Although a seemingly simple and effective full-body move, the lunge is often difficult to perfect—especially if your knees are sensitive or recovering from injury. It’s really all about form. As personal trainer Dani Singer explains, most people either place their knees in vulnerable weight-bearing positions, move too fast, or up the intensity before they’re ready. Other parts of your body contribute to this misalignment. For example, weak hips or quads may force you to place more stress on your legs. The good news is that there are ways to improve lunge form and make the move more comfortable for your knees. Try these lunge modifications for bad knees in your next strength training session.
Go one-fourth of the way down.
You may start out feeling strong in your lunge form. However, according to Singer, the closer you inch toward the ground, the more likely you are to lose your posture, which may force unnecessary pressure on your knees. To alleviate this try going only one-fourth of the way down, working within a pain-free range. From there, you can gradually test your boundaries as you build strength and can move deeper into your lunge.
Try VMO dips.
Lunge problems can occur in part because of weak knees. One muscle above the knee—called the vastus medialis oblique, or VMO—often needs to build its strength before you can properly perform lunges. Personal trainer Jill McKay suggests incorporating VMO dips into your routine to prepare you for more intense workouts.
To try it out, stand on an elevated surface such as a box or step with one foot hanging off the side. Bend the knee on the surface and—as long as you’re not in pain—begin to dip slightly up and down. Hold a nearby wall if you need balance support. Repeat this for three sets, with ten to 12 reps on each leg.
Shorten the stride length of the lunge.
The range of you lunge may be aggravating your knee. Personal trainer Rocky Snyder says beginners or those with injured knees should start with a shorter stride length and build up distance. “Begin with small steps to allow the joints and muscles to be introduced to the movement. Over time the stride length can grow to increase physical demand,” he says.
Use a small wedge for the pad of your big toe to land upon.
Stand up with your feet slightly separated and look at your heels. Does one lean in a bit more than the other? This is called overpronation, and Snyder says it’s a common condition. When this happens, the arch of your foot doesn’t maintain its proper shape. Your big toe hits the ground faster than it should when you step. This is bad news for your knees, especially in terms of form and alignment. Snyder says you can protect yourself when doing lunges by placing a small wedge (or a small, folded workout towel) on the floor to cushion the inside portion of your forefoot on the landing. “It will allow certain muscles to wake up sooner to slow the knee’s movement from going where it shouldn’t,” he says.
Keep your weight on the front leg.
One way exercisers miss the mark on their lunge form is where they position their weight. If you’re leaning forward or backward too much, you’re putting unnecessary added emphasis on one side or the other instead of keeping yourself balanced. Singer says the best way to think about proper lunge form is to imagine it as a single-leg squat. “You’re squatting on the front leg while keeping your back toes on the ground for balance. Keep all your weight on your front leg, and bend your hip and knee,” she explains. When you do this, you save your back knee a lot of heartache.
Switch to reverse lunges.
Reverse lunges are Singer’s go-to for clients that struggle with form. Going backward instead of forward allows you to focus on your biomechanics and understand where you’re applying more pressure. As Singer explains, it can actually be simpler to hold your stance and tune in to your body. “Simply keep all your weight on your front leg. Instead of stepping forward, gently reach your opposite toes back behind you. Rest the back toes lightly for support while squatting on your front leg,” she instructs.
Do high-knee walks.
If you’re still recovering from a serious health concern, you may not be able to do lunges at all. In this case, you can switch them out for something that is less intense on your knees but gives you similar benefits. Exercise physiologist Jerry Snider suggests swapping out lunges for a high-knee walk. To do this, walk ten, 20, or 30 yards, bringing your knee up to a full 90-degree angle before placing your foot on the ground. “With this, you still get the range of motion workout in the hip and knee without the pressure on the knee joint,” he explains.
If you’re still experiencing knee pain as you lunge, talk to your doctor or trainer. It’s important to check with a trusted professional who can provide feedback and guidance for your specific joints, muscles, and bones to ensure your safety and health.