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April 24, 2022
Searching for an exercise that targets all of the lower body muscles? Look no further than the lunge, a strength training exercise that builds muscle, improves functional ability, burns calories, and increases the heart rate. This versatile exercise has many variations and is easy to modify or make more challenging. You can start with your body weight and begin adding dumbbells or even a loaded barbell, increasing weights as you progress each week. After reading below, you’ll understand what muscles lunges works and exactly how they are worked, as well as how to do lunges correctly, common mistakes to avoid, and the many benefits of incorporating this fundamental movement pattern into your routine.
A forward lunge, also referred to as an anterior lunge, is a compound movement that targets pretty much your entire lower body. The exercise involves stepping forward with one leg and flexing the knee joints so both knees bend to 90 degrees, then pressing back up through your legs to a bilateral, tall-standing position. This requires your muscles to contract and balance. In addition, it isolates the muscles on your dominant and non-dominant sides, forcing them to work harder and helping you identify muscle imbalances that may exist.
Start this movement as a bodyweight exercise so you can master the technique. Improper form is a surefire way to cause an injury, so go slow at first, making sure your knee tracks over your second and third toes. Once you have the form down, you can introduce dumbbells to the movement. Continue increasing the weight and your glutes, quads, and hamstrings will keep growing. And, your core strength and stability will improve too!
The forward lunge works most of the lower body, whether as primary movers - the principal muscle known as the agonist - or synergists - muscles that assist in the movement.
Eccentric Phase (The Descent):
The primary muscles contracting in the forward lunge's eccentric - or descent - phase are the:
The synergists working to assist these muscles include the:
Concentric Phase (The Ascent):
As the body moves upward to the anatomical position during the concentric contraction, the primary movers that create extension of the hip, knee and ankle joints are the:
The synergists during the concentric phase of the lunge are the:
Because the lunge works so many lower-body muscles, it helps prevent one leg muscle - often the quadriceps, as it is susceptible to becoming tight and overactive - from becoming dominant. Balanced lower body muscles prevent or repair knee issues, back pain, and poor posture.
Eccentric Phase: The eccentric phase of the forward lunge, which is the descent, requires triple flexion of the hip, knee, and ankle. Triple extension of the same three joints is necessary to return the body to the anatomical position during the forward lunge's concentric - or ascent - phase. The psoas, biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus contract to move the lower body into flexion. At the bottom of the descent, these muscles, along with the gluteal muscles, isometrically contract as the body pauses briefly before starting the ascent.
Concentric Phase: As the body moves back to the anatomical position, in which the body faces forward with legs hip-width apart, toes facing forward, the gluteus maximus concentrically contracts as the prime mover of hip extension, which must occur to return the body to standing. In addition, the quadriceps muscles are the prime movers of knee extension, a movement that enables the legs to straighten and returns the lunging leg to its starting position. As the forward foot pushes off the ground, it propels the leg back to the beginning position as the primary movers of extension concentrically contract.
In addition to the muscles mentioned above, there are many stabilizing muscles working to keep you balanced through both the eccentric and concentric phase. The main stabilizers are your hip abductors/adductors and the muscles of your lower legs.
Note: In the forward lunge, movement should be slower in the eccentric phase as the hip, knee, and ankle joints move into flexion and faster in the concentric phase as power returns the forward leg to the standing position.
Plane of Motion: Since this exercise involves flexion and extension, the forward lunge occurs in the sagittal plane and transverse axis. Static equilibrium, which is when the body is stationary and the external forces and torques acting on the body sum to zero, is achieved in the forward lunge when the body is in the anatomical position before starting the exercise.
Let's look at several variations lunges and how they alter the muscles emphasized...
Note: You can use various equipment for these lunges, just like you can a forward lunge.
1. Reverse lunge:
Increase your stability, isolate muscle imbalances, and build your glutes, quad, and hamstring muscles simultaneously while performing the reverse lunge. This movement is truly just the reverse movement of the forward lunge - hence, the name. This exercise works the same muscles as the forward lunge, focusing on the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps. The reverse lunge also works the adductor magnus and the two main calf muscles, the soleus and gastrocnemius. If you have quads that are overworked or dominant, opt for the reverse lunge over the forward one. The momentum you have to generate to return the back leg forward to the start position helps activate the glute and hamstring muscles, preventing all the work from falling to your quads.
2. Walking lunge:
Not only does a walking lunge hit all of the major lower body muscles, but it's also a functional exercise, meaning it mimics activities from your daily life, such as stepping forward to grab something, standing, or sitting. Functional activities such as this are great as their goal is to improve the fluidity of real-life movements. The unilateral movement that the walking lunge emphasizes is great for isolating and addressing muscle imbalances that might exist on the non-dominant and dominant sides.
3. Side Lunge:
The side lunge targets the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but also adds in a few additional muscles on the inner and outer thighs: adductor longus, adductor brevis, and adductor magnus, which work with the quads and hamstrings to control the movements of the knee and hips on the lunging leg. Bonus points for the adductors on the trailing leg, because they get a nice stretch during the exercise. The side lunge pairs well with the walking lunge in a fitness routine as it ensures you're strengthening your muscles forward and backward and side to side. In addition, if you enjoy playing a sport, even recreationally, that requires side to side movements, such as basketball, tennis, baseball, and football, the side lunge will help strengthen the muscles needed for those activities.
4. Static Lunge:
The static lunge, also called the split squat, is a great introductory movement, and mastering this exercise before progressing into the other lunges will ensure your form is perfect. When comparing split squats vs lunges, both target the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Be sure to place most of your weight on the front leg, and rely on the back limb to balance and stabilize. You can make this more challenging by adding weights, speeding up the tempo, or holding for five seconds at the bottom of the descent.
5. Curtsy Lunge:
A strong gluteus medius is the name of the game for the curtsy lunge. And while your glute muscles are going to put in the most work, this move also strengthens the hip adductors, quads, and hamstrings. Since the curtsy lunge targets strengthening the glute muscles, it contributes to good posture, preventing and relieving back and knee pain, and discouraging the quadriceps from becoming overly dominant (they tend to try to take over). This exercise is also great for helping with hip stabilization and strengthening your inner thighs, an area that can be hard to target through many traditional lower-body exercises. Use your bodyweight, one dumbbell, or a pair of dumbbells. You can decide how challenging to make it.
Once mastered, the forward lunge is a powerhouse move that should become a staple exercise in your fitness regimen. After all, it is a foundational movement pattern.
However, technique and good form are everything when it comes to the lunge, so when first learning it, go slowly and look in a mirror to keep an eye on your form.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
This versatile exercise can strengthen and stretch the body while training your lower body muscles to handle everyday activities and mimic important sports movements. The options with lunges are also endless: add weights to make them more challenging, increase the tempo to get the heart rate up, or add a few different variations to make sure you’re emphasizing all of the major lower-body muscle groups. At least one lunge variation needs a place in your fitness routine.
While lunges are great for maintaining knee strength, they can be hard on the knees for people who already have issues. If that's the case for you, here are the best lunges alternatives for bad knees.
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