The Right Way to Do Lunges

Lunges are an effective way to tone and tighten your entire lower half, and they can also contribute to pelvic stability during pregnancy and as we age. All of your lunging should leave you saying, “Ooooh, I look and feel good!” Not, “Ow, I pulled something!” However, when you don’t have a mirror  – or even when you do have a mirror – lunges are difficult to do right.

Notice how Warrior One Pose is like a lunge, but with too much back arch for static motion.

I’ve broken the lunge exercise down into three categories of tips and mental pictures to help you safety-check yourself while you’re lunging.  Using word pictures helps me as I film for home exercisers, and studies show that mental imagery improves the overall exercise experience. I’m only going to discuss three kinds of lunges: Forward lunges, reverse lunges, and static lunges. Some trainer out there is saying, “Wait, what about cross-over lunges, side lunges, hopping lunges…” And I say let’s stick with the basics and not overwhelm the busy mama of three rugrats who is lucky if she does a set of static lunges twice a year!

How to do forward lunges right: The forward lunge has you stepping forward and stepping back. It is the most traditional lunge, yet it offers some of the greatest risk because of how the forward motion of your body as each foot impacts the ground in front of you stresses the joint. Tips for forward lunging:

  • Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, and go slow through the first couple of repititions (reps) to check alignment. Always hold onto something nearby until you are balanced.
  • You should step as far forward as you can, landing softly on the heel of your foot and immediately stretching out the toes to grip the floor for balance.
  • You knee should not wobble from side to side, as you begin to bend it and lower yourself. If your knee wobbles, step a little wider to the side to give yourself more stability.
  • Imagine your hips and pelvic area are a bowl. Keep the bowl level – don’t let it spill – as you go forward. A lot of people arch their backs or drop one hip a little lower as they lunge down, and this “tips” the bowl and ruins alignment.
  • Do not go lower than a 90-degree (square) angle in both legs. Some like to keep their back leg straight, and some like to bend their back knee toward the floor. Touching your back knee to the floor, however, is inadvisable since this means the front knees is thus bent past 90-degrees, leaving the patella crushed by it’s own tendon against the cartilage below it.
  • As you start shoving off the front foot to return to the starting position, dig with your heel. Only go as deep into your lunge as you are able to shove off gracefully with NO pain to your knee.
  • Avoid forward lunges while you are pregnant, since the jolting is not healthy to the hormonally-challenged ligaments of the hips.
  • Drill your bellybutton into your spine each time you exhale into the forward lunge. Do not allow your belly to EVER stick out, rather focus on pulling your abdominal wall further into your body with each outward breath.
How to do static lunges right: Static means you stay in one spot, so static lunges start in the splayed position, and there is no forward or backward motion. Doing static lunges correctly makes you look like a carousel horse, moving gracefully up and down along a single axis of motion. Static lunging is much safer for pregnant mamas and those with stability issues, because it allows you to position yourself correctly before you begin and then keep that position for a series of reps. Tips for doing static lunges the right way:
  • Stand with one leg forward, and one leg back. Your legs should not necessarily be one in front of the other; keeping them shoulder-width apart will align your hips and help you recruit the right muscles.
  • Peek down at your front knee and make sure you can see your toes peeking out in front of your knee at the bottom of the lunge.
  • As you lower into the static lunge, bend your back knee, aiming it toward the floor but not trying to touch it down to the floor. Imagine that the back of your knees is tied to a string on the ceiling, and that string loosens as you lower and tightens as you come up, lifting the back of your knees toward the ceiling at the top of each lunge.
  • Seek a gentle up and down gliding motion, like a carousel horse, as you do your reps. Your torso should stay aligned with the “pole” of your horse, sliding up and down with grace.
  • If you use weights while lunging, hold them at your sides, making sure they don’t pull you forward or backward out of alignment.
  • Take two breaths for each lunge, breathing out at the bottom AND at the top. This will allow you to tighten your gut at the bottom stress point, and at the top balancing point. Sink your navel back into your body toward your spine, tightening that god-given girdle muscle (transverse abdominus) with each exhale.
How to do reverse lunges right: These are my favorite way to do lunges. I love how the backward swing of each leg utilizes my glutes and hamstrings, and it doesn’t bother my trick knee to step back. This style of lunging always feels fun and easy, yet I always “feel the burn.” Tips for doing reverse lunges the right way:
  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and step back as far as you can with one foot, allowing yourself to sink toward the floor, but do not touch your knee to the floor because that stresses your knee joint too much.
  • As you start coming up, do NOT push off your back foot, rather focus on lifting your weight upward with your front leg. Push into the floor with your front heel, engaging your glute/butt muscles. Stay graceful yet powerful.
  • Breathe out as you lower your body, holding your abdominal wall inward. This braces your spine, because pulling your abs inward activates your transverse abdominus and controls the intra-abdominal pressure in your gut. It would be a shame to get a big gut from doing lunges.
  • Only step as far back as you can maintain balance, hip stability, and still be able to pull your navel to your spine. Imagine that you are trying to kiss your bellybutton to your vertebrae, squishing your organs in between the smooch, at the bottom and top of each lunging motion.
  • You should always be able to look down and see your toes beyond your front knee. If you cannot see your toes at the bottom of any kind of lunge, then your knee is overshooting your toes, and this means you are grating your cartilage and stressing your patellar tendon.
All of these tips and more are discussed in our online workout videos. Trainers who are reading this, if you have any tips to add or links to blogs you’ve written about lunges, feel free to comment and link up here!

3 thoughts on “The Right Way to Do Lunges

  1. Jeff Wise says:

    Great post! You explain in depth with how to do lunges.

    I think lunges can be beneficial to kids as well. Great exercise and it can be turned into a fun game.

  2. bethanylearn says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I agree about kids doing lunges. They’re great for anyone, even the elderly! If you ever would like to write a guest blog post about kids fitness and link it to your book, I’d love to have you!

  3. June Stoyer says:

    I am going to try them your way, Bethany! I have always disliked lunges but Todd is always telling me that they are so important. I will try this. Thank you for providing so much detail. Keep the posts coming with more pictures too! Great article, once again!

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