Fix Your Lunges with The Foam Roller: Plus Massive Leg Growth and Strength Gains
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
I’m a huge fan of the foam roller, just not for foam rolling. In fact there are numerous ways to incorporate the foam roller into movements to enhance body mechanics with lunges being no exception (read more about foam roller exercises here).
With that said, when it comes to proper lunge mechanics there are very precise cues and pointers that need to be followed in order to perform the movement correctly. Unfortunately most individuals including many strength coaches and trainers perform lunges and split squats incorrectly as they downplay the importance of subtle yet critical cues involved in proper lunge mechanics. In fact, if you haven’t read my in-depth article on correct lunge mechanics and common mistakes to avoid you may want to check that out first.
With that said, if you have read the article and are ready to implement the various cues discussed then it’s time to get your foam rollers out. That’s because I’m going to provide 2 unique lunges using the foam roller that are sure to help clean up your lunge mechanics and help eliminate a number of common mistakes.
Variation 1: Anti-Rolling Lunge on Foam Roller
This variation is simple yet incredibly challenging. Simply place your back foot on the foam roller and perform any type of lunge (barbell, dumbbell, goblet, etc.) while using an eccentric isometric protocol (slow eccentric followed by a pause in the bottom position). Placing the back foot on the foam roller provides several unique features that literally help clean up lunge and split squat mechanics within seconds.
Here are 6 common problems this variation addresses:
1. The anti-rolling foam roller lunge forces the lifter to place a majority of the weight on the front leg in order to avoid having their back foot roll backward off the foam roller. Many individuals place too much stress on the back leg and forget that a lunge is nothing more than a single leg squat with slight support from the back leg.
2. The anti-rolling lunge on a foam roller forces the lifter to use the necessary hip hinge mechanics and forward torso lean to successfully complete the movement. Attempting to stay upright, which happens to be one of the most common lunge mistakes, will be immediately punished as it will place too much strain on the back leg causing that foot to roll off the foam roller.
3. This lunge variation requires the lifter to keep the back heel up by staying tall and high on the ball of the back foot. In fact, a proper lunge involves having the back foot/heel approximately parallel to the wall throughout the duration of the lunge. As soon as the back heel drops it promotes sagging hips, weak core, excessive loading onto the back leg, and also minimizes the all-essential hip hinge mechanics. In order to avoid rolling off the foam roller the back heel must remain tall throughout this variation.
4. The anti-rolling foam roller lunge is one of the most effective lunges for teaching smooth and crisp mechanics. Attempting to muscle your way through the lift or use excessive momentum will result in immediate loss of control as the foam roller will begin to roll away. As a result, the lifter will be required to use incredibly strict form with constant tension on the muscles. In fact the degree of metabolic stress and mechanical tension this places on the entire musculature of the thigh is difficult to replicate with any other exercise. Just be prepared for a ridiculous burn and don’t forget I told you so.
5. Overextending at the top of the lunge and simply standing too tall at the completion of each rep is another subtle yet common mistake. Not only does this take tension off the working muscles and place stress on the low back but it pulls the individual out of proper alignment by eliminating the hip hinge position (which should be kept from start to finish). With the foam roller if you over-extend at the top it’s game over as your foot will roll right off.
6. When it comes to enhancing balance and stability, the anti-rolling foam roller lunge is one of the most effective lower body variations for improving these biomotor capabilities. Even the slightest loss of balance and mental focus will result in losing control and having to restart the movement.
Variation 2: Anti-Lateral-Rolling Lunge on Foam Roller
The second variation of the anti-rolling foam roller lunge is quite similar to the first however the foam roller is flipped 90 degrees. Instead of the lifter resisting forward and backward rolling forces, the individual will be resisting medial and lateral deviations as demonstrated by my awesome client and national figure competitor Leslie Petch. This variation provides many of the same benefits of the first variation above. However it also holds three unique attributes that make it highly effective for cleaning up other lunging mistakes.
1. This lunge variation forces the lifter to maintain perfect balance on the front leg. If the front ankle, knee, or hip begins to deviate even slightly this creates a ripple effect throughout the kinetic chain ultimately causing the back foot to roll off the foam roller.
