Monday, June 13, 2011

Defending the Lunge Exercise

I receive many emails regarding if one should include lunges into their exercise program. And if so, where? Many inquiries I get usually start off with, "I want to do lunges, BUT... ____________________."

Insert any if the following excuses listed below:

A. ) They make my knees hurt
B.) My lower back hurts when I go down
C.) I can't get down far enough
D.) I look silly doing them
E.) I am so sore the next day and later 2 days after doing them!
F.) I'm not sure I am doing them correctly.

Lunges are a great exercise because they combine a union of 3 major joints of the lower body: ankle, knee, and hip. From a functional movement perspective, performing the lunge routinely safely insures that this primal movement pattern--that is used in running, hiking, and sport--is not lost as we age. Secondly, the triple joint action I mentioned earlier, incorporates more muscles actively used so we can achieve a greater caloric expenditure in less time. Basically, a more bang for your buck in terms of fat loss exercises.There is a reason why I dedicated a whole product to the exercise...because it is a damn good exercise!
From my experience, I have come across each one of those excuses mentioned above. It is not uncommon to experience any one of these reasons for a novice performing a lunge--or even an athlete for that matter. Let me address each one:


A. ) They make my knees hurt
This is possibly the most common reason I have heard over the years, and still continue to hear. Poor knee tracking; poor tendon quality (patella & quadriceps); overly tight flexors; weakness, and a host of other issues may be the culprit for knee pain. People will not perform an exercise (or movement for that matter) if it elicits pain. So, eventually the triple extension movement is lost from one's movement inventory. Knee pain can be exacerbated by the failure to focus on driving up from the heel, poor hip mobility and flexibility, and generally weakness that is not progressed correctly. In this case, the lunge is not a culprit of the pain, it simply exposes it because of the movement. Sitting at a desk for 8 hours per day can be the cause of knee pain, but it is only seen with hip extension/flexion movements under one's load. Tissue quality is an essential component to address with emphasis on foam rolling, self-massage, and flexibility. I prefer the massage stick over the foam roller sometimes because I can vary the pressure:


B.) My lower back hurts when I go down
The tightness in the flexors/psoas, or in the hamstrings can cause the pelvis to shift or rotate causing pain in the lower back. Usually can be reduced with hip mobility drills. Lack of hip mobility will involve the lumbar region to take a brute of the workload. So the more hip mobility we have, the less involvement in the lower back. Gaining results from performing mobility drills is cumulative, so be extra patient.

C.) I can't get down far enough
This centers around flexibility issues, as well as weakness. In either case, a program assessing your form and muscle length with the proper progressions will gradually increase your depth. Most people seem to always shoot for the most advanced progression of an exercise--assuming it will be the most effective. However, it's pretty important to slowly graduate into each step to really maximize a certain exercise--especially when there are other red flags. Starting a lunge progression focusing on depth should begin with a standard kneeling; then kneel to stand; followed by depth assistance drills like this one:


In the video above, I use a cable to help pull my body back up as I lunge forward. Most beginners are challenged by weakness and poor coordination when lunging forward, so this drill help aid them in understanding propulsion force, balance, and body movement in space.


D.) I look silly doing them
This is a result of poor coaching and instruction. You haven't nailed down the movement enough times to gain confidence. Also, stop comparing yourself to the 19-year old volleyball player doing lunges in the middle of the gym floor with a tiny tight outfit on. Gaining confidence in performing the lunge has to come from good coaching. A good coach will observe, correct, and confirm the new learned movement. With affirmation from a reliable source, the confidence will blossom.


E.) I am so sore the next day and later 2 days after doing them!
Yes, its true. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is most evident with compound movements like the lunge. Bigger muscles recover more slowly than smaller muscles. And because there are so many joint actions occurring at the same time--more muscles are being utilized. When the load is substantial, there will be an increased feeling of soreness or muscle tenderness the following day or two. There is no where to go around this one. And this should not make you afraid of the exercise. the more the lunge is incorporated into a program,  the less severe the the soreness will feel (maybe) :)

F.) I'm not sure I am doing them correctly.
See # D. You need a good pair of eyes to observe your execution and then make tweaks. Here is a brief instruction of the stationary lunge taken from my video, Lunging to Improved Performance:



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