If I was able to choose only one lower limb exercise, I’d pick the lunge.
Yes, squats are great. Yes, squats will improve your functional strength. Yes, you feel strong when you are in a squat rack with a loaded bar across your back.
But for most people, a lunge is their best medicine.
Let me explain.
Most people sit on their arses all day, and often all evening. As a consequence, we consistently suffer from two common maladies. Tight hip flexors, and poor glute activation.
The lunge addresses these issues simultaneously. It takes little to no equipment, has dozens of variations, and can be used from a rehabilitation setting all the way through to high performing athletes.
Your hip flexors consist of mainly your Iliopsoas muscle and the Rectus Femoris. Some other muscles assist in hip flexion, but these are the main two groups. The Iliopsoas originates from the front of your lower spine and pelvis, and attaches onto your thigh bone. The Rectus femoris is a long, strong muscle of the quadriceps that comes off the front of your pelvis and also attaches onto your thigh bone. When these muscle contract, they flex the leg up towards your torso.
Imagine typical sitting or driving posture. Your hips are flexed, and these muscles are placed in a shortened position.
What happens when you place muscles in a shortened position? They slowly but surely tighten, the fibres gradually contracting until after a while you have hip flexors so tight they cause all manner of issues.
A lunge done right will help to mobilise these muscles, and since most people do not have another hour in their daily routine for a soft tissue work and stretching regimen, this is a good thing.
Next, glute activation. The Glutei are a fascinating muscle group. Yes, you gentlemen may already have noted this, but not for the reason that first crosses your mind!
The Gluteals effectively civilised the world, because of what they have evolved to do, but that is a story for another day. The crux of the issue at hand is, that when you place a muscle in a lengthened position, as you do in sitting, it usually becomes weakened over a period of time. Additionally, when you don’t use a muscle much, your nervous system can then struggle to ‘switch it on’. This is a problem, because, when the largest muscle group in your body is weak and inactive, not only are you missing out on a lot of muscle power, you are on the road to pain and dysfunction.
Again, a lunge done right will address this issue. There are indeed exercises more effective still in isolating a Gluteal muscle contraction. But for all of its virtues, the lunge takes some beating.
Add to this its variations. You have the option of front lunges, lateral lunges, reverse lunges, static lunges or split squats, walking lunges and so on. All with different merits.
Let us start with a simple reverse lunge.
Why the reverse lunge?
The reverse lunge creates constant tension throughout the lead leg, compared to the more plyometric contraction of a front lunge. Constant tension is a great starting point for strength and hypertrophy.
It also lends itself better to awareness of knee position. Consciously preventing the knee drifting inwards, or too far over the toes during the movement, helps to correct inefficient and potentially injurious movement patterns. Performing single leg work also forces the working leg to stabilise itself. This improvement in balance and stability has many functional benefits.
In standing, step backwards whilst keeping the front leg planted.
Let the front knee bend, ensuring most of the weight stays on the front leg.
Descend until your back knee is almost touching the floor.
Return to standing and repeat.
Common mistakes include letting the hip on the side of the back leg drop as you step back. Don't, keeping the hips level improves pelvic and lumbar stability.
If your hip flexors are tight, you may be inclined to over arch your back as you lunge. To correct this, imagine your pelvis like a bucket brim full of water. Overarching your back tips the bucket or pelvis forwards (anterior pelvic tilt) and spills water from the front. If you work on keeping the bucket or pelvis level, that is your not spilling any water from it, you will maintain a better back position and also enhance the stretch on the hip flexors.
Placing the back foot on something elevated like a box, will turn this exercise into a static one, often referred to as a Bulgarian Split Squat. This will mobilise the hip flexors even more and is a great extra variation.
The load options in this exercise are extensive. The classic barbell across the back or simply holding dumbbells of the required weight works well.
For some extra glute work, try loading the movement just in the opposite hand to the leg that is working. So if your right leg was the lead leg, you'd hold the weight in your left hand. In order to prevent you tilting to one side, your glutes (Gluteus Medius mainly in this case) will be forced to work harder.
Finally, if you feel you've gotten strong and worked up to some decent load you can try a dynamic version of a lunge, like a jump split squat. Essentially, from the full lunge position, jump up and switch legs mid air, landing straight down back into the lunge position. This is a good way of getting some power improvements out of the hypertrophy you have achieved from getting stronger in this movement.
All of these plus points, with virtually no equipment needed, mean the Reverse Lunge is a staple in my lower limb sessions.
Try it out, and leave a comment!