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With Alec Blenis, CPT, CSCS
Season 6, Episode 20 | April 18, 2023
Lunges are a fundamental movement for strengthening muscles from your waist down. Yet because they appear easier to perform than they actually are, many people do too many too soon and end up discouraged or with lower-back or knee injuries. Alec Blenis, CPT, CSCS, explains why this move is a staple in strength and conditioning programs and how to add lunges into your routine in a safe and beneficial way.
Alec Blenis, CPT, CSCS, is a Dynamic Personal Trainer at Life Time. His athletic background includes professional obstacle-course racing, and he holds the current world record for the Murph. He’s a self-described movement optimist who believes fitness is an opportunity for everyone to cultivate confidence and physical resiliency.
“If you scale with load, intensity, and volume appropriately, there’s going to be something to gain from just about any lunge variation,” says Blenis. If you’re new to adding lunges to your routine, he recommends watching for these common missteps.
- Not being stable enough. If your balance isn’t good and your foot position makes it feel as though you’re walking on a tight rope, it’s going to be hard to progress your load. Make sure to step in a way that allows you to feel confident and stable; if you need to, hold onto a countertop, railing, or PVC pipe.
- Staying too upright. Perhaps you’ve heard a “chest up” cue from a trainer and are thinking too hard about what the lunge looks like visually. Leaning into your working leg is important, however, because it create stability and allow you to better load the exercise (when you’re ready!).
- Underestimating the challenge. The lunge is a movement that is more difficult than it appears. Even if you can do squats and deadlifts, moving most of your body on just one leg is no easy task. Many people get frustrated with this or inadvertently try to do too much too soon. Ease into lunges with volume and weight, and don’t hesitate to mix up variations.
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Transcript: Why Lunges?
Season 20, Episode 20 | April 18, 2023
What’s up, everyone? We’re back with another Life Time Talks episode. I’m David Freeman.
And I’m Jamie Martin.
And today, we have a special guest, Mr. Alec Blenis. He’s going to be talking about lunges so that’s the topic of the day. Why are they fundamental within movements in our strength program? And a lot of times people want to focus on the glutes, the quads, and the calves, any and everything below the waist. But moreover, how does it build stability, the core strength, the back strength and sometimes even the foot strength when you really, really start to break it down?
So in this episode, we’ll explain that and so much more. And Alec, let’s give a little background on who he is. He’s a certified strength and conditioning specialist personal trainer at Life Time. He has an athletic background that includes professional obstacle course racing. And get this, he’s the world record holder for Murph and anybody that knows the Murph, that’s no easy feat so that’s a big deal there.
So self described as a movement optimist. We’re going to dive a little bit into what that means and Alec believes that fitness is an opportunity for everyone to cultivate confidence and physical resiliency through movement. So welcome, Alec.
Hey, David. Thank you so much for having me on. Jamie, thank you as well. I’m looking forward to chatting with you guys about lunges. They’ve always been a staple in a lot of the strength and conditioning programs I’ve done throughout my life so I’m looking forward to sharing what I know about them with everybody else.
Well, before we get to that, you note, in your bio, you’re the self described movement optimist and I’d love to delve into that for just a second before we get into why lunges and why they matter for our health.
Absolutely. So I got to give credit to physical therapist Greg LeMond. He’s kind of the father of movement optimism, which is essentially a movement that rejects a lot of the common beliefs in personal training, physical therapy, exercise science where we make people inadvertently– we’re not trying to do this. We often make people afraid of physical activity and afraid of movement.
They come into a training session or a therapy clinic with knee pain, for example, and we tell them all the things not to do, all the ways that they could hurt themselves and we often put this very negative spin on physical activity. And while it’s well-intended, we’re trying to guide people towards better movement patterns and those sorts of things, we often do it in a way that doesn’t cultivate this confidence and trust in your body’s innate ability to adapt, be resilient and move forward from injury pain and that kind of thing.
So movement optimism is all about getting people to trust in their own bodies, understand how adaptable and resilient it really is and just cultivate confidence. Make people feel confident in what they can do.
