Since the squat directs force vertically, the lunge takes precedence in directing force horizontally. In running sports, acceleration and change of direction are paramount. Lunging can touch on athletic components that the squat alone cannot.
In looking at the athlete’s sporting demands, we see that movement happens in large part on one leg. This unilateral movement demands the athlete to have enough strength to both produce and resist force in the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes.
Lunging variations serve to integrate and load multiple planes of movement that help the athlete’s proprioception and timing. Further, multi-planar lunging can help safeguard problematic and injury-prone areas like the groin, hips, lower back, hamstrings, and knees.
Although strength trainers cannot ultimately prevent injuries from happening, they can provide exercises that build multiplanar hip, knee, and ankle stability to make the athlete more robust and resilient. Since tight musculature and lack of mobility often contribute to injury potential, lunging provides an inbuilt mechanism for safeguarding against these risks.
The Lunge is Foundational
An assessment of the athlete at play is vital in determining which exercises to include in their training program. It is appropriate for a tennis player or fencer to train the lunging pattern, as their sports are almost entirely based on lunging and striking movements. However, swimmers, rock climbers, and gymnasts may not need the same training volume or intensity.
Since athletes from all sports must be able to move with precision, the lunge is as prudent as it is pragmatic. If the athlete is able to comfortably cross the midline of their body during cutting, acceleration, and deceleration, their chances of injury lessen while their performance increases.
In programming for strength and athletic performance, exercise selection ultimately comes down to the primary action of the athlete. Both bilateral and unilateral movements are important for the athlete, but the application of when and why to use each is paramount.
The Squat vs. Lunge
In human evolution, the squat is more of a rest position than an exercise, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be loaded for strength and power development. When loading the body with a barbell, kettlebell, or other implement, the squat trains the lower body’s maximum force development in the vertical plane
However, the lunge is advantageous for the athlete that must make a change of direction in sport. Further, athletes with prior injuries to the knees, low back, or hips may find loading lunging patterns easier than loading squats. In order to understand the necessity of lunging, we must look at the role the feet play in the squat and lunge:
Squat: The feet remain in a fixed position. The feet do not move during the movement.
Lunge: The feet move in a stepping motion in any direction. The feet return to the starting position or to a new position.
Since moving into a squat is a downward motion of the athlete, it’s wise to see how a bilateral squat can help improve an athlete’s overall power and vertical jump. However, lunging provides a stimulus for the athlete that must make a sudden forward thrust of the body like in sprinting, cutting, or attacking an opponent.
The Lunge Improves Athletic Ability
There are several progressions that I give to my athletes when learning to lunge. In order to progress, the athlete should demonstrate precision in each movement, loaded and unloaded.
Split Squat > Reverse Lunge > Walking Lunge > Forward Lunge > Power Lunge