment.
We could all use a few lunges in our life to spice up our workouts while we are stuck at home under self-quarantine. If you are quarantined in your home and have questions about any of the variations mentioned above, contact us to schedule a virtual appointment. Otherwise, come see us at the clinic for a session!
Written By: Dr. Timothy Alemi, PT, DPT, SCS