Lunging Into Stride Length Part II:  Research Based Evidence of Benefits of the Lunge for Strength and Sport Adaptations

Here’s our latest in the Sports Health section from Dr. Jonathan Hartman and Dr. Marshall LeMoine. This topic has been broken out into 4 parts due to its’ length so keep an eye out every Wednesday of this month to stay on top of this great article.

If you missed last week’s blog post on the Lunging Into Stride Length Part I:  Introducing the Benefits of a Functional Lunge.


This next section is split into 3 parts in order to focus on current evidence surrounding muscle activation, the benefits of single leg stance and core activation, and finally how differing variations of the lunge exercise stack up to each other. Let’s start with a 2011 study that utilized EMG to measure the muscle activity of the gluteus maximus and medius of 26 healthy subjects during 18 different lower extremity exercises. This study showed that of the top 4 exercises for gluteal muscle activity the only stance exercise that proved to be of high-level activation was a single leg stance exercise. This study helps to support the idea that exercises incorporating a single leg stance component, such as the movements seen in the ascent and descent of a step lunge will increase the activation of the gluteus maximus and medius muscles (1).

In 2008, Farrokhi et al. performed a study on 10 healthy individuals to determine how a change in trunk position via a forwards lean, neutral, or erect trunk would influence the lower extremity kinematics and kinetics at the hip, knee, and ankle during a forward lunge. This study also monitored how these trunk variations would influence the muscle activity of the lateral gastrocnemius, vastus lateralis, gluteus maximus and biceps femoris. This study showed that the forward trunk lean lunge resulted in an average of 107.9 degrees of hip flexion, and was found to significantly increase the hip extensor impulse and EMG of the gluteus maximus and biceps femoris when compared to the neutral trunk position. This study can further guide our exercise precision and prescription to target the posterior chain via optimizing the trunk angle of the athlete when performing a lung exercises (7).

Forward Trunk Lean Vs. Erect Trunk Lean

forward trunk lunge.jpg
neutral trunk lunge.jpg

In a 2009 study that took 44 healthy individuals, and had them perform a lunge, single-leg squat, and step-up-and-over exercise, and  recorded EMG of 5 muscles (rectus femoris, dominant and nondominant gluteus medius, adductor longus, and gluteus maximus). This study showed that the rectus femoris, gluteus maximus, and dominant side gluteus medius were activated in a progression from least to greatest during the step up and over, lunge, and single leg squat. Interestingly gluteus medius on the non-dominant leg activation was from least to greatest during the single leg squat, step up and over, and then the lunge. This study supports the idea that the lunge muscle activation differs with the dominant and nondominant leg but in either circumstance this exercise is a viable and possible superior choice option for strength training when compared to the step up and over and the single leg squat (11).

Next, surface EMG was used on twelve active female subjects to compare activation of eight trunk, hip/core, and lower limb muscles (erector spinae, rectus abdominis, gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, vastus medialis, biceps femoris, and semitendinosus) during the forward lunge, double leg raise, glute bridge, sit-up, and squat. The neutral trunk forward lunge produced significantly higher activation in the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris muscles compared to the other exercises, thus supporting the specificity of muscular adaptations to specific lifts (10).

One important take away from these studies is the fact that we can strengthen the lower extremities and gain muscle activation with a majority of the weight emphasis on a single leg. Since we are strengthening with a bias towards one leg the load on the bar or weight held in the hand will be less than a similar closed chain bilateral lower extremity exercise such as the squat. This is a very useful thought as limiting the load on the spine and increasing single leg stability and strength, while activating frontal plane trunk stability may be beneficial for a high level athlete looking for career longevity or for an athlete trying to gain lower extremity strength after recovering from a trunk injury. Not only does this reduce joint forces on the spine, it allows for better matching to sports specific positional movements.

Lunge with ball frontal view.jpg
lunge with ball sagittal view 2.jpg

Next, let’s look at the core muscles with lunge progressions. Weights can be held overhead with a barbell, dumbbells or even a single dumbbell and this next study sheds light on which will activate the supportive trunk musculature to a better extent. Using 15 healthy males, EMG of the superficial core muscles (rectus abdominis, external oblique, and erector spinae) was measured between a seated, standing, bilateral, and unilateral dumbbell shoulder press exercise. This study’s findings show that in order to enhance activation of the superficial core musculature, standing exercises should be used instead of seated exercises, and unilateral upper extremity exercises should be used instead of bilateral upper extremity exercises (14). Thus if we wish to further challenge the trunk of the athletes performing these lifts we would want to progress from a bilateral upper extremity external load such as a barbell to a unilateral upper extremity load such as a kettlebell or dumbbell held by the side and then possibly overhead.

lunge with single arm overhead press.jpg

The succeeding 3 studies look at variations of lunges and their various benefits. In the first study a total of 16 recreationally active, college-aged adults participated in an anterior lunge with 4 external-load conditions of 0%, 12.5%, 25%, and 50% of body mass applied while kinematic and ground reaction force data was collected. This study showed that from a kinematic perspective, the lunge involves greater motion at the knee, but from a kinetic perspective the anterior lunge is a hip-extensor dominant exercise and with the addition of external weight the greatest joint kinetic increases were seen at the hip and ankle, with little change in the knee contributions. Thus, kinematically the lunge focuses more joint motion at the knee than ankle and hip but kinetically it remains extensor dominant and increased loading increased ankle and hip contributions with minimal linear knee contributions (12).

In a study with nine men who performed a single-leg squat, forward lunge, and reverse lunge with kinetic data captured using 2 force plates and 3-dimensional kinematic data via a motion-capture system. They observed greater eccentric and concentric peak vertical ground reaction forces during the single-legged squat than during both lunge variations with no differences between the two lunges. Using this evidence appropriately with respect to a joint loading progression from least to most for the hip, could begin with the single-legged squat with progression to the reverse lunge and then finishing with the forward lunge. In contrast, a joint loading progression from least to most for the knee and ankle should begin with the reverse lunge and progress to the forward lunge and then the single-legged squat. So, if you want the least amount of hip joint loading, think single leg squat. If you want the least knee and ankle joint loading, think reverse lunge, which reversely loads the hip joint more. This study can help guide which type of lunge we use in correlation to the joint forces at the hip, knee, and ankle with higher level athletes who are prone to overuse of certain joints, who’s muscle activation are altered by joint mechanics, or who are rehabilitating from pain at any of the above joints (3).

Finally, in 2015, a study was conducted to determine the effects of dumbbell-carrying position on the kinematics and electromyographic (EMG) of the gluteus medius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and biceps femoris during walking lunges and split squats. The 28 subjects performed ipsilateral walking lunges (weight held on the same side as the moving limb), contralateral walking lunges (weight held on the opposite side as the moving limb), ipsilateral split squat, and contralateral split squat in a randomized order in a simulated training session for a 5RM. This study showed a higher eccentric vastus lateralis amplitude during walking lunges with weight held in contralateral arm. The walking lunges with the weight in the contralateral arm resulted in higher eccentric gluteus medius amplitudes as well as peak amplitudes of greater than 90% MVIC. Therefore, the walking lunge with the weight held in the contralateral arm to the moving leg may be optimal to increase the gluteus medius and vastus lateralis maximal strength and activation (16).

Keep an eye out for next week’s Lunging into Stride Length Part 3, where we will discuss Lift Progressions of the Lunge to Optimize Performance


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