They’re actually not mirror images of the same move.Share via Pinterest
When you think of a lunge, you probably picture an exercise where you take a big step forward and bend at both knees to lower yourself down toward the ground. But you’ll find reverse lunges—where you step backward instead—in lots of workout programs and group fitness classes, too. At first glance, these two types of lunges seem similar enough. They’re essentially the same exercise, just done in opposite directions, right? The answer, turns out, is not so simple.
There are actually a few key differences in the biomechanics and benefits of each version of the classic lower-body move. Which direction, then, is better for your body? The answer, again, is not so simple. Here’s what you need to know and how to choose.
Let’s start with the similarities. First, the muscular benefits of forward and reverse lunges are essentially the same.
Lunges, in general, are a great single-leg strengthening move, Meaghan Shea, C.S.C.S., director of education at NYC-based Focus Personal Training Institute, tells SELF. That’s because they simultaneously work many major muscle groups in your lower half, including the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves, Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Fit Club NY, tells SELF.
Whether you’re doing forward lunges or reverse lunges, you’ll challenge these same lower-body muscles, Scantlebury says. The only time you might notice a difference in strength benefits is if you feel more comfortable loading your body in one particular direction, and therefore, work at a higher intensity moving in said direction, he adds.
Both forward and reverse lunges are great tools to help pinpoint—and fix—muscle imbalances.
Because both forward and reverse lunges are unilateral exercises, meaning they are performed with the strength of just one leg at a time (as compared to bilateral lower-body movements like squats and deadlifts), they are a great tool for identifying and correcting any muscle imbalances that you may have between your right and left side, Johnny Tea, C.S.C.S., founder of JT Strength Therapy, tells SELF.
For example, your right quad might be naturally stronger than your left quad, which is something you’ll likely notice if you do the same number of lunges on both legs and experience greater fatigue afterward on your left. Over time, these types of imbalances can lead to chronic pain and injury if they’re severe enough for you to notice—what happens is that certain muscles will overcompensate and work harder than they should to make up for an imbalance in another connected muscle. This increases the risk of injury in those muscles that work overtime, which is why it’s important to do exercises that can help identify any discrepancies. Lunges, whether forward or reverse, are a great way to do just that.
And once you notice an imbalance, continuing to do unilateral movements can help you correct it—you’ll challenge the weaker side to step up and do all the work without relying on the stronger side to help, which over time, will help you build more equal strength. (Here are a few more tipsfor properly using single-leg exercises to get rid of muscle imbalances.)
They also both require mobility in the hips and ankles.
Ankle mobility and hip mobility are two things that are essential to lunging and can affect the quality of any type of lunge, Doug Perkins, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, of North Boulder Physical Therapy in Colorado, tells SELF.
Certain people who are limited in their dorsiflexion, meaning they have difficulty flexing their foot up toward the shin, can get “stuck” at the ankle when lunging. When your ankle is tight and can’t bend the way it needs to during a lunge, your knee may overcompensate by flexing further, which increases the forces on the joints in the knee, explains Perkins. The same problem can happen with tight hips: Your knee and/or lower back may flex forward more and create additional compression in these areas if your hips aren’t able to hinge forward to the extent that is needed for proper lunging form (more specifics on form later).
For help with tight hips, try some of these great stretches that can help increase hip mobility. If you have tight ankles, some of these tips can help you fix that.
Now for the differences. Reverse lunges tend to be more beginner-friendly because they’re generally easier to control.
“We always teach backward lunges first,” says Scantlebury. The reason: The reverse lunge is performed with less momentum, so the movement is easier to control. Many people don’t have as much control going forward, and this lack of control can cause a loss of proprioception, your body’s ability to know where it is in space, says Scantlebury.
Here’s why: With forward lunges, the leg that is stepping forward is the main driver of force. For example, if you step forward with your right leg, you will be using your right glute, hamstring, quad, and other muscles in your right leg to decelerate yourself and then push yourself back to standing position.
In reverse lunges, the leg that is stationary on the ground is the main driver of force. If you step back with your left leg, you will be using your right glutes, hamstring, quad, and other muscles in your right leg to accelerate forward. The fact that the stationary leg is the powerhouse makes reverse lunges easier to control. This is why Scantlebury and Shea recommend lunge newbies start with reverse lunges.
And surprisingly, form seems to be more intuitive for people when they’re doing a reverse lunge, says Scantlebury. “You would think that the forward lunge would be more intuitive since it mimics more of the activities we do in everyday life [like bending down to tie your shoe],” he says. “But when you ask people to do a forward lunge, you see many common deviations, including the knee pushing too far forward over the toes and/or caving in.” Another common mistake that he sees with forward lunges is pressing all of the weight on the toes. This puts extra pressure on the knee joint, rather than distributing the force evenly through the foot and the leg muscles. These deviations often stem from problems controlling that forward momentum.
Reverse lunges, on the other hand, are a little more foolproof. Because the front leg is fixed to the ground the entire time, you have greater stability in your movements and are thus better able to control (and perfect) the form.
Forward lunges challenge your stability more—which means your core has to work harder.
With both forward and reverse lunges, you want to maintain center alignment and balance. “You don’t want any gravitation from side to side,” says Shea. But because a forward lunge involves lifting your front leg up and having it airborne before planting it on the ground out in front of you, you introduce extra instability that’s not present with a reverse lunge, says Perkins.
