Lunges & Split Squats: You’re Doing Them Wrong
BY DR. JOEL SEEDMAN, PH.D
This is the full-length version of Dr. Seedman's article that was originally featured on T-Nation
Lunges: The Good and The Bad
The lunge or split squat has been one of the most popular lower body exercises for decades. Unfortunately most individuals including many athletes and “expert trainers” perform them improperly thereby negating the various benefits associated with the movement.
Here are 22 cues you’ll need to implement if you want to master your lunge and split squat mechanics.
Tip #1. Optimize Your Starting Position
The starting position for a lunge is critical as it dictates whether or not movement will be performed properly. Individuals should assume a very tall position on the back foot by keeping the heel (of the back leg) up and parallel to the wall in back of them. Allowing the body to sag on the back leg with the heel dropping towards the floor is the one of the biggest mistakes lifters routinely make when performing lunges. This causes the hips to drop down and forward thereby eliminating activation to the posterior chain while simultaneously placing greater stress on the lumbar spine.
Instead, the heel should be lifted as far away from the floor as possible with all of the pressure on the ball and toes of that back foot. This helps facilitate the next critical cue – forward lean.
Tip #2. Use Hip Hinge Mechanics with Forward Lean
Most people think a lunge or split squat is an upright movement with the torso perpendicular to the ground throughout. However this represents flawed mechanics. Maintaining a forward torso lean onto the heel of the front leg is essential for proper lunge technique. In fact if I had to recommend just one cue for the lunge this may be the most critical as it ensures the hips are pushed back posteriorly and actively engaged throughout the movement. Simply put, a proper lunge involves solid hip hinge mechanics. An overly upright torso position places greater stress on the knees and low back while minimizing stress to the glutes and upper thighs.
Tip #3. Hollow Your Core and Brace Your Abs
Hollowing out the core and keeping the abs pulled in and braced are key technique cues for the lunge. This insures the hips are set back rather than sagging forward. In fact sagging hips are directly correlated with excessive lumbar extension and lack of core activation. In contrast, a braced and tight core musculature helps to facilitate the tall forward lean previously discussed.
That’s because all movements including a lunge pattern require a rigid and neutral spine to achieve optimal mechanics. This can only occur when the core is intensely engaged.
Tip #4. Optimize Weight Distribution
Although it will vary slightly from individual to individual as well from variation to variation, a significant portion of the weight during a lunge will be placed on the front leg. After doing some basic pilot investigation on a force platform I found that the common weight distribution was approximately a “75/25” split with 70-75% of the weight on the front/plant leg and 25-30% on the rear/support leg.
Tip #5. Create a Semi-In-Line Foot Stance
Ideally, individuals should assume a semi-inline or semi-overlapping stride position. This means that the back and front foot should either intersect each other (when looking at the person front on) or both feet should line up right next to each other with no space between them. Unfortunately most individuals perform lunges and split squats with something I refer to as a straddled or staggered stance where there’s several inches of space or more between each foot. This engrains faulty hip activation and dysfunctional stride mechanics that translates to groin pulls and inflammation to the hip joints. This also promotes energy leaks throughout the lower body that results in loss of torque, power, and stability, not only for the lunge itself but also during other related lower body movements such as sprinting.
Tip #6. Create Proper Spinal Alignment and Head Position
Similar to a squat or deadlift, the spine needs to be set in a neutral position on lunges. This involves slight but not excessive t-spine extension with the shoulders slightly retracted and depressed throughout. In addition the head should kept neutral rather than hyperextended at the cervical spine.
Tip #7. Don’t Squeeze The Glutes
If you want to work the glutes during the lunge the single worst thing you can do when lunging is to squeeze the glutes. Yes that sounds completely contradictory but it isn’t. Here’s why. As previously mentioned a proper lunge requires strong hip hinge mechanics particularly during the eccentric phase of the movement. In order to tax the glute muscles they must be eccentrically elongated during the negative phase of the movement. That means the hips have to sit back posteriorly rather than allowing them to drift forward.
Squeezing the glutes during a lunge facilitates an overly-upright body position that eliminates the all important hip hinge. In addition it minimizes the degree of eccentric elongation of the glute muscles. As a result squeezing the glutes during a lunge not only degrades optimal body mechanics and destroys the knees but eliminates the ability to fully tax the posterior chain.
