Using The Lunge As An Assessment
If you've been around training gyms, box gyms, or sport performance facilities in the last decade, you've probably seen something being conducted (or have gone through yourself) called the Functional Movement Screen. The FMS is a series of screening tools which gives coaches and clinicians an insight into how people move and where issues might occur. Personally, I don't use it, but there's one concept of it which I have toyed around with which I've since expanded upon: the lunge.
Sometime in the last year, I was introduced to a coach named James Thayer from Pre-Script, who works as an instructor teaching in their applied biomechanics course. While I haven't personally taken the course, I've watched, listened, and learned as much as possible through the different avenues available in order to apply some things which have had benefits to my athletes. One of which, is Thayer's thought on the Gait Cycle Continuum.
If you look at the human body, most of our movement comes out of some deviation from the gait cycle, or the standard pattern by which we walk. Especially when we look at the lower body, assessing one's current ability can be fairly well established through a progression of lower body movements which mimic human gait. I stole most of this from James Thayer, and different variations of this have helped me tremendously in starting off new athletes. The following is merely our progression of Lunges which we use during an individual's initial assessment, and then how we progress it over time.
This is technically the original FMS lunge, though we don't use a dowel rod or set stance widths. I ask each individual to perform a split squat (after demonstrating) to see what their natural default movement goes to. In this, we look for what rotations are happening at the hip, what the feet are doing, and relatively stability or balance through the movement. If an individual can perform several reps with balance and strength, essentially making the movement look easy, we take it up to the next step.
The Walking Lunge
We then make the Split squat more dynamic by having the individual move. This gives us greater insight into how they control the gait cycle and the rotational movements at the hip through walking patterns. It also requires a bit more strength and coordination, so the Walking Lunge simply allows us to level up the movement. If a regular walking lunge is fairly easy, we'll add the sprinter pose into each step, effectively making it a Walking Lunge with a Knee Recovery. If an individual can maintain balance or stability throughout this movement, we then add another layer.
Super Lunge Series #1
This was one of the first things within the Gait Cycle Continuum I was introduced to, and usually ends up being the stopping point for most beginners or younger athletes. Essentially, we start the Lunge in a Sprinter Pose, extend backwards into a Single Leg RDL, return to Sprinter Pose, then take a step into the Walking Lunge. This allows us to see a few key things. First, how much control an individual has over hip rotation when in deep hip flexion, and how stable they can be in this position. Second, it allows us to see coordination of movements into a smooth movement moving from each additional component. Third, it allows us to see what happens when we eccentrically load the hip into extension, and how the hip rotations are controlled or expressed there. If an individual displays stability and balance, and strength, as they move through this exercise, we may add one additional component into the mix, though most often this is our stopping point.
When we look at this progression, and what information we actually get from it, there's a few commo patterns you'll see from individuals which allows us to identify a better starting point.
Big Toe Flexibility: It seems odd, but a lot of movement starts at the foot. The more Range of Motion and control one has over their Big Toe, the more able they're able to control the rotation at the hip. It is fairly common to see someone with a lack of Big Toe Dorsiflexion internally or externally rotate at the hip in order to "dump off to the side" of the foot away from the Big Toe (personal anecdote, I see more females internally rotate and males externally rotate as a general rule of thumb, but this may just be based on the population I specifically work with).
Hip Internal and External Rotation: Sometimes individuals have perfectly fine feet, but they lack the ability to rotate at the hip in one or either direction. Often times, you'll see them cut their stances a bit narrower and limit the full extension of their hip. If progressing up to the full Lunge Series, then this may also happen by limiting the Range of Motion during the Single Leg RDL.
Strength: As individuals move through this Gait Cycle Continuum, they will display baseline levels of strength. If someone has to use their hands to come out of a Split Squat, we know they likely don't have ability to control the impact and strength demand of the Walking Lunge (since the Split Squat utilizes both legs more naturally). If they can do a Split Squat but need assistance on a Walking Lunge, we know they will not likely be able to control or express the complexities of the Knee Recovery or the Super Lunge Series.
Now, you may be reading this or trying this as you read it, and think, "I can't get past stage one." This is fine! The whole purpose of this is to assess current ability in order to better prescribe training to meet the needs and demands of your life. Maybe you read this and thought, "This is too easy!" Well, I have another 12 variations of the Lunge Series you can feel free to knock yourself out on (found here). The big key is the ability to identify a current level of strength and stability in the lower body, then utilize this information in order to solidify the training pathway to meet individual goals.