Lunges: But Without the Knee Pain

At Reimagym, we’re often asked how to make split squats or lunges feel better on the knees.

I am familiar with this challenge. Due to overuse, I have almost no cartilage left in my knees, so the split squat (also sometimes called a “stationary lunge”) position used to hurt my knees terribly, and lunges were out of the question.

But eight years ago, during a fitness continuing education seminar, Mike and I learned some simple, yet supremely valuable information that changed everything. Here it is:

The working leg in a lunge is the front leg and not the back leg!

Mind blown!

After I learned this, I tried a basic split squat, and was greatly surprised that not only could I do it (which I thought was impossible for me), but I could do it easily and without pain.

That small, simple change was a total game changer!

Since then, we have shared this with our clients and members, who have also found this simple shift to be a huge help in improving knee comfort when performing split squats and lunges.

The details

First, a little terminology, since lunges and split squats are often mistaken for one another.

A split squat is when your legs are split from the beginning and the movement is up and down, like on an elevator.

A lunge is when you start with the legs together and step out into a split stance, perform the “elevator” movement, then step the feet back together. Unlike a split squat, a lunge includes some movement of the feet: forward, backward or to the side.

Have a look at this video showing proper setup for the split squat:

Tips for avoiding knee pain in a lunge or split squat position

  • Begin in a half-kneeling position. This ensures proper alignment of the front knee over the front foot and sets up good torso and core positioning.
  • Lean slightly forward to bias the front leg as the prime mover. **Make sure this slight lean comes from hingeing the front ankle and not from pushing your hips forward.**
  • Press up through the front foot with most of your weight falling onto your heel. Lower down via the front leg, careful not to let your weight shift away from the heel.
  • Keeping the pelvis slightly tucked, by squeezing your glute of the back leg, will help keep your back leg tucked too, which will discourage it from becoming the prime mover. Keeping the pelvis tucked under also helps to align your ribs over your pelvis for really great core positioning-which will help keep your core engaged and discomfort out of your back.
  • For forward stepping lunges, step heel-to-toe as you lower into the lunge position. Because the front leg is the prime mover, that is where you should feel the lowering movement.
  • For a side lunge, the weight is in the stepping leg and you want to feel most of your weight in your heel. When performing a reverse lunge the weight is in the front heel. The toes of the back leg are there for stability in the movement, and remember to keep the pelvis tucked under.

Depending on the reason for your knee pain there may be some movements you can’t do. For example, I can do reverse lunges without any trouble, because the weight remains in the front leg the whole time and I don’t have to use my knees to decelerate any force. Lunging to the side is doable for me as long as I make sure to hinge at my hips rather than support a lot of weight with my knee. I still cannot do forward lunging; these are still quite painful for me.

Watch the video below to see all of these tips in action:

How is it for you?

Have these tips helped with your setup or changed how and where you feel the work of the movement? We’d love to hear about it. As always, ask us any questions you have or share your thoughts.

Be well, my friends.