Written by Ben Prinsloo
Lunges, squats, fly’s and bench presses are paradoxical in their popularities. As fitness philosophies gain track over social media, “how much you squat” seems to have become equally as impressive as “how much you bench”. This development indicates a general progression from gym culture focused primarily on aesthetics and beach bodies, to a more holistic approach.
That being said, “how much you fly” and “how much you lunge” are not good ice breakers amongst the gym community. The reason for the small amount of airtime that these exercises receive is limited because they are underrated, and this post, therefore, serves to point out the benefits of certain exercises such as these, and some of the drawbacks of other more popular exercises.
To start with, it is imperative that it be acknowledged that I am not arguing that one exercise is better than the other. Arguably a squat, when done right, is one of the best exercises to do in the weight room, equally a bench press is great for building upper body strength (although not particularly conducive to building chest mass, as I will explain later). A squat’s benefit lies in the fact that it is a compound exercise targeting some of the biggest muscles in the body – primarily your quadriceps (quads), which is the muscle sitting on the front of your thigh, and your gluteus maximus (glutes), which is your buttocks, but also includes your calves, some hamstrings, lower back, and core.
When such a large amount of your body is put under pressure, your body goes into an anabolic state, which means that your entire body is put into a state of muscle-building, which is generally good news. However, the lunge should be seen as the cherry on top to a good squatting regimen. The classic style of a back squat primarily targets the outer head of the quads, the lunge, however, targets the inner head of the quads. Additionally, the lunge provides more focus on the hamstrings and glutes and importantly gives your legs a good stretch.
In an exaggerated world, if you did squats all day, and nothing else, the result would be a quad in the shape of a banana – a lot of mass on the outside, and a little mass on the inside, giving the look of a banana. The lunge, therefore, provides balance to the leg by targeting the less targeted muscles and increasing flexibility. You will find that if you start lunging regularly your legs will look better, you will squat heavier, and at a higher number of reps. It does not matter how you lunge – single legs, walking lunges, whatever you prefer. Lunges should be seen as the laces to your shoes – your shoes still work without laces, as do your squats without lunges, but shoes with laces, and squats with lunges, work a lot better.
The bench press is a critical lift. Rarely does anyone who lifts weight, not bench press, however, its popularity does not necessarily match its function. When bench pressing, your body does less work than it would dumbbell pressing, at the same weight and rep range. The reason for this is that in a bench press a barbell is incorporated, which means it stays much more stable, the result is that your focus is predominantly on simply holding the bar up, whereas with a dumbbell the focus is both to hold up the dumbbells as well as holding them in – so that they don’t fall to your sides. When lying down and trying to hold something up, above your torso, the muscles incorporated are your chest, shoulders, and triceps. The triceps get a good workout from this, as do the anterior deltoids (the front part of your shoulders).
When committing to the dumbbell effort, the chest takes on the primary role in ensuring that the dumbbells do not fall to the side. The result of this is that the chest takes on significantly more work than the triceps and shoulders, compared to the bench press, and your chest gains, in terms of growth and strength, will improve accordingly. Even if your focus is not to target your chest, but rather to improve general strength, isolating your chest in this manner will increase your pushing ability substantially, so it’s worth giving it a try.
Equally the fly gets neglected. Compared to the bench press it is not a particularly exciting exercise, which is probably why people neglect it, although, like the lunge to your legs, it can greatly improve your lift functionality and the growth of your chest. The reason is that the fly targets your chest in different ways to the press, and, importantly stretches your chest wider, so that you can make sure your bench gets as low as possible. Your inner chest will show the benefit, and your strength will increase.
A critical activity often neglected in the gym is stretching. Many young people in the gym dismiss it as an injury prevention process reserved for those that are older. However, this is not the case, while stretching is critical in preventing an injury occurring in the form of a pulled or torn muscle, it also improves your functionality. Better functionality means stronger lifts and better growth. The trick then is to stretch the muscles so that they do your exercises better – stretch your glutes and quads out to get a deeper squat or stretch your chest out to get a deeper bench press. These stretches are relatively easy to do, and you don’t need to do them longer than 20 seconds – the difference between doing them for 20 seconds and for anything longer has been found to be negligible.
As I said earlier, these exercises are not better than any other, necessarily, but combined with their counterparts, they can yield progressive results. If you are not doing these exercises you do not need to turn your life upside down, all you need to do is add them in. If you are precious about your bench max, then do your dumbbell press and flys after, alternatively do your dumbbell press first, and you’ll find the rate of growth in your bench max pleasing.
Similarly, with lunges, a few sets of walking lunges is a great way to warm up and get the blood into your legs, but if you really want to start with your squats, do your lunges afterwards. The stretches can be done properly at the end of your workout – stretching in a stationary position is best done when your muscles are already warm, so maybe stretch a bit before you do your squat, and then do a full stretch routine when you have finished. Hopefully, these neglected activities will gain more popularity in the fitness world.