The Low Down on Lunges
Last week, one of our subscribers asked me to provide some exercises in addition to the 30 day fitness challenge we're currently in. And if you're interested in joining us for the next 30 day challenge, just visit https://challenge.ketovip.com
There's a lot of chatter about lower body specific exercises, so I decided to give you what want. But, before I get into lunges, let's get something straight that may be crooked. As much as I would love to dole out one all encompassing, fat shredding, muscle toning, euphoric-inducing, MIND BLOWING exercise to rule them all, I can't. I won't. I would be doing you a huge disservice to even say it's possible, because there are too many variable factors in your specific scenario. That's like saying drinking water is always good. Well what if you're under water? Probably not the best idea…
This is how I see the world and the people in it. Truly unique in circumstances, ability, and understanding. It's no wonder why I have a difficult time releasing “how-to” videos to the masses on exercise execution…ehem. So you may not always get what you're looking for when you watch my videos or read my blog posts, but you will get what you need.
With that said, please refer to my pseudo-caveat emptor in all of my video descriptions and blogs.
The “Why” Behind Your “Why”
Let's talk about why we're doing a lunge in the first place. FYI “Because I see other people doing it in the gym and on T.V.” is NOT an acceptable answer! You should identify the purpose or goals that you have prior to getting involved in any exercise. One purpose of exercise should be to suit your goals within your current ability. You should not arbitrarily fit yourself to an exercise. With that said, you may take into consideration your bum knee, poor stability, and weak muscular development needed to perform a lunge properly and conclude that lunges aren't the best fit exercise. GASP!
That's right! In a ‘just do it', ‘hustle your face off”, ‘no pain-no gain' world, it's hard to swallow the concept of not ‘just doing it' for the sake of your health. When did fitness begin to glamorize the grudgingly difficult as if it's something to look up to? In nearly all other areas of our lives, we aim to consolidate and make things as easy as possible. I don't remember anyone in high school bragging about how hard their last trigonometry test was. #high-five
But in the fitness industry, the harder the better. The more pain, the more gain. Puke? Perfect! These might be great for T-shirt sales, but it's certainly not an ideology you want to adopt if you're goal is to be healthy. Unless you want to throw up, then by all means…
Lunges for Hamstrings and Butt?
On the list of exercises that target your butt and hamstrings, standard lunges wouldn't be at the top of my list for a few reasons. The function of the hamstrings and glutes will reveal a lot about how to build them up. One of the main purposes of the hamstring is to aid in the flexion of the knee joint and extension of the hip joint. In a standard lunge, the hamstrings aren't used to flex the knee joint or extend the hip joint to any significant degree.
Now, don't get me wrong. There may be some of you out there who's quadriceps, hamstrings, and glute muscles are not developed enough to overcome the force resistance of a lunge. If that's you, then you may experience more difficulty in performing this exercise than a more muscularly developed person would.
For example: A lunge with a short stride (more on that later) emphasizes the quadriceps. If you have less developed quadriceps than, say, me you'll probably have more difficulty performing a standard lunge than I might. But ultimately, as resistance increases you will be forced to recruit more and more muscle fibers to overcome the resistance force, granted you have the muscle fibers to recruit.
So, with body weight lunges, my hamstrings and glutes may not be completely exhausted, because the resistance I have to overcome is relatively easy compared to my output capacity. However, if I perform weighted lunges, there is a higher probability that I would recruit more of my glutes and hamstrings, because the demand or resistance force has increased. There are other ways, outside of adding additional weight, to position your body in such a way that your hamstrings become crucial in your ability to complete a specific range of motion, but we'll save that for another post.
Reverse, Reverse! Take It Back Now Ya'll
I couldn't think of a better way to introduce the lunge than by referring to an old school classic dance hit sure to make even the worst dancer get up and move. #Cha-Cha #RealSmooth
The reverse lunge is not “better” or “worse” than a forward lunge. But we'll be discussing its utility in this post. For starters, let's say you ignore what I wrote above and want to do lunges for hamstring and glute activation. I know how much my ladies want to tighten and tone their tush, so this may be a good focus point when and if you're going to incorporate lunges into your exercise protocol.
This goes without saying, but the positioning of your body will vary depending on your anatomy. There are variations with regards to arm, leg, and torso length of a human. With regards to a lunge, the size of your femur and tibia/fibula (the leg bones) will determine your relative position. However, there are a few evergreen concepts that can be adapted..dare I say..among the masses…
If your goal with a lunge is to target the posterior muscles of your upper leg, IE your butt and hamstrings, then you want to perhaps begin with reverse lunges. These are lunges where your initial move is a step back rather than forward. What I see oftentimes during forward lunges is the tendency to lean your torso forward as a result of inertia. This may or may not be voluntary, but it's good to be aware of. I'd suggest videoing yourself to see how you're actually progressing through your able range of motion.
