When it comes to lunges, I have two clear favorites – both for myself and for my clients.

And the most popular version isn’t one of them.

What are the best lunges, you ask? The rear lunge followed by the walking lunge. I’ll explain why, and why it matters for your knees, down below.

But first: why lunge in the first place?

Lunges are pretty high on the list of most hated/loved exercises, because they can cause a muscle burn in your thighs like no one’s business. Also, they get your heart rate up, which can make them seem even more challenging.

But are they worth the agony? You bet. Check out all the muscles they work:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Adductors
  • Calves
  • Obliques
  • Quadratus Lumborum 
  • And even the muscles of your shins

In addition to all their beautiful muscle-sculpting ability, because they work so many muscles at the same time, that makes them an awesome compound exercise that ramps up your calorie burn.

That being said, lunges can also cause some wear and tear on your knees, especially if:

  1. you have ankle or hip muscle imbalances, poor muscle stabilization, or previous injuries.
  2. you have arthritis.
  3. you have a long training history (i.e., you’re over 40).

What are the Best Lunges?

So what defines a “best” lunge?

Welcome to Personal Training 101! There are ways to make exercises “easier” or “less challenging” (or, as I prefer to say, safer) and “harder” or “more challenging” (and also, riskier). Or, to sound super geeky, regressed (less risky) or progressed (more risky).

And which choice you make along that scale has to do with risk vs. reward.

For most of us, the reward of the most challenging (riskiest) lunge just isn’t worth it.

So, at least in my book, the scale of lunges runs from a static lunge – where you assume a long lunge stride and simply move up and down, with your legs in place – all the way up to switch jump lunges, where you jump from a lunge position with your right foot forward to one with your left foot forward.

Keep in mind that’s a fluid scale, as nearly exercise can be made more or less challenging – even static lunges or switch lunges.

Most Popular Lunge

With that said, the forward lunge falls square in the middle of the lunge progression, which makes it the most popular choice.

A forward lunge is when you stand tall, feet together, and then take a long stride forward with one foot so that both of your knees end up at a 90-degree angle. And then, you push back with your forward foot to a standing position. 

So, picture the amount of pressure on that knee as you land on that front foot, and then push back using that same foot to come to standing position.

In fact, that pressure on your knee can add up to six times your bodyweight! (1)

Now, imagine, too, that you have a barbell on your back or dumbbells in your hand, and add that load to your knee (multiplied, of course, because of the momentum of your forward movement). 

That’s quite a bit of pressure and that’s why a lot of us feel it a bit in our knees the day after a workout that includes lunges.

What if you could get almost the same results, with less risk of knee pain? And in a way that also allows you to work your balance and stabilizer muscles?

That’s where my favorite lunge comes into play.

The Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge basically is the opposite of the forward lunge. Standing tall, with your shoulders directly over your hips, you simply step your right leg back in a long stride, landing on your toe, dropping down so that both of your knees are at a 90-degree angle.

And then – this is key!!! – pull into your FRONT leg to return your right leg back to standing position. Many people make the mistake of using only their rear leg to come back to standing.

I usually incorporate this bodyweight reverse lunges as a warmup move, and then load up with weight for the actual workout.

Why It’s One of the Best Lunges

I like this version because you get nearly all the results of forward lunges with virtually none of the force. It also targets the back of your legs – your hamstrings – a little more, and for women who are worried about “bulking” their quads (the fronts of their thighs), this can be a big help.

My second-favorite lunge ramps this up a little more. It puts a little more stress on the knee than the reverse lunge, but less so than the straight-up forward lunge. 

The Walking Lunge

I like this lunge because you get the best of all worlds. It targets the quadriceps a little more than the reverse lunge, without putting the pressure on the knee of returning back to standing. 

It also works your balance and gives most of us a much-needed hip flexor stretch when we’re in lunge mode. And it’s great for boosting the heart rate.

But(t) What if You Can’t Lunge?

No worries! There is another awesome exercise you can do that will give you most of the benefits of lunging without the pressure on your knee.

It’s step-ups. Basically, you stand in front of a step or bench, put one foot completely on top of it (making sure your heel isn’t hanging off the back), and using the strength of that leg, step up onto the bench. 

If you have knee pain, hip issues, or other lower-extremity problems, start with a LOW step, and progress to a taller bench when you’re ready. 

Step Ups

There are a couple different methods of doing step ups, but mine is to keep the working foot firmly planted on the step for all the reps before before switching sides. That helps keep the movement more into the back part of your leg and your glutes.

Here’s a video of me doing some very tall step-ups a while back at the end of a workout. Don’t attempt this if you have any knee/hip issues! And ignore the background gym chatter. 🙂 


Last set of high stepups after a hard leg workout. (Note: do •not• attempt this if you have any musculoskeletal issues.) These were supersetted with single-leg hamstring curls.

Posted by Wendy Watkins on Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Love (or Hate) Lunges?

I don’t know about you, but lunges make me powerful and strong, and they’re a top compound exercise for reason: they work!

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