What are the most common exercises people do for lower body strength and hypertrophy gains? Squats and lunges, of course! No one can deny the benefits that squats offer and the fact that they work so many muscle groups. But, lunges have some of the same perks. Like squats, they’re a functional exercise that works all the muscle groups in your lower body. Plus, you can do squats and lunges using your own bodyweight or with added resistance. You’re working big muscle groups with both exercises, so they burn significant calories as well. Therefore, both of these “workhorse” exercises should be part of your lower body workout. But, today, let’s focus on the lunge and see what the advantages and disadvantages of the two main types of lunges are – front vs back lunges.
As you know, there are a variety of lunge variations. The two “basic” ones are front lunges and back lunges. The big difference between the two is with a front lunge you step one foot forward as you lower your body while with a reverse lunge, you step a foot behind your body when you lunge. You might wonder whether one lunge has benefits over the other. It really depends on your objectives, how orthopedically sound your knees are, and your sense of balance. Let’s look at each.
Front vs Back Lunges: Is One Lunge Better Than the Other?
Do your knees hurt when you lunge or squat? If you have knee problems, the back lunge is the safer bet. The reason? When you do a front lunge, you step one leg forward and place it in front of you, but then you have to push off that leg to propel your leg back to the starting position. The pressure you apply when you push off of the leg places added stress on the knee. Plus, with a forward lunge, you shift your center of gravity in front of you as your knee moves closer toward the toe. This, too, places more stress on your front knee.
Also, with a forward lunge, your weight shifts toward your toes and the ball of your foot, whereas with a backward lunge, the weight is more on the heel of your foot, a healthier place for it to be. Reverse lunges also keep your spine in a more neutral position. This is helpful if you have back problems and is also a safer position for your spine. So, reverse lunges are safer for your knees and spine relative to a front lunge.
On the plus side, studies show that forward lunges, although predominantly a quadriceps exercise, are also effective for targeting the hamstrings and glutes. According to an ACE study, lunges are even better than body-weight squats for activating the glutes. Plus, you’re in a more unstable position when you lunge than when you squat, so you work more stabilizing muscles as well.
Therefore, for hamstring and glute strength, front lunges are an asset, assuming you don’t do them too often or use poor form and end up with knee pain. You also should avoid doing them if you have pre-existing knee pain. The other upside of front lunges is they’re a natural movement. In fact, front lunges are similar to the movement we do when we walk. In contrast, back lunges feel unnatural. How many times do you extend a leg back behind you and lunge or walk backward?
Back Lunges Are Easier for Balance
However, front lunges are challenging in another sense. When you step forward your center of gravity shifts forward, and you may have problems keeping your balance when you first start out. In contrast, back lunges are a bit more balance-friendly for beginners. On the other hand, doing front lunges regularly can help you develop your sense of proprioception and balance.
One way to make forward lunges more knee and balance-friendly is to lean your torso forward slightly onto the heel of your front leg when you lunge. But, don’t go TOO far forward. Your knee shouldn’t extend past your front toe when you lunge. However, a slight forward lean makes it easier to balance. It also removes some of the stress on your knee and it works your glutes and hamstrings more. Your torso should move straight up and down when you lunge. Another way to make it easier to balance when you front lunge is to avoid placing your front foot directly in line with your back foot when you step forward. Placing your foot a little wider in relation to the back foot creates greater stability and helps you stay balanced.
When you first start out with front lunges and are struggling to balance, don’t take a huge step forward as this too makes it harder to stay stable. A good stepping distance is about the length of your leg. As you become more comfortable with the exercise, you can shift the focus more toward your glutes and hamstrings by stepping out further. A bigger step forward places less emphasis on the quads and more on the hamstrings and glutes.
What about reverse lunges? The reverse lunge also targets the hamstrings and glutes and, when you do them correctly are an effective exercise for building glute strength. The other advantages, as you now know, are that it’s easier to stay balanced when you do a back lunge and they’re safer for your knees and spine. They’re also a better option for beginners, especially if you’re doing them holding weights.
Front vs Back Lunges: Why Not Do Both?
If you have healthy knees, why not include both front and back lunges in your workout? Plus, you can include other lunge variations in your workout as well. For example, curtsy lunges work your inner and outer thighs more than front and back lunges. Walking lunges and jump lunges add a cardiovascular component to the exercise. So, add more variety to your lunges and reap the rewards!
ACE Fitness Matters • January/February 2006.
Stack.com. “Why Reverse Lunges Are Better Than Forward Lunges”
American Council on Exercise. “Are All Lunges Created Equal?”
J Athl Train. 2012 Aug; 47(4): 372–378.
ACE Fitness. “Glutes to the Max: Exclusive ACE Research Gets to the Bottom of the Most Effective Glutes Exercises”