Forward Vs Reverse Lunge

  • If you crank forward lunges out long and hard enough, they will catch up with you, and that’s a fact.  No matter how pristine your forward lunge technique, time only leads to discomfort, pain and injuries.

  • The reverse lunge can be a great alternative to the traditional forward lunge without the anterior knee pain it’s gotten the bad rep for.  Just because it’s easier on the knees doesn’t mean the reverse lunge won’t deliver the training same training effect.
  • The reverse lunge is a hip hinge dominant movement, and will activate the posterior chain musculature significantly more than it’s counterpart.  It will achieve a slightly (10-15 degree) higher front side hip flexion angle when the lunge is completed.
It’s been said that in the world of lower body strength and conditioning, there are only 2 fundamental movement patterns that need to be trained; the SQUAT and the LUNGE.  The lunge has been a popular way to overload the quads for hypertrophy and strength development, while also incorporating the posterior-lateral chain muscles to kick in during dynamic stabilization of the hip and knee joints collectively.
Basic forward lunge training can pack some serious size to your thighs, but due to the single leg nature of the motion, it also has the ability to piss off your knees a bit.  With all the added advantages to lunging, it’s almost a sin to ax it from your training regimen due to discomfort.  The key to long term success and constant periodized long term progressive overload is in the many simple, yet effective variations of the lunge.
If you crank them out long and hard enough, lunges will catch up with you, and that’s a fact.  No matter how pristine your forward lunge technique, the actual mechanism of motion is the causal factor for joint discomfort, especially in the knees.
Anterior knee pain during and after lunges is very common, ask anyone with tree trunks for legs.  The difference between discomfort and pain is defined by a sharp, radiating feeling through your bodies tissues that stimulates over the top soreness which is amplified by specific motion.  Lunges can cause pain, no question about it.  But why?  They aren’t really that different than a squat, right?
Wrong!  The lunge focuses on a hard eccentric quad contraction on the step leg to stabilize the foot and ankle, while still staying upright at the hip and trunk.  This eccentric loading of the quads (remember they attach to the knee cap, or patella) causes a huge amount of strain through the patella and other regional structures including the patellar ligament.  Repeated front loading of the knees approximate that knee cap on the lower end of the femur, making the motion feel even worse.  On top of everything else, joint effusion and swelling can cause friction in the joint space and surrounding muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascial layers.  Pretty shitty, all in all.  Check out this demo from the front and side:

The forward lunge is taught from a neutral starting position at the lower body and spinal column.  This neutral position at the spine and core is maintained throughout the dynamic lower body portion of the movement, integrating static stability of the trunk with dynamic stability of the hips bilaterally.  Throughout the motion, the spine should stay in a straight line that is perpendicular to the ground.  This upright posture allows all 4 heads of the quadriceps to activate and fire, intensifying the training stimulus of the movement.  There you go, your knees are killing you while lunging because 4 of the thickest, strongest muscles in your body are all pulling on a small bone, over and over and over again.
This isn’t the end of the story.  I’m not going to tell you to go get on your lunge grind, and rip apart your knees step by step.  That being said, I am also not going to hate on the lunge.  This movement is far too advantageous for muscles and strength building, not to mention single leg loading, to just throw away and forget about completely.  Like with anything in fitness, there always has to be a risk:benefit ratio for each movement.  Simply said, is an exercise going to get you the gains your are shooting for without driving you down into the ground and leading you to injury before you get there.  Enter our compromise on the lunge…the REVERSE LUNGE.

Looks pretty similar to the forward lunge, just going backwards, right?  Look a bit closer, because it is NOT the same!  The mastery is in the acute details and mechanism of motion.  The starting position will be identical to the forward lunge, and obviously various upper body loading (dumbbells shown in the video) can also be programmed.  Because the first action of the reverse lunge is a backward step, the front leg maintains reflexive stability throughout the hip and knee joints, and does not have to go into an open chain to achieve that position, unlike the forward lunge.
The step length of the reverse lunge will also be identical to the forward, and for that matter, the step width and neutral spinal position will also be that of the forward lunge.  The key difference is the maximal hip flexion angle that the front side leg achieves, and the position of the hip throughout the concentric and eccentric portions of the movement.
There are a few differences in the way we coach and perform the reverse lunge as opposed to the forward lunge, but for the sake of knee health and programming a kick ass alternative to the forward lunge that yields 90% of the results, we will stick to the absolute basics!
*KEY POINT- The reverse lunge is a hip hinge dominant movement, and will activate the posterior chain musculature significantly more than it’s counterpart.  It will achieve a slightly (10-15 degree) higher front side hip flexion angle when the lunge is completed.  This higher hip flexion angle will allow the rectus femoris (double joint encompassing quadriceps muscle) to be slightly slackened when the back foot is placed behind the front, and the eccentric (first half) portion of the lunge is done.  Without the strain from this muscle, the patella is more likely to respond favorably to the training forces through the quads rather than the strain on non-contractile tissues such as the patellar ligaments and fascia on the front side of the knee.
One of the best things about the lunge is it’s versatility in programming. It has the ability to be programmed at high rep ranges in it’s most primal state, bodyweight, all the way up to loading for power triples with the barbell.  Here are a few tips for finding the perfect variation of the REVERSE
  1. Loading Apparatus- bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls etc.
  2. Loading Position- neutral (arms at side), Goblet Position, overhead, barbell front, barbell back etc.
  3. Set/Rep/Rest Schemes- various (the heavier the load, decrease reps and increase rest).  A good starting point for strength is a classic 5/8/60, and for hypertrophy 4/12/45.  Give those a shot, and vary accordingly.
  4. Frequency- lunge patterns can be trained at a minimum of 1 day per week, and a maximum of 4.  Optimal rest, recovery and regeneration is a priority to optimize training effects.
Lunges are great, and with a few key tweaks to your technique and programming, you can be programming them as a go to lower body strength pillar in any type of training.  Mastery is in the details, and adding the reverse lunge to your program will help you build stronger lifts overall, mostly due to the fact that your knees won’t be barking.  Master the hip hinge action of the lunge, program into your lower body routine, and enjoy your pain free gains!
Contributed by Dr. John Rusin


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