Hate lunges? Wish you had a stronger core and lower body? When writer Priyankaa Joshi set herself a 3-week lunge challenge, she doubted she’d see much of a difference. One month on, here’s how it changed her body and mindset for good.
If you’re looking for a way to build lower body strength quickly, you’ve probably tried the odd squat challenge already. Maybe you’ve tried wall sits, or tried squat holds. Runners might have tried things like calf raises and push-ups – both of which are great for building muscles you need for running injury-free.
But when I stumbled on a 21-day lunge challenge while scrolling through Instagram, I knew that I had to give it a go. Lunges are one of my favourite lower-body exercises, so I presumed this challenge would be a walk in the park.
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The benefits of doing daily lunges
Before anything else, however, I needed to find out whether there were any benefits to lunging every day. After all, some exercises are best done with big breaks in between to help muscles recover. But, it turns out, the experts believe that daily lunges can offer a load of real-world positives.
Increased leg and core strength
“Three weeks of consistently performing lunges should improve your lower body muscle mass and increase your leg and glute strength,” Jemma McKenzie-Brown, master trainer at Barry’s UK, tells Stylist.
Hollie Grant, founder of Pilates PT, agrees, explaining that, “lunges are a great way of strengthening the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps and they also stimulate other muscles such as the abdominals and obliques”.
Increased unilateral strength
“As they’re unilateral (they work one side at a time), they’re a really important part of our training and have transferable benefits to activities like cycling, climbing and running,” says Grant.
Better running capacity
As a runner, I’m particularly interested to see how this lunge challenge would impact my training. “The legs are the lever from which we propel forwards in our stride, so building strength here can only help us to be more efficient,” says running coach Lillie Bleasdale.
“Running is a series of fast, twitch-like contractions to get from one foot to another. Even at slow speeds, our muscles are contracting fast to try and stop movement from happening rather than actively producing movement,” adds Anthony Fletcher, founder of Onetrack Run Club.
“Slow movements that work through a large range of motion, such as lunges, are a great way of working at the opposite end of the spectrum, helping to reduce injury rates and keep the tendons healthy.”
With all this in mind, I was excited to get started. I didn’t just want to follow a random Instagram workout plan though, so I asked Carrie Baxter, fitness trainer at audio training app WithU, to put together a simple but effective three-week lunge programme to help me get the most out of the challenge.
What is the 21-day lunge challenge?
“The plan includes forward lunges to target your quads, reverse lunges for the hamstrings, and curtsy lunges for the glutes,” Baxter explained. “Day four should be your biggest weighted day, day five is significantly deloaded and day seven is a very important rest day.
“During week one, the focus should be on nailing your form and, as the weeks progress, you can make things more challenging by adding more load,” she explains.
“It’s important that you modify the challenge to suit your ability level,” emphasised Baxter.” If you’re a beginner, it’s fine to stick with bodyweight lunges, while those who are more advanced can go heavier and even add in some plyometric lunges as a finisher.”
Outside of the challenge, she suggests incorporating squats, glute bridges, step-ups, core work and running into my training to work on my lower body strength.
Week 1: lunging slowly and mindfully
I kick off the challenge by performing a series of hip mobility stretches. According to Baxter, doing this will help increase my range of motion and set me up for a more successful session.
Then, I get straight into the exercises. As per Baxter’s suggestion, I take it nice and slow, focusing on form rather than speed, as I’m guilty of rushing a lot of the time. I perform the moves in front of a mirror so I can check my technique and I’m surprised to see it’s not all that. I thought I was pretty good at lunges but I notice my alignment is a bit off, particularly when doing curtsy lunges. After completing the moves, I spend some more time in front of the mirror perfecting my form.
I continue to lunge slowly and mindfully the rest of the week, focusing on the mind-muscle connection, and I can really feel the difference. I cringe when I think back to my previous lunge form.
As the week comes to an end, I feel like I’ve already learnt a lot and I’m enjoying taking the time out of my day to challenge myself and perform the lunges. After all, they take less than 10 minutes in total and I love how strong and powerful my legs feel afterwards.
Week 2: trying lateral and jump lunges
As week two comes around, I’m fully in the swing of things. I’m happy with my technique so now I can focus on challenging my body. I decide to take things up a notch by performing the single-leg weighted lunges to failure, which is 14 on each leg on day one and by day four I manage 20. I feel quite chuffed with myself.
On days five and six, I’m feeling particularly energetic so I decide to do some lateral lunges and jumping lunges to finish off the session and wow, the burn is real.
By day seven, however, I’m ready for a break. I may have pushed myself too far as I start to notice some pain in my hip and knee while lunging. Baxter tells me this isn’t uncommon. “Soley training your lower body is intense, so make sure you listen to your body and give yourself sufficient time to rest and recover.”