Tip #8. Avoid Anterior Front Knee Drift
Depending on the stance length during a lunge, the front knee will be located somewhere above and in-line with the front ankle and mid-foot (when viewing the movement from a side or lateral view). Lunges with larger/longer stride mechanics will typically demonstrate a knee position with the patella roughly above and in-line with the ankle. Shorter stride mechanics and close-stance lunges will typically have a knee placement above and in-line with the arch or mid foot. When the front knee begins to drift towards the toe and beyond, this represents faulty mechanics with excessive anterior knee drift. This is simply a byproduct of faulty hip mechanics as the individual failed to properly hinge at the hip joint and shift the hip joint back posteriorly.
Tip #9. Avoid Valgus Knee Collapse By Optimizing Medial-Lateral Hip Mechanics
By forcing the lifter to assume a semi in-line stride position (simply have them stand on a line) then having them perform controlled eccentric isometric lunges, the biomechanics of the lower extremity particularly the medial-lateral components inevitably end up in the optimal position as anything less will result in a loss of balance.
It’s only when a faulty stance position and rushed, sloppy movements are employed that over-addressing medial-lateral alignment issues become necessary. However, one brief cue I’ll periodically give my athletes particularly when there is any valgus knee and ankle collapse, is to push the knee and ankle of the front leg out laterally similar to spreading the knees and ankles on a squat. However as previously mentioned this typically is not needed if a proper stance is assumed as the athlete will naturally be forced to discover this quickly for themselves if any semblance of balance and body control is to be maintained.
Tip #10. Find The Optimal Range of Motion: Avoid Collapsing
While it’s important to achieve a full range of motion on a lunge, many individuals collapse to the floor as a result of losing tension and muscular tightness. Touching the floor does not necessarily represent flawed recruitment patterns as long as the individual controls the decent and gently touches or slowly settles to the floor while maintaining proper mechanics and body alignment. However for most individuals terminating the range of motion with the back knee 1-3 inches above floor height will typically be ideal.
Tip #11. Beware of Deficit Lunges
Deficit lunges where the individual stands on two boxes or benches to achieve a greater range of motion have gained popularity of the last several years. In fact this was something I used to incorporate with my own athletes. Although it provides a large stretch I began to notice clients complaining of tightness and inflammation in the lower extremities as well as slight alterations to other movements including gait mechanics. Once we eliminated these and focused on natural lunge motions the dysfunctional symptoms quickly faded.
Tip #12. Stop Doing Walking Lunges
Walking lunges represent one of the most popular methods for performing lunges. However most individuals should not be performing lunges in a walking fashion as this dynamic method often causes form and mechanics to degrade to a greater extent. There are several reasons for this.
First, forward momentum during walking lunges has a tendency to drive the hips too far anteriorly making it difficult to keep optimal hip hinge mechanics. It’s for this very reason that many individuals often complain of knee and low back pain associated with lunges.
Second, the walking or stepping lunge (forward or backward) is much more difficult to correct and fine-tune body positioning as the movement occurs too quickly to make subtle adjustments to form and technique. Stationary lunges particularly when performed in a controlled and methodical fashion such as with eccentric isometrics allow the individual to hone in on their mechanics and make the necessary adjustments.
Finally, most individuals have very poor balance and stability. Having an athlete who displays faulty hip, foot, and ankle mechanics perform walking or stepping lunges is setting them up for failure and further degradations in technique. As a result the individual will be forced to rely on compensation patterns and straddled stance alignment in order to maintain any semblance of balance and body control. However once proper lunge technique is mastered and all traces of dysfunction are eliminated, walking lunges can still provide unique benefits.
Tip #13. Avoid Back Leg Drift
A subtle yet fairly common issue that occurs during lunges is the knee and foot of the back leg drifts laterally (out) or medially (in) to compensate for appropriate hip ankle strength. Although it’s rarely extreme it’s something to take note of and correct as the foot, ankle, knee, and hip of the back leg should be kept in alignment with each other. Often times correcting stance width and assuming a semi-inline or semi-overlapped stride position will resolve this as the straddled stance position often promotes faulty mechanics of both the front and back leg.
Tip #14. Don’t Let Stance Length Alter Your Mechanics
Lunges can be performed with a variety of stance or stride lengths ranging from a long stance to a shorter stance. Longer stance positions generally target the hips and glutes more intensely while shorter positions tends to target the quads. The key is not letting stance length dictate lunge technique as form and body mechanics should remain relatively constant regardless of stance length.
Tip #15. Don’t Try to Overstretch the Hip Flexors
On a similar note, many individuals will assume a stride position and perform lunges with the intention of creating a large stretching sensation in the hip flexor of the back leg. Doing so eliminates optimal hip hinge mechanics, promotes excessive lordotic curvature of the spine, and places extreme strain on the hip flexor of the back leg. This can also lead to pulls and tweaks in the groin and hip area particularly when implemented into a training routine that involves running and sprinting.