I love that perspective on it and I think that really leads nicely into our topic today, how do we help people build confidence in lunges, which are such a fundamental movement that we’re doing. And full transparency for our audience, one of the reasons this topic came about is you actually had a post on Instagram about distance lunging and that got– I was piqued, my interest. I was like, oh, what is that about?
And you talked about how it helped you with preparing for running and different building strength in different ways. So we’re going to get to distance lunging, but let’s start first with what lunges are and why they’re fundamental. I think I’ve used that word like four times already but we’re going to keep repeating it because it’s so important.
Absolutely. So lunges are definitely, in my view, a fundamental movement pattern and I like to think about them in two ways. On the one hand, just the movement itself, what does is it– what does it look like? What is it preparing us to do? And when we think about all the things we normally do in the gym– your squats, Deadlifts, a lot of machines, that kind of thing– we’re often just moving up and dowm in these straight back and forth lines.
But when we get out in the real world, whether we’re playing a sport or just helping our friend move the couch, we’re usually not moving in perfectly straight lines. We’re moving from one leg to the other, side to side, a little bit of twisting. And doing it– lunges– is a great way to prepare for the demands of the real world. You got that weight transfer from one leg to the other. If you’re carrying weights, you’re kind of moving side to side and twisting a little bit as you go through that– those stepping motions.
So it’s very practical, very applicable to things you might actually encounter outside of the gym. In terms of the anatomy and physiology of it, what muscles are we working? What joints are we moving? It does have a lot in common with squats, deadlifts, some other lower body training exercises. But what often gets left out of the picture is what’s happening with the back leg.
It’s that back leg as we step forward, for example. It’s a really great stretch through that back quad and hip flexor. Even the back plantar fascia and toes are under a pretty good stretch there. And how many of us sit all day and we complain of tight hip flexors? And then we go to the gym and what do we really do that lengthens out that tissue? Not a whole lot but the lunge is great at lengthening, under load, a lot of that– a lot of that musculature that often gets neglected.
So in that way, it’s a lunge– it really fills a lot of gaps left by traditional strength and conditioning programs.
Well, some things you hit on there as far as building up strength within core and then lower back, as well as just if you’re sitting a lot– you just talk about posture– a piece that I love when it comes to unilateral work is stability and overall balance and it’s a lost art. And we do all these other things that might be ballistic or try to look cool on Instagram, whatever it may be, but understanding the strength and whatever muscle discrepancy from left to right you might have and closing that gap is so important.
So if you can, I know we kind of said a little bit in the overview but when you start to dive into some of the great benefits of lunges, what would you say?
Yeah, so one of the great things about lunges is the high potential for variability, right? Because you have this wide base of support with taking one foot in front of the other, slightly out to the side, you can move a lot of different ways. You can lean into it more or you can stay a little bit more upright, you can hold the weight in all sorts of different positions. The sky’s kind of the limit in terms of how you execute the lunge.
So whether you’re trying to target your quads, or your glutes, or you’re trying to work a little bit more on that core stability, there’s an option or kind of a lunge variation for you, which is fantastic. One thing specifically about the lunge that often doesn’t get talked about is the fact that it is essentially a narrow stance. Your legs aren’t going out to the side like say in a squat. Your knees go out to the side or split in the midline.
Where lunge is it forces your thigh to kind of go straight forward. That’s exactly the direction that most of the fibers of the glute max run. So the biggest muscle in your butt, right? Your gluteus maximus. So when we have kind of that narrow stance, it’s actually ideal for training the glutes in a way that not even the– not even the squat is going to be able to touch. So fantastic exercise for the glutes. But again, so many options for the variability.
Any muscle you want to hit in the legs, you can kind of find a lunge variation that’s going to make that work.
And there are so many. I think about the curtsy lunge, the reverse lunge, the lateral lunge. I mean, like you said, there’s a lot of different things that we can do. So with that in mind, how do you do a lunge well and safely?
