Hardcore strength and conditioning coaches don’t seem to give the split squat or lunge position a lot of love. It often takes a back seat to bigger bilateral movements like the squat or the hip hinge. All sorts of valid reasons are used but mostly it’s because those two legged (bilateral) movements are more conducive to training pure strength.
In other words, you’ll eventually be able to lift considerably more with those movements than you will on one leg. Naturally you have a bigger base of support, which requires less stability. Less stability means there is more nervous system bandwidth to put into the larger primary moving muscles like the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
I can’t dispute that squats and deadlift movements should be prominent in training programs where strength is the focus, but neither are as concerned with balance and stability. Both of which are arguably important for general health and well-being. I’ve seen too many athletes with huge squats that can hardly stand on one leg for a few seconds, so I’ve not seen the carry over from bilateral movements some expect. Research also indicates that balance relates heavily to quality of life as we age, along with strength, explosive power and mobility too.
If you want to dominate your position in a sport like football, you’d better be capable of moving heavy weight with the squat but if you just want to be a fit human being for as long as possible you should probably think beyond just squatting and hip hinging. We’ll talk a great deal about the squat and the hip hinge soon, but the lunge was a better transition out of the half kneeling position and I’m a stickler for the flow of movement.
Humans spend a great deal of time in transition shifting our weight from one leg to another. Walking and running are both done with a gait cycle of one leg at a time, which transfers to nearly any and every sport, but also to playing with your kids, taking groceries up a flight of stairs and helping a buddy move their couch.
To me it just makes sense that we should talk at least a little about single leg training, but I was torn about how much single leg training I should put in the first book. I decided to go with a couple of staple movements (see later the step up) that are both easy to learn, have great transfer to everyday life and mimic many everyday movements. Although you might not be pushing two or three times your body weight after five years of heavy training with a lunge, that doesn’t mean it’s any less important to learn.
The lunge is a great accessory exercise and if you don’t have access to a barbell you’ll probably be able to get more done with it and minimal external load than you would with bilateral training and fifty pound dumbbells at home. A hundred pound dumbbell romanian deadlift is easy to learn on two legs, even for many women, but extremely challenging on one leg, even for men.
Dowel Split Squat
Before we start lunging out every which way, like anything it helps to start in a single place and minimize the amount of moving parts. An ‘In-place Lunge’ is synonymous with the term ‘Split Squat.’ Any time you see me mention the word split squat, assume I mean a lunge where there is no movement of the legs from a firmly planted position. When there is movement of the limbs from this planted position, as you’ll see in future variations, the terminology often gets changed to ‘Lunge.’
The dowel, like the front plank before it, just ensures good neutral spine position. You want to keep it in contact with the glutes/tailbone, the upper back near the ribs, and the back of the head, as shown here.
In the bottom position you’re looking for a vertical front shin,meaning your front shin should stay as perpendicular to the floor as you can manage. Then look for ninety degree angles on the back leg and the front leg as with the half kneeling position. Again, this is a stacked joint, but more importantly, this position is the most advantageous for the larger hip muscles. Drifting the knee too far forward increases the demand on the smaller muscles of the thigh, and places a little more stress on the knee. Fine with body weight variations and even using the lunge to increase flexibility, but in my experience not ideal for loading. The torso is perpendicular to the floor.
The front heel should remain firmly planted on the ground. Remember the tripod of the foot, you want equal distribution the two points of the balls of the feet and a slight bias towards the heel. About a 40/60 distribution in weight between the balls of this foot and the heel of this foot. When pressing up to the top position, you’re attempting to straighten the front leg completely. You’ll have the majority of your weight on the front leg, about 80%, but need about 20% of your weight to push into the back leg to provide some stability in the hips.You want to prevent that back hip from dropping and not contributing anything to the process. Your hips should remain level to one another, despite the split stance.
I always look so serious in these photos. The key attributes of a successful lunge for the white belt is that you can maintain nice straight joint lines. Looking from the front your knee should be stacked directly above your ankle, and your hip should be stacked directly above that, on both the lead leg and the back leg. You can vary this on the back leg, and going a little bit wider with your stance will often lead to better stability initially but I go by the standard of the stacked joints principle.
