by John Parker:
In sport, athletes display a high variance of movement potential. To build athleticism, strength trainers must select exercises that improve speed, power, and strength. In traditional strength training, the squat reigns supreme for improving lower body power and strength. But what about the lunge?
Since the squat directs force vertically, the lunge takes precedence in directing force horizontally. In running sports, acceleration and change of direction are paramount. Lunging can touch on athletic components that the squat alone cannot.
In looking at the athlete’s sporting demands, we see that movement happens in large part on one leg. This unilateral movement demands the athlete to have enough strength to both produce and resist force in the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes.
Lunging variations serve to integrate and load multiple planes of movement that help the athlete’s proprioception and timing. Further, multi-planar lunging can help safeguard problematic and injury-prone areas like the groin, hips, lower back, hamstrings, and knees.
Although strength trainers cannot ultimately prevent injuries from happening, they can provide exercises that build multiplanar hip, knee, and ankle stability to make the athlete more robust and resilient. Since tight musculature and lack of mobility often contribute to injury potential, lunging provides an inbuilt mechanism for safeguarding against these risks.
The Lunge is Foundational
An assessment of the athlete at play is vital in determining which exercises to include in their training program. It is appropriate for a tennis player or fencer to train the lunging pattern, as their sports are almost entirely based on lunging and striking movements. However, swimmers, rock climbers, and gymnasts may not need the same training volume or intensity.
Since athletes from all sports must be able to move with precision, the lunge is as prudent as it is pragmatic. If the athlete is able to comfortably cross the midline of their body during cutting, acceleration, and deceleration, their chances of injury lessen while their performance increases.
In programming for strength and athletic performance, exercise selection ultimately comes down to the primary action of the athlete. Both bilateral and unilateral movements are important for the athlete, but the application of when and why to use each is paramount.
The Squat vs. Lunge
In human evolution, the squat is more of a rest position than an exercise, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be loaded for strength and power development. When loading the body with a barbell, kettlebell, or other implement, the squat trains the lower body’s maximum force development in the vertical plane
However, the lunge is advantageous for the athlete that must make a change of direction in sport. Further, athletes with prior injuries to the knees, low back, or hips may find loading lunging patterns easier than loading squats. In order to understand the necessity of lunging, we must look at the role the feet play in the squat and lunge:
Squat: The feet remain in a fixed position. The feet do not move during the movement.
Lunge: The feet move in a stepping motion in any direction. The feet return to the starting position or to a new position.
Since moving into a squat is a downward motion of the athlete, it’s wise to see how a bilateral squat can help improve an athlete’s overall power and vertical jump. However, lunging provides a stimulus for the athlete that must make a sudden forward thrust of the body like in sprinting, cutting, or attacking an opponent.
The Lunge Improves Athletic Ability
There are several progressions that I give to my athletes when learning to lunge. In order to progress, the athlete should demonstrate precision in each movement, loaded and unloaded.
Split Squat > Reverse Lunge > Walking Lunge > Forward Lunge > Power Lunge
Lunging exercises exist on a continuum based on difficulty. In my experience, starting athletes in a split squat is a vital teaching tool. As discussed earlier, the feet remain stationary in squatting exercises, where they move from starting and ending position in a lunge. Since the split squat looks a lot like a walking lunge, it is a pragmatic as a starting exercise to ensure proper hip, knee, and ankle mechanics.
Once the athlete has mastered moving up and down in a split squat, a progression to the reverse lunge is appropriate. This variation requires proper timing and balance while adding a dynamic component of unilateral stability. The reverse lunge is a vital first step to lunging efficiency because it requires less deceleration to the athlete and keeps a consistent load on the working front leg.
A suitable progression for most athletes is the walking lunge, which fits in between a split squat and reverse lunge. The walking lunge introduces a higher component of deceleration than the reverse lunge since there is more loading on the front, working leg. The walking lunge introduces horizontal force that can train acceleration and cutting patterns in a demanding unilateral fashion.
In no other exercise does the athlete load such a high degree of hip extension. If examining the sprinting athlete, the pushing leg finishes its stride far behind the center of gravity of the body. The walking lunge brings the working leg through an increased range of motion that directly works the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings of the athlete.
Our lunging continuum progresses to the forward lunge. Like the walking lunge, the forward lunge requires the working leg a significant amount of deceleration – making it a fantastic training movement for athletes that stop and go throughout play.
In the walking lunge, the whole of the athlete’s bodyweight follows the step. In the forward lunge, the load must be controlled through the deceleration, and immediately be reversed to return to the starting position.
Because of the difficulty of absorbing and quickly generating force into the ground, this movement is only appropriate for athletes with strong knees that can control the shearing force on the working knee. The athlete should never allow the knee to significantly drift pass the toes if patellar shearing is an issue.
Our lunging continuum finishes with power lunging variations. Athletes can now introduce power elements into their movements. I like to implement the kettlebell clean into power lunging because of the greater demand on the body to stabilize the external load.
The athlete can use one or two kettlebell, start from a stationary or dynamic position, and catch the bells in a rack as they finish their lunge. This movement will train athleticism since greater control, balance, agility, proprioception, timing, and coordination are required.
Train with Precision
The aforementioned lunging variations are prudent teaching tools for the strength trainer. Only after each progression has been mastered should the athlete advance to a more difficult variation or higher loading.
It’s important to realize that these lunging variations may not be appropriate for everyone. Although I believe that having the proficiency to lunge should be honed by all athletes, prior injuries, mobility, and flexibility should all be addressed before loading and programming lunges.
When trying any of the aforementioned lunging techniques, ensure that a full athletic warmup has been completed. It’s wise to engage to achieve a light sweat before exercise and especially before loading lunges.
I recommend consulting a knowledgeable strength and conditioning specialist before engaging in any loaded or unloaded lunging techniques. Movement quality is everything. Sloppy reps expose the body to injury.
Originally from San Diego, California, John Parker is a lifetime athlete and fitness enthusiast. He graduated from the University of California San Diego and soon after became a strength and wellness coach. John streamlines his clients’ results through diagnostic lab testing and total lifestyle design. Students benefit by learning how to effectively manage their diet, rest, exercise, stress reduction, and supplementation in the most focused way possible. John‘s interests include strength training, climbing, sleeping, and road trips to the mountains.Find John through the links at the bottom of this post.