The Walking Lunge: Origins
There are lots of lunging variations: reverse lunges, forward lunges in place, standing lunges (split squats), jumping lunges, etc.
So why walking lunges?
It’s simple: Competitive sports are governed by sets of rules. In the Sport of Fitness, that means movement standards. Squat with your hip crease below your knee. Full extension of the hip at the top. It’s a “yes” or a “no.”
The simplest way to standardize a lunge is the knee touches the ground. So why not just make people touch a knee and then stand back up? Well, there’s a lot of ways to cheat that they really take the essence of the movement away.
The easiest way to ensure people get a full range of motion through a quality lunge pattern to require the walking variation. In other words, swing your leg through at full hip extension. Now, rather than trying to get the range of motion short to optimize for the Sport, athletes are encouraged to take longer steps, which is -admittingly- a ‘step’ in the right direction.
So now we know what we are optimizing for, let’s optimize.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for Walking Lunge variations you must master the movements specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
Hip Dissociation is a critical skill for having the freedom of position needed for economical walking lunges. Think of the ability of the hips to dissociate as the ability to create separation between the limbs. The most extreme version of hip disassociation is the front split.
In my experience, it is rare for athletes who have the mobility to do other functional movements proficiently (e.g. squatting) and lack the posterior range of motion needed through the hamstring and glute of the front leg.
Hip Flexors & Quads
It is much more common for the trailing leg to reveal issues with mobility. As you descend into the bottom of each walking lunge step, the hip of the trailing leg extends. Think of it as having one hip closed off (front) and one hip open (back). This extended, open hip position stretches the hip flexor / quad complex. This is a position that isn’t achieved nearly as much in “regular” training for the Sport of Fitness, and therefore it’s more of a challenging position for some athletes, especially those with a desk job.
Related Read: 5 Mobility Focal Points for Athletes with a Desk Job
Another thing to consider is how much closer the femurs are to the midline of your body throughout the walking lunge pattern versus a squat. This is a fundamental difference between a bilateral (2-sided) movement like a squat, and a unilateral (1-sided) movement like a lunge or split squat.
In a squat the weight is always evenly distributed (hopefully), so it is helpful to adopt a wider stance to maximize power output. In walking lunges, you are constantly picking up one leg (not unlike running). To make this happen, you must shift all your weight onto one foot. This pattern is most efficient when the feet stay close to the midline, like walking a tightrope.
Don’t believe me? Next time you go out for a jog, try running on the white line on the pavement, then try running where your left foot lands to the left of the line by a few inches and the right lands to the opposite side by a few inches. The first will be super efficiency and fluid, while the last will be awkward. It’s the same idea with the walking lunge.
The easiest way to work on this is doing more things that adduct your hips (aka. Take them towards the midline).
(or) Simply sitting with your legs crossed every once in a while. If that makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable, I suggest reading this article.
If you have the solid mobility (freedom + motor control) where you need it, then strength work for lunges isn’t super complicated.
Rarely (if ever) are walking lunges tested in the Sport of Fitness in a way that overloads the legs for strength.
Legs, mainly Glutes: The glutes are the main driver of the walking lunge if they are done properly. Sometimes inexperienced athletes or people with poor mobility cut their steps short and therefore reduce the demands of the glute and shift tension to the quads, but longer steps makes the distance go by quicker and is generally recommended without going overboard.
From the bottom of the rep (back knee on ground) the glute and hamstring of the front leg power the movement, with contribution with the quads of the trailing leg (knee extends) and quad again on the front leg near the top of the rep.
However, the glutes are the only muscle that really don’t get a break through the duration of the movement. This is compounded because they are taxed in a way that is relatively uncommon, with the legs being so close to the midline. Basically, the outside of the hip (adductors) including the glute med get hammered in lunges in a way they really don’t get exposed to in squats. This is the main reason why athletes get sore hips after lunges while they are pretty resilient through various squatting patterns.
Shoulders & Midline: Rarely are walking lunges tested the way they have been historically trained: a barbell in the back rack. There have been (to date) no qualifiers, like the Open, that have tested barbell back rack lunges.
