The Exercise For All Seasons!

By Raymond Onyango.

I am a firm believer in the principle of ‘training for life’ in the sense that any exercise you do ‘inside’ the gym should help to improve your everyday life ‘outside’ the gym! As a general rule of thumb exercises that have no functional role in the real world, have no place in my training regimen, not unless the client in question is on some kind of rehabilitation program. For this reason I will be the first to admit that I am generally biased against most ‘machine type’ exercises; my natural preference being body weight based exercises especially those that require a huge cross section of muscles groups and a lot or balance, timing and coordination to boot.

Take an exercise like lunges for instance; here is one exercise that in its basic form needs no equipment whatsoever but still manages to have a huge impact on virtually every single muscle group in your lower body. If you are looking to firm up your ‘ derrière’ and enhance your rear view, lunges will do it for you. If you are looking for toned thighs worthy of a dancer, an athlete or a model, lunges will get you there. If you are trying to improve your running speed or build stability in a weak knee joint, lunges are the way to go. If you have a lower back problem and you don’t want to place compressive forces on your spine, as would be the case when squatting, lunges are your best alternative. This is such a versatile, effective and readily adaptable exercise; I often wonder why so many of us avoid them?

Well, perhaps I should not be surprised. The truth of the matter is that lunges if done correctly are as hard as they are effective. A good set of walking lunges will almost certainly leave you walking funny the next day. Muscles you did not even know existed, will announce their presence loudly, and climbing up stairs the very next day will be a physical ordeal  – that bittersweet pain that lets you know you are challenging your body hard enough to get a real response.

Beyond the muscle soreness and pain, there are other factors that make lunges very fascinating as an exercise option. When you step into a lunge of any kind, you  simultaneously  stretch and strengthen your hip flexors – namely the illiopsoas complex.  These two muscles the ‘iliacus’ and the ‘psoas’ work together to flex the hip, as is the case when you pull your knee up to your chest or other wise flex the trunk e.g. when you bend over to pick a fallen set of keys off the floor. These may seem like insignificant actions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because of its unique position straddling your body’s center of gravity, the ‘illiopsoas complex’ plays a central role in virtually all movement within the body, however far removed from the hips, by providing stability in the core region. Thus when you reach your hand out to bring a cup of coffee to your lips, your ‘psoas’, is one of the first muscles that originates that movement by helping to stabilize
your trunk.  Further to this, the ‘illiopsoas’ complex when tight and weak, as is the case in the majority of us who spend most of the day seated in cars and behind desks; places increased torque on the lumber spine, accentuating the lumber curve and resulting in a postural imbalance know as  ‘Lordosis’ or Sway back posture’ which is often a precursor to lower back pain and disk degeneration. The short of it is that lunges will not only tone your lower body, they will literally save your back as well!

For your backside also known as your gluteus, nothing will guarantee you a more effective workout than the lunge.  The reason why human beings have prominent butt muscles as compared to other primate species is because we stand upright on two feet as opposed to monkeys or chimps and gorillas that get around on all fours. Your butt quite literally holds your upright! It is imperative to note that both squats and lunges will improve your rear view, but the inherent advantage of lunges over squats lies in the fact that you need very little if any weight to lunge effectively. Lunges are a dynamic stepping movement; with only one foot firmly on the floor at any moment, this translates into a much smaller surface area on which to balance, making your center of gravity much harder to control. This  awareness improves your sense of proprioception ( the sense of where your body is in space and time) which in turn improves your agility and reaction time both of which are instrumental in improving athletic ability and preventing injury, especially around the knee joints and the lumbar spine!

Last but not least is the fact the lunges are a supremely
adaptable exercise. An absolute novice at exercise will be able to find a suitable variation of the lunge just as readily as will the most seasoned high performance athlete. This is a particularly important fact because, unlike many other strength exercises where the only way to progress is to lift more weight, lunges allow you to increase the level of difficulty in diverse ways, such as adding dynamic movement or an elevated platform to the exercise or otherwise changing the plane of movement or even adding an element of both upper and lower body coordination. The end result is that are a virtually unlimited number of ways to lunge; the only constraint is your creativity!

Do’s & Don’ts Of The Lunge

  • Do not allow your knees to travel over your toes
  • Keep your body’s main weights i.e. head, chest and hips, stacked above each other in a straight line – meaning your torso needs to stay upright.
  • Keep the knee behind you off the floor, it needs to come close to but should never bump the floor.
  • Learn to lunge safely and effectively with your own body weight before adding any external weight in the form of dumbbells or a barbell.
  • Learn how to perform the stationery lunge first before adding on any dynamic movement.
  • Aim for a fluid, seamless and unbroken movement, this is the most efficient way to lunge.
  • Hold onto something like a chair or a wall, if you don’t have the balance to execute the movement independently, provided that you do not lean your weight into the chair. Keep the workload in the legs
  • By adding upper body movements, such as the shoulder press or clean & jerk to a basic lunge will transform it into a whole body movement.

Have a great week and add some lunges to your workouts, will you!