Conversely you can make the move harder by going with a narrower stance, as is often used in movement screening procedures to identify potential movement problems. When loading for the time being, I don’t really recommend anything other than stacked joints.
If you’re an excessive pronator (remember: your foot collapses inward) and it affects your knee positioning, try putting a little more weight towards the pinky aspect of the the balls of your foot. As your short foot strengthens over time, you won’t have to think about this as much going forward. Otherwise allowing your front foot to roll in a lot over many repetitions can create some wear and tear on the inside part of the knee joint.
Can your weight distribution change? Absolutely, as you’ll see in future variations you’ll have to adapt your approach to various positions, there is no way to return to the starting position from a forward lunge for instance without pushing off more predominantly from the balls of the foot. That also makes that variation of the movement more stressful to the quadriceps at the front of the thigh.
Once you can handle two or three sets of fifteen on each leg, you are probably prepared to remove the dowel, add a little load and/or progress to the next more complicated variation. Though for variations like the reverse lunge or forward lunge, trying them with the dowel first, or at least warming those movements up with a dowel can still be a good idea for maintaining and ingraining proper form. Introducing additional movement, makes them more complicated to the nervous system and you’re more likely to let technique breakdown when movement gets more complicated.
The reverse lunge is the next progression with the lunge. Now you’re actually ‘lunging’ away or towards something, in this case I recommend learning how to go backwards before forward because it’s less eccentric stress. Eccentric muscle action (again the lowering phase of a movement) will generally make you more sore. With that in mind, my progressions are based around what I find minimizes soreness over time but also accounts for the difficulty of execution.
In this example, you’ll notice my hands are behind my head again in the ‘Prisoner Position.’ The start position for a true lunge is the standing position.
Then for the reverse lunge you’re taking a step back, but it should look the same as before. Ninety degree angles on the front and back leg, vertical shin, upright neutral spine torso, packed neck, and eyes forward. Most of my weight is still on my front leg, just a little more on the front heel too. I want to force my large hip muscle to do most of the work regardless of the type of lunge. The front leg is still doing most of the work in this variation, it just doesn’t move. The back leg is moving and absorbing some of that eccentric stress on the step back, but because most of your weight is on the front leg, you don’t end up as sore.
You’ll notice in this example I’ve also removed the blue pad from beneath my back knee. You can keep it there until you’re accustomed to getting the right depth on the back knee if you like. It’s always easier to work from the ground up than the top down until a motor pattern is ingrained. You don’t want to bang your knee of the ground with every repetition, and the pad prevents that. The pad teaches you to exaggerate the step so you don’t kick it, a useful practice overall but generally not needed long term. Having to exaggerate your step can sometimes be a nuisance when you have external load.
The blue pad also ensured that you get appropriate depth. Many people will tend to shorten the depth of moves like the squat and lunge when the weight gets heavy. However, research suggests that moving through full ranges of movement improves skill more and impacts performance to a greater extent. Generally you’re better off going a little bit lighter and working through full ranges of motion, than you are, adding more load but only through partial ranges of motion. Here you want the back knee an inch or two off the ground, or as a good rule of thumb your front thigh should get parallel to the floor.
To return to the standing position, drive force down into the front leg and pull yourself back to the starting position with your hips. Stay as tall as you can through the entire movement.
As an example of programming, I might introduce someone to the dowel split squat for the first few weeks or until they’ve developed mastery. If they developed mastery quickly then we add load and in keeping with a general theme you’ll find in the programming section of this book, we’ll switch things up every 4 weeks. So say the first week someone can bang out the prerequisite two or three sets of fifteen dowel split squats, we progressively add load for the next 3 weeks and then change the type of lunge. Adding load improved neurological efficiency, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Those same rules apply to the reverse lunge, walking lunge and forward lunge and as such you have at least 16 weeks of exercise programming for the lunge right there. If you can bang out two or three sets of fifteen of these, you’re ready to add load or move on to a more challenging variation.
The walking lunge is a lot more dynamic than the reverse lunge. I won’t lie, you’ll usually feel your hips after the first week of training these but you’ll also be mimicking more walking and running mechanics. As you step out, your front leg has to absorb more force and then push yourself to standing. That push is less intensive than the forward lunge, which is why I’ve put it third on my list of progressions.
