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The Magic Lunge
It seems that 1998 is the “year of buns”. Every time I turn on the television there is another infomercial touting the latest thing that can (in less than three minutes) tighten and tone your glutes.
Talking to most coaches (especially female coaches) the lunge seems to be the exercise of choice.
So let’s examine the outcome.
There are walking lunges, stationary lunges, side lunges, dynamic lunges, barbell lunges, dumbbell lunges, backward lunges, Smith machine lunges, forward lunges and step lunges.
Which one is best?
If you think about it, the lunge is nothing more than a one-legged squat. Your other leg just helps with balance. Why do so many people “feel” it in their other leg? We know that the rectus femoris is a two-joint muscle. It not only crosses the knee, but also the hip. Most activities we do as humans are in a seated position: driving a car, sitting at a desk or watching TV. So when we put our clients in this extreme hip extension, the rectus femoris starts to “talk” to them. But we all know that the real “work” is done by the front leg.
As we stand on one leg, it becomes more challenging to stabilize the pelvis. Instead of two struts (your legs) spread apart with a wide base, the majority of the weight is now supported by one strut over a very narrow support.
The same applies to the foot and ankle. Is your client able to stabilize their foot and ankle or are they wobbling all over the place?
Is it better to destroy their hip and ankle joints to tighten their glutes?
Here are some things to consider:
Before you add weight to the exercise and get your client walking around the gym, make sure they can:
– stabilize their pelvis every rep. Their pelvis should not dip to either side when lowering or raising themselves.
– make sure the knee tracks over the appropriate toe for each rep.
– is the ROM of the knee excessive?
– take care of the foot and ankle. Can they control this movement?
Remember that every time you go, there will be some forward momentum. Every time your knee bends, a certain amount of shearing force occurs as the femur rolls forward on the tibia. This is the natural mechanics of your knee. But as you increase the load, the shear force will also increase. Not to mention the added strain on the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
Why do you walk with a burden? What is the purpose?
If you must walk, concentrate on making all the movement go up and down or vertically rather than forward.
The same concerns apply to a barbell lunge.
The barbell lunge:
If you lunge forward with a barbell on your shoulders, the only thing stopping the barbell from severing your neck is your cervical spine!
I was in a physical therapy clinic at Veteran’s Memorial hospital and the doctor told me that most of the spinal cord injuries occur in the cervical part of the spine. But hey, at least they get tight buns.
If you’re going to have clients do any kind of lunge with a load and there’s any kind of forward motion, you better have a specific reason for doing it; otherwise just use their own body weight. If you must use a barbell, make sure the movement is vertical.
Remember that the force does not go through the heel, but through the ankle. Your shin does not sit above your heel, but above your ankle, so watch your ankle! If you need weight, try dumbbells instead.
The dumbbell lunge:
The mechanics of the lunge are the same, but now the load is off the spine. The limiting factor will be the amount of weight a client can hold in their hands. Straps can be a solution. If the dumbbells are not too large, it is sometimes possible to rest the dumbbells on the client’s side. Be careful though, this is not very comfortable for many people.
It seems all coaches know the 90′ rule when squatting: You should never let your knee move in front of your toe or let your knee go down more than 90′.
But then I see these same trainers have their clients lunge on a step so they can go beyond 90′ in an attempt to increase their range of motion (ROM).
Every time you go below 90′ with a load, you increase the possibility of wearing out cartilage, bone or the joint itself. Using the floor will prevent you from going into hyperflexion, which can help save your knee. But hey, they might have to have knee surgery, but at least they’ll get a tight rear end!
I can see many reasons to do this exercise, all sport specific: soccer, tennis, baseball, racquetball, basketball, volleyball, etc., etc.
All mechanics are the same. The knee is a hinge joint, it only bends one way. You have to be extra careful with momentum out to the side. Extending violently with a load to the side will put a ton of shear force on the joint and a ton of stress on the medial and lateral ligaments of the knee, not to mention all the stress on the ankle.
When you lunge to the side in sports (perhaps with the exception of football or wrestling) you rarely have a strain on your back. Be careful with this lunge when loaded.
You may want to construct a small platform at a 30-45′ angle. Place it against the wall and have your client pounce on this little platform. This will decrease the amount of shearing force, as well as the strain on the ligaments.
The dynamic Lung:
You definitely have type II fibers in your glutes and legs. Therefore, it can be an advantage to train explosively, especially for sports. This is where the 30 – 45′ platform will really come in handy. All the same rules apply to stabilization of the pelvis, foot, ankle and ROM at the knee. Also pay attention to the amount of weight. Get your client to lunge forward or to the side with momentum. Without hesitation, use the elastic energy stored from the SEC of a muscle (Series elastic component; the kind of thing that happens when you pull on an elastic band) and bound back to the starting position. Balance will be a real challenge here.
You better have a good reason to load this type of outcome.
The backward lunge:
When switching from leg to leg, the backward lunge sometimes works better than moving forward. Most people are a little afraid of “throwing” their legs backwards. They can’t see where they are stepping, so they move more slowly and place their foot instead of walking. It works well, but why are you switching? This brings me last but not least.
The stationary outcome:
If the goal is to work the glutes, then the stationary lunge is my first choice. Each time you switch legs, one leg rests. Well, as Tom Purvis taught me, “if your set takes 2 minutes, rest one leg for half the time (or one minute)”. Transfer that to 2 days a week, 8 times a month, 12 months a year, and you end up resting half the year. Why not just concentrate on one leg? You also have slow twitch fibers in your glutes. Remember your glute “fires” every time your heel hits the ground in walking. Work hard on one side, then let it rest.
Compare that to alternating dumbbell curls. The only time I do alternating dumbbell curls is when I’m warming up or trying to isolate with a heavy weight and need to rest the biceps between reps.
If you need to add weight, consider a Smith machine.
Smith machine output:
This is also a stationary outcome. It works best when you don’t switch legs. Remember, you still have a strain on your spine. Control is key here. Balancing the weight is not such a problem anymore and the weight used is not limited by the strength of your grip. The machine will also prevent the unwanted forward momentum.
For anyone with a problem stabilizing their pelvis in a stationary lunge while using dumbbells, the Smith machine is a perfect solution.
Don’t forget to demonstrate the security requirements to your client.
In conclusion, the outcome is a phenomenal exercise. It works the quads as well as the glutes. However, it can be an advanced exercise. As you just read, there are many variables, many things to consider, and many things to monitor.
What is the goal, what can your client control and what limitations does your client have?
Lunges are not magic. They are what they are.
Respect the body and it will respect you.
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