The other is for firming and toning.
One is for packing on functional muscle.
The other is to sculpt.
One is for increased performance in just about everything.
The other goes well with spandex.
What are these two contrasting things? I am comparing how most people in fitness see squats and lunges. The squat has long been held up as “the king” of lower body exercises while the lunge has often been seen as the token exercise that you do because it is suppose to be good for you. However, you would never dream of emphasizing the lunge over the squat, or would you?
For quite some time I had the above belief, especially during my days competing in Strongman. Real strength was reserved for squats, deadlifts, cleans and such. Why waste precious energy on an exercise that many coaches think we can save for music pumping aerobic classes?
Something interesting began to happen though. As I kept going heavier in my training my body started feeling it. Stiffness, tightness, and little increase in my performance made me begin to wonder if there was a better way to really get strong and fit.
It wasn’t just casual aches and pains, I began to see my recovery take much longer, I saw my training being based around what didn’t hurt that day. How in the world could I go against the gospel of strength training though?
Really only one reason would be good enough to go against such established beliefs, I felt and performed better when I made lunges more of a core lift in my programs! Why? Why in the world would I have started seeing better results from implementing lunges not as an accessory exercise, but a focused lift?
I began to wonder why, after all I can theorize things such as better hip stability, building more mobility, fixing imbalances, hmmm, might be something here.
While I am from the first person to think lunges are worthwhile, is there anything more than my anecdotal evidence though? Is this just some silly controversy I am trying to begin?
A 1999 study by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, set out to find different levels of muscle activation by some common lower body exercises. In this study, both squats and lunges were included. The results?
The researchers studied glute max, glute medius, and hamstrings. All three are important in hip stability and power production. According to the EMG activity of 12 trained individuals there were three interesting findings;
“For the gluteus maximus, squats elicited significantly more muscle activation than both the horizontal and vertical leg presses, but showed no significant differences in EMG activity when compared to the other exercises.” (yes including lunges)
“Results for the gluteus medius showed that quadruped hip extensions, step- ups and lunges generated significantly more muscle activation than squats.”
“Finally, for the hamstrings quadruped hip extensions, step-ups, lunges and four-way hip extensions garnered significantly more EMG activity than squats…”
Hmm, isolated study? How about a study where researchers from the University of Arkansas and Eastern Kentucky University looked at muscle activity of squats compared to lunges. The study looked at female college athletes and found, “ that there was no greater muscle activation when performing any of the squat depths to that of the body weight lunge. It was revealed that the body weight lunge did indeed produce more activation in the majority of all muscles analyzed when compared to the three squat depths.”
Why mention the body weight lunge? The real shock here is that the lunge was compared to a weighted squat! That says a lot about the power lunges do possess.
Don’t worry though, all this lunge talk doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the squat. I just want to open your eyes to the often overlooked lunge and maybe have all of us re-evaluate how we implement this great drill.
More Than One Plane
The lunge represents a less stable body position, this level of instability actually causes a lot of often underutilized muscles to turn on. Turning on these smaller muscles (stabilizers) helps build strength in a more indirect route. By improving the whole body stability of the body we develop a stronger foundation in which to develop force and strength. As goes the old saying, “you are only as strong as your weakest link!”
The less stable body positions also represent a highly underutilized form of training, multi-planar. Basically, multi-planar training is when we move in one plane of motion (there are three in natural human movement) and resist motion in other planes.
Even something as simple as walking actually has us moving in all three planes at once, however, we rarely train this in the gym. Remember, we want to connect our strength training to our every day living as much as possible.
What does multi-planar training look like? When we step forward in a lunge we actually are also resisting forces that are pushing us to the side and trying to make us rotate. We can use kettlebells to actually enhance this effect.
Multi-planar training increases stability, makes our nervous system smarter, and yes, can be awesome for improving conditioning. This is something we don’t really get the opportunity to train in our more stable lifts such as squats and deadlifts.
More Than Up and Down
Think of your favorite athlete, look how we do most things in life, rarely in either case do we see movements that are strictly up and down patterns. We are reaching, twisting, moving in all sorts of positions often at once. This is something we can really use the lunge to help improve.
One of the more overlooked benefits of lunging is the fact we don’t just get force when we move up and down, but by lunging in different directions we get some really unique forces acting upon the body. A big reason that knowing the right direction to progress your lunges is important is because we can greatly increase the intensity of a lunge just by changing direction.
For example, when we lunge forward, more of our body must be decelerated as we step forward than when we step backwards. Drop lunging (lunging backwards) keeps our most of our center of mass over our base of support. Huh? Forward lunging is harder than backward lunging because we have more of our body to stop as we step in that direction. This is something we see very often in sport and every day life.
Consider all the various directions we can step when we lunge and you have a wide array of ways to progress and challenge the lunge beyond just the weights you use!
Kettlebells add such a great dimension to the lunge. With all the patterns that kettlebells can create, there seems to be infinite ways to progress the lunge outside of just going heavier. Today’s training video actually features how we manipulate kettlebell holding positions to create some very unique training effects .
Using these strategies allow you to use kettlebells for more than just adding weight to the body. There becomes specific means of challenging the various benefits of lunging.
Since we often program the most demanding exercise (in both coordination and neurological energy) first, you might find that you start prioritizing your kettlebell lunges and then perform some of your squats and deadlifts after. You may even be more shocked that you get better at squats and deadlifts even though you have de-emphasized them.
Once you try these kettlebell lunge variations you might find the lunge having its revenge in your workouts as well!
References: Also: Dwelly, P., Oliver, G. Blair, H., Keeley, D. Hoffman, H, “Improved Muscle Activation in Performing A Body Weight Lunge Compared to the Traditional Back Squat,” University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, USA Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY, USA
Josh Henkin, Senior RKC, CSCS has been a RKC instructor since 2003 and has implemented kettlebell programs for major Division I programs, SWAT teams, and many different general fitness programs. Josh is also the creator of the DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training system where he is a highly sought after presenter worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://DVRTFitness.com.