The humble lunge is a staple of flexibility training designed to target the front of the hips. With lunges, small details in alignment and positioning can make a huge difference in outcome, and we can use that to our advantage.
Understanding how lunge alignment emphasizes different muscles in the hips can help you target the muscles that really need the stretch.
Get to Know the 6 Primary Hip Flexors
First, let’s define our terms. There are multiple hip flexors, but six of them do most of the work and are our primary focus when we talk about stretching. These are the psoas, iliacus, pectineus, tensor fasciae latae, sartorius, and rectus femoris. To learn more about each of these muscles, where they live and what they do, please check out this blog post on hip flexor anatomy.
Once you know where your muscles are and how they work it’s much easier to delve into the mysterious habits of your own hips.
Find Your Square Lunge
Before tinkering with our lunge position, let’s start by finding a lovely, square lunge. The hips are square when both hip bones and the pubic bone are on the same plane, so the hips are not twisting, one hip bone is not higher than the other, and the pubic bone is not behind the hip bones. Your back leg should be coming straight back behind you, and your front leg straight out in front.
You can read more about square hips and why they are important in this blog post on square splits. And this workout video has some great basic lunges so you can get the hang of it.
I’m compelled to remind you (and myself) that doing square lunges means that you will not go as deep into the stretch. They may feel awkward if you are used to letting the pelvis do its own thing. If you like to arch your back or if your hips aren’t used to supporting this position, a square lunge could feel more like a workout than a stretch. It’s ok. Keep doing it anyway, it will get easier over time. I promise it’s worth it.
This square lunge gives a pretty even stretch across the front of the pelvis, not targeting any specific hip flexor but not leaving anyone out. If you allow the pelvis to tilt or twist or the back to arch you will start to skip some of the hip flexors (usually the tightest ones that most need the stretch). For you naturally bendy people this is especially important to keep your pelvis healthy. After years of extravagant over-stretching, this is now my pelvic theme song: Hip to Be Square…
Emphasize the Satorius and Rectus Femoris
The satorius and rectus femoris are the two muscles that cross both the hip joint and the knee joint. That makes it very easy to emphasize them in your lunge: just bend your knee. You can either do this in the traditional couch stretch, with your shin up against the wall, or by just reaching back and grabbing your foot and bringing it in towards your butt.
I don’t teach this lunge variation in my beginner/intermediate videos because it can be so hard on the knees, but there is a more gentle version of this stretch in the Happy Hips workout.
However you do it, please put some nice padding under your knee and stop if you feel any knee pain. And of course, keep those hips square.
Emphasize the Tensor Fasciae Latae
The TFL attaches to the outside front of the hip, so in order to emphasize that muscle you will want to externally rotate your back leg. The tricky thing here is to rotate the thigh bone but keep the hip bones square. For most of us, that means that the amount of external rotation will be quite small, so if you look back and the back leg has barely moved off center, don’t worry.
The front leg can externally rotate a little bit too, if that helps with the balance.
The TFL can be targeted a little more by shifting the pelvis slightly off center in the direction of the back leg, and leaning away from the hip. That means if my left leg is back and I am stretching my left hip, I will slide my pelvis slightly to the left and lean slightly to the right. No twisting in the hips though, both hip bones pointed straight ahead like headlights on a foggy night.
For you visual learners please check out the video at the end of this post!
Emphasize the Psoas and Iliacus (Iliopsoas)
These deep hip flexors are often both tight and weak because most of us sit too much, and these muscles hate sitting. When they work well, they are our most powerful hip flexors and stabilizers, but when they are tight they can lead to a very cranky pelvis, back spasms, and tight hips.
This lunge is one of my favorites because the iliopsoas difficult to target but terribly important. If this lunge variation feels challenging… yay! You’ve found something that could be very useful for improving your hip health.
To emphasize the psoas you will internally rotate your back leg. The front leg still comes directly forward and the hips stay square. Just like with the TFL lunge, the hips slide out to the side in the directly of the back leg, and the body leans opposite. Again, check out the video below for a visual.
Keep in mind that if your iliopsoas muscles are very tight, it might be challenging to get them to stretch. If you don’t feel a stretch, don’t be discouraged. Keep playing with the position, building the strength in the supporting muscles, and working into the lunge over time. When I first started it, this lunge felt like a lot of work with no payoff but it’s made a massive difference in my hip functionality over time.
The Sets and Reps for Lunges
A lunge is a mixture between a passive static and an active stretch. I do a million different variations to get the results I want in a particular session.
Lunges with the knee on the floor tend to be more passive, and unless you have knee issues I recommend these if you are just starting out with square lunges and lunge variations. An emphasis on static passive stretching and isometric contraction of the supporting muscles can be a very effective way to start to shift hip alignment.
I recommend doing all 3 lunges, 3 sets of 30 seconds each (9 lunges total on each side). Over time you can vary the number of sets of each lunge variety according to what your body needs most. For example I only do 2 sets of quad/sartorius stretching but 4 sets of iliopsoas stretching because that’s where I am most tight.
Feel the support from the butt muscles and torso muscles, building strength and control. Alignment is more important than depth. You can build depth over time but it is very hard to fix alignment once you are deep.
Happy hips come from consistent investigations into pelvic alignment and imbalances. The better you know your hips, the better you can tailor your training to your body’s needs.
Happy Bendings everyone!