Lunges help us move better. They also make me sing “Get on the Good Foot” by James Brown. You should get on your good foot, leg, and hip — and then switch to your other side too. Most of us should incorporate unilateral work into our training. Unilateral sounds much more serious than it is; it just means working on one side at a time. For example, when you load one leg or one arm vs. doing an exercise like the squat, where both sides of your body are doing the same thing. Get the picture?
Coaches like to give people both unilateral and bilateral exercises because that’s how we move in life. We also like to change up the directions that our clients move – because our daily activities don’t require motion in only one direction. Life gets kind of twisty sometimes.
Because we’re less stable in the lunge than other two-legged activities, we get a chance to work coordination and muscle activation in new ways. This translates to real-world benefits too: from sprinting and zig-zagging down a soccer field to twisting to grab a bag of mulch in the garden, we need to be able to use our bodies to do stuff. And lunge variations help in this regard.
Lunges can build strength in your butt and legs. Because we require more stability to execute a single-leg exercise than a bipedal exercise, our abs come to the party too. Lunges can be incorporated into a warm-up too as a mobility drill. They help wake up my tight hips in the morning. I lunged down the hallway to the bathroom today. True story.
These unilateral wonders also play a role in training our ability to control deceleration, or slowing down in movement. This helps prevent injuries.
You can use a search engine to find eleventy-billion lunge variations. People get pretty damn creative with this movement, which basically refers to an exercise that incorporates a leg that stays anchored with a bent knee while the other leg moves in another direction. That’s it.
Tips for Lunge Success
– Your knee can come forward some, but with all lunge variations, letting it come way past your toe is usually no bueno. Taking a bigger step will often fix this problem.
– Drive your heel into the floor as you push up.
-Some folks tip way too far forward with their chest. You want a relatively upright position: enough that if I were wearing my “Des Moines, Hell Yes” t-shirt you could see the words as I lunged.
-For moves like the static, forward, and reverse lunge, aim to get your knee a few inches from the floor but don’t let it actually touch the floor.
-On a reverse, forward, and static lunge, you’re looking for close to a 90 degree angle with your knee bend at the bottom part of the movement.
While variations seem endless, I keep coming back to a few key variations with my clients. Here are my favorites and how to incorporate them into your own routine.
How to do these: get your body into the lunge position with one leg behind you, hips facing forward. Think of your feet standing shoulder width apart instead of standing on a tightrope – you don’t want them so close together that you can’t balance. Lunge back with one leg and then just bend and straighten your legs, descending into the position and elevating again to the top without actually stepping between reps.
When to do them: as a strength exercise as a beginner. Once you can do these easily, then move on to other variations. The reverse lunge is a great variation to try next.
These seem to be more easily learned for many of my clients than other variations, yet they are suitable for advanced lifters too. Try this variation with crossover in my pic. It requires extra stability and gives you some rotational work too. My butt and thighs weep from reverse lunges after I do heavy sets on leg day.
How to do reverse lunges with crossover: Begin in an upright position with either your hands clasped in front of you or holding a weight. Take a big, controlled step back with one foot and as you do so, rotate toward the leg that is in front.
When to do them: As a body weight exercise or warm up, or loaded up as a strength move. I use them for accessory work after my main lower body lift of the day.
Extra tip: I find that people do better with these when they just smoothly move back and down in one movement instead of shifting back, planting the foot, and then descending.
Coach Robert Dos Remedios once wrote that dudes don’t like the idea of curtsying, so he prefers the term “drop lunge”. I say deal with it, men folk. You can curtsy lunge and still wrestle grizzly bears, I promise.
This variation is nice because it allows us to move in all three planes of movement. We get to rotate at the hip, which doesn’t happen in a lot of gym exercises, but happens alllll the time in life.
How to do these: stand with your feet about hip width apart. Step one foot back and across the opposite leg. You want to take a pretty big step here – go back and wide as far as you comfortably can and plant the ball of that foot onto the ground, then sink down into that curtsy like the Queen of England is in front of you. Try to keep your front foot’s toes pointed straight ahead.
Other form tips: Don’t add any load until you can do this with good form, just like every other variation. Keep an upright torso and try to minimize shoulder rotation.
When to do them: I often put these into a warm-up with no load, or I add a lighter load to them at the end of a workout.
These are just extra-spicy static lunges with a jump to switch legs.
Begin with your front leg at a 90 degree angle, as if you’re in the lower position of the static lunge. Then spring up and switch the position of your legs in midair, landing with your opposite foot in front. Alternate these back and forth . Keep your torso upright enough that someone could see writing on your t-shirt as you move.
When To do them: I throw in fairly low-rep sets of these into metabolic conditioning circuits because they send my heart rate skyrocketing in a flash.
Lateral Lunges with a Pulse
Remember that we talked about how important it is to move in different directions? Also called side lunges, lateral lunges are a favorite of mine because they encourage me to load my muscles in a different way.
The pulse variation is extra awesome. I nabbed it from my coach, but I think the pulse flavor originated with Dan John. That guy has all the moves. Anyway, it’s good stuff because holding a dumbbell or kettlebell out in front of the body forces you to use your abs. In turn, you learn how to better stabilize your body. It encourages you to have a better position through your back too. What’s not to love?
How to do these: take a big step out to the side, keeping your toe pointed forward. Your knee shouldn’t go way past your toe. To help keep this from happening, think about sitting back into the lunge.
When to do them: typically later on in my workout. I never load these up super heavy. You’ll be surprised at how hard they are with a relatively light weight.
Time to Practice!
Here’s a conditioning workout that will let you try some of these lunge tricks. In addition to helping you build strength, stability, and mobility, throwing these into a conditioning workout will shoot your heart rate up too. Here we go!
Instructions: You’ll do lunge variations sprinkled with interruptions of other challenges. Begin by completing 8 of everything and work your way down to just 2 reps of each move. Phew! Do this with body weight only for an at-home workout, or amp it up with some dumbbells/kettlebells at the gym.
8,6,4,2 reverse lunges with crossover
8,6,4,2 curtsy lunges
8,6,4,2 dumbbell rows or towel rows if you’re at home with no equipment.
8,6,4,2 jump lunges
8,6,4,2 reverse crunches
8,6,4,2 lateral lunges with a pulse
Rest briefly between rounds and expect some tired legs!
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