So what is tested?
Barbell front rack, barbell overhead, dumbbell(s) overhead, dumbbell(s) front rack and kettlebells in the Front rack or overhead. In all of these variations, the muscular involvement of the core, upper back and shoulders is significantly higher. These variations will be covered one-by-one later on.
Therefore, creating better positioning, mechanics and longevity that translates to all variations of lunges means you have optimized your overall efficiency in the way they will be tested.
It’s no different than improving your front rack makes all the variations of clean and jerks more efficient: power cleans, front squats, shoulder-to-overhead, thrusters, etc.
My advice to athletes who compete in CrossFit, is to improve your Weightlifting positioning and strength spending most of your time on a barbell, yet don’t neglect to work dumbbell skills in intervals (e.g. EMOMs) and MetCons that work a variety of movement varieties, including walking lunges.
Lunges aren’t a super complex movement, when compared to -for example- a snatch, but since they are practiced and performed less frequently I have found that most athletes have quite a bit of room to clean up their technique.
Here are four main ways I see athletes losing efficiency in Walking Lunges: inconsistent lunge depth, unoptimized lunge length, inconsistent foot work and unpolished lunge variations.
The standard for walking lunges is simple. Touch your knee, then bring your feet together at full extension with no shuffling. For this reason, it’s super easy to overlook how consistent you are with your lunge depth. You either touched your knee or you didn’t, right?
That’s the idea with standards, it’s a yes or a no. But in terms of movement economy, things are rarely that black and white. For one, we’ve all seen athletes who lunge and are off balance and wobble side to side, which is clearly inefficient.
However, I’ve seen just as many athletes make one of two errors again and again.
One, their back knee fails to make ground contact, and they ascend out of the lunge a fraction of an inch too soon and waste a ton of time by getting no-repped.
Or two, they overcompensate and to make sure they are touching the floor, they end up slamming their knee into the ground each rep.
And often an athlete who makes the former mistake mid-competition, resorts to the latter in frustration.
Both mistakes prevent an athlete from having their best performance.
The goal is to carry the least amount of tension through the legs as needed throughout the majority of the movement and then to “catch” yourself just as your knee kisses the ground.
Consider the walking lunge to be as important (and similar) of a skill as doing Touch-N-Go barbell work. You need to have the right combination of tension, relaxation and precision.
Example Protocol; Lunge Depth
Every 30s x 12 Sets: 25ft bodyweight Walking Lunge, focusing on a precise rear-knee touch
Just like athletes screw up how deep their lunges are, they often are imprecise with the length of each lunge step as well. Novice athletes usually take short steps, resulting in both knees bending significantly past 90 degrees.
A good goal is a 90-90 lunge: both knees at 90 degrees.
Once you’ve held that technique for a period of time, then you can play around with lengthening your lunge length.
However, don’t get carried away. I’ve also seen plenty of intermediate athletes try to take super long lunges each step, which is also highly inefficient. Each athlete will have their “sweet spot,” which is probably somewhere near that 90-90 lunge.
An important aspect of Walking Lunges for athletes who compete in the Sport of Fitness to consider is that they are measured in relatively short increments, typically 25-foot lengths for Qualifiers. This is because logistically speaking, most gyms have a floor (and a tape measure) that is 25 feet long.
Any athlete who does an online qualifier should know exactly how many steps they need to take to complete a 25-foot section meeting the standard: start with toes behind the line, finish with heels over the line. For me (5’7” / 170cm), it’s exactly 8 -slightly elongated- steps.
For my smaller female athletes, it’s typically 9 steps. And for the big dogs, it’s sometimes cut to 7 steps.
If you find an odd number of steps is most comfortable and consistent for you, I would recommend starting a new length where you left off. That is with the opposite foot.
If you always initiate your lunge with the same leg (not alternating) that means over the course of 200’ of walking lunges, you do 8 extra lunges on your lead leg. It’s like when people only turn one direction for box jump overs and spin in circles…the stuff of nightmares!