Yeah. So one common– I would say– a mistake with the lunge– and again, kind of coming back to that idea of movement optimism is no matter what lunge you’re doing, if you scale the load, the intensity, the volume appropriately, if you don’t do too much too soon and gradually build strength, there’s going to be something that you can gain from just about any lunge variation.
Even if you’re doing it, giving “air” quotes, you’re doing it wrong. You’ll still be able to get a lot out of it. To be able to progress it as best you can, you want to make sure you’re relatively stable. So if your balance is terrible, and you go to do a lunge, and you’re stepping as if you’re on a tightrope or on a catwalk, like, stepping one foot on the same lean or line as that other leg, you’re not going to have a very wide base of support.
You’re going to be super unstable. It’s going to be hard for you to progress load and accumulate a lot of volume there without just falling over. So make sure that you’re stepping in the way that allows you to feel confident and stable. And if you need to hold on to something, by all means, do. There’s a lot of benefits that you can get doing a lunge just from holding on to, like– like a PVC pipe we often have at the gyms holding onto a countertop or railing.
Don’t be afraid to do that. I think a lot of people will think like, Oh, I should be able to do this without that. But a lot of people will benefit tremendously just from a little bit of external support and assistance with their balance. So don’t make that mistake. Don’t have too much of an ego that you don’t help yourself out and help yourself get a good exercise out of it.
And then two, a lot of people try to stay too upright, so they’d be– they’re too robotic. Or they’re thinking about what the lunge looks like visually. Or they’ve heard like a chest-up cue from a trainer on another exercise. So they try to stay too upright. And they don’t lean into that front-working leg as much as they should. And that also contributes to just feeling a little bit unstable. And it’s going to be difficult to load the exercise very heavily.
The last is just don’t underestimate what a challenge movement the lunge is. Even if you can do squats and deadlifts, moving your body weight or most of your bodyweight on just one leg is no easy task. So a lot of people get frustrated. Or they inadvertently do too much too soon just because of what a challenging movement of this. And then they think, my knees can’t lunge, et cetera because they just rush into this movement too quickly. So don’t make those common mistakes.
Yeah, four of all of our listeners right now– and then we’ll have a few viewers too. So just from a audio standpoint and a visual standpoint, if you were to give– let’s do a three step progression. You just said, maybe you’re starting with just body weight. Maybe you have some assistance with a countertop or PVC pipe, whatever it may be, and understanding how your body is moving in space establishing a lot of the motor control. So that’s step one.
Then would you start to incorporate what tempo next with that or load? Like, walk us through step one, step two, step three. And obviously, I know this is just an option so our listeners can walk through how they should progress their lunges.
Absolutely. So lots of– lots of different steps we could potentially break it down into. One is just make sure that you’re setting yourself up for success by having the strength to even approach the lunge. So if you’re still working on, say, bodyweight, air squats, that kind of thing, continue to progress those, get to the point where you’re really, really comfortable with some of those bilateral movements first.
So you feel like you’ve checked the box. Squats are no problem for you. Some deadlifts– Romanian deadlifts, some hip hinge is no problem for you. Once you feel confident, a strength training and exercising on 2 feet, then let’s try– let’s try it on one. So build that base level of proficiency and confidence first and then move on to that one leg.
From there, we’re looking at the most– stable most supported variations. So that would be like using a countertop or a railing or something, facing that countertop or railing and holding on with both arms. Use your arms as much as you need to feel safe, secure, supported. And then you can gradually start progressing to full range of motion.
So I would start with a reverse lunge where you step one leg back and then start dropping that knee to the ground. But you don’t necessarily have to get that knee completely to the ground right away. That could mean you put a foam pad or a mat or something like that under the knee or where that’s going to approach the floor to reduce that range of motion slightly to give yourself some cushion for that back knee if it does come crashing down and essentially just be progressing range of motion there, and then gradually wean yourself off that countertop for support.
You could eventually progress to just using one arm, have a counter support off to the side. That’s going to be a little bit more challenging than holding on with both hands out in front. And then from there, you’re ready to just do a reverse lunge with no support whatsoever.