This means that with forward lunges, your core has to work harder to keep your body from wobbling, which activates more of the small, stabilizing muscles in your midsection, explains Perkins. That’s why doing forward lunges can be a better stability challenge than backward lunges, in which the front leg remains fixed on the ground throughout.
If you have any knee pain, reverse lunges may be a better choice.
The torque (force of rotation) at the knee joint is significantly greater in the forward lunge versus the reverse lunge, explains Perkins.
What this means is that during the forward lunge, as the front foot hits the ground, the body’s momentum moves forward, which may increase the angle of the knee flexion, explains Perkins. From a physics perspective, the combined forces now acting on the front of the knee are greater and are directed through the patella (aka kneecap), creating significantly increased compression on the joint known as the patellofemoral joint (where the kneecap meets the thigh bone).
This is why trainers, strength coaches, and other exercise pros commonly cue to not let your knees go over your toes, explains Perkins. “The tibiofemoral joint [what people think of as ‘the knee joint,’ where the thigh bone meets the large shin bone] also experiences increased compression as the angle of the knee increases,” he says. In other words, a forward lunge can place more stress on multiple joints in the knee than a reverse lunge, and the deeper that you sink into a forward lunge, the more pressure you potentially place on this area.
“The forward lunge is a very dynamic and functional sport movement and you want to train that, but you need to do it safely,” says Perkins. If you have knee issues, you can decrease the depth of the lunge to reduce the compression load on the knee—or you “might wish to limit or avoid this type of movement.”
The reverse lunge, on the other hand, “is more of a reach with the back leg,” says Pekins. The tibia (aka shinbone) stays more vertical, and the angle of knee flexion is typically less, which reduces the compression on the knee joint.
“From a rehabilitation perspective [like if you’re recovering from an ACL injury], we consider performing the reverse lunge before progressing to a forward lunge to minimize the consequences,” says Perkins.
On that note, when you are doing any type of lunge, it’s important to recognize the difference between muscle soreness (which is good) and pain (which is bad), says Scantlebury. Soreness will register as an overall muscle ache; pain will register as a sharp, pinching, stabbing, or otherwise shooting sensation, he explains. If you feel pain anywhere, but most particularly in or around your knee, stop lunging and check in with your doctor or physical therapist.
Here’s how to do a forward lunge:
- Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put your hands on your hips or behind your head (as pictured).
- Step forward (about 2 feet) with your right foot, and plant it firmly on the ground.
- Bend both knees to create two 90-degree angles with your legs.
- In this positioning, your shoulders should be directly above your hips and your chest should be upright (not leaning forward or back). Your right shin should be perpendicular to the floor and your right knee should be stacked above your right ankle. Your butt and core should be engaged.
- Push through your right foot to return to standing.
As you lunge forward, keep your knee in line with your foot (don’t let it cave in or fall out) and make sure that your knee doesn’t travel past your toes. Think about driving your hips straight down rather than shifting your weight too far forward, says Tea. This will help with knee alignment.
Another tip: Engage your core and glutes to keep your upper half stable. If your shoulders and/or head move side-to-side, that’s a sign of core instability, says Perkins.
It’s also important to keep a flat back throughout the movements. Rounding or over-arching your back will transfer some of the force onto your spine, which puts you at risk for straining or otherwise injuring your lower back, Tea says.
Lastly, the positioning of your front foot is important as well. Think of your foot like a tripod, says Tea. As you sink into the lunge, it should maintain constant connection with the ground through your big toe, your pinky toe, and your heel. You want to maintain equal weight distribution through all points of contact—that means avoiding shifting the majority of your weight forward into your toes or back into your heel. This steady tripod positioning will keep your foot properly stabilized through the lowering portion of the lunge, which, in turn, can help keep your hips stable.
Here’s how to do a reverse lunge:
- Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put your hands on your hips (as pictured) or behind your head.
- Step back (about 2 feet) with your left foot, landing on the ball of your left foot and keeping your heel off the ground.
- Bend both knees to create two 90-degree angles with your legs.
- In this positioning, your shoulders should be directly above your hips and your chest should be upright (no leaning forward or back). Your right shin should be perpendicular to the floor and your right knee should be stacked above your right ankle. Your butt and core should be engaged.
- Push through the heel of your right foot to return to standing.
A common mistake with reverse lunges is not bending the back knee enough, which can end up straining your hip flexors, says Shea. To avoid this, think about dropping your back knee straight down toward the ground as you step that leg back. It shouldn’t touch the ground, but it should hover a few inches above.
Another no-no: stepping too narrowly. “People lose their balance with the reverse lunge by trying to step the back leg exactly behind the front leg, like on a tightrope,” says Shea. “That’s not what you want. Your feet should stay hip-width apart as you step.”
As with the forward lunge, really think about keeping your spine neutral and your front foot flat on the ground at all times.
As for the verdict on which type of lunge is best for you? It truly depends.
It depends on many factors, Perkins says, including your fitness goals and history of knee pain/injury. Unless you have knee pain that would be exacerbated by forward lunges, it’s probably a good idea to do both—and then some.
“It’s important to move in all planes of motion,” says Scantlebury. “I do lunges backward, forward, sideways, and diagonally.” So as long as your body feels good doing them, there’s no reason you should have to choose doing just one or the other.