As such, I take three days off before starting week three and I spend at least 15 minutes stretching and foam-rolling each day.
Week 3: increasing the weights and adding in squats
After a short break, I’m ready and raring to go again, although I do make sure to spend a good amount of time warming up and cooling down to prevent injury.
I decide to push myself and up my weights slightly as the challenge comes to an end. Even though my legs are screaming by the final set of lunges each day, I find I’m able to maintain good form, which feels great.
Outside of the challenge, I focus on lower body moves like squats and glute bridges in my training and I take the time to do a few core exercises after each session, as Baxter advised. On day three, I also manage to squeeze in a run, and I must admit, I feel pretty darn powerful as I propel myself forward.
On day six, after completing the lunge challenge, I head out for a 5k as I’m interested to see how fast I can go. Like a couple of days earlier, my legs feel strong as I make my way around my local park. Although I don’t achieve a PB, it’s the speediest I’ve run in a long time. I’d call that a success.
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The verdict: improved form and strength
This 21-day lunge challenge was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable fitness feat I’ve attempted. Unlike the others I’ve tried, I was excited to perform the moves each day and I actually felt a bit sad when it came to an end.
Fun factor aside, I learnt so much more than I expected. First and foremost, form is everything and quicker really isn’t better when it comes to lunges. I’m so pleased I’ve perfected my technique and I’ll be able to perform them more effectively going forward.
Have I seen any improvements to my lower body strength? Absolutely, yes. Of course, three weeks isn’t a huge amount of time but I’ve definitely made some gains in my hamstrings, quads and glutes, and I imagine this will only improve if I continue to incorporate lunges into my training. I’m also excited to keep pushing myself and slowly add more load to my lunges.
If you’re looking to build some lower body strength, work on your lunge form or you’re just on the hunt for a fun new fitness challenge, I can’t recommend this one enough.
How to do 3 of the most common lunges
Although relatively straightforward, lunges can be tricky to perfect because of the balance and coordination required to perform them correctly. So, I asked PT and Bulk ambassador Hayley Madigan to give me some pointers to make sure I was getting the technique right:
- Start by standing tall with your feet hip width apart, your core engaged and your chest proud.
- Look ahead of you and take a big step forward with your left leg.
- As you step out, lower your body until your knee has a 90-degree angle and is positioned directly over your ankle. Your left thigh should be parallel to the floor and your left shin should be vertical.
- Your right knee should also be bent at a 90-degree angle, pointing towards the floor with your heel lifted.
- Drive through your left heel pushing back up to your starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite leg.
Top tip: Make sure to keep your hips, spine and neck in a straight line to protect the lower back and lean forwards slightly with your chest to help keep your spine in line with the pelvis.
- Stand tall with your feet hip width apart, engage your core and keep your chest proud.
- Take a big step back with your left foot.
- As you step back, lower your body until your right knee is at a 90-degree angle and the thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping the knee positioned directly over the ankle.
- The left knee (back foot) should also be bent at 90 degrees and point towards the floor with your left heel lifted.
- Drive through your front leg (right heel) pushing back up to your starting position while bringing your left leg forward.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Top tip: Keep your chest up and look forward at all times to improve your balance.
- Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart, engage your core and keep your chest upright.
- Take a big step back with your right leg, crossing it behind your left.
- Bend both knees at 90 degrees and lower your hips until your left thigh is parallel to the floor.
- Keep your hips and shoulders as square as possible and push back up to starting position by driving through the left heel.
- Repeat on the opposite leg.
3 lunge variations to try
Madigan is also a fan of side lunges to target the gluteus medius and the quads from a different angle.
- With both feet facing forward, step out to the side as wide as possible with your right leg.
- Lunge down by bending the right knee, dropping the hips down and pushing through the heel, keep your left leg straight.
- Make sure your knee is tracking over the right foot then powerfully push back up with your right heel so you’re in a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Lunge to knee drive
“This is a great variation for runners who want more push and spring in their step but don’t want to do full plyometric lunges,” explains Grant.
- Start in lunge position with your right leg forward.
- Push into your right leg and drive your left leg up towards your chest while jumping off your right foot.
- Land back into the starting position with your right leg forward.
“If you’d like to add a little extra cardio burn, give jumping lunges a go,” suggests McKenzie-Brown. Be warned: this move isn’t one for beginners.
- Sink down into lunge position with your right foot back and your left foot forward, making sure your front knee is over the toe and your back knee is an inch from the floor.
- Jump up as high as you can, switching your leg position mid-air and landing softly on the other side.
- You can swing your arms high as you move to assist with the moment.
- Complete 20 reps in total.
Grant says this move is a great one to master for runners, climbers and cyclists as it involves a huge amount of power and drive.
For more fitness challenge ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
Images: author’s own
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