By Stephen E. Alway, PhD, FACSM
Besides being born with the best genes possible, how can you jump higher, climb better or run faster? Perhaps such goals might be only to get to the ball in a pick-up game of basketball, or maybe you need to run faster if only for a few strides to get to a softball bounding in the infield or a basketball burning up the court. Maybe, this last winter season of skiing or snow boarding was disappointing for you because your thighs were always fatiguing and letting you down on the long runs. If any of these apply to you, then it is time to inject some serious training energy into you hip and thigh musculature and to power up these pistons of your lower body. With lunges, you will be surprised how quickly you will begin to show improvement in muscle power and general body balance, and this will give you a nice edge on any court, hill or field.
The hip structure and the muscles that surround this area provide the base of your lower body power and drive. Part of the spring upwards in an attempt to dunk a basketball requires that the hip and knee extensors are strong and powerful springs. The lunge exercise strongly activates and imparts explosive power to the gluteal muscles, the hamstring muscles of the posterior thigh and the quadriceps muscles of the anterior thigh. It is therefore ideal for providing a base for your improvement on the court, or in the field. Of course, it has the added benefit of tightening your thighs and gluteals for the pool scene this summer.
There are three sets of gluteal muscles. The gluteus maximus is the largest and thickest hip muscle and it contains the strongest and largest muscle fibers in the body. The upper attachment of the gluteus maximus is on the hipbones and the lower attachment is on the posterior side of the femur bone of the thigh below the hip joint. This strong muscle pulls the thigh posteriorly (backwards) in an action described as thigh or hip extension.
Three hamstring muscles sit on the posterior side of the thigh. The biceps femoris has a long and a short head. The long head begins on the posterior part of the ischial bone of the hip. You literally sit on these bones when you are in a chair. The short head of the biceps femoris begins along the lateral side of femur bone of the thigh. Both heads of the biceps femoris come together to attach to a single tendon that connects to the small lateral bone of the lower leg called the fibula.
The semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles make up the medial (inside) hamstrings muscles. The semitendinosus muscle attaches to the ischial bone of the hip and it becomes a cord-like tendon as it approaches the knee. The semimembranosus muscle is about half (“semi”) membrane (“membranous) and half muscle. It begins on the ischial tuberosity and with the semitendinosus; it crosses to the medial side of the knee to attach on the tibia bone of the lower leg.
The quadriceps femoris (“quads”) is a family of four muscles living on the anterior (front) portion of the thigh. The rectus femoris muscle fibers run straight down from the hip, along the front of the thigh to join the quadriceps tendon above the kneecap (patella). The rectus femoris extends the leg at the knee joint. However, unlike the vastus muscles, the rectus femoris begins at the hip, so when the hip is flexed, the rectus femoris is slackened and this makes it weaker than when it is straight. The vastus lateralis muscle lies on the lateral (outer) part of the thigh; the vastus medialis covers the medial (inner) part of the thigh; and the vastus intermedius is located intermediately between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis. The fibers from the three vastus muscles blend into the quadriceps tendon that attaches to the patella. It continues from the patella as the patellar ligament and attaches to the tibia just below the knee joint. All four quadriceps muscles help to extend the leg (straighten the knee joint).
1. Take a dumbbell in each hand and stand about 10 feet in front of a mirror. You will watch yourself in the mirror to maintain correct body position throughout the exercise.
2. One leg will act as an anchor (e.g., the left leg). The other leg (e.g., the right leg) will lunge forward so you plant your foot in front of you as if you were taking a stride forward. The knee of the forward leg will bend as you lunge forward, while the knee on the anchor leg will remain straight.
3. Take a medium stride with the forward leg. If your stride is too short, this will form a sharp knee angle when you are in the lunged position. A short lunge of about a two-foot stride is fine if you are trying to develop a better thigh and hip structure for skiing. For other sports requiring a longer power burst (e.g., jumping and climbing), your stride should be a comfortable long stride (usually around a three-foot stride length for most people). The longer stride will be best for most people because it increases the knee angle as you lower your body weight, which, reduces the stress on this joint, and it also provides greater activation of the gluteal muscles during the upward phase.
4. As you lunge forward, lower the knee on the anchor (left) leg towards the floor. Keep your trunk in an upright position and do not lean forward from your waist during the lunge. Lower your body toward the floor, but stop before the knee of the lagging leg (right) contacts the floor. You should feel the stretch across the hamstrings and buttocks of the anchor leg and the thigh of the forward leg. Lowering your body at the completion of each step lunge should not be a ballistic or a fast movement, otherwise you will open yourself to muscle damage, or you might also lose your balance and fall. Watch yourself in the mirror because this will help you to keep your head up and torso erect during the lunge forward. Do not look at the floor during the lunge forward or you will almost certainly bend your torso too far forward and lose your balance during the stride.
5. Push your body back up to its standing position with the forward leg so that both feet end adjacent to each other. This can be done quite forcefully, as long as your knee angle on the forward leg is not less than 90 degrees when you start the return phase. Avoid pushing up with the straight anchor leg. After assuming the standing position from which you started, you can repeat this with the other leg. Alternatively, you can complete all your lunges with one leg before moving to the other leg. Try to accomplish three sets of 15 lunges on each leg before moving up to a heavier dumbbell.
The gluteal, hamstring and quadriceps muscles are all very active during the initial thrust back to the standing position, (leg extension and hip extension. A deeper lunge and greater stride will provide a superior stretch and this will improve activation of all of the affected muscles. However, you must work into this slowly.
You should stretch your hamstrings, calves and quadriceps prior to beginning the exercise. Be careful that you do not bend forward from the waist during the lunge. If so, you are likely using too much weight and/or your stride is too short. The second common mistake is that the front knee angle is too acute at the lowest part of the lunge, and this is correctable by taking a longer stride into each lunge.
The surrounding musculature such as your middle and lower back and your calves will also be activated during lunges, providing an added bonus to your overall training goals. The combination of muscle activations makes the lunge an all-around effective exercise that will translate into gains that will carry over to the fitness and recreational arenas of your choice. Maybe lunges will not give you enough of an advantage to dunk a basketball if you are five feet tall, but it will provide more power and leap in your attempt than ever before. Give lunges a try for two months and you should see a whole new wave of power that begins at your hips as a base and moves both up and down your entire torso like power-packed pistons.
Photos by Per Bernal