Want a simple and effective exercise that has a slew of benefits, including improved balance and greater core strength? Just put one foot in front of the other…and do a lunge! That’s right—one of the best exercises you can do requires no equipment and can be done just about anywhere you have a few feet of floor space.
Why you need to do this exercise: Lunges increase the strength of your glutes (butt), quads (front thigh) and hamstrings (back thigh)—a powerful muscle trifecta that’s required for walking, climbing stairs and maintaining the good balance you need to prevent falls. Strengthening these muscles also helps prevent hip and back pain. Building the muscles targeted by lunges is crucial because most people lose more strength in their lower extremities over time than in the upper part of their bodies. When done correctly, the lunge is among the best exercises for slowing the bone loss that occurs as we age.
Not just for gym rats! To start doing lunges, you don’t have to be in tip-top shape. This exercise can be modified to fit your current fitness level…and then tweaked as you get stronger.
While the standard lunge involves taking a step forward and dropping the opposite knee toward the floor, I recommend two simple exercises that will give you more benefit than the old–fashioned lunge we all grew up with. To get started, do…
• Knee bounces. These lunge “prequels” work the entire body, with an emphasis on the quadriceps, but are gentle on your joints and help you build the strength and balance you need to do the lunge that follows correctly.
What to do: Get down on the floor, on your hands and knees (on a carpet or yoga mat), with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. While keeping your elbows soft, curl your toes under and lift both knees about one inch off the ground. From there, lift your buttocks so that your knees bounce an inch up and then one inch down for up to one minute. Do not let your knees touch the ground.
Next up, do…
• Concentration lunges. This modified lunge strengthens the entire leg and improves your balance. I recommend this version because it locks your feet in place and enables you to have perfect form.
What to do: Start by kneeling in an upright position with your knees cushioned by a folded towel. Then step forward with your right foot so that your right knee is directly over your right ankle, and your left knee is under your left hip.
Place your left palm on your stomach and the back of your right hand on your lower back to help you maintain proper posture throughout the exercise. Curl your left toes under, and press into both feet to straighten both legs—quickly, but with control—lifting as high as you can. At the top, bend both knees and slowly drop straight back down, tapping your back knee on the towel. Without pausing, press back up and repeat. Do 25 up-downs, and then switch legs (remember to also switch hands).
Watch your form! Throughout the exercise, keep your knee over your ankle without letting it shift toward your big toe, and keep a straight line from the top of your head to your tailbone. Do not lean forward over your front leg. Push your hands toward each other to make sure that your stomach is taut throughout the move.
To make it less challenging:Do concentration lunges next to a chair, and use the seat for support (hold on to the chair with the hand opposite your forward leg) as you move up and down.
To make it more challenging: Each time you press up, lift off the ground into a soft jump.
Keep it fresh: Once you can comfortably do two sets of concentration lunges (25 with each leg…or as many as you can work up to), you can add hand weights and do arm curls while lunging to create more resistance.
For a well-rounded regimen, combine your lunges with other strengthening moves (such as squats and push-ups) and get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity (on a scale of one to 10, “moderate” is about a six to seven) aerobic activity (such as walking at 3 mph or faster…bicycling at around 10 mph…gardening…or ballroom dancing).
Important: Done incorrectly a lunge can strain your knees and back, so always strive for perfect form.* If you feel any tightness or discomfort in your knees, skip the concentration lunges and stick with the knee bounces. Helpful: A session with a personal trainer to ensure that you’re using proper form.
As with all strength training, your body will need two days of rest in between lunge days to fully recover so that you will not cause undue stress to your lower back, knees and calves.
*Consult your doctor before starting this (or any new) exercise program.