Ask almost any trainer and she'll agree: Squats and lunges are two of the most essential moves for a fit and healthy body. Why? They activate so many muscles in your lower body at the same time.
What's more, they're considered "functional moves," meaning they help out with zillions of maneuvers you perform in your daily life, so making them a regular part of your routine helps keep your body injury-free as you age. An added bonus: You'll strengthen your hip muscles, which can improve your balance and help put less stress on your knees year after year, says fitness pro Brynn Putnam, founder of Refine Method in New York. (She's the one demo-ing the moves below.)
Keep in mind that form is everything. Putnam is a stickler about these moves: "The proper alignment can increase the benefits and prevent potential injury. It's the small refinements, like shifting your weight slightly forward or backward, that determine which muscles you work" — and how toned you get.
Since squats and lunges fire up all the power muscles in your lower body, doing both in a workout can be tough. So switch things up! Do the basic squat or the basic lunge and aim for 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Once you master those, challenge yourself: Three or four days a week, pick a squat variation or lunge variation, and add it to your existing workout.
The Right Way to Squat
- Start in a stance slightly wider than your hips, with your feet pointing forward or slightly out (whichever's more comfortable).
- Squeeze your abs tight while maintaining a neutral spine — don't let it over-arch or round. Then hinge at the hips to send your hips back. Keep knees pointing forward, over the centers of your feet.
- As you lower down into a squat, continue to keep your abs tight and spine neutral. Once your back arches or rounds, "you've surpassed your 'low point' — that's as deep as you can squat while maintaining proper form," says Putnam. Hold for a count, then drive your hips forward to straighten your legs and return to a standing position.
The Wrong Way to Squat
- Don't round your back — keep your chest in an upright position.
- Don't over-arch your lower back or stick your butt out. (Maintain the natural curve of your lower back, but try not to increase that curve or arch.)
- Don't let your knees cave inward. Keep them pointing forward, over your toes.
Ready to challenge your body? Start including these variations.
A. Stand with feet under hips. Then shift weight onto right leg with left toes resting on the ground for balance, but keep your left heel up.
B. As you lower into the squat, reach arms forward, keeping most of your weight on right leg, left heel still up. Drive through right hip to stand. That's 1 rep. Switch sides. Work up to 20 reps.
A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hips, and lower into a "half squat" (that's about half the distance down, not sitting all the way back) while letting arms swing back.
B. In one fluid motion, swing arms forward and jump off the ground. Land in a half squat and hold for a count. Stand up and repeat. Do 2 to 3 sets of 5 jumps.
The Right Way to Lunge
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, abs pulled in, and spine neutral. Raise your arms in front of your chest or keep them at your sides.
- Step your left foot back and bend both knees; keep left heel lifted while lowering your hips down. You've gone too far if you feel your lower back arch, pelvis rotate forward, or front knee point inward.
- Drive through your front foot and use your right hip to pull yourself to standing, placing your left foot next to your right foot while keeping your torso tall.
"Instead of pushing off your back leg to return to the start position, focus more on your front leg," says Putnam. "Those are the muscles you're activating the most when you do a lunge." Your back leg should function as a support.
The Wrong Way to Do a Lunge
- Don't pop your butt out, and avoid over-arching your lower back. Check your technique by placing one hand on the small of your back as you lunge. If you start to feel your spine curve unnaturally, fix your form (even if that means you can't lunge quite as low).
- Don't let your knee collapse inward. Make sure it's pointing forward over toes to protect the knee joint.
As with squats, switching up your lunges = a bigger boost for your body. Two to try:
Reverse Lunge Touchdown
A. Stand with feet under hips, abs contracted, and spine neutral.
B. Step right foot back into a lunge. As you lower down, hinge forward at the hips, reaching both arms toward the floor. Push through your left foot and use the strength of your left leg to return to standing. Do 10 reps. Switch legs and do 10 more reps.
A. Stand holding a dumbbell (or water bottle) in each hand, arms by sides.
B. With your left foot, take a big step toward the left and push hips backward by bending left knee, keeping right leg straight. Hold for a count; push off left foot to return to start. That's 1 rep. Repeat on right side. Alternate sides for 20 reps.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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