Once you’ve mastered the reverse lunge, then you can start getting into some of the more challenging variations that involve some impact, like the walking lunge, the Lateral lunge, some of those options. But I’d say the reverse lunge with some support. And then the reverse lunge without support are going to be your first two introductory options.
When you were saying that, I always think we work from the ground up. And a lot of times, I see it within the setting that we work in is the shoe matters. And this, if you can allow people to know we have so many different shoes out there, whether it’s a running shoe, flat shoe, like, can you probably just tell everybody what’s probably the best shoe in the why there too because we talk about your foot being able to grip and become stronger within this movement. So can you talk a little bit about footwear when doing lunges?
Absolutely. And even just a broader point there, your footwear in the gym is super important in terms of your ability of make contact with the floor, have good proprioception, right, going to know where your body is in space. And we do that by feeling the floor with our feet. So while it might be good for running, if you want some cushion, wear a cushioned running shoe, for example. That’s really not an ideal option for the gym because it’s going to actually impede proprioception because you’re not going to be able to feel the floor as well.
So I’d get into a lower profile, firmer shoe that’s closer to the ground, allows a little bit more ground feel. If you are using a more cushioned shoe, that is going to negatively impact your stability. But you might not notice it as much if you’ve just been doing bilateral exercises, right? So if you’ve just been squatting or doing some machines, you might have gotten away with, so to speak, training like, running shoes, for example, for a while.
And then suddenly, you try to do a single leg deadlift or a lunge or a split squat or one of these things on two legs. And you’re like, Oh, my balance is just terrible. It’s like, no, it’s not that bad. You’re just standing on a cushion and challenging yourself in a way that’s not going to be super productive. So if you have to, at home, say, try doing a lunge barefoot and see the difference or just getting to a more minimally– minimal shoe if you can.
OK, so you mentioned the split squat. And actually, this is a question that I personally have. Is a split squat a lunge or a squat? Because you’re– like, I have been wondering this. And I’ve been in this area. I’ve been covering fitness a long time. I’ve never asked that question. Which is it?
Yeah, good question. And the lunge and the split squat are very, very similar movements. The real difference between the split squat and the lunge is that with the split squat, you maintain that split stance through the entire motion, whereas, any form of lunge, you’re going to return to the anatomical standing position.
The split squat definitely more closely resembles a squat in a down and up motion as opposed to a little bit of a back and forth or moving through space. But in terms of the muscles worked comparing a split squat and a lunge, they’re very similar. So I think it could be just a matter of semantics in terms of what we call it.
[LAUGHS] I appreciate the clarity because I was doing them this morning in my workout. I was like, what am I doing right now? Am I doing a lunge or a squat, really? So is there anyone who shouldn’t do lunges? I mean, we know like, with all the movement patterns that are recommended, is there anybody who needs to be more careful with them than others? I mean, again, like you said, movement optimism, we want to empower people, not scare them.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. Anyone that’s experiencing any pain with that, obviously, they should go seek out a clinician, a therapist, a coach that’s going to be able to help them navigate whatever they’re experiencing. And that could be as simple as just modifying the exercise to be a little bit more accessible. Maybe they’re doing something strange with their technique that’s putting too much stress on one particular muscle or joint.
So it could be a pretty simple fix, or it could be something more serious that need to get evaluated by a physical therapist. But if you’re in any pain with a lunge, seek out some professional guidance. Besides that, as long as you have the strength to do it, you can start scaling that load volume intensity appropriately.
One option I think a lot of people don’t consider with the lunge is being able to offload some weight. So if you use a cable machine or resistance bands, a TRX strap, a lot of the equipment we have available at the gym, you can hold on to some of those options and allow that to actually give you a little bit of assistance. So, for example, walk up to a cable machine, set that pulley at the top.
You can give yourself, say, 10, 20, 30 pounds of assistance for lunge and then gradually start adding weight or removing the assistance to progress towards body weight just like you would an assisted pull up machine or something like that. So that’s another great option for people that are a little bit hesitant or don’t have the strength to do a full bodyweight lunge just yet.
