Knee Pain when you Lunge? Try this Variation.
As you may have picked up from some of my previous blog posts, I am not a fan of doing an exercise just because it's the 'done thing'. Our industry is full of poster workouts and celebrity endorsed routines that will make convincing, but often unqualified claims about the latest new move or trend, but rarely take into account the individual at the receiving end of it. We are all different, and have our own limitations and abilities, so trainers must look at the individual goals of each client, and construct programmes that get them there with the lowest risk of injury. Phrases like "you've got to bench for a big chest", or "you can't get stronger if you don't squat" are signs that a 'one size fits all' approach is being adopted, and clients should be wary of this, especially if they have a history of injury.
Knees, backs and shoulders are the big three areas of pain and injury amongst most fitness fanatics. Causes vary, but repetitive and excessive loading with one particular exercise is often a trigger, and the warning signs are sometimes ignored. When pain starts, your body is telling you to reduce or stop the action that's causing it; but to a seasoned gym addict, this is easier said than done. Some take remedial action when pain strikes, but others just push through regardless in an effort to stay in ascendance on the gym PB ladder. This is when you have to step back sometimes and take a long hard look at what your real goals are. If the particular pain-causing exercise is essential for your sport or activity (e.g. bench press for powerlifting), obviously you'll need to address the root cause and get back to the exercise once you're pain free. But if you just want to look good for the beach, then further pain and injury might easily be avoided by reducing load and switching to an alternative exercise, whilst working on any underlying causal factors. Which all brings me on to one bothersome exercise in particular, and one that I've had experience with myself, and a number of clients: the Lunge.
As a Personal Trainer, I have lost count of the number of times clients have come to me and said something along the lines of: "my knee hurts when I lunge, but I know they're great for my legs", or "I have to wear this brace for my knees when I lunge", or "I can lunge, but can't go too low as my knee hurts". Often these are clients that have attended fitness classes in the past, where lunging was a staple leg burner; or they have previous injuries from running or court & field sports, that have left a legacy of pain and reduced mobility. Either way, pain is preventing them from getting the best out of their leg training routine.
Now, if you have injury history, caution is advised: It is wise to understand the nature of the injury before any kind of single leg resistance work is attempted, as weakness in the supporting structures of the knees could make them vulnerable, given the relative instability of some movements. Likewise, if your pain is severe, causes swelling or tenderness to touch, you really need to consult with a medical professional before trying any form of leg exercise. But if you just suffer a temporary, niggling pain during or after lunging, there is one version of the exercise that maybe more comfortable on the knee, whilst providing a superior workout for your rear-end. This exercise is the Reverse Lunge, or Back Lunge as it's sometimes known, and the video below shows the Body Weight Reverse Lunge.
Compare this to the Forward Lunge in this video, which is often taught first in a gym or studio scenario.
In the forward lunge, the knee of the working leg (in this case, the left leg) is carried forward as the exerciser steps out to place his foot on the floor ahead of him. The kinetic energy from this forward movement places force on the structures of the knee as the foot strikes the floor, and the exerciser quickly decelerates the forward motion using eccentric contraction (contraction during lengthening) of the quadriceps muscle group. While a perfectly good exercise, and a movement pattern that is practiced in numerous sporting and daily living situations, excessive repetition can lead to painful knees, especially with the untrained individual.
In the Reverse Lunge, the knee of the working leg (always the forward leg) remains at the same point in space, so is not subjected to the sudden changes in horizontal force that can lead to pain. And with less emphasis placed on the quadriceps as a 'brake', the exerciser can focus more on the glutes to decelerate and accelerate through each stage of the movement. Not only are the gluteus muscles involved in the movement, but as most of the load is on just one leg, they also work to stabilise the hip and maintain the ideal knee position - a reason why this is such an effective exercise for the rear-end.
The Reverse Lunge can be safely progressed like any other exercise, and at the bottom of the progression ladder would be a simple assisted Reverse Lunge, where the exerciser places one hand on a fixed bar or pole, and uses their arm to assist through a reduced range of motion initially. If this can be performed pain free, then you can move on to unassisted and then more advanced variants using external loads such as dumbbells, kettle-bells, or even barbells for the more experienced. These 4 videos show the progression of this exercise from assisted with limited range to full range of motion with dumbbells.
So don't lose out on the benefits of single leg work just because of niggling pain. Try the Reverse Lunge and focus on using your glutes as you perform the exercise. It's a great movement, and a good complement to any leg routine.