How to Do a Proper Lunge

Nail the basic form, then ramp it up with these five creative variations for better, stronger results

Lunges are a great way to build stabilizing muscles through the legs and core. (Joel Sorrell / iStock)

“Lunges are one of the hardest single-leg strengthening exercises out there,” says Erica Suter, a Baltimore-based strength and conditioning coach. But difficulty aside, she says, they’re paramount for endurance athletes, from runners and hikers to cyclists and climbers. That’s because lunges improve unilateral (or single-side) leg strength, which Suter says is crucial for navigating trails, maximizing agility, and preventing muscular imbalances. Those imbalances often lead to overuse injury in endurance athletes, explains Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University in Fort Lauderdale, so performing unilateral exercises to address any underlying unevenness is key.

In addition, lunges increase recruitment of the body’s stabilizer muscles, from those in the feet and legs all the way up to the core. One study found that standing unilateral exercises can activate the external oblique muscles roughly four times as much as the variation that uses both legs.

But a lot of athletes struggle with lunges due to sore knees. Tumminello says the traditional upright lunge is a quad-dominant exercise, meaning you’re putting more stress on the front of your thighs—knees included—than on anything else. But by taking a bigger step with each rep and allowing your torso to angle forward as much as 45 degrees, you can transfer some of the stress from your quads to your glutes, alleviating joint pressure.

Forcing your backside to work is great for more than worn-out knees. “Strength in the posterior chain, specifically the glutes, is important for pristine running mechanics and horsepower to make you faster for a race,” says Suter. “For hikers and trail runners, it keeps the knees stable on uneven terrain and prevents falling. Strong glutes also give you the strength to climb steep inclines without feeling like your quadriceps are doing all the work.”

Here, Suter shares the five best lunge variations. Add them to your workouts—preferably on separate days—to improve your lower-body strength, stability, and endurance performances.

Deficit Lunge

This variation increases the load placed on your glutes while adding a nice stretch to the rear leg’s hip flexor. That’s ideal for runners and cyclists, who tend to have weak glutes and tight hip flexors.

How to Do It: Stand tall with your feet firmly planted hip-width apart on a low box or step, holding a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides. From here, take an exaggerated step back with one foot and, allowing your torso to hinge forward slightly at the hips, lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor (or as deep as you comfortably can). Then push through your front heel to raise your back foot to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform five to ten reps with one leg, then switch sides. Repeat for three to four sets.

Lateral Lunge and Pulse

Taking your lunges to the side will work the muscles in charge of stabilizing the entire lower body. The result: increased athleticism and a lower risk of common endurance-training woes, including IT band syndrome, runner’s knee, and plantar fasciitis.

How to Do It: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell by both ends against your chest. Take an exaggerated step to the side with one leg, and allow your torso to hinge forward slightly at the hips. Bend the knee of your stepped-out leg to lower your body until that thigh is parallel to the floor (or as deep as you comfortably can). Extend your arms straight out in front of you, then immediately return to the weight to your chest. Push through the heel of your bent leg to raise back to start. That’s one rep. Perform five to ten reps with one leg, then switch sides. Repeat for three to four sets.

Curtsy Lunge

This lunge engages every glute muscle, targeting the maximus, medius, and minimus for strong, well-balanced hips.

How to Do It: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides. From here, take an exaggerated step back with one leg and cross it behind your opposite leg. Allowing your torso to hinge forward slightly at the hips, lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor (or as deep as you comfortably can). Then push through your front heel to raise your back foot to start. That’s one rep. Perform five to ten reps with one leg, then switch sides. Repeat for three to four sets.

Offset Reverse Lunge

An update on the conventional reverse lunge, this variation loads only one side of the body to take your core and stability training to the next level.

How to Do It: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell in one hand down at your side. From here, take an exaggerated step back with the opposite foot and, allowing your torso to hinge forward slightly at the hips, lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor (or as deep as you comfortably can). Then push through your front heel to raise your back foot to start. That’s one rep. Perform five to ten reps with one leg, then switch sides. Repeat for three to four sets.

Reverse-Forward Lunge

This lunge is as much a conditioning drill as it is a strength exercise. Turn to it to get your heart rate up and improve your muscular endurance.

How to Do It: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell by the horns with both hands against your chest. From here, take an exaggerated step back with one foot and, allowing your torso to hinge forward slightly at the hips, lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor (or as deep as you comfortably can). Then push through your front heel to raise your back foot, swinging it all the way through into an exaggerated step forward. Lower once more into a lunge, then push through both feet and straighten your back leg to return to start. Perform five to ten reps with one leg, then switch sides. Repeat for three to four sets.

Filed To: Athletes / Exercises / Workouts / Core / Legs / Fitness
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