Distance lunging, all right? I’ve seen that word come up. And when I heard it, I was like, maybe it’s just, he’s traveling a certain distance with the lunging. But can you break down what distance lunging is, and what you mean by that?
Yeah, yeah, so distance lunging, once you’ve progressed your ability to lunge progressively heavier weights, and the body weight lunge is not too much of a challenge, you’ll notice– and a lot of people have this experience with lunges– is they get really tired seeing them, right? Like, their heart rate goes up. They get really out of breath. And everyone complains that lunges are just so hard, like, they’re always one of the most hated movements in the gym.
And the reason for that is your muscles can go for quite a while. And you’re alternating legs in a walking lunge, for example. The legs aren’t necessarily going to tire out as quickly as the constant tension of a squat or a deadlift. So you can keep moving forward for a while. If you’re going to do, say, 20 lunges on a leg, that’s really a set of 40 starts to become a pretty big set. And you start to see a little bit of cardiovascular demand, a little bit of metabolic demand.
So take that a little bit further and do– I don’t know– 100 at or 200. And all of a sudden, these sets get really, really long. It starts to look like, walking or carrying or running that gait mimicking pattern moving from one leg to the next. And you really do feel that metabolic or cardiovascular demand.
See, yeah, that this unique space in between high-volume strength training or muscular endurance work with a little bit of just increased blood flow, a little demand for the cardiorespiratory system. So I first saw an athlete I look up to. His name was Hobie Hall. This was probably, gosh, 15 years ago.
He was an Olympic trials marathoner. He was a professional obstacle course racer with me. And he swore by them. He would do lunges for a mile at a time and said that was his secret to success. So I first started trying them, and I heard about them from him. And I remember the first time I tried to lunge a mile, I made it– I made it about a 1/2 mile. And my legs just crumbled. And I was sore for like, over a week basically.
But I was like, I didn’t like failing something like that. I’m like, I should be able to lunge a mile. So I just kept working on it, kept going out and giving the shot. And I just found my legs felt extremely resilient. It seemed like after doing that kind of training, they were indestructible, which was really, really helpful for someone that’s going out and running lots of miles on trails and rugged terrain and doing obstacle course races where you might have to carry heavy stuff.
So from a resiliency perspective, just being able to handle that kind of volume, have that kind of muscular endurance can be really helpful for some people. I wouldn’t recommend everyone go out and lunge a mile at a time. But I do think there are certain populations that could certainly benefit from that arduous of a workout.
I saw that you post that. And I was telling my husband– we were talking briefly about him before we started recording. And I was like, do you think we should try this? Do you think we should try and go like, 400 meters and see what we could do? And I’m like, OK, I think we’re going to try this when it gets– it’s cold still here in Minnesota. But when we get a little warmer, get outside, and go a little bit more distance, it sounds really interesting. And I loved how you said it helped you prepare for some running events, like you said and other things.
Yeah, and a lot of people, that they go for a run and just that impact, right? What we call eccentric stress so that that loading on the descent and the impact from it makes people really sore. People’s knees are sore. Their quads are sore. Everything hurts after a long run. And a lunge replicates a lot of that, that demand, really builds these strong, resilient legs that can handle that kind of impact.
The great thing about it for me and why I liked adding it on to running is running is actually a relatively short or small range of motion activity, right? Your legs aren’t really moving through their full range of motion through that gait cycle compared to the depth in the stretch you can get from squats and lunges and that kind of thing.
So I often found when I was running a lot, I would start to feel tight, especially in my hips. And that kind of thing would just tighten up. So I started just adding some lunges to the end of each run. I would start, finish my run, and do 50 lunges. Like, Oh, that felt good. I’ll finish my run and do 100 lunges.
And then at one point in my running career, I was finishing all of my runs with like, 200 to 400 meters of walking lunges. And it sounds like you would feel worse, like, sore, tired from it. But I starting to find that my hips just felt fantastic. Like, they weren’t tight after running anymore from doing some of that full range of motion activity afterwards. So if you have the leg strength for it and can tolerate it without a ton of soreness or discomfort, I’m all for it. I think it’s great.
