Wednesday, February 6, 2013

5 Basic Movements ALL Athletes Should Master This Off-Season: Part 2

Part 2: The lunge (& lunge progressions).

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

Runners are a notoriously inflexible group of folk. If you’ve ever read a running book written by an elite or former elite runner, the photos in the stretching chapter is usually pretty humorous. Hamstrings, adducters, calves – all have about the same elasticity as one of those cables on the Sydney Harbour Bridge! But…
There is one particular stretch where the elite runner comes into his own – the hip flexor stretch (shown below).

Elite runners typically score 15 degrees above the norm of 180deg in the 'Thomas test' of hip flexion shown above. There is good reason for this which is illustrated beautifully in the lead picture of this article: A key element to running fast is stride length. Here’s my experience on typical stride length dynamics in AG triathletes vs elite runners….

Try this experiment – Put a cadence meter on and run 10x200m starting at a jog effort & progressing to 30s/200 pace (or as close to it as possible). Ideally what you will see is only a very slight rise in cadence (<=5spm) but a marked rise in stride length from the jog to the sprint. If you are someone with less than optimal mobility you will probably find that to reach those higher speeds requires a marked increase in cadence, perhaps of 20 or more spm if you’re particularly tight.

If you’re closer to the 20spm side of the range, the other element that can come into play is a lack of the ability to impart force to the ground over the very short period of time that the foot is in contact with the ground, i.e. POWER! Athletes who lack this ability will have longer ground contact times and less float time per stride.

Whichever element you are lacking, the lunge and its variations can help!

There are 4 key variations of the lunge that I want to briefly outline in this article. Each with it’s own unique purpose and benefit to the multisport athlete.

1. Lunge

 The plain old lunge. Can be done as a forward lunge (stepping forward) or a rear lunge (stepping backward as shown in this clip from Eric Cressey

Either way, key points are the same..
-          Stride is long: More than half your standing height. When the emphasis is mobility, I suggest going to the trouble of marking the floor in the area where you typically lunge to keep you honest & keep nudging your hip mobility up. Set up a couple of bits of industrial tape at 50% of your standing height. At the extreme, elite baseball pitchers will power lunge to 75% of their standing height!

-          Weight is evenly distributed between front and back foot: This isn’t a single leg squat. Keep even weight on front and back foot.

-          Body is upright: If you nail the above 2 points, this will take care of itself! This is facilitated in the clip with a front squat bar grip, which is ideal if you have the mobility for a good rack position.
-          Core is tight: Most important! We don’t want the extension to come from the lumbar spine. We want to keep it focused on the hips. In order to do this, the core must be consciously tight. The best way to train this is with a long dowel or broomstick. Place the broomstick behind your back and hold with 2 fists – one in your low back, the other behind your neck. Make sure the fists stay in contact and the stick stays in contact with your head, upper back & sacrum. This exercise should be the first step in any lunge progression (before weight is used) and should fundamentally determine lunge width.

The plain lunge when done properly will improve your functional sagittal plane hip mobility like no other movement.

2. Multiplanar lunge
While we’re at it, in line with the mobility theme, 2 key lunge variants can serve as great functional flexibility and stability exercises for sagittal plane dominant athletes. The lateral lunge and transverse lunge.
Lateral lunge: Take a big step to the side and slightly forward as you descend. In addition to adding some much needed frontal plane movement to the triathletes quiver, this is also a great flexibility exercise for your adducters!  Again with a link from with the dumbbell held in a goblet position.