2. With this particular anti-lateral rolling foam roller lunge the lifter will be required to assume an in-line or semi in-line stride position (both feet semi in-line with each other). This is something I’ve discussed for quite some time now as most lifters take a straddled or staggered position with too much space between the left and right foot. Having a large gap (left to right) between the front and back leg, not only ingrains faulty lunge mechanics but it negatively trickles into running and gait mechanics eventually causing faulty stride technique. I’ve seen this lead to hip, groin, low back, and knee issues one too many times.
Fixing this mistake and teaching the lifter to use an in-line or semi in-line stride position does wonders for cleaning up the lunge and ultimately greatly improving running and movement mechanics. For those of you who are still on the fence about this issue, just try this lunge variation on the foam roller as it both teaches and demonstrates the importance of using an in-line stride position as anything less will result in loss of balance.
In fact I’ve played around with numerous advanced lunge variations over the years that require very precise balance and motor control. Each time, in order to lock the movement in, particularly in conjunction with eccentric isometric holds (which further uncovers and magnifies optimal mechanics), an in-line stride position is always required. This variation is no exception as performing a straddled or staggered position (which is the incorrect method that most lifters resort to) creates wasted energy leaks in lateral and diagonal directions rather than producing perfectly horizontal and vertical forces. With the in-line or semi in-line stride position there is no energy wasted not to mention no unusual forces or torque acting on the joints, muscles, or connective tissue as all the force is being channeled perfectly into the targeted muscles.
3. This foam roller lunge variation also fixes another common flaw, which is back knee and back foot drift. Simply put, many lifters have trouble keeping the back knee and back foot in-line with each other (and in-line with the body) as they typically will rotate slightly out or slightly in. With this variation, any rotation of the back foot, hip or knee will result in that foot immediately rolling off the side of the foam roller. This also does wonders for cleaning up foot, toe, and ankle issues commonly seen during lunges as it forces the lifter to optimize their mechanics in the lower extremity.
What About Valgus Collapse?
Although an inline or semi-inline lunge position will cause the front knee to move towards the midline of the body and medial to the hip, this is not faulty mechanics or valgus collapse like many trainers erroneously believe. During any single leg dominant movement, stride motion, or running motion, the knee will naturally cross the midline of the body for both men and women as this represents idea mechanics for the human body. The key is not letting the knee move inside the foot and ankle or the knee becoming more medial than the foot and ankle complex. That represents true valgus collapse as it places incredible stress on the hips, knees, ankles, and low back.
These variations are quite intense and also fairly advanced. Start with lighter loads and progress from there. I also recommend beginning with bodyweight variations before progressing to dumbbells and ultimately barbell variations (if in fact you’ve gained enough neuromuscular efficiency). Several sets of 3-6 eccentric isometric holds on each variation will not only light up your entire lower body but will do wonders for your lunge and gait mechanics.
Bonus: Medicine Ball Lunge
You can actually reap many of the the same benefits of both foam roller variations by placing the back foot on a small medicine ball (a Swiss ball can also be used but it’s slightly easier). I call this the anti-rolling lunge.
This exposes energy leaks and faulty mechanics as any movement aberration will result in the ball rolling around and causing loss of control. To eliminate the rolling effect the lifter’s force vectors will have to be transmitted perfectly vertical into the ground with no energy leaks or waisted force/motion. In many ways this also represents a slight regression of the foam roller variations as it’s slightly easier than the foam roller versions I previously highlighted.
With that said movement aberrations are not as quickly punished with the medicine ball variations as it does allow slightly more room for deviations and subtle errors. However as mentioned it is a great way to get the best of both worlds by combining the effects of the two foam roller variations. Try applying the medicine ball technique to any of your favorite lunges including barbell, dumbbell, goblet style, single arm variations, and kettlebell variations. Eyes closed variations will also provide incredible feedback about your lower body function and mechanics. Read more about proper lunge mechanics at T-Nation.
Several sets of 5-8 reps either as a warmup to help dial in your CNS or as a lower body finisher will do wonders for strengthening your legs and ingraining proper lunge mechanics. As an added bonus this is one of the best foot and ankle strengthening exercises you'll ever performed as the balance and stability are quite challenging even with just bodyweight.