So when you’re not prepping for an OC or obstacle course race or Murph or anything like that, not doing anything from a performance standpoint, granted we know that you’re in that performance realm, what would you just say a maintenance program would be that you do? Like, this is how much cumulative reps I get within a week. I’m going to get a minimum of 500 lunges, just part of my regiment. Or like, just walk me a little bit through that if you can.
Yeah, I have enough experience doing, like, distance lunges and just endurance activity in general that as long as I’m doing some sort of single leg activity even if it’s heavy lunges– for example, I’m doing a lot of like, barbell lunges down in the alpha studio– as long as I’m doing some things like that just to maintain some proficiency within movement pattern. And I’m still getting my cardio in.
Any day if you said, hey, you got to go lunge a mile, I could certainly knock it out. I’d probably get pretty sore from it. But some form of loaded single leg movement is always in my program. So I’m always doing some heavy lunge, split squat, single leg deadlift, usually more than one of those variations per week.
And I’m always– I’m running. I’m biking. I’m doing all that stuff as well. The distance lunging, no, that comes and goes in phases of not always doing it. But every time I start doing it again, I’m like, why did I– why did I stop? It feels great. [LAUGHS]
Do you have a favorite type of lunge?
Yes, so my favorite lunge is the back rack. So barbell in your back and like a back squat, reverse deficit lunge. So deficit just means stepping backward off of a step. So if you put like, a 45-pound plate on the ground or two or three of them depending on how much of a deficit you want. And then do your reverse lunge off of that step. Fantastic movement for the glutes for sure, which I think is one of the best muscles to target with the lunge, which is really well-suited for it. So adding that deficit into it, amp set up even more.
Got his. What’s your favorite lunge, Jamie?
Mine. I was just thinking about this. I actually really like the curtsy lunge. I like that movement. I like the stretch that I get from that too. So I’m a curtsy lunge fan. Or I like lateral– curtsy and lateral.
Both of those too get people into some positions that they are often neglected with other exercises. There’s not a lot of other movements that put people into those two extremes. So I love it.
OK, David, your turn.
I love it. I love it. Bulgarian split squat is my fave, throw a little tempo on it, a little eccentric. Three count on the way down, give me a little pause. Kodak moment at the bottom. Mm.
That’s a lot of people’s least favorite. You’re going to catch some heat for that.
Well, Alec, this is a mini episode. So we want to keep this a little bit shorter. But anything else you’d want people to know about lunges or things to watch out for? Things like that?
Yeah, the biggest one is just don’t do too much too soon. It’s a more challenging movement than it looks like just watching somebody do it. So ease into it both in terms of total volume, the weight we’re talking about. And don’t hesitate to mix up your variations. You can always do too much of a good thing.
If you’re doing tons and tons of forward-walking lunges, maybe mix it up and do some reverse lunges too. Sky’s the limit. But remember, there’s so many options for variability. Find the lunge variation that works for you. If you’re getting any pain or discomfort or just don’t like one, try something else because there’s too many great lunges out there to think you don’t like them. You just got to find the right one.
Well, we will link to– we have many articles on this. We’ve got some resources and some guides that we’ll share along with– we actually have a workout from you about how to train for the Murph as we go towards Memorial Day again here this year. So we’ll feature that.
I think there may be are some lunges in that program. I don’t know for sure. So we’ll see. But we’ll link to that. And then people can follow you on Instagram @alecblinis. Is there anywhere else that they can get in touch with you at or follow your work?
That’s great. My Instagram, I’m Alec Blenis. I have a website, as well, alecblenis.com. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me, message, ask a question. Anything like that, I’m always happy to help.
Thank you so much for coming on. And we might have to bring you back to talk about, do you have a second favorite movement? That’s what I want to know. That’s what we’re going to end with– second favorite.
[LAUGHS] Oh, gosh, second favorite movement. I love the squat. I’ve always been much more of a squatter than a dead lifter. So yeah. [LAUGHS]
All right, thanks, Alec.
Yeah, thanks, Jamie. Thanks, David. Nice chatting with you guys.
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