Working with high-level athletes I’ve seen this occur firsthand as the exaggerated stretch negatively impacts other movement such as running mechanics. While the stretching sensation may feel relieving while performing the movement, the hip flexors and surrounding muscles tend to come back with a vengeance several hours later feeling even tighter and more spastic than before. This is the body’s safety mechanism to ensure such an exaggerated stretch doesn’t occur again.
Rather than searching for a large stretching sensation on lunges, find the strongest and most stable position while achieving proper mechanics. This will allow the hip flexors to be stretched optimally and to their natural extent, not beyond it.
Tip #16. Produce Multiple 90-Degree Angles
A proper lunge should involve 4 joint angles that are approximately 90 degrees. This includes 3 of the front leg (hip, knee, and ankle) and 1 of the back leg (the knee). In addition the femur of the front leg and tibia of the back leg should be approximately parallel to the floor at the bottom of the movement. These features represents optimal biomechanics not only for producing force, but for absorbing force, maximizing power, and minimizing stress to the joints and connective tissue.
Tip #17. Move Straight Up, Straight Down
When performing a stationary lunge or split squat, the torso should move straight up and down while maintaining a continuous forward lean in the torso. Any horizontal displacement of the torso indicates faulty hip mechanics and lack of spinal rigidity.
Tip #18. Strengthen Your Feet First
Before I ever have clients perform lunges we spend a significant amount of time (1-4 weeks) correcting and strengthening their feet and ankles. Teaching someone to lunge who barely has the ability to maintain balance on one leg makes about as much sense has having an athlete perform ring pushups who’s unable to hold a solid plank position. Unfortunately I see this quite often with trainers and coaches. Build your foundation first. For lunges that foundation begins with the feet and ankles.
Tip #19. Go Barefoot or Minimalist
On a similar note I recommend going either barefoot or using minimalist shoes when performing lunges. Nothing will degrade lunge mechanics more than thick clunky shoes with exaggerated foot and ankle support. In addition, once you’ve built enough foot and ankle strength to successfully perform correct lunge mechanics, few exercises do more for improving foot and ankle mechanics than doing controlled weighted lunges in barefoot or minimalist conditions.
Tip #20. Produce Strong Lunge Mechanics and Assess Your Strength
Proper lunge mechanics produce the most biomechanically sound osteokinematics that inevitably allow the lifter to safely handle the heaviest loads with the greatest efficiency. If you’re unsure as to whether or not you have strong lunge mechanics and efficient technique you may want to assess your strength on the movement. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to use at least 50% of your 1RM squat and perform several proper lunges with controlled technique and smooth form. If you’re unable to do this then you’re lunge mechanics are most likely amiss.
Tip #21. Incorporate The Eyes Closed Rule
If you want to truly master the lunge and split squat then at some point you’ll need to become efficient performing them under eyes closed conditions. In fact any athlete who trains with me is eventually forced to do this as I’ve seen a strong correlation between the ability to perform eyes closed lunges, body mechanics, motor control, and injury prevention.
Eventually you should be capable of performing at least 50% of your bodyweight during eyes closed lunges (a 200 pound individual would use 50 pound dumbbells or 100 pound barbell). In addition these should be done under barefoot or minimalist conditions while simultaneously pausing at the bottom (1-3 inches from the floor) in an eccentric isometric fashion.
Tip #22. Use the Lunge-to-Squat-to-Lunge Test
A simple self-diagnostic assessment you can perform to analyze whether or not you’re achieving optimal hip hinge mechanics is to do a test I refer to as the lunge-to squat-to-lunge test. Assume the bottom of a lunge position then move into a squat without adjusting your hip mechanics or torso angle. Then do the reverse by going from your squat back to your lunge while keeping the same general body alignment. If you’re able to perform this test seamlessly without losing balance or feeling pulled out of position, most likely your lunge mechanics (as well as your squat technique) are pretty solid. If this test is difficult for you then it’s time to clean up your lunge form.
The mechanics discussed in this article should not be misconstrued as a unique or unusual approach to lunges that can periodically be employed based on one’s goals or body type. Instead this illustrates an accurate representation of what a proper lunge should resemble period. Failing to adhere to these protocols does not suggest that you’re performing a different type of lunge. Instead it suggests that your performing the luge incorrectly as the mechanics presented in this article are based on optimal human biomechanics from both an osteokinematic and arthrokinematic standpoint. Anything significantly different represents dysfunctional human stride mechanics that not only makes the lunge a potentially dangerous and hazardous movement but also act as means of reinforcing flawed recruitment patterns into your natural walking and running gait.