Lunges are one of the most popular exercises that people love to hate. Because they use most of the muscles in your hips, thighs and lower legs, lunges can be effective for both adding strength and enhancing muscle definition. However, as effective as lunges can be, there are few minor changes or hacks that you can do to make these exercises even more effective. The end result is that you will love to hate them even more!

The most common way to do lunges is by simply stepping forward, and while these can be useful for strengthening the muscles of the upper thigh, the hip is a very mobile joint that can move in all directions. Therefore, to make sure you use all the muscles in your hips and thighs, it’s important to do lunges in multiple directions. In addition, making little changes or hacks like reaching for your foot or holding a balance position at the top of the move can be an effective strategy for recruiting more muscle fibers and doing more work.

Hacking is a term originally coined to describe someone breaking into a computer system. However, hacking has come to mean making minor changes to an existing product to make it work more efficiently or perform a different function. In fitness, the term “hacking” can be used to describe making minor changes to exercises that produce entirely different results.

Here are three different ways to hack lunges that can have a significant effect on your leg training. Because these hacks will challenge your muscles to move in new directions, they will cause soreness, so my recommendation is to learn how to do them with only your body weight before grabbing any external resistance.

1. Step backward instead of forward. The most common way to do a lunge is by stepping forward. However, this requires a lot of flexibility in the ankle and hip joints, which a lot of people lack, and if you’ve ever experienced knee pain from doing lunges, you could be one of them. Instead of stepping forward into a lunge, step backward!

Stepping backward puts the majority of the work where you want it—in the large muscles of the gluteal complex (the maximus, medius and minimus). In addition, the hamstring, adductor and quadricep muscles of the hips will be used without feeling any discomfort in your knee.

  • Start with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Keep your left foot on the ground as you step backward with your right leg, slowly lowering your leg as you lean forward slightly (stopping before your right knee touches the ground).
  • Press your left foot into the ground to pull yourself forward to return to the starting position.
  • To make the exercise even more effective, hold a balance position for three to four seconds by squeezing your butt and thigh muscles at the top of the move before stepping back into the next repetition. Perform 10 to 12 reps on your left leg before switching legs. Start with two sets and work up to four.

2. Side lunge. The side lunge is great for hitting the large vastus lateralis muscle of the quadriceps group of the upper thigh. The vastus lateralis is the muscle that gives your thigh a desired “teardrop” shape, and this lunge can be an effective way to achieve that.

  • Start with your feet hip-width apart.
  • With your right foot, step directly to your right.
  • Keep your left foot planted on the ground and squeeze your left thigh to protect your knee as your right foot hits the ground and you sink into your right hip.
  • Use your left hand to reach for your right foot. This will create more hip flexion to make sure your glutes are fully engaged.
  • Push your right foot into the ground and use your left inner-thigh muscles to pull you back to the starting position. To recruit more glute and thigh muscles, hold the balance position at the top for three to four seconds before lowering into the next rep.
  • Perform 10 to 12 reps on your right leg before switching. Start with two sets and work up to four.

3. Reverse crossover lunge. This one is often called the curtsy lunge, but as a guy, I’ll never call it that. Plus, because this is a great move for strengthening all the muscles of your hips and thighs in a way that protects your knee joint, I teach it to rugby players. If I ever called it a “curtsy lunge,” they would never do it.

This lunge is effective because the hip joint will flex, adduct and rotate at the same time, using the gluteal muscles in all planes of motion. You don’t really need to know what that means, but it’s why you’ll be really sore the day after doing them.

  • Start with both feet hip-width apart. With your right foot, step back and to the left (in the 7 o’clock direction on a clock).
  • As your right foot hits the ground, lean forward slightly as you allow your weight to sink into your left hip. Lower yourself into your left hip but stop before your right knee hits the ground.
  • Press your left foot into the ground to use your hip muscles to pull you back to the standing position.
  • To make the exercise even more effective, create more hip flexion by reaching for your left foot with your right hand at the bottom of the move. Perform all reps with your left hip before switching legs. Because you will be lengthening your hip muscles in ways they’ve never been used before, start with only one set of six to eight reps on your left hip before switching legs and only do one set.
  • Slowly work up to doing three sets of 12 reps on each leg.

The best thing about making these hacks is that you don’t need to spend any time sitting at a desk or staring at a screen, so get out and enjoy them, but be careful—you will feel the results the next day. Once you can do the recommended number of reps and sets with your body weight, you will be ready to add external resistance. Dumbbells can be the easiest way to load lunges, especially because they will allow you to reach for the ground with each hand, which is the best way to make sure you really engage your glutes!

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