For all the good they do, forward lunges create issues for many people. Top complaints often include knee pain, instability and trouble reaching the full range of motion.
That's a bummer, as this move not only builds single-leg strength, balance and stability, but it also recruits large muscle groups in the legs and core. In other words, the forward lunge packs a variety of benefits into every rep.
If the forward lunge makes the list of your most problematic exercises, it's worth your time to figure out a solution. Thankfully, recognizing where your issues lie can go a long way toward setting them right.
We turned to a few fitness experts to drill down on the most common problems people encounter when performing forward lunges. Plus, how to fix them.
If You: Feel Unstable
You Might: Need to Widen Your Stance
Ever feel like you're going to fall over when you step into a lunge? If you're new to strength training, lunges will probably feel tough and unnatural — and that's perfectly OK.
"The idea behind the lunge is to train your balance, so a little wobbling is good," Lance Goyke, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. It means your body is learning and adjusting to the instability, leading to greater balance over time.
You may also be using a "tightrope" setup, meaning you have a very narrow stance, George Branford, CPT, certified personal trainer and founder of Intent91, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
If you're a newbie, hold onto a dowel stick, broom, wall, or chair for added stability while performing the lunge, Branford says. Once you’re ready to let go, practice doing the lunge with just your body weight before gradually adding weight with dumbbells or kettlebells.
And instead of lunging as though you’re walking a tightrope, with one foot directly in front of the other, pretend you’re stepping along either side of a train track. “A wider stance will provide you with greater stability through the knee and ankle and help with balance,” Branford says.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do to improve your balance during lunges is to relax.
“When your body stiffens up, your brain has trouble hearing what the muscles are saying,” Goyke says. “Relaxing allows us to access our proprioception, or sense of where we are in space, to deal with the balance challenge lunges present us.”
If You: Feel Knee Pain
You Might: Have Weak Glutes
Knee pain is fairly common in forward lunges — either in the knee of the front or back leg. If you feel pain in the front knee, there's likely an alignment issue. When you bend or straighten your knee, your kneecap glides gently up and down through a groove in your thigh bone.
"As the knee bends, the pressure between your kneecap and the groove increases, and if the kneecap isn't tracking properly through that groove, it causes inflammation," Grant Radermacher, DC, PT, sports chiropractor, physical therapist and owner of Ascent Chiropractic, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The most common reason the kneecap falls out of alignment is a lack of glute strength, Radermacher says. Weak glutes often cause the hip and knee joints to shift too far inward, which adds stress to the kneecap and creates pain.
However, if your discomfort in the back knee, it often means you're putting too much weight on that leg, Goyke says. Shift more of your body weight onto the working leg and see if that solves your problem.
Radermacher suggests sticking with reverse lunges, as this variation provides all the benefits of forward lunges while emphasizing the glutes more.
“Also, consider adding banded glute bridges to your workouts to help target your glutes,” he says. Once you build more glute strength, give forward lunges another try.
If you’re still experiencing discomfort or pain in either knee after testing these fixes, try shortening your range of motion (don’t bring your knee to the floor) and/or performing the exercise more slowly. If neither of these modifications work, hit pause while you consult a physical therapist.
If You: Can’t Go Low Enough
You Might: Lack Strength or Mobility
Getting your front thigh parallel to the floor (or close to it) and then pushing up to stand requires plenty of strength, mobility, stability and movement awareness. If you struggle to achieve a full range of motion during lunges, it may mean that one or more of these skills aren't up to snuff. And that's OK! It takes time to be able to perform lunges at full range of motion.
"Starting slowly and not going as deep is still performing a lunge," Aaron Guyett, CSCS, director of education at LivingFit, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It takes time for our tissues to adapt, so be patient and stay consistent. You will eventually be able to do the lunge and reap a lot of benefits on the way."
Instead of trying to force yourself into a full range of motion — and risking pain or injury in the process — take it slowly. Guyett recommends gradually increasing your range of motion each week so your muscles and tissues can adapt to the new demands. But never go so deep that you feel discomfort or pain.
Adding mobility exercises into your routine may help, too. While there are many to choose from, one of Goyke’s favorite exercises to start with is one he calls the rockback with abs. Do this exercise as part of your strength warm-up, prioritizing days when lunges are on the schedule.
You’ll know your issue has more to do with muscle weakness if you feel like you’re going to collapse at the bottom or if you struggle to push up to standing. In either case, hold onto a chair, wall, countertop or other object for support. As you get stronger, loosen your grip or remove your hands at different points during the movement until you’re able to lunge without assistance.
If you have plenty of strength, mobility and stability to do lunges but still struggle to get to the bottom, you may need to tweak your form.
“People will often bend over at the bottom of the movement to use their lower back instead of their hamstrings,” Goyke says. Doing this will limit how far you’re able to go. Instead, focus on staying tall from the top of your head to your tailbone throughout the movement.
Lastly, try different variations of lunges as you work up to full depth. Lateral lunges will work your glutes more, reverse lunges can help you focus on driving through your heels and walking lunges are a fun, dynamic exercise, Guyett says.
Rockback With Abs
- Start on the floor on your hands and knees, palms directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips. Take a deep inhale.
- As you exhale, pull your bellybutton up toward your spine.
- While holding this position, push your glutes backward, stopping just before you rest on your heels.
- Hold this position for 5 slow breaths in and out through your nose. Exhale fully and pause for 5 seconds before inhaling again.
- Try to direct your breaths toward the bottom of your glutes while you maintain tension in these muscles.
How to Do a Forward Lunge With Perfect Form
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Keeping your chest up, shoulders down and back and core tight, take a big step forward with your right foot.
- Bend both knees to lower your hips until your front thigh is parallel (or as close to parallel as you can get) to the ground. Your back foot should flex and your back knee should be bent 90 degrees.
- Pause briefly. Then, push through your front foot to straighten both legs. That’s 1 rep.
- Repeat the movement by stepping forward with your left foot. Continue alternating legs with each rep.
- Once bodyweight lunges feel easy, you can increase the difficulty by holding weights. Dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls and sandbags are all great options.
Many people do lunges with their torso leaning back. “This arches the low back and shuts off the abdominal muscles, reducing our ability to balance and placing unnecessary stress on the spine,” Goyke says.
Hold your torso forward slightly (but don’t bend over at the waist) during lunges. Aim for a straight line from ears to back knee that passes through the shoulder and hips. “This indicates a neutral spine position and will help you load the front leg,” Goyke says.