When it comes to lower body strength training you’d have to say that squats and deadlifts are the most popular exercises.
However, lunges aren’t that far behind, plus lunges also happen to be a basic human movement pattern.
Therefore, it makes sense to lunge on a regular basis.
That being said, I want to look at both forward lunges and reverse lunges in this article.
Let’s see what both exercises can do for you, whether one is better than the other, and if you should focus more on exercise.
Forward lunges and reverse lunges target the same primary muscle groups, the quads, glutes, hamstrings. Forward lunges are more quad-focused, whereas reverse lunges focus more on the glutes and hamstrings. Reverse lunges allow your centre of mass to stay constant, but forward lunges have a moving centre of mass. This makes forward lunges the harder exercise.
Forward Lunge – Muscles Worked
The forward lunge works a variety of muscles in the lower body, but primarily focuses on the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
The quads are responsible for knee extension and are therefore significantly activated during forward lunges.
The hamstrings are responsible for hip extension and knee flexion, whereas the glutes are responsible for hip extension and abduction.
It’s also important to note that the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus are all activated during forward lunges.
The secondary muscle groups worked with forward lunges include the calves, core, and erector spinae.
So, forward lunges can be considered a compound exercise, plus they are a great exercise for improving strength, power, muscle, endurance, and stability.
Reverse Lunges – Muscles Worked
Clearly there are a lot of similarities to forward lunges for the muscles worked by reverse lunges.
So, once more, the primary muscles being worked are the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
That being said, reverse lunges place far more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
The reason that the glutes and hamstrings are more involved in reverse lunges is due to increased requirement for hip extension.
So, this is a fantastic way for individuals to target their glutes and hamstrings while also working their quads.
Once again, the calves, core, and receptor spinae muscles are worked as secondary muscles during reverse lunges.
Which Lunge Variation is Harder?
Forward lunges are definitely the more advanced and therefore harder exercise.
This may come as some surprise as most of us tend to start out with forward lunges before we “progress” to reverse lunges.
However, the degree of difficulty mainly comes down to your centre of mass.
With reverse lunges your front foot remains flat on the floor.
This provides a far more stable base and allows your centre of mass to stay fixed too.
Therefore, reverse lunges provide you with more control and it is easier to balance.
Furthermore, it’s easier to maintain knee-over-ankle position with reverse lunges, which is ideal if you have a history of knee issues.
I guess the exact opposite could be said for forward lunges, which is why they are the harder variation.
Firstly, as you step forward you are also moving your centre of mass forward.
Additionally, your back heel comes off the ground as soon as you step forward.
I would also say that forward lunges require much more core stabilzation than reverse lunges.
This explains why many people struggle with balance when performing forward lunges.
Forward lunges also require far more knee extension, which as I’ve mentioned means reverse lunges would be better for anyone with knee issues.
In fact, having to push back off the front foot to return to the starting position during forward lunges places additional stress on the knee joint.
Which Lunge Variation is Better For Me?
I always feel slightly uneasy claiming that one exercise is better than another.
All exercises have their place in any decent workout, unless of course you’re quoting “functional training” to do something ridiculous, e.g. one-legged bicep curls on a bosu ball with half squats.
So, I would never say that forward lunges are better than reverse or vice versa.
Realistically, it comes down to you, your training goals, and your ability levels.
Forward Lunges are Better For You if…
- You’re an intermediate or advanced trainee.
- Quad-development is your primary focus from lunges.
- You have a good level of balance and stability (and you wish to improve on this further).
- Hypertrophy or muscular endurance are your primary training goals.
- You want to perform the more challenging lunge variation.
Reverse Lunges are Better For You if…
- You’re a beginner or novice trainee.
- It’s important to you to focus more on your glutes and hamstrings.
- Balance and stability are an issue.
- You can load reverse lunges more heavily as they are the easier exercise, i.e. great for strength training.
- You simply wish to perform an easier exercise.
Can You Perform Both Lunge Variations in the Same Workout?
Pure and simple, yes you can perform both forward and reverse lunges in the same workout.
I would consider how much time you have available, as performing reps and sets on both sides will clearly take slightly longer.
