What lower body workout would be complete without lunges? Lunges are one of the best exercises for targeting your hamstrings and glutes, and you know what that means – a tighter, more toned backside. Depending on the type you do, there’s a lunge to work any muscle in your thigh region.
Less appreciated is the fact that you have to stabilize your core when you do a lunge, so when you lunge you’re working your core too. Plus, as you may have noticed, a lunge requires balance skills and help you improve your own sense of balance. If you play any type of sport, a lunge will likely help your performance. Want to be a better sprinter or jumper? Add more lunges to your workout. So what can you do to maximize the benefits you get from a lunge?
Master Your Form
The lunge is an easy exercise to do but not always an easy one to do right. Some people cheat when they lunge by not going down far enough. To maximize the benefits of a lunge, your knee should almost touch the ground when you descend. When you go low, you maximally activate your glutes for a firmer, tighter butt. If your hip flexors are tight, you may have problems achieving depth, so make sure you’re regularly stretching out these muscles since they often tighten up from too much sitting.
Another common problem is moving too far forwards or backward when you descend in a lunge. Properly done, the movement should be almost straight up and down with your weight evenly proportioned and heels on the floor. Plus, your knees should stay in line with your ankles rather than falling inward and your back and spine should be erect. If you’re not using proper form, you won’t get the most out of a lunge. Master the stationary lunge using good form before moving on to forward and backward lunges and before adding resistance.
You’ll get more benefits from a lunge if you add resistance – but make sure you’re using perfect form first. Many people sacrifice form so they can use heavier resistance. As a result, they don’t go as low and don’t maximally activate the muscles they’re working. Interestingly, a study published in Strength and Conditioning Research showed adding more resistance during anterior or front lunges, increases activation of the glutes and hamstrings but not the quadriceps, the muscles in the front of the thigh.
This makes weighted anterior lunges an effective exercise for firming and strengthening the hams and glutes but less so the quadriceps. This is more important than you think. Research shows a number of women have an imbalance in quadriceps to hamstring strength, meaning the average female’s quadriceps is stronger than her hamstring muscles. Unfortunately, this is a common cause of injury, especially injuries involving the knees, in women athletes.
In fact, one study showed untrained women athletes are between 5 and 6 times as likely as a male athlete to experience a knee injury and quadriceps to hamstring strength ratio is used as a screening tool for susceptibility to injury. That’s why athletic trainers encourage female athletes to work on increasing their hamstring to quadriceps strength ratio. Anterior lunges using resistance is an excellent way to do that.
Emphasizing Different Muscle Groups
Since women generally have more quad strength than hamstring strength, it’s helpful to know how to switch the focus more towards the hamstrings and glutes when doing a lunge. A study published in The Journal of Orthopedics, Sports, and Physical Therapy showed torso positioning during a lunge is a factor. You’ll target your hamstrings and glutes more if you lean slightly forward when lunging while you’ll place more emphasis on your quadriceps when you tilt your torso slightly backward.
Another benefit of doing lunges is you can choose from a variety of variations. Backward lunges, where you step back rather than forward, is a powerful activator of the hamstrings and glutes and is an easier exercise to perform relative to front squats, especially if you have problems balancing when you forward squat. Reverse lunges are also easier on the knees. So, if you have knee issues, make reverse lunges your “go-to” lunge exercise.
One form of lunge that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the lateral lunge. The benefit of the lateral lunge is it works your body in a different plane of motion. Most exercises work your body in the sagittal plane, or front to back, whereas lateral lunges involve movement in the frontal plane. Lateral lunges also work the muscles in your inner thighs that adduct, or bring your thighs back towards your body, and abductors, muscles that raise your thigh to the side, along with targeting your glutes and hamstrings. Doing lateral lunges is a good way to balance out your leg work. Plie squats are another variation that works the adductors on your inner thighs.
Other Ways to Make Lunges Harder
Adding resistance is one way to make a lunge more challenging but so is elevating your back leg on a riser. Lighten the weight when you use elevation so you can concentrate on good form. Elevating your back leg also creates a balance challenge that helps improve proprioceptive skills.
To develop power in your lower body and increase the calorie burn for more fat loss, turn lunges into a plyometric move by doing plyometric lunges, also known as split squats. You’ll really hit those fast-twitch muscle fibers with this move so you can get stronger and more powerful. Doing plyometric lunges will also make you a better sprinter.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not doing lunges, why not? A Lunge not only increases lower body strength – they activate core and stabilizer muscles and help with hip mobility. Lunges are one of the best exercises for working the extensor muscles – your hamstrings and glutes. With so many variations, you have lots of options to help you build a leaner, stronger, more defined physique.
Strength and Conditioning Research. “How does load change the effect of lunges?”
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Impact Factor: 1.86). 05/2009; 23(3):972-8. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00d98.
Am J Sports Med. 1999 Nov-Dec; 27(6):699-706.
J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2008 Jul;38(7):403-9. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2008.2634. Epub 2008 Apr 15.
ACE Fitness. “Are All Lunges Created Equal?”
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