If you’re in the market to strengthen and sculpt your lower body, while also functionally preparing to tackle the activities of everyday life—like walking and climbing up stairs— with greater ease, the lunge should be an essential part of your workout routine. This no-equipment required move can be performed in a number of different ways, including moving forward or backwards. And, while stepping in one direction or the other might not seem to make that much of a difference, the truth is there’s more than meets the eye. Top personal trainers weigh in to break down the advantages and disadvantages of different types of lunges so you can determine which option may best suit your current fitness needs.
The Forward Lunge Lowdown
This tried-and-true move has long been a workout staple and for good reason. A research study by the American Council on Exercise found the forward lunge to be one of the most effective exercises for eliciting a high level of muscle activity in the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and hamstrings—significantly more than other common lower-body exercises like the body-weight squat. In addition to being highly effective the forward lunge is also quite functional, as this movement closely mimics our walking pattern. Because our brains are accustomed to putting one foot in front of the other, the forward lunge helps to reinforce the gait pattern in a way that challenges balance and the muscles of the lower extremities, explains Sabrena Merrill, exercise scientist and ACE Master Trainer based out of Kansas City, Mo.
This added challenge, however, can have implications for the knee joint. Jonathan Ross, award-winning ACE-certified Personal Trainer and author of Abs Revealed, shares that this version of the movement can be thought of as an acceleration lunge, because the body is moving forward and then backward. This results in a greater challenge, because the body is being propelled forward through space and returning from the bottom of the movement requires enough force to successfully return the body to the starting position. “The increase in challenge can make this lunge a problem for people with any knee pathology, because a higher amount of force and/or more range of motion is required to perform it properly.”
The Reverse Lunge Lowdown
This twist on the lunge offers the body an opportunity to move in a direction that most of us rarely go. While stepping backwards can offer a new challenge because it is not a normal repetitive movement most of us use, Merrill shares however that it can provide slightly less challenge to balance. This is because the center of gravity always remains between the two feet. “For the forward lunge, the center of gravity moves forward of the body during the forward stepping motion, so the reverse lunge may be an option for people who have problems with balance.” Part of the ease in performing this movement compared to the forward lunge is that the body is moving up and down and not through space, adds Ross. This makes it more of a deceleration lunge because you are moving up and down as one leg steps backward out of the way. “The strictly vertical nature of the movement requires less force than a forward lunge, which allows for an opportunity to train the muscles of the stance leg with less stress on the joints.” International fitness educator and Senior Manager of Training and Development for TRX Dan McDonogh adds that this variation on the lunge can be a suitable option for individuals with knee issues, as well as for those lacking hip mobility.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the lunge—however you choose to perform it—should be a staple in your workout routine because of its emphasis on hip mobility and the translation to movement patterns in everyday life. In addition to providing great strengthening benefits for the muscles of the lower body, both the forward and reverse lunge require a significant amount of core control and engagement. “Both types of lunges, when performed correctly, require one hip to flex and the other to extend, while also controlling the pelvis through proper core activation,” says Merrill. “The hip abdominal and lower-back muscles must work in a synchronized fashion to control the tilting of the pelvis.”
Give This Lunge a Try
For a greater focus on technique and comfort when performing the lunge, Ross recommends adding the bottom-up lunge to your exercise arsenal. This movement allows you to learn proper movement first without the need to pick up and put down a foot during the movement, as required by both the forward and reverse lunge. To perform this static movement, begin with the right foot forward and left foot back, with the left knee resting on a balance pad or BOSU® Balance Trainer directly under the left hip. Keep the spine straight as you create the upward movement by pushing the right foot into the ground and straightening the right leg using the hamstrings and inner-thigh muscles. Reverse the movement by slowly lowering the left knee back down to the pad or BOSU® with control, using the muscles of the right leg. Alternate legs.