While I firmly believe that the back squat is the very best exercise for developing strength in the lower body and legs, I’m also a huge fan of the lunge. Back squats and lunges fit together like a hand and glove. Lunges are the perfect exercise for strengthening the same muscles and attachments that are worked in the squat—but in a slightly different manner and to build some variety into a leg program.
One of the main reasons that I like lunges is that they make both legs work equally hard. That’s not always the case with back squats. Athletes will invariably use their stronger leg when the going gets tough, which results in the weaker leg getting further and further behind. That doesn’t happen with lunges, since you work each leg independently, and it has to carry its own weight. You can remedy the disparity in strength with lunges simply by doing a few additional reps on every set for the lagging leg.
Lunges are great substitutes for those who are unable to do squats, for whatever reason. They may not be able to fix the bar behind their neck or some other physical problem that prevents them from squatting. With lunges you can use dumbbells, and the results can be exactly the same as if you’d used a bar.
I’ve also had a number of athletes who were not able to go low on back squats—and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I would have them do high reps with light weights or put them inside a power rack and have them start their squats from a deeper-than-normal position—but they still couldn’t go below parallel. So, instead of flogging a dead horse, I switched them to lunges. To their surprise and delight, they excelled at the lift.
My most memorable success was a football player at Johns Hopkins, a lineman who weighed just under 400 pounds—aptly nicknamed “the Barn.” I tried every idea I had on him, but he still couldn’t break parallel on a back squat. The lunge was an altogether different story. He went very deep, and once he strengthened the groups that hadn’t been worked in the partial squats, his lunge took off. So much so that he ended up setting the weight room record for the lift: 315. Not too shabby.
Lunges are the ideal alternative to squatting. When done correctly, they work the exact same muscles as the squat—the lumbars, glutes, hips, adductors, abductors, leg biceps and quads—but they work them differently. You can do lunges with a barbell, dumbbells or without any resistance. Walking lunges can strengthen the lower body nicely—that is, if you walk far enough.
I taught a few athletes how to do walking lunges in the hallway outside the weight room—up and back for a distance of about 30 total yards. No dumbbells or bar, just bodyweight. Every last one of them was exhausted at the end—which makes the walking lunge the ideal exercise to do when traveling. You can do them on any flat surface: sandy beach, sidewalks around a motel or in a hallway.
As with any other exercise, however, lunges must be done correctly to be effective. In nearly every photo I see of a model demonstrating the lunge, the trailing leg is bent excessively. That style is not nearly as beneficial as keeping the trailing leg as straight as possible, with the knee almost touching the floor. I’ve had some athletes tap the floor with their knee to see how close they are to it. Not everyone has the flexibility to do that in the beginning, but with enough reps it will come over time and all the muscle groups that are involved will become much stronger than when the rear leg is bent and dipped toward the floor.
If possible, lunge with a barbell because that will enable you to handle the most weight. Take the bar off the rack just as you would for squats. Balance is the key to doing lunges correctly, and foot placement is critical to balance. Place your feet at shoulder width with your toes pointed ahead. With your torso perfectly erect and eyes forward, take a long step forward so that you end up completely stretched out and your knee is slightly out in front of your foot. You must step straight forward. If your lead foot swings inward or outward, your balance will be severely affected.
Once you find the ideal distance to plant your lead foot, mark that spot with a piece of chalk. Over time the step forward will be consistent and automatic, but while you’re learning the lift, that mark will help. I’ve had a few athletes who preferred stepping back, and that is all right too. It’s sort of like being left- or right-handed.
When you step forward, slam the lead foot into the floor while turning your toes slightly. That will help with balance. Push down into a deep split, and make sure your knee is leading your foot just a bit. The bottom position is exactly the same as an Olympic lifter doing a split snatch. Should your knee stay behind your foot, you’re placing your knee under a great deal of undue stress, and you will not be able to handle as much weight in the long run. Your trailing knee should be almost touching the floor.
The recovery from the deep split is crucial. You must do it smoothly—no twisting or squirming. If that happens, reduce the poundage. Once you have assumed the deep, low position, push off with your lead foot and stand up. Your upper body must stay rigidly upright from start to finish.
When you start using heavier weights, the recovery becomes different. You do the movement in stages rather than one giant step. Baby steps are necessary for maintaining perfect form and balance (by berry). Slide your lead foot back until you’re able to stand up. Take a moment to make sure your feet are where they need to be, and lunge with your other leg. Everyone discovers that one leg is stronger than the other. The lunges are going to help you correct that relative weakness.
Once you find out which leg is lagging in strength, add a couple of extra reps for that leg on each set. Also, give the weaker leg priority by doing it first on every set. It may not come up to par right away, but over several months it will.
You can also use dumbbells for lunging, and some athletes prefer them to a barbell, stating that they can go deeper with dumbbells and still maintain their balance. Dumbbells are also good for those who train alone, cannot fix a bar behind their neck or have very little space to train.
The key points are the same for dumbbells as for the barbell version: Keep your torso erect throughout the movement, move the front foot straight ahead, position the trailing foot high on the toes and not turned to the side, keep the trailing leg as straight as possible, and recover in a smooth, controlled fashion.
For those who choose to do lunges exclusively, I recommend changing the set-and-rep formula at each session. Do four sets of four on the heavy day, three sets of six on the light day and two sets of four followed by two or three sets of two on the medium day. A great many older athletes use a higher-rep routine—two sets of 20 for starters, steadily adding more reps over time.
Even if you’re happy with your current leg program, give lunges a fair trial. If you get sore in some new parts of your lower body, you know that you’re involving new muscles—and in strength training that’s a good thing.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.