One thing to keep in mind when playing around with the length of your steps: the heavier the weight is and the more tired you get, the shorter your steps will become.
So as you get tired, focus on maintaining your lunge length so you don’t get caught a few inches short of the line and get forced to do another lunge to meet the standard.
Lastly, for higher level athletes who are going to in-person events, like CrossFit Sanctioned events, the lengths are often much longer, which provides more freedoms in lunge length, but less opportunities for convenient breaks.
And lastly, it’s been popular to program a single straight shot of walking lunges across the competition floor at the end of events, either as the last element of a Chipper or as a Buy-Out. The event organizer (their Dave Castro equivalent) is usually hoping for a head-to-head “lunge to the finish.”
Example Protocol; Lunge Length
Every 30s x 12: 25ft bodyweight Walking Lunges, taking 8-steps per length. *work to minimize ‘reaching’ on last reps (and) overstepping by more than a few extra inches.
There are two footwork variations for walking lunges:
- Swing Step: Just as it sounds, you are going to swing your leg through as you step. You maintain balance on one foot at the top of the movement, not touching your other foot to the floor.
Since your step through without touching down, this is the faster variation. However, it requires more precise movement, which can be tough as fatigue rises.
- Wedding Walk: This is a cartoon-like version of walking down the wedding aisle. Step together, step apart, step together, step apart.
It’s relatively slow and methodical, yet offers quite a bit more stability than the swing step.
Often athletes will start with the swing step, and as breathing begins to scatter and stability wanes, they will revert to wedding walk to allow continued movement. Or if the weight is relatively heavy where the lunges slow to a grindy pace, this is the only suitable option.
Example Protocol; Fatigued Footwork Practice
2 Sets (Rest 1:1 b/w)
-50ft Dumbbell Front Rack Lunge (2 x 25′)
-50 Wall Balls
-150 Double Unders
-50 Wall Balls
-50ft Dumbbell Front Rack Lunge (2 x 25′)
*the first set of lunges use the ‘Swing Step’ technique
*the last set of lunges use the ‘Wedding Walk’ technique
Variations of Walking Lunges
In the strength requirements I mentioned that lunges are rarely programmed super heavy. However, moderately weighted lunge variations are frequently used as a tool to expose other weaknesses, such as midline stability. Workouts such as Wodapalooza 2019 event “Miami Heat” (start at 13:36) pre-fatigue the athlete’s legs and respiratory muscles and then require them to breath and brace under moderately heavy loads.
The “Midline March” (start at 35:00) from the 2014 CrossFit Games tested similar qualities.
This means the key to success for walking lunges is mastering each variation in the testing battery by subsequent exposures to that variant. You are much more likely to see several hundred feet at a shot with a set of dumbbells or a light barbell.
Here are the 6 variations I would recommend practicing:
#1: Barbell Overhead (Open 16.1)
The first thing I would pay attention to is your grip width. There isn’t a rule as to how wide to place your hands. There are really two things that will determine your grip width.
One, is your shoulder mobility overhead. If you have really tight shoulders you have no choice but to grab wide in a snatch grip. If you have good shoulder mobility, you have the ability to play with your position to see what feels best.
Two, is your wrist positions and grip fatigue. The wider your hold the bar the more pressure is put on your wrist and the tighter you will have to grasp the bar.
My recommendation is holding as narrow as you feel comfortable without feeling like you are fighting the tension in your shoulders to maintain bar centration.
#2: Barbell Front Rack (Granite Games 2017 OQ Event 1)
Focus on keeping your delt (ball of your shoulder) in front of the bar will minimize the amount of tension you need to carry in your arms. Also work to keep a relatively upright torso to reduce the strain on your back.
Surprisingly, this particular variation hasn’t shown up much in popular online qualifiers. The version I linked to above isn’t even a walking lunge, it’s a reverse lunge. But I think it’s a matter of if, not when, this variation will show up in a major event. And besides, practicing this variant will transfer well to other walking lunge variations and even weightlifting work.