Again the principles of all basic lunges are the same. You can pause in the standing position with each step, or as you see my leg swinging in the last photo make it a more continuous walk.
Here I’m alternating legs, but you could just as easily use the same leg all the way across and the other leg all the way back.
To Alternate or Not to Alternate?
Now is a good time to touch on whether or not you should alternate legs when you lunge or stick to the same leg until the number of repetitions is completed?
Obviously on the split squat, you don’t alternate, but you have the option with any form of lunging.
It’s a good question, but in truth I find that it generally doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. It’s just another fun way to mix up your training and provide variety. I tend to use alternating variations when I want to use lunges as more of a conditioning or muscular endurance training tool. I stick to the same leg when I want to use the lunge for hypertrophy (muscle building) or strength objectives.
On the walking lunge it’s your choice, but I recommend picking one option and sticking to that method for an entire phase of training at a time. Switch it up for new phases if you like, or don’t, just pick a different loading strategy or lunge variation.
This is usually the most difficult of the basic lunge variations to master because everyone has a tendency to shoot the knee forward, as you’ll see in the photos even I do a little bit. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we just want to minimize it as best we can for now to encourage the development of hip strength. The forward lunge will stress the knee the most out of the bunch and make your quads a lot more sore than other variations, where you’ll tend to use more of your hips. This makes a lot of sense as you’ll be using them mostly to push yourself back to standing. If you have knee trouble, it might also be the variation that I avoid the most.
You start from the same position as any other lunge. Standing. Only obviously you’re stepping forward this time and pushing yourself back to that standing position.
Notice the knee is a little less vertical and most people will also tend to shorten the stride on the forward lunge as it allows you to elastically load the front leg a little bit better. Obviously you need to put more force into the ground to return more of your weight to the starting point behind you than any other version.
If this is too tough a transition from the walking variation, you can play with gravity and put a low box or step to step onto instead. Putting a low box in front of you to step on and push off, lowers the amount of force required to return to the standing position and is a good technique for learning. Make the box or step lower and lower until you’re at the floor. Obviously you can also make it harder the other way but starting from a low back and increasing the amount of gravitational force you have to overcome to return to the standing position but that’s something I leave for future books.
The forward lunge is a great precursor to many jumping movements because it requires the body to absorb quite a bit of eccentric force and then elastically utilize that force to pop you back up to the standing position. Remember that about 80% of your bodyweight or more should be on the front leg for lunge variations. What makes it more stressful than the walking lunge is that you have to powerfully push yourself back to the standing position, rather than absorbing a pretty decent amount of force and then pushing yourself back up to standing as in the walking lunge.
We’ll discuss explosive elasticity training, like jumps, in a future book because I think they are important, but for the white belt program this is probably the most explosive move you’ll see.
You have four variations/progressions for the lunge now, but here is where slight differences in loading get really interesting. Now you can mix and match different loading protocols with different variations of the lunge for different effects. There are a variety of ways to add load to any move, but I find it is particularly necessary to add load to lower body training for the best effect.
Manipulating how you mechanically load a movement exposes your body to a greater variety of potential demands that seem relative to life. However, all are reserved for specific aims. For pure load I recommend the double rack or the double dumbbell position. For a new stability oriented challenge or muscular endurance challenge one of the single dumbbell strategies is useful.
Probably the easiest and most well known loading methods, it works particularly well for lunging because the torso is always upright, unlike the squat. Dumbbells are useful for hip hinging too, but in a different way. All you have to do here is pick up two dumbbells and hold them at your side.
You might notice that I’m making my lats big and holding the dumbbells slightly away from my torso so they don’t rub against my legs at all. This is the same technique used for carries. Women will find this difficult to execute, especially when the weight gets heavy due to the shape of the upper body. Men have wider shoulders obviously which makes this a little easier for us, but I still encourage women to use as similar a technique as they can muster.
You’ll also be limited by your grip with this variation, but of all the dumbbell variations most will be able to load this the heaviest, or the second heaviest if you’re comfortable hoisting dumbbells onto your shoulders as in the next example.
