Lunges are a well-known exercise in the world of fitness, and many folks use it primarily to strengthen their quads and glutes.
Plus, thanks to the fact that lunges are a unilateral exercise, it’s also incredibly beneficial for preventing side-to-side muscle imbalances.
But, how good is the lunge at training our hamstrings?
Today, we’ll answer that particular question.
SO, Do Lunges Work Our Hamstrings?
Yes, lunges do work the hamstrings. While you’re mostly going to feel your quads and glutes burning during a lunge, your hamstrings also work quietly to assist the other muscles.
Lunges don’t have the best reputation, and it mostly has to do with the fact that there are two big camps of people who do the exercise:
- Those who hold a pair of pink dumbbells while doing it;
- Those who hold a pair of heavy dumbbells but perform the exercise with horrid technique;
The sweet spot, as it turns out, is somewhere in the middle. When done with moderately-heavy weights, the lunge is an incredibly useful exercise that trains our quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
To perform the lunge effectively, you should take relatively long strikes, not just stepping forward a bit. Then, once your foot is firmly planted ahead, don’t just step back – push through your heel and explosively return to the starting position.
What Functions Do The Hamstrings Have?
The hamstring muscle consists of three heads that originate at the bottom of the pelvis, run along the back and sides of the femur (upper thigh bone), and insert at the top of the tibia and fibula bones, just below the knee (1).
In most cases, we focus on how the hamstrings work in an open-chain exercise – where the feet are not in full contact with the floor – and work on creating knee flexion. Such, for example, is the machine hamstring curl.
Exercises like the ham curl are good, but they mostly serve to improve the visual appearance of the hamstring. In other words, such exercises don’t teach the hamstrings to work in conjunction with the muscles that surround them. This means that our hamstrings don’t work as effectively during activities like running, sprinting, and jumping.
Now, because the hamstring connects the pelvis to the thigh and lower leg, we need to work on developing it in a more balanced manner. If we solely focus on the hamstring’s concentric (shortening) function, we are not developing them fully, and we may increase the risk of injuring these muscles later on (2).
Even though the hamstrings are often called knee flexors, they are most active when the knee is fully extended. During the lunge (a closed chain kinetic exercise), this is right as the front foot pushes against the floor to bring us back to the starting position.
According to some biomechanical analysis, the quadriceps and hamstrings co-contract during a maximum lunge in the front leg when it is in the flexed position (3).
Suggestion: After this article, you might want to read another article on Pump Some Iron: “Quad Exercises for Mass” Click this link to check it out.
Eccentric and Concentric Loading
While performing a lunge, both legs contract, but in different ways.
The eccentric contraction occurs as the muscle lengthens under load. The concentric contraction occurs as the muscle shortens under a load (4).
During a lunge, the back leg is going through an eccentric contraction, and the front leg is going through a concentric contraction.
Now, the primary function of our hamstring muscles is to store elastic energy so it can then help generate force. As we begin the second portion of the lunge – to push ourselves back to the starting position – the hamstring of the back leg has stored some elastic energy that it then uses to help us get back.
There is one study worth looking at before we wrap up this post (5). In it, subjects had to do forward lunges on their dominant leg to failure.
Researchers measured EMG activation on several muscles – the vastus lateralis (the largest head of the quadriceps), vastus medialis (the ‘teardrop’ head of the quadriceps), biceps femoris (the long head of which makes up part of the hamstrings), and semitendinosus (a muscle in the hamstrings).
- Results demonstrated a significant increase in activation of the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and biceps femoris during performance of the forward lunge to volitional failure.
- These findings suggest that activation of the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and biceps femoris muscles occurs as a unit during performance of the forward lunge during both concentric and eccentric lunge phases.
In other words, both the hamstring and quad co-contract during a lunge.
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