Why lunges are the best leg exercise for over-40s.

It’s high time that the lunge got the respect it deserves. Most strength coaches push bilateral work like squats and deadlifts over lunges but when it comes to real world application for most people these lifts falter.

Let’s break this down into bite-sized chunks:

There are three possible foot positions – standing with your feet together like in a squat or deadlift, a split stance like a lunge, and single legged work. So if you remove lunges from your program you’re deficient in 30% of the possible stances you may end up in. Athletically you will see split stances turn up far more often than an evenly weighted bilateral stance like in squats. Finally, the lunge is a transitional stance. It is the link between bilateral stance and single leg stance. many people who have trained bilaterally for years realise the error they’re making and try to jump to single leg training with no transition steps and wonder why they fail. Add in that middle step of lunges and the transition will be fine though.

Keeping with our transitional theme the lunge turns up as a transition in other ways too. In the developmental sequence you progress from lying on your back to face down, to a quadruped stance for activities like crawling. You then need to get through transitional stances like sitting and kneeling to get to standing, which is our final posture. One of the fastest ways to correct someone in standing is to regress back to a lower posture where they exhibit better control. So you would transition from standing to a position called half kneeling, which is really a kneeling lunge position.

Not only do you regress posture/ stance when trying to correct movement but you can also simplify it. The overhead squat is the hardest movement to get right as it has so many components that all need to work well. You can regress it by removing the overhead component and turning it into a regular squat. You can place the load below shoulder height such as in a goblet squat, which creates better trunk stiffness. But sometimes you need to address each leg individually. The problem is that many people who can squat on two legs are completely incapable of doing it on one. And that’s where lunges come back in as they are halfway between a double leg quad dominant pattern and a true single leg exercise.

Most leg exercises are broadly categorised into either quad or hip dominant. At one end we have an exercise like the squat, which is considered the king of quad exercises and at the other end is the deadlift, which is the king of hip dominant moves. (Although would suggest the snatch grip deadlift is the true hip dominant king over the conventional deadlift). Every exercise has to include a portion of each. A true hip only exercise, for example, would be a straight leg deadlift or good morning – neither of which allow the use of the same sorts of loads as the regular deadlift. In the deadlift there is a degree of knee bend. While the hips do the majority of the work there is an element of knee extension, which is quad driven. So we accept that all exercises have varying degrees of involvement from both of the major lower body patterns why aren’t we just looking for an exercise that hist both equally and saves us time in the gym?

The lunge features a large degree of knee flexion/ extension as well as nearly the same amount of hip extension as the deadlift (on one side). The verticla shin angle on the front leg is far more knee friendly on older joints than what you might see from a squat, yet it has the same amount of knee extension as a parallel squat will. The lunge allows a completely upright torso meaning little load an older backs. And, while many people think that the amount of weight used is the most important thing, as you get older you’re going to appreciate exercises where the muscles are targeted effectively that don’t require large amounts of axial loading on the spine. Put simply – eventually heavy squats and deadlifts are just going to make your older spine feel bad. The lunge allows far more variation in terms of performance and loading that will allow development every bit as good as squats and deadlifts without any of the potential downsides, while adding a better degree of function for most activities.

So let’s get to a smart progression to teach the lunge properly. The first step should be that thing I spoke of before from kneeling, or rather half kneeling. Half kneeling is a super powerful position to learn static motor control of the hip as well as core control. It can have elements added to it to teach upper body control too. More people should be training more often from half kneeling. So now we have a static posture that teaches us static stability we need to add to it.

For many the nest step is to go straight to lunges. However, there is a step prior that needs to be hit. That step is a split squat. The difference between a split squat and a lunge is movement. In a lunge you either step backwards or forwards into the split squat position. That clearly requires movement but you have to earn that movement by displaying control in a less challenging variation, which is where the split squat comes in. After we’ve drilled and proven we can be successful we can move onto lunges.

Again, most people go straight to forward lunges but the alternative to step backwards is far better for older knees. When you step forwards there will be a tendency to allow the knee to travel forwards too. That’s not all bad as the further forward the knee travels the more quad involvement there is. However, the further forward the knee travels the more stress there in on the knee, which can be problematic for older knees that have a lot of miles in them. far better is a reverse lunge where you step back. By stepping back you keep the front shin vertical, which is far safer for the joint. In fact, a vertical shin position is so safe it is used post knee surgery to begin the rehab process.

The next step is not necessarily to add movement. The natural progression for many is to take success with lunges and continue onto walking lunges. There are a number of ways to progress an exercise and movement is not necessarily the best. Walking lunges don’t really fit many purposes other than being hard. While that may make the workout feel effective that doesn’t mean that it was any more beneficial from something else. A far better idea at this point is to remove some of the base of stability. Remember when I said the lunge was a transitional exercise? Well, now is the time to start transitioning to single leg work via an exercise called the rear foot elevated split squat, or more popularly known as the Bulgarian squat. As the name says the rear foot is raised during the performance of this exercise placing more stress on the front leg.

The final step is to fully transition to a single leg squat with the non-working leg behind. This is known as a shrimp squat although another name – the airborne lunge – makes more sense.

Now we’ve talked about all the exercise progressions we need to add on load progressions because with the nature of this exercise it’s possible to load it in a variety of ways. Following are the ways you can load each one, from easiest to hardest:

No load
Double suitcase (ie weight in both hands with arms straight and hands at hips).
Double rack (this can be achieved with kettlebells or a barbell, with kettlebells being harder).
Single suitcase (placed on the opposite side to the front leg. ie if left leg is forwards the weight will be in the right hand).
Single rack (again, with weight held contralaterally).

For people who don’t believe that last bit – take the weight you normally use for a double suitcase position Bulgarian squat and place it in one hand on the opposite side to the working leg. If you’re doing Bulgarian squats with 2 x 20kg kettlebells and suddenly hold 40kg in the rack you’re going to be extremely challenged.

Try it for three months progressing through all the options, developing control and strength, and see how your body feels as well as how your performance goes. I will bet you don’t even notice that you’re no longer doing squats or deadlifts. The thing you will notice will be improved stability in various sporting situations, less back and knee pain, and better core stability.