Barbell Lunge 101: A Beginner’s Guide

The barbell lunge is probably one of the most effective and yet most problematic barbell exercises. The benefits of doing exercises for your legs one leg at a time are numerous. You will develop better coordination, get rid of muscle imbalance between your limbs and last but not least become athletic in a very functional manner.

In fact after a good barbell lunge workout, done correctly, you will feel the exercise right in the areas sued for sprinting, jumping and climbing stairs.

The reason for the article however is that I see many people do barbell lunges with severe motion in the knee. This both hinders proper muscular balance of the complete leg musculature and places you at a greater risk of a knee injury.

What is the Barbell Lunge

The barbell lunge is a strength training exercise done best with a barbell on your back. You can of course do it with any other additional resistance such as a dumbbell, a kettlebell, sandbag, etc. but I find the basic barbell a great teaching tool for beginners and experienced people alike.

When done correctly, barbell lunges train your legs in a functional manner by mimicking one of the basic human movement patterns – descend and elevation one leg at a time while keeping the center of gravity of your body above the working front leg.

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Done in this manner, the barbell lunge, similarly to a proper barbell squat engages all the muscles of the leg – glutes (butt), quads (front of the upper leg) and hamstrings (back of the upper leg). Most people do lunges mainly as a quad exercise. This is a huge mistake.

How to Do Barbell Lunges

  • Keep your chest up. This is a universal rule whenever you’ve got a weight on your back. Try to push the chest up and out. Your chest will be above your center of gravity.
  • Place the bar on your muscles, not on the spine. In fact, squeeze the shoulder blades and place the bar on top.
  • Brace the abs. This is the basic safety technique whenever we are doing resistance training. To protect the lower back, inhale some air in your stomach and keep the abdominal muscles semi contracted as if waiting for a punch. Note that bracing doesn’t equal sucking in. Sucking in the stomach is not safe.
  • Keep the arch position in the lower back.. The arch position is the go-to pose for handling weights on your back. Simply contract the lower back muscles and keep them arched and tight.

  • Walk on rails. This is a huge problem for people trying to learn the move. Don’t step with one foot in front of the other. It is simply too difficult to balance – like walking on a rope. Instead imagine each foot gliding on its own rail, as in photo B.
  • Large steps. To properly engage the whole leg- both the anterior muscles (quads in the front of the leg) as well as posterior muscles (glutes, hamstrings, lower back) we need to take a large step. Small strides shift the focus to the quads only.
  • Keep the weight above the front leg. Most people are taught to do lunges by sitting completely upright. But actually in the real world the center of gravity is kept close to the working leg – in sprinting, climbing, jumping. So the weight of the torso should be kept above the front leg while keeping the lower back arch of course.
  • Directly down. Once you take the large step forward, stop. Don’t move forward anymore. Instead drop directly down like an elevator. If you move forward you shift the focus towards the quads (and knees- ouch!). Observe the arrows on photo A – this is the position where you stop moving forward and go directly down.
  • Push through the heel. As in squats and deadlifts, to activate the posterior chain muscles, we are pushing through the heel and not through the toes. Pushing through the toes focuses the movement on the knees and quads only. It has its place when you know what you are doing but here the goal is activate the whole leg.

Note: Try to take a large step. Here I probably could have taken even larger steps. When in doubt, make the stride bigger.

Action Plan

  • Low reps. When doing complex skill movements like this, stick to low reps – about 5 is just right. The reasoning for this is that the more reps you do, the less concentrated you can be and this can make learning the move difficult.
  • Perfect form. Here are four quick points to check yourself – walk on rails, take a large step, keep the weight on the front leg and go directly up and down.
  • Train often. Twice per week should do trick when trying to learn a new movement. Three times is better but not necessary.