The “problem” with this forward lean is that it works against our goal to target the hamstrings, especially since the lunge targets primarily the quads. I will continue to stress that no exercise is inherently good or bad. They must be contextualized and assimilated for proper judgement.
Don't take it from me though. This is what Steve Ball over at Stack.com had to say about reverse lunges.
I believe Reverse Lunges are superior to Forward Lunges because backward momentum keeps the body in the ideal lunge position—weight on the heel with the knee above the ankle. During a Forward Lunge, momentum shifts the center of gravity too far forward, placing the body weight on the ball of the foot rather than the heel and moving the knee too close to the toe. In this position, the quads apply too much pressure, while the glutes and hamstrings lose leverage and power, often causing knee pain. The reduced glute and hamstring activity decreases knee stability and diminishes power development on the upward phase of the Lunge.
Full article can be found here: Why Reverse Lunges Are Better Than Forward Lunges
So, if we understand the relationship that our center of gravity has as it pertains to exhausting the glutes and hamstrings during a lunge, we come to this conclusion. A forward leaning torso changes your center of gravity. When this happens, most people's front knee moves towards, and even past, the front foot. This places more load on the ball of the foot, which consequently relieves most of the activation of the glutes and the hamstring that would occur if the load was on the heel of the foot and your center of gravity was over your hips.
Alternatively, if you are mindful to keep your torso over your hips throughout your able range of motion, as well as keeping the load on your front heel, then you are more likely to engage not only the glutes, but the hamstrings as well.
An easy way to imply that your heel is taking the load is to simply lift up the front part of your foot.
Head, Shoulders, Knees &
From my own experience, the utility of a lunge has been to target my quad muscles primarily. There are other exercises that are better suited to primarily target the butt and hamstrings–sprinting, squats, deadlifts, etc.– but that's for another day. Let's take a look at my ideal position for quad activation during a lunge. This time the focus is going to be on the back leg. Remember that “thing” about forward lean and its implications on where the load is and how that affects which muscles are being activated? Well take a look below.
In this position, I'm taking my own advice and placing my center of gravity over my hips. The way you want to think about moving through your active range of motion in this scenario is to imagine a string (or a red arrow) from the tip of your head to underneath your butt. Keeping your head, shoulders, hips, and back knee in alignment as shown above, you want your body to move directly up and down. Think of yourself as taking an elevator down a floor and up a floor. Last time I checked, elevators don't move forward and down or backwards and up, so you shouldn't either! This tip will help you to keep from that forward lean we spoke about earlier.
I vary my execution of this same range of motion by manipulating the time it takes to perform the eccentric or negative motion of my knee moving towards the ground. The longer it takes for me to go down means the more time under tension I'm creating during that active range of motion. You could imagine if I did one repetition and just dropped without control VS. controlling my body down for four seconds and powering up. Contrasting the two, there is clearly more muscle activation and calorie burning if I'm taking my time to control my leg throughout the eccentric or “dropping down” of my knee, than if I were to just let it come down without control. Here are some other varying execution protocols I use when performing a lunge:
- Non-plyometric, alternating lunges (from standing position, step back and lunge, step back up into standing position, and switch legs)
- Non-plyometric, single leg lunges (Start and stay in the step back position and complete a set amount of repetitions or time on one leg only, then switch)
- Alternating plyometric lunges (Start in the step back position, step back and lunge, jump from the bottom position switching leg positions in the air, landing in the lunge position for the opposite leg)
- Static holds–holding the eccentric or down position like you see in the photo for an extended period of time.
And that's a wrap! I won't say you have nearly all you need to go out and start lunging to your heart's content, however I do believe I've provided you with the seeds of understanding the “why” for a lunge.
Other Helpful Tips
- If your active range of motion is limited, and you're choosing to perform lunges, consider using a yoga block[s] or something else to decrease the range and provide stability for your knee. Build up strength in your quads before taking off the training wheels.
- If your balance and stability is an issue, and you're choosing to perform lunges, try lunging in a pool, or have something stable to hold on to or someone to hold your hands as you progress through your active range of motion.
- If you're choosing to perform lunges, keep the load of your body distributed in the heel of your front foot and the ball of your back foot.
- If you're choosing to perform lunges, try to imagine pushing the ground down rather than your body up.
Please note that in every video concerning exercise execution, I strive to give enough detail without being as pedantic as I might be with a client I am working with personally. It's important to consider your own context in the application of any tips KetoVIP produces.