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No, it’s not the same thing as OCD.

There’s a reason lunges are at the top of many trainers’ lists of favorite exercises. “Lunges are a functional exercise with a shifting base of support that improves core stability, balance, and leg strength,” says Kendall Wood, CPT, a certified personal trainer and Tonal coach. “Lunges also directly improve daily life, helping us to walk, climb, run, and bend down with ease.”

But if doing lunges has ever caused you knee pain, you might not have to ditch the move altogether. Fear not, there are lunge variations that are gentler on your knee joints and provide additional strengthening benefits to your glutes and hamstrings. Enter: the reverse lunge.

Unlike a forward lunge in which you step forward and push off with your front foot, you step backward in a reverse lunge. This change in momentum strengthens and tones your legs a bit differently than a forward lunge. It also puts less stress on your kneecap, which means it is an ideal strength exercise for those who deal with pain in the front of their knee, according to a January 2021 study in Physical Therapy in Sport.

Let’s take a look at how to do the reverse lunge correctly, which muscles the move works, and all the benefits it has to offer.

How to do a reverse lunge with perfect form every time

The basic motion of the reverse lunge is the same as the forward lunge, except it’s your back foot that’s pushing off instead of your front foot. This move can be done using just your body weight, by holding onto dumbbells, a barbell, or by wearing a weighted vest for extra resistance.

Follow these steps to get the proper form with the reverse lunge:

Personal trainer demonstrating a reverse lunge
Photo: Kendall Wood, CPT
  1. Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your side.
  2. Step back with your left foot, landing on the ball of your foot.
  3. Bend your left back knee in a lunge position, lowering yourself down until both knees are at a 90-degree angle (or as low as you can comfortably go).
  4. Keep your trunk upright and your hips facing forward.
  5. Push off with your left foot to step your left leg back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat 12 to 15 times.
  7. Repeat on the other leg.
  8. Perform 2 to 3 sets.

Muscles worked when doing reverse lunges

Lunges are a great strengthening move for your lower body. “They target the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core, with additional benefits for hip mobility,” Wood says.

Because they’re a single-leg exercise (aka one that requires you to mainly work one leg at a time), they have additional benefits. “They address strength imbalances between the two legs,” Wood says. This can be especially beneficial if you’ve had an injury to one leg and have been favoring one side over the other. (FYI: Favoring one leg over the other can lead to muscle imbalances that can result in further injury.)

Reverse lunges have additional strengthening benefits when compared to forward lunges. Because of the reverse motion, there’s less activation in your quadriceps and more activation in your gluteus maximus (the largest of your glute muscles) and hamstrings. This puts less stress on the knee, according to the Physical Therapy in Sport study.

The reverse lunge also works your calves during the push-off motion. It is not just your lower body that gets stronger, as lunges also strengthen your core or abdominal muscles. In fact, reverse lunges may be better than forward lunges at emphasizing trunk motor control and strengthening your erector spinae muscles in your back for improved posture, according to a small November 2021 study in Physical Therapy Korea. (It’s worth noting that forward lunges activate your abdominals more than reverse lunges, but both lunge variations do strengthen your core).

Benefits of reverse lunges that’ll convince you to add them to your workouts

“Reverse lunges should be a staple in your fitness routine,” Wood says. This exercise doesn’t require special equipment (although you can use added weight) and can be done anywhere. It’s a functional move that actually helps you with daily activities, like walking, running, bending down, and climbing stairs with ease.

Need more convincing? Here are five more benefits of reverse lunges.

1. They’re a total lower-body strengthening move

The reverse lunge is a fabulous way to strengthen all of your lower body with one move. This exercise strengthens your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and even your inner thighs.

2. They strengthen your postural and trunk muscles

In addition to your lower body, the reverse lunge also strengthens your abdominals, including your rectus abdominis–also called your “six-pack” muscles—according to a study presented at the 2016 International Conference of Biomechanics in Sport.

As mentioned earlier, your erector spinae muscles along your back also get stronger during the reverse lunge. These muscles all help support your trunk for improved posture. Because lunges require balance, your trunk muscles are activated to keep you stable.

3. They improve hip mobility

The reverse lunge helps improve your hip mobility with leg extension. The lunge position also helps boost the flexibility of your hip flexor muscle. You may feel a nice stretch in the front of your leg as you perform this move.

4. They don’t put a ton of stress on your knees

The research from the International Conference of Biomechanics in Sport found that the reverse lunge puts less sheer force on your knee when compared to the forward lunge. This can be helpful if you have knee pain with the forward lunge or have other knee issues like runner’s knee (aka or patellofemoral knee pain).

5. They’re a unilateral (single-leg) exercise

The reverse lunge is a unilateral exercise, meaning it requires you to balance and use the muscles of just one leg at a time. This helps improve balance and also prevents muscle imbalances. This translates into fewer injuries and improved function, both in your daily activities and even in sports. “Lunges require coordination and single-leg stability,” Wood says.

“Reverse lunges should be a staple in your fitness routine.” —Kendall Wood, CPT

Common mistakes people often make when doing reverse lunges

To get the most benefit from the reverse lunge, you should make sure you have proper form. As a trainer, the most common mistakes I see with reverse lunges are misplacement of feet, misalignment of joints, and improper posture,” Wood says.

1. Foot placement

“To avoid placing your feet too narrow or wide, aim to keep your hips, knees, and ankles in alignment on both sides,” Wood says Look down at your feet to make sure your toes are pointed forward, not inward or outward. Use a mirror as needed to make sure your feet placement is correct.

2. Joint or knee placement

When doing the reverse lunge, both your front leg and back leg should be at a right angle (or 90-degree angle). You may need to adjust how far back your step and either widen your stance or shorten your stance as needed.

3. Posture

Your trunk should be upright throughout the move. You don’t want it to bend too far forward or lean too far back.

“To avoid rounding the spine or dropping the chest forward, identify a mark at eye level and focus on it,” Wood says. “Use the spot to keep your gaze forward and spine neutral; this will also assist with balance. Until you work up to successfully self-correcting, slow down your pace, lock in your mind-muscle connection, and hone your technique to establish movement proficiency.”

Safety tips to consider when performing reverse lunges

As with any exercise, it’s important to talk with your doctor if you have preexisting conditions or injuries or if the exercise is causing you pain, Wood advises.

You should also listen to your body—only lower down into the lunge as far as you can comfortably go. If you’re unsure of your balance, make sure you have a stable surface close that you can hold onto for support.

Before doing a strengthening program, you should do a 5- to 10-minute warm-up to get your muscles primed for activity. Warm-up examples include walking, light jogging, cycling, or some dynamic stretches. After your workout, do a cool-down routine with stretches like cat-cow and pigeon pose.

FAQ

1. Which is better: lunges or reverse lunges?

Both lunge variations are good, depending on what you want to accomplish and how the exercise feels on your joints.

“In a reverse lunge, the lead leg bears most of the weight, providing a more stable base of support than other lunge variations,” Wood says. “Forward lunges are a more challenging variation than reverse lunges, with a less stable base of support and more balance required. There’s also higher metabolic output due to its uptempo nature, as you swiftly decelerate to the bottom and accelerate to the starting position.”

If you have knee pain, a reverse lunge is the better choice. It also works your glutes and hamstrings more than the forward lunge. If you want to put more emphasis on your core and quad muscles, the forward lunge is a good choice. Both lunges are excellent ways to strengthen your lower-body and trunk muscles.

2. Are reverse lunges bad for your knees?

Reverse lunges are better suited for the knees than forward lunges,” Wood says. “The reverse lunge places more load on the hips than the knees, while the forward lunge places considerable pressure on the knees.”