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How to do a lunge that doesn't hurt your knees

If you've ever felt a twinge of pain in your knees when performing lunges, you're likely making one of these common mistakes.
MASTER THE MOVE LUNGE
When done properly, lunges work your lower body and core and help build strength that supports the hip and knee joints.TODAY illustration / Courtesy Stephanie Mansour

In this series, we’re helping you master basic exercises — as if you had a personal trainer by your side! Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge to perform these moves properly in order to get better results and prevent injury.

Lunges work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hips and core muscles. The fact that they work so many muscle groups at once makes them a popular move that is incorporated into many different exercise routines.

Lunges target extensor muscles in your lower body that also help stabilize the hip and knee joints. But if performed incorrectly, they can actually harm rather than help these areas. To get the most out of the exercise — and avoid putting stress on your joints — proper form is key.

Common mistakes people make when doing a lunge

As a personal trainer, I see a lot of my clients make the same mistakes when performing a lunge. Sometimes they complain about a twinge in their knee, if you feel this pain, it’s a good indicator that you are making one of these mistakes:

  • Not creating a 90-degree angle at the knee. I often find that my clients take too narrow of a step forward so there’s not enough space for their knee to bend properly to the 90-degree angle. This also makes balancing hard and can even lead to knee injury.
  • Too narrow of a stance. Another culprit that throws off balance is not stepping the forward foot out as wide as the hips. Instead of stepping forward as if you’re on a tight rope, step forward so that your feet end up being hip-width apart.
  • Not pressing through the heel to stand. Be sure to press down through the heel of the forward foot to push yourself back up to stand.
  • Back foot misaligned. You should be balanced on the toes of your back foot and the knee should lower directly beneath the hip to create another 90-degree angle.

How to do a modified lunge

If you suffer from joint pain, a modified lunge is likely a smart choice to lessen the strain on the knees and ankles. Here are two modifications to try:

  • Lower half way down. Instead of going all the way down into a full lunge, try bending only halfway.
  • Lunge backward instead of forward. Reverse lunges allow you to focus on your form and don’t rely on forward momentum, which can sometimes bring that front knee too far forward and cause knee pain.

How to perform a lunge properly

To perform a lunge correctly, follow these steps:

  1. Stand up straight with your feet as wide as your hips.
  2. Step forward with your right foot, bending at the knee to form a 90-degree angle. Your left knee, when bent, should also be at a 90-degree angle.
  3. After holding the lunge for a few seconds, press down through the heel of the right foot and squeeze the right buttock to return to standing.
  4. Repeat all steps on the left leg. (Alternate between the right and left leg, performing 10 reps on each side.)

4 exercises that will help you lunge better

Now that you're aware of the common mistakes, lunges are pretty simple to perform. However, they can still be challenging for those who suffer from joint pain or are still building up their lower-body strength.

These exercises will teach you how to engage the muscles that are involved in a lunge, and build up strength in those areas.

Glute bridge

The glute bridge targets the glutes and quads similarly to the lunge. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes to lift your body towards the ceiling (forming a straight line between your neck and your knees). Lower your body down so your back is resting on the ground. Repeat 10 times.

Chair squats

Place a chair behind you and stand facing way from it, feet hips-width apart. Begin squatting backward slowly until your butt taps the chair. Stand back up and repeat. The seated squat successfully targets the muscles in your lower body, while putting less strain on the joints than a full squat or lunge.

Step ups

In order to perform a step up, you’ll need some sort of elevated surface. A step in your house, a step stool, a sturdy chair or anything else that you can step on will work. Begin in a standing position. Step up onto your elevated surface with your right foot, letting your left leg hover above the floor; squeeze both glutes. Lower back down and then step up with your left foot. Repeat for a total of 10 times on each side.

High knee walks

This exercise will help you practice getting the knees at a 90-degree angle. Stand with your legs hips-width apart and place your hands on your hips. Lift your right knee up in front of you and hold at a 90-degree angle, then step forward and place the right foot down as you lift the left knee up. Perform walking high knees, 10 times on each side.

More ways to master the move: