The amount of times I've written the word "booty" in the past 3 weeks is rather alarming. It's even creeping into my spoken vocabulary a bit too casually in my coaching; this came apparent when I told my 60-year old client to "stick that booty out" when I was going over hip-hinge warmups... Not the usual verbal cue I would use with her her, but hey, it worked!
I'm having way too much fun with this series, and this will be part 3 of 4, it has been decided (check out part 1 and part 2 if you missed them!). This week, I wanted to shine a spotlight on a few unilateral glute-strengthening exercises. Translation: 1-legged exercises that will make your tush and legs very happy.
A few reasons I love the unilateral lower-body exercises and why they're great options for a lot of people:
- Strengthening unilaterally is mutually beneficial to bilateral exercises (i.e. squat, deadlift)
- You can get many similar benefits through single-leg exercise as double-leg exercises with less spinal loading and compression- therefore is generally a smart choice for people with real back issues (I'm talking bulges, herniations, discs, spondy, etc) that may have issues with barbell squats/deadlifts.
- Pretty much everyone has a dominant "side." Do you always kick something with your right foot or always kneel down with your right? Chances are, you could use some single-leg work to help get both legs and glutes on an equal playing field.
- On this note, for people may be having trouble increasing their numbers on their bilateral (double-legged) lifts like the squat and deadlift, it may be your weaker leg holding you back. Strengthen that baby up, and boom, there's that new PR you were looking for.
- The core-control/activation along with balance and stability that single-leg exercises require is arguably more demanding than double-legged exercises. Trust me, there's not many people out there that couldn't use a little more balance and coordination- myself included, and I was a figure skater for crying out loud.
As per usual, there are a myriad of unilateral exercises I love.
But for the purpose of this post, I am sticking to the preliminary basics. No pistol squats or single-legged Romanian deadlifts here...yet (although I love me some of both of those!).
The Lunging Library:
Part A: The Forward Lunge
One of the great basics to begin with, the forward lunge. Miss Ann Nicholas of Ann's Fit Body Fitness demonstrates a quick alternating forward lunge for us. I've included videos of both angles as they are equally important to see.
From this front angle, there are a few things you should notice:
- Ann keeps her hands behind her head to make sure she relies on her core and lower body to stabilize herself for balance- no flailing limbs here!
- You can see she does an excellent job of keeping her knee aligned with her toe. You want to make sure your knee on the forward lunging leg is not caving inwards- this means that glute isn't working to help you and the ligaments in your knee reeeeally don't like that.
- From the bottom of the lunge position as Ann begins to push herself back to standing, you can see how controlled she is through her core. She utilizes her front leg fully to powerfully push off the ground to return to her starting position, so there aren't any bobbles and she isn't putting her back leg and knee under unnecessary stress.
Now let's go to a side angle, a lateral view:
A few new things to note here:
- Many clients will ask me how far they should step forward- truth is, it all depends on what you're trying to target the most.
- The further you lunge out so the angle of your knee is more than 90º, you will get a bit more hamstring activation.
- The closer you lunge in, it's a bit more quad-reliant.
- So you can certainly tailor it to your needs, BUT this doesn't mean you should be be lunging into splits or lunging so close that your knee juts forward way past your toes.
- The way Ann is doing it is slightly closer and probably the most common form you'll see.
- From this side angle you can better see that core control and overall stability I mentioned earlier- as she's pushing off her front leg to return to her original starting position, there is zero arch in her back or loss of balance.
Part B: The Reverse Lunge
Ah now, a reverse lunge. This guy tends to be a bit more knee-friendly, as your center of gravity is not shifting forward like in the forward lunge, and there is far less pressure on your patella (knee). I personally love a good reverse lunge, particularly to work on lunging form.
- As you may have noticed, Ann has a wider stance on her reverse lunge than her forward lunge. I personally like a wider stance like that better, as a narrow stance for the reverse lunge tends to promote pushing your knee (on the leg in front) forward in a not-so-good way. It is less restrictive in your range of motion for most people, as well.
