WHAT IT IS: You hold weights at your sides or across your shoulders (or do it without weights), take a long step forward, and descend until your rear knee nearly touches the ground. Then you push off with your front leg and step back to the starting position.
An alternative is the "split squat," in which you start the exercise with one leg already out in front, and then lower yourself and rise again without stepping out and back.
A third variation is the "step-up," in which you step forward and up onto a platform.
MUSCLES USED: This exercise uses the same muscles as the squat and deadlift, but in a crucially different way. On the front of your pelvis are muscles called "hip flexors," which lift your thighs up in front of your torso. (The opposite muscles are the "hip extensors," the gluteals and hamstrings, which straighten your torso when it's bent forward.)
Most people have tight hip flexors—a lifetime of sitting will do that—and in some they're so tight as to be locked up, practically. The tighter your hip flexors, the harder it is to jump, much less take those long steps forward or diagonally to get over a puddle or avoid a snoozing drunk on the sidewalk.
The lunge forces those muscles to stretch and then contract quickly. That makes it one of those exercises that's as much about increasing the suppleness and flexibility of your muscles as it is about keeping them strong.
REAL-LIFE USES: Almost all sports, excluding chess, feature lunges to the front or side. Imagine a baseball infielder who couldn't lunge to stop a grounder up the middle, or a beach volleyball player who couldn't lunge to dig an opponent's shot out of the sand.
The lunge also figures into those powerful strides a sprinter takes to get up to full speed, and the move a wrestler uses to take down an opponent, and the step you take before throwing a ball. And what is soccer but a series of lunges in every direction?
I understand you probably aren't playing any of these sports right now. But the lunge is still crucial to your everyday physical well-being. The shorter your strides, the less mobile and agile you become. And when mobility and agility go, you're just one slip or tumble away from the assisted-living community, where you sit back in that comfy chair to watch TV .. .
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