Lunges to the front are an outstanding exercise if you are thinking about getting in some snow skiing (especially cross-country skiing) this winter. Lunges are also great if your primary goal is to get tight and toned hips and thighs. As an added benefit, lunges will tax and therefore improve your thigh endurance and stamina. This thigh adaptation will come in pretty handy when you do heavy squat sessions.
Muscles Activated by the Lunge
The largest and thickest hip muscle that is affected by lunges is the gluteus maximus muscle. The upper attachment of the gluteus maximus is on the hipbones and the lower attachment is on the iliotibial tract that inserts on the lateral condyle of the tibia bone, and the gluteal tuberosity on posterior side of the femur (thigh) bone. The thigh is pulled posteriorly (backwards) into thigh or hip extension by the gluteus maximus. The gluteus medius and minimus muscles are deep to the gluteus maximus.2 Each attaches between the ilium bone of the hip and the posterior part of the femur. They both abduct the femur at the hip joint (moves the femur laterally, away from the mid-line of the body). The activation of the gluteus medius and minimus muscles during lunges is important for improving your overall core balance.3,4
The semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles of the medial (inside) hamstrings muscles begin on the ischial bone of the hip.2 The fibers become tendons to cross to the medial side of the knee to attach on the tibia bone of the lower leg. The short and long head of the biceps femoris begin along the lateral side of femur bone of the thigh then come together to a single tendon that connects to the small fibula bone of the leg just below the knee. The quadriceps femoris (“quads”) is a family of four muscles. The vastus lateralis muscle lies on the lateral (outer) part of the thigh; the vastus medialis covers the medial (inner) part of the thigh; and the vastus intermedius is located intermediately between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis.2 The fibers from these three muscles connect to the quadriceps tendon that attaches to the patella (kneecap). From the patella, it continues as the patellar ligament and attaches to the tibia bone below the knee. The rectus femoris muscle fibers run from the hip, along the front of the thigh to join the quadriceps tendon above the kneecap (patella). All four quadriceps muscles help to extend the leg (straighten the knee joint)2 during the upward phase of the lunge.1,5,6
1. Place a light barbell comfortably on your upper back as if you were ready to do a squat. You could also choose instead to take a dumbbell in each hand.
2. With your torso straight, take a long step forward with your right leg. The knee of the forward leg will bend to about 90 degrees as you lunge forward.
3. During your step (lunge) forward, you should lower the knee on the anchor (left) leg toward the floor. Like the other knee, this one will also bend to approximately 90 degrees. Keep your trunk in an upright position and do not lean forward from your waist during the lunge.
4. Lower your body and hips toward the floor but stop before the knee of the lagging leg (left) contacts the floor. You should feel the stretch across the hamstrings and buttocks of the anchor leg and the thigh of the forward leg.
5. Push off with your trailing left (anchor) foot and bring it forward as if you are making a stride in a walk cycle. Bend the knee of your right (forward) leg, and then the lagging leg.
6. Repeat the cycle so that you lunge forward with the other (left) leg.
7. Continue to lunge (walk) forward by alternating between left and right legs, much like you are taking exaggerated long steps around the gym. Be sure that you have plenty of room for your walk and ensure that you will not run into anything or anyone in the gym as you walk forward. Try for at least 15 lunges before resting.
If you are using lunges to improve sports requiring a longer power burst (e.g., jumping and climbing), you should make a comfortable, long stride (usually around a 3-foot stride length or a bit longer for most people). This longer stride will increase the knee angle as you lower your bodyweight. This reduces the stress on the knee joint, and it also provides greater activation of the gluteal muscles during the upward push phase.
The gluteal, hamstring and quadriceps muscles4,5 are all very active during the initial thrust back to the standing position (leg extension and hip extension). A deeper lunge and greater the stride will provide a superior stretch and this will improve activation of all of the affected muscles.6 However, you must work into this slowly or these lengthening contractions can make you sore.7
The combination of lower body hip, anterior and posterior muscle activations5,6,7 makes the lunge an all-around effective exercise, which will translate into gains that will carry over to the fitness and recreational areas of your choice. If you stick with lunges for at least two months, you should see a whole new wave of power and density that begins at your hips and moves through the front and back of your thighs like power-packed pistons.
1. Begalle RL, Distefano LJ, Blackburn T et al. Quadriceps and hamstrings coactivation during common therapeutic exercises. J Athl Train 2012;47:396-405.
2. Moore KL and AF Dalley Clinically oriented Anatomy. Fourth Edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, Kelly PJ Editor, 1992, pp. 550-570.
3. Okada T, Huxel KC, Nesser TW. Relationship between core stability, functional movement, and performance. J Strength Cond Res 2011;25:252-261.
4. Wagenaar R, Keogh JW, Taylor D. Development of a clinical Multiple-Lunge Test to predict falls in older adults. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2012;93:458-465.
5. Riemann BL, Lapinski S, Smith L et al. Biomechanical analysis of the anterior lunge during 4 external-load conditions. J Athl Train 2012;47:372-378.
6. Jonhagen S, Halvorsen K, Benoit DL. Muscle activation and length changes during two lunge exercises: implications for rehabilitation. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2009;19:561-568.
7. Jonhagen S, Ackermann P, Saartok T. Forward lunge: a training study of eccentric exercises of the lower limbs. J Strength Cond Res 2009;23:972-978.