The Double Rack Position
This is uncomfortable for many and requires some getting used to. It also requires practice and ensuring that you place the ends of the dumbbells quite literally on your shoulders. Your arms/hands are only there to keep them in place and not to do much work beyond that. Trying to hold them in this position with your upper body will fatigue your shoulders quickly, the torso will slump forward and you risk dropping the dumbbells forward.
Successful execution of this loading strategy requires that you get your elbows high. You’ll notice that my upper arms are parallel to the floor. Coincidentally this is also a great preparatory lift for when you progress to barbell lifting if you choose to go onto future belt levels. Most of the main barbell positions for the lunge or squat are racked on the shoulders.
It’s true, I do have pretty long arms so I find this position quite easy. If you have shorter arms it might be difficult for you to rest the dumbbell right on top of the shoulders as you can see here. It’s a bit of a balancing act as I don’t want to use my upper body to keep the weight up there all that much, or the limitation will become my upper body endurance.
The other limitation with this loading strategy is getting the weight up to the shoulders. The most common strategy when the weight is low is a bicep curl followed by lifting the elbows, but if the weight gets considerably heavier you have to know how to clean dumbbells, a skill that won’t be discussed in this book but in subsequent books.
One other advantage with this strategy is that it engages the torso musculature more intensely than other variations listed here. Placing the load higher above your center for gravity increases the muscular demands on the shoulders. The only other loading strategy that creates greater torso tension is holding something overhead, which I’ll leave for future books as most people will struggle with that strategy at first. I’ll discuss that more in depth in the section on overhead pressing.
One Dumbbell Down
This can be done two ways:
- Ipsilateral (same side as the working leg – first photo)
- Contralateral (opposite side as the working leg – second photo)
Ipsilateral loading is placing the load on the same side as the dominant working leg. In this case, the right leg is doing most of the work and my right arm is holding the weight. This creates a greater rotational and side-to-side (lateral) demand on the torso. Ipsilateral is generally the easier of the two loading strategies because it’s closer to the center of mass and is less rotational in nature.
Contralateral is tougher but probably more in tune with how the body gets loaded rotationally. Almost all explosive rotational movements in sport are done better contralaterally by nature. For instance throwing a baseball or football is usually done stepping forward with the opposite leg. It can be done ipsilaterally, but it won’t be as forcefully.
These two methods of loading are great to alternate with heavier loading strategies on a phase by phase basis. For example, do four weeks of one of the heavier strategies followed by four weeks of one of these. I also commonly use them in deload weeks because they naturally lower the amount of weight a person can use. However that is more of an advanced topic, most novice trainees won’t need to use deload weeks just yet.
It’s not uncommon for some people to struggle with the lunge. Up until now, most of the exercises we’ve been through are ground based and offer a lot of support. The lunge by contrast ends up with only two points of support, making it somewhat of a balance issue in some cases. Many times it’s not that someone isn’t strong enough to execute the basic dowel lunge, but rather that they need to relearn the motor pattern and regain stability. This can take a little time, particularly if they have a history of knee pain or trouble.
For this we can introduce a support mechanism, or what I like to call the ‘Supported Split Squat.’
Here I’m using a suspension trainer, but you can use anything secure enough to pull yourself up with a little bit of assistance. This can be a friend, or a towel around a heavy piece of equipment, or a thick band attached to a door anchor. You’re really only limited by your imagination here and the tools/space you have available to you.
You might notice that my stance is a little narrower here and my back leg isn’t quite hitting that 90/90 position. Ideally you do hit that position, but the front leg is still the most important. As discussed earlier changing the length and width of your stance can change this exercise, but for now I think it’s better to focus on stacked joints and the 90/90 position as often as possible. In this case a narrow stance lets me put more weight on my front leg. I probably could have lengthened the straps and taken a step or two back to get into a better position.
Don’t use this alternative if you can do the dowel split squat, and if you are going to use it I recommend using a pad under your back knee so you can feel the right position.
You want to put the least amount of weight on your hands as possible to make this more challenging, until you can take the support away and use the dowel split squat. Another way to progress this would be to go to using one hand before taking the supports away. You can also start to grip using only your fingers to reduce the amount of force you can assist yourself with. The aim is to get to the dowel split squat so keep reducing the assistance until you’re confident enough to take your hands off a support. Look Ma, no hands!