If you’re in the market to strengthen and sculpt your lower body while also functionally preparing for the activities of everyday life—like walking and climbing up stairs—the lunge should be a part of your workout program. This bodyweight exercise can be performed in a number of different ways, including moving forward or backward, and while stepping in one direction or the other might not seem to make that much of a difference, there’s more than meets the eye. Top personal trainers break down the advantages and disadvantages of both lunges so you can determine which option may best suit your current fitness needs.
This tried-and-true move has long been a staple in workouts, and with 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 such as the bodyweight squat offer.
In addition to being highly effective, the forward lunge is also quite functional, as this movement closely mimics our walking pattern. Since our brains are accustom to putting one foot in front of the other, one of the benefits that the forward lunge offers is reinforcing the gait pattern in a way that challenges balance and the muscles of the lower extremities, says Sabrena Merrill, exercise scientist and ACE master trainer based in Kansas City, MO.
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This added challenge, however, can have implications on the knee joint. Jonathan Ross, award-winning ACE-certified personal trainer and author of the book Abs Revealed, says that this version of the movement can be thought of as an acceleration lunge, being that the body is moving forward and then backward, which results in a greater challenge since the body is being propelled forward through space, and upon returning from the bottom of the movement must use 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 since in order to perform it properly, a higher amount of force and/or more range of motion is required,” he says.
This twist on the lunge offers the body an opportunity to move in a direction that most of us do not spend much time—if any—traveling in, offering a new challenge. However Merrill says it’s less difficult to balance in reverse lunge 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.”
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Part of the ease in performing this movement compared to the forward lunge is that you are moving your body up and down and not through space, adds Ross, making this more of a deceleration lunge. “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 says that this variation on the lunge can be a suitable option for both those individuals with knee issues as well as those lacking hip mobility.
The Bottom Line
The lunge—however you choose to perform it—should be a staple in your workout routine given the focus 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, these two versions 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,” Merrill says. “The hip, abdominal, and lower-back muscles must work in a synchronized fashion to control the tilting of the pelvis.”
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Try This Lunge
For a greater focus on technique and comfort when performing the lunge, Ross recommends adding the bottoms-up lunge to your exercise arsenal to allow for learning proper movement first without the need to pick up and put down a foot during the movement, as done with both the forward and reverse lunges.
To perform this static movement, begin with right foot forward and left foot back with left knee resting on a balance pad or Bosu balance trainer directly under left hip. Keeping spine straight, create the upward movement by pushing right foot into the ground and straightening right leg using hamstrings and inner thigh muscles. Reverse the movement by using right leg to slowly lower left knee back down to the pad or Bosu with control. Alternate legs.