For healthy knees and strong glutes, use Deficit Lunges
As a guy who’s had his share of knee issues (to put things extremely nicely), I know what it’s like to have cranky joints frustrate your ability to properly hit the muscle bellies that they articulate with. It’s more than annoying when your quads, glutes and hamstrings are certainly strong enough to squat 300 pounds, but your joints will revolt if you even think about doing it.
Bilateral stance training is typically a key culprit to cause this kind of dilemma, and for that reason, many lifters endlessly search for modifications to squats and even deadlifts that are friendlier to joints and reduce stress forces. With that said, single leg training usually gets kicked to the curb for the fear of even more severe joint pain when attempted. Walking lunges are usually the devil for any “knee” client I’ve worked with. Despite their importance, split stance and unilateral leg training gets left hanging out to dry in such scenarios.
Here’s the problem.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the biomechanics of these kind of movements. When doing a forward lunge, the body “starts off” its movement by stepping forward – initiating the lifting of the front leg by way of the quads and hips. This pre-emptively tightens up and shortens the muscles that directly attach to the knee joint – and that’s not where it ends. Next, the leading leg has to undergo impact at the point of contact on the floor. It doesn’t sound like much, but for someone with tendinitis, PFS or other ailments, this can be more than enough to have them avoid such lifts altogether. Finally, once the foot is planted, the body has the responsibility of decelerating all moving parts. Especially in the case of stationary lunges, it takes a lot to stop a body from moving and use muscular force to change the load’s direction. Needless to say, lunging forward or in place is something that generally requires a fair measure of requisite joint health – at least in my books.
Enter the Deficit Reverse Lunge
A much more all-serving exercise variation, lunging backwards from a deficit creates a number of benefits.
- Instead of the quads and hips lighting up first in order to lunge forward, the glutes and hamstrings get the chance to fire first to step backward into a reverse lunge. That’s a big deal.
- The leading leg gets to forego any impact forces as it remains planted for the entire duration of a rep. That also means it’s no longer responsible for directional change (the way it would be in a forward stationary lunge).
- Because you’re lunging from a deficit, the trailing knee gets to travel “below ground level”. That means a deeper hip flexion and more work for the glutes to extend the hip to return to the start position.
All in all, this is a safer movement for the quads to get hit, adding to your glute activation, and all the while protecting the knee joint. If it isn’t in your training program, it deserves a place in it – especially if you’ve been prisoner to gummy knees.
The Deficit Reverse Lunge: Coaching Cues
- Set up a step platform with no more than 2 risers under it. The platform alone is also perfectly fine as a starting point.
- Start standing on the platform with both feet. Edge toward the front of the platform to ensure your heel maintains contact at all times in the upcoming reps.
- Lunge backward off the platform. Be sure to take a long enough stride backward, and be sure not to “buckle down” by placing too much of your weight on the back foot. Counter this by leaning forward as you lunge.
- Plant the toes (only!) on the floor behind you. In one smooth motion, bring the trailing knee down to a half an inch off the floor. Maintain a proud chest.
- Drive up to the starting position, pressing through the heel of the leading leg to do so. Alternate legs for sets of 8-10 reps per set.
- If using weights, remember not to go too heavy. Treat this as a move that focuses on patterning, mobility, and joint health. It’s not the time or place to use 60 pound dumbbells.