#3: Dumbbell Overhead (Open 19.3)
As soon as a variation of a movement has been in the Open once, the likelihood that we’ll see it again goes up because of the odds of a repeat.
The single arm dumbbell overhead lunge varies from the barbell version in two ways:
One, holding a single object overhead necessitates that your arm is completely vertical. You don’t have the option for your upper arm to move away from your head (i.e. snatch grip) without massive inefficiencies.
Two, while you can’t use grip width to make up for shoulder flexion range, you can involve thoracic rotation. Turning your mid / upperback slightly can help bring the dumbbell back over the midline of the body and create efficient positions again.
#4: Dumbbell Front Rack (Open 17.2)
The biggest thing with this variations is figuring out how you plan on holding the dumbbells. The 2017 standard enforced that you had to have your hands on the handles. Therefore, you could let go of the handle and just rest the dumbbells on your shoulders. However, you could rest them on your shoulders like this (link to Lily Lunge DB) or prob them on ends like this (image of Rich) or created side-by-side.
Play around with which variations of the front rack best fits the demands of different types of workouts and your personal mobility and body type.
#5 Overhead-Front Rack Hybrid (2018 Regional Event 5)
One of the often overlooked aspects of this variation is how to efficiently get into the hybrid position. The quickest way is to simultaneously do a snatch with one hand while doing a clean with the other. However, you can also power clean both and then press one hand overhead. Either way, don’t overlook the setup.
Also, if you are allowed to let go of the handle (like at 2018 Regionals) then it’s almost impossible to switch hands without dumbing the dumbbells to the floor. If a workout has several 25ft section, you won’t want to use this method because you’ll constantly be picking the dumbbells back up.
Regardless, this is a demanding variation that requires a lot out of the upper back and shoulders.
Note: You may see / hear this variation called a Filly Carry, named after Marcus Filly, who popularized the hybrid overhead position.
#6: Double Overhead (2018 Games Finale)
Anytime you go overhead with two independent objects, things get really tough. That’s because both arms must be completely vertical (just like the single dumbbell), but you can cheat the movement with thoracic rotations (the shoulders have to stay square). In other words, the demands on shoulder mobility are intense.
The double overhead version can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.
Kettlebells tend to be the easier of the two because the weight is behind your hands. The heavier the kettlebells (and therefore the bigger the bell) the further the weight is behind your hands and -ironically- it is actually easier from a mobility standpoint.
Many athletes, myself included, have an easier time Overhead Squatting a heavy kettlebell than a moderate one.
For dumbbells, I really like resting the heads of the dumbbells together to create a ‘single’ object, which makes stability overhead easier.
That’s something I talk about here.
Example Protocol; Refining Variations
Obviously, you can practice each variation in isolation, whether in unfatigued skill practice or in MetCons. However, when preparing for a competition with unknown events, it may be helpful to knock the dust off several variations within a single session.
Every 3 Minutes x 4 Sets
-9 Deadlift 275/195lbs
-12 Strict Handstand Push-Ups
-2x25ft Walking Lunge Variation
*Set 1 = Double Dumbbell Front Rack 50/35lbs per Hand
*Set 2 = Single Arm Overhead 50/35lbs per Hand (switch hands at 25′)
*Set 3 = Barbell Front Rack 95/65lbs
*Set 4 = Barbell Overhead 95/65lbs
TLDR | Here’s the Summary
Mobility Requirements: Hip Disassociation, Hip Flexor / Quad Complex, Hip Adduction
Strength Requirements: The glutes get harnessed in a way that is uncommon most squatting and hinging exercises, so they are often a weak link and less volume tolerant.
- Lunge Depth: Have the knee of the rear-leg just kiss the ground
- Lunge Length: Know (and minimize) how many steps it takes you to complete a 25ft length
- Foot Work: Step Through (or) Wedding Walk, based on weight and fatigue
- Variations: practice with different variations (front rack, overhead) and implements [BB, DB(s), KB(s)]
Overhead Squat Mobility
The Overhead Squat is a notorious movement because of it’s extreme mobility demands.
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