- Same as on the front lunge, Ann keeps her hands behind her head to make sure she relies on her core and lower body to stabilize herself for balance. No jellyfish arms, please!
Part C: The Walking Lunge
Now for the walking lunge. You should have mastered the forward lunge before moving onto the walking lunge, in my opinion. The walking lunge requires a constant forward trajectory- you should be stable enough to control that movement and not let it control you. Also, we were totally making Ann laugh, so it's really our fault for making her wobble on the first lunge... oops!
- All notations from the forward and reverse lunge are applicable here as well
- Difference in technique to note:
- The walking lunge can be done with a slight pause in the middle of each lunge when both feet return to a standing position together before proceeding onto the next lunge.
- It can also be done by marching from one lunge directly into another.
- Both ways are correct, but the former is better for people new to the walking lunge and I also like it for when people are holding weights. Reason being that people will tend to swing the weights and use it to "cheat" and propel them onto the next lunge (rather than using pure body strength) when using the latter technique of marching.
Part D: The Lateral Lunge
Now for the lateral lunge- this is one I highly recommend to people whose majority of movement lives in the sagittal plane, which is mostly everyone but especially runners. Translation? You're always moving forward and backward, not side to side.
You should be incorporating movement in all three planes: sagittal (forward/backward), frontal (which this lunge is), transverse (think rotation). If you're only moving in the sagittal plane like a runner, things like your glute medius get ignored. It's like if you only subsisted on fruit- fruit is great for you, but you need a variety of things to get all the nutrients in your diet.
I am also including two views of this:
- You can see that Ann steps an appropriate width for her body. Her knee is right in line with her foot. If you step too far out, there's a high chance your knee is far inward of your foot. If you step too close, you won't be able to really sit into your lunge.
- Ann's upper body and chest are kept in good postural alignment- shoulders aren't slumping forward, and there's no rounding through her lumbar (lower) spine.
Now for the lateral (side) view:
- Ann has solid form here- torso is nice and straight, her movement is coming from her hips and she's sitting her butt back instead of pushing the knee forward to lunge.
- I encourage to really focus on sitting your butt back as far and low as possible. A slightly bigger range of motion will allow you to get more glute activation.
The Bulgarian Split Squat/Split-Leg Lunge
Okay last but definitely not least, the Bulgarian Split Leg Squat (also referred to as a split-leg lunge, split-stance lunge/squat). I initially hesitated putting this up as this is definitely the most advanced of all these movements in this post, but this movement gets your butt like no other lunge does. And after all, this is a post about the booty.
Also, my clients all think I'm nuts for how much I love this movement. While I am definitely not a trainer who goes for exercises just because they "crush" you, this one totally crushes you in the most wonderfully loving way possible. Whenever I say it's time for these, my clients usually look at me like this ==========>>
- First thing- fitness nerds will argue themselves silly about if this is really a unilateral exercise, because this does utilize the back leg more than the other lunge-type movements do. But I categorize it this way because the majority of the work is still done on one leg and it has a reduced spinal compression/load than squats and deadlifts.
- You want your back leg to be propped up.
- Benches in the gym are usually your best bet for appropriate height and stable surface to work on. I don't recommend much higher than that, because at that point you're really asking for a lot of stretch of your hip flexor of the leg propped up.
- You don't want too low either, otherwise your knee on that back leg will bang on the floor when you try to get deep into the lunge.
- You can either curl your toes under you on the bench for better traction, or if it's uncomfortable, just lay the top of your foot flat on the bench.
- Same components of any lunge- keep that knee from going to far forward (so make sure your stance isn't too narrow in order to avoid this), and make sure your knee is in line with that foot, not going inward.
Whew, that was a long one. I hope this was helpful and not overly tedious. I do tend to ramble when talking about this stuff, but I'm happy to clarify if you all have any questions or comments- would love to hear them, as always!