By Marilynn Preston
If I were stranded on a desert island, what’s the one exercise I’d do every day before fishing for dinner?
So glad you asked. It’s the lunge. It builds and shapes the lower body like nothing else, and who doesn’t want stronger legs and a tighter butt?
If you do it correctly, it is safe and effective. >Do it incorrectly, quickly, ignoring alignment, and your knees may suffer. That’s true for all exercise, by the way. It’s why at least 50 percent of all sports injuries are preventable.
There are many variations of the lunge — arms raised overhead, lunges with weights, eyes closed lunging – but I suggest you start with this one and build from there once you develop balance, stamina and confidence. >Throughout this entire sequence you should be listening to the sound of your breath, inhaling and exhaling through your nose, if possible:
Step 1: Stand And Extend. Stand in a relaxed, erect posture, your feet shoulder-width apart.
On the exhale, step your right foot forward a few feet. Adjust the distance so the soles of your forward foot and back foot are flat on the ground.
Next, bend your front knee so it is aligned with your front foot, but don’t let your knee extend beyond your toes. That’s very important.
Your back leg is your anchor. Roll up onto your toes on that leg, and keep it steady and strong.
Balance and breathe, front and back. Squeeze both inner thighs and feel energy surging through your legs, up your spine, right into your heart center, aiming as high as the crown of your head.
Enjoy this pose. Settle into it and take a few slow deliberate breaths. Do it with the kind of strength that comes from relaxation, not struggle.
Step 2: Hands to the Ground. On an exhale, slowly bring both hands to the ground in front of you, on either side of your forward foot.
Again, watch your alignment, and make sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes. If you can’t comfortably reach the ground with your palms or fingertips, use yoga blocks or books on either side.
Step 3: Expand Across Your Chest. Once you feel stable — back leg energized, front knee bent at a 90-degree angle, balancing lightly on both hands — gently lift your chest and feel your heart open to the sky, even just a fraction.
That will help stretch the front of your body, across your sternum. To enhance the stretch, create a visualization. I like to imagine a kite opening to the wind.
Step 4: Inflate Across Your Back. Keep your chest lifted and your heart open, and focus on your shoulder blades (clue: you’ll find them on your back). >
Create space between your shoulder blades, stretching broadly across your upper back.
To expand across your lower back, form a mental picture of where your kidneys are – one anatomical drawing is worth a thousand words – and exhale into them, right and left, blowing them up as though you were inflating balloons.
Step 6: Straighten Your Bent Knee. Now for the real fun. Exhale, and in one motion, gently straighten your front leg and bring your hands up so they can rest on your hips.
Keep your balance, and maintain your breath. If you wobble or fall out of the lunge, so be it. Laugh it off, and start over. >
Once you’re stable, lift and expand your chest and open your heart once again as you feel the action in your legs and torso, front and back. Your hips should be balanced — not tilted right or left — and facing forward, like two headlamps on a car.
To help your balance, focus lightly on one specific point at eye level. Smiling helps, too. Listen to the sound of your breath to keep your mind from straying.
Step 8: Return and Repeat. After three to five breaths, slowly return to the starting posture.
Don’t hurry. Move slowly and mindfully. Coming out of a lunge is just as important as going into it.
Repeat this entire bend-and-straighten sequence several times before switching to the other leg.
The details of how-to-lunge apply to all your exercises. Be conscious, don’t judge, listen to your breath, and follow the flow of your energy. You’ll never be bored.
Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country.