Lunges are a great way to work the glutes and thighs, but they’re often misused because people do them incorrectly or with poor form. Even though lunges target your thighs, it’s your knees that sustain pressure when you perform this exercise improperly. But with these simple tips (and some practice!), you’ll be able to make your lunge routine effective while still protecting your knees. Let’s look at some reasons lunges can cause knee pain.
Your lunges are too deep
When you go too deep into a lunge, you place added stress on your knees. When you bend your knees into a deep lunge, your quadriceps — the muscles at the front of your thighs — contract forcefully and pull on their attachments at the knee joint.
This creates added tension in the ligaments and tendons and puts pressure on the knee joint itself. This can raise the internal pressure on the knee by up to 50 percent compared with when you stand upright. Deep lunges also place extra stress on other parts of your body. Your hips and ankles need to work harder to keep you balanced when you do a deep lunge, so they may experience added stress too.
Everyone has a different tolerance for how low they can safely go into a lunge. How low you can lunge without discomfort depends on the structure of your hips and whether you have healthy knee joints. If you have knee arthritis, your depth will be more limited.
Focus on keeping your lunges pain-free. If you experience discomfort or develop knee pain after doing lunges, don’t go as low. You’ll still get benefits with a more shallow lunge with less risk.
You’re stepping forward or backward when you lunge
Forward lunges, where you step forward with one foot, shifts your body weight onto your front knee. This can cause knee discomfort for some people. Reverse lunges, where you step backward, are easier on the knees, but if they also cause discomfort, keep your feet planted on the floor when you lunge by doing stationary lunges. Stationary lunges still work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core for greater lower body strength but they’re easier on your knees.
If you do front lunges, keep your steps short and controlled as you do each repetition. Avoid taking a long step forward to reduce stress on the knee.
Your front knee is moving over your toes
When you lunge, try to keep your front knee behind your toes. If you can’t do this while maintaining proper alignment, then drop the depth of the lunge (since your knees will move over your toes with increased depth). If your knees do go past your toes, ensure your foot is firmly planted on the ground to avoid placing added stress on your knee. Part of the problem with the front knee moving past the toes is it causes your heel to come off the floor. Keep your heel firmly planted on the ground.
You’re lunging with your feet too close together
When you lunge with your feet close together, you can’t distribute your weight equally on both legs — which puts a lot of pressure on your knees. Keeping your feet too close together also makes it harder to stay balanced when you lunge. Also, when your feet are too close together during a lunge, it shifts the work away from your glutes and hamstrings and toward your quads, so your booty misses out.
You’re holding your body too upright
Trying to keep your body too upright when lunging can trigger knee pain too. Instead, lean your body slightly forward. This shifts more of the work onto your glutes, so you place less stress on your knees. Your quads will work a little less hard but most people work their quads harder than their hamstrings and glutes anyway.
You haven’t mastered good lunge form
Perfecting lunge form takes practice and many people do them carelessly. Here’s how to properly execute a lunge:
- Stand straight with feet shoulder-width apart while holding weights at arm’s length down by sides (optional)
- Step forward with one foot into a half-squat position (knee bent 90 degrees).
- Lower yourself towards the floor until your front thigh reaches a parallel position.
- Return upwards without locking the knee joint.
- Repeat on the opposite side
If you’re doing lunges incorrectly, you could be putting too much pressure on your knees. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Make sure your knee is not over your toes.
- Make sure your front knee does not extend past your ankle.
- Make sure that the back leg stays straight and does not touch the ground at any point during the movement.
- Make sure that both of your legs have equal weight distribution throughout the movement (ie don’t distribute more weight onto one leg than another).
If you aren’t sure what the knee should feel like when you do lunges correctly, it’s hard to know whether your knees are in the right position. This can cause pain and unnecessary strain on your joints, especially your knees.
As a rule, you should never push the knee forward while doing lunges. The same goes for pushing back or inward, as well as outwards or down towards the floor. Finally, don’t allow your knees to sway side-to-side while doing this exercise either because this puts additional pressure on both sides of the joint and can lead to injury down the line!
Lunges are great for the quadriceps, glutes, calves, and hamstrings. They also strengthen your hips and core. But if you do them incorrectly, lunges can cause knee pain, back pain, ankle pain, and foot pain, and negatively affect your posture. On the plus side, if you do them properly, they will strengthen your legs, glutes, and core without harming them.
With proper form and good technique, lunges can be a great way to work your lower body and your core muscles as well. Take the time to learn what your knees (and the rest of your body) should feel like when you are doing them correctly so that you don’t injure yourself in the process!
“Lunges: Muscles Worked, How-To, Variations, and More.” 29 Nov. 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/lunges-muscles-worked.
Jönhagen S, Ackermann P, Saartok T. Forward lunge: a training study of eccentric exercises of the lower limbs. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):972-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00d98. PMID: 19387378.