Plus, determine how you wish to train both exercises.
Do you wish to train for strength and hypertrophy with both exercises?
Are you looking to increase muscular endurance in your quads or your glutes and hamstrings?
Do you want to mix it up a bit and use different training protocols for both exercises?
Additionally, if you’re going to train both lunge variations, then why not also include side lunges too?
Side lunges provide lateral movement, which is great for your overall athleticism and functionality.
They also target many of the same muscle groups (plus your adductors), but provide a different challenge.
You can learn more about foot placement during side lunges.
Common Lunging Mistakes
Now, I’d like to list some of the most mistakes made with lunges.
And this is true of any lunge variation, including forward and reverse.
Not Maintain a Vertical Shin Angle
You’ll typically hear that you shouldn’t allow your knees to travel past your toes with exercises such as squats and lunges.
I wouldn’t say I completely agree with this, as it largely depends on your knee health.
The reason you’re told this is because taking your knees past your toes will increase the loading on your quads.
If you have a history of knee issues or a lack of mobility in your ankles this can lead to knee pain.
So, whether your knees should shoot past the toes or not really depends on you and knee and ankle health.
Therefore, if you wish to work your quads harder, taking your knees past your ankles during lunges is a way to achieve this.
That being said, knee issues and poor ankle mobility is something that many people suffer with.
So, this is why it makes sense to maintain a vertical shin angle.
Additionally, this makes lunges (even forward lunges) more hip dominant so you’ll engage the glutes more too.
Not Keeping Your Weight Centred
I’ve spoken about the stability and balance required with lunges, but this doesn’t stop them being performed poorly.
This is most obvious when you find yourself wobbling side-to-side while you lunge.
Plus, you’ll frequently have to take “stutter steps” in order to return to the starting position.
So, you must make a concerted effort to keep your weight centred.
One of the best ways to learn this is to start off with static lunges or split squats.
This way you don’t need to worry about stepping forward or back, but simply focus on lowering your knee towards the ground and returning to the starting position.
Not Focusing on Your Feet
Our attention seems to be everywhere but our feet when we perform lunges.
However, it is the feet, both front and back, regardless of lunge variation, that provides us with stability (along with our core).
Quite often you may find that your lunging leg sees your foot turn inwards or outwards.
This will automatically activate different muscles and can also be a killer for those of you with knee issues.
Furthermore, you want to ensure that you’re planting your lunging foot and powering off it correctly.
By focusing on how your feet connect with the ground you can keep your weight more centred and avoid your knee collapsing inwards.
Once more, this will ensure that you avoid any potential knee pain.
Slamming Your Knee into the Ground
There is much debate over whether your knee should touch the ground or not when you lunge.
Personally, I prefer not to, but I see nothing wrong with those who do prefer to touch the ground with their knee.
That being said, your knee should lightly brush against the ground.
All too often I see people slam their knee into the ground with force.
This is not part of the lunging movement and will of course eventually lead to injury.
Lunges, whether forward or reverse, should always be performed with a slight forward lean in the torso.
This is generally around a 10-20 degree angle.
So, there is no need to keep a completely upright torso while you lunge.
However, a mistake that many people make is that they actually lean back slightly when they lunge.
Unfortunately, this will cause an inward curvature of the lower back, which places a lot of stress on the lumbar spine.
Clearly, this is not something you want to do, and this can be extremely dangerous when lunging with weights.
Key Learning Points
- Front lunges are more quad-dominant.
- Reverse lunges focus more on the glutes and hamstrings.
- Both variations work the quads, glutes, and hamstrings as primary muscles.
- Secondary muscles activated during both types of lunge include the calves, core, erector spinae.
- Forward lunges are more difficult than reverse lunges mainly due to a moving centre of mass.
- Reverse lunges are better for those who have a history of knee issues.
- Due to reverse lunges being slightly easier you can load them with more weight, thus making them ideal for strength training.
- It’s fine to perform both lunge variations in the same workout (and throw in some side lunges too).
- Always maintain a vertical shin angle, keep your weight centred, and pay attention to your feet.
- Avoid slamming your knee into the ground and leaning backwards.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.