Transverse lunge: Think ‘the matrix’ – push off and form a T position with your feet to force the hips into external rotation. Again, a great flexibility exercise for athletes who very much need it AND a great stability exercise for those key transverse plane stabilizers when you attempt to get back up to the starting position! Pattern shown here with rear foot on box to add to mobility requirements & Olympic bar (prob not ideal for anything but an athlete with superior core strength due to rotational forces through spine) …

3. Overhead lunge/get up.
Going back to the theme of the last article, any exercise done with a weight held over your head becomes a better exercise! Of course, this presupposes that you have the shoulder mobility and stability to do it with good form. In the case of the lunge, there is no better all around core stabilization exercise than doing it with the weight overhead.
While most are aware of the general concept of ‘core stability’, less are familiar with the natural ‘slings’ of the body. These ‘slings’ expand the concept of stability away from the core and out to the far ends of the kinetic chain. For example, an effective freestyle stroke is dependent on more than simply locking the lumbo-pelvic region down. Force must be transferred from the fingertips through the forearms, lats, through the SI joint and diagonally through the glutes and hamstrings of the contralateral (kicking) leg. This diagonal stability pattern is key to many movements including the stance phase in running. There is no better way to train this stability than to hold a weight overhead while doing a single leg movement with the opposite side of the body.
Once you have mastered the overhead lunge, take it to the next level – the Turkish Get Up!
The Turkish Get Up incorporates a sit up, bridge, side plank and lunge all with the weight held overhead – talk about the ultimate core/stability exercise!

The 2 exercises above can serve as a great general warm up routine to a heavier lunge workout
-          Multiplanar lunge with no or very light weight (e.g. medicine ball) for mobility

-          Overhead lunge or get up with moderate weight for core/hip stability

-          Heavier barbell lunges.
4. Split jerk
The split jerk is the power cousin of the lunge & is one of the possible ways to jerk the weight overhead in a clean and jerk Olympic lift.
The split jerk represents a rapid level change from the ‘rack’ position of a front squat (with the weight resting on the upper chest) and so (providing the athlete has the mobility and stability for both a good rack and overhead position) is a great exercise to develop leg power & foot speed.
In the movement, the bar essentially holds position while the athlete rapidly splits the legs apart into a lunge position and drops under the bar with straight arms. After doing so, with the weight held overhead, the athlete performs 2 half lunges (one foot forward, one foot back) to step to a standing position. This movement takes the stability demands of the overhead lunge up a notch as the weight lifted can be substantially heavier..
The split jerk also adds 2 power moves to the lunge…
1.       The hip drive to give the bar some elevation before the split.
2.       The rapid split – similar to a plyo lunge adds significantly more eccentric demand to the movement & gives it a plyometric benefit.
A great slow mo example is shown below (Note: You don’t have to use that much weight J)

This combination of a rapid jump to a wide lunge position coupled with stepping back up to a standing position with a heavy weight overhead makes the split jerk a great mobility/stability/power combo. Lots of bang for your buck in this one lift!

Olympic lifts can be intimidating. Some great drills to work into the split jerk are:

1.        Kettlebell swing – helps to learn the feel of a correct hip drive to initiate the split

2.       Plyo lunge – i.e. jumping from R leg forward to L leg forward – obviously a quick plyo lunge is a key move in the split jerk. Can be progressed to plyo lunge with light weight overhead.

3.       The overhead lunge & half lunge

4.    Kettlebell split jerk (esp. if the athlete lacks the flexibility for a good 'rack' position)

5.    A power rack split jerk – starts at chest height, rapid split under the bar then take the weight of the bar & stand with bar overhead.
We've covered lots of ground covered in this article and lots of exercises that all spring from that one common ‘big bang’ exercise of the lunge. So how do we put this all together?
I’d suggest sequencing the exercises (across all scales) in the same order as I presented them above, i.e.
-          Mobility & core stability first (long lunges focusing on core control with no or light weight)

-          Stability of the extremities second, i.e. linking the arms & legs to the core – front lunge, overhead lunge and ‘Get Up’ or lunges on unstable surfaces (bosu, disc etc)

-          Strength (plain Barbell lunge)

-          Power (split jerk)
This progression can & should be applied on all scales, i.e.

- Start a session by doing some mobility & stability work as a warm up

- Start a season with a focus on improving mobility, stability & basic technique

- Start your long term athletic development by setting the scene with appropriate mobility and stability to do the key movements with perfect form.

These lunge variants will keep you busy this winter while also dramatically improving your hip mobility and power turning you into a new runner once it’s time to hit the roads.

Train Smart,


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