15 Nov Lunge Directions – Forwards, Backwards, Sideways, Rotational
Lunges are one of the most commonly performed exercises in rehab and general fitness alike – and for good reason. You are able to target different muscle groups or movement patterns just simply by changing up lunge directions from forward, to backward, to sideways, or even into a curtsey squat. Furthermore, the use of certain equipment such as sliders or steps can add a new twist to a traditional lunge to hit your therapeutic goals. In this article, we’re going to dissect one of the easiest ways to spice up your lunges by simply changing directions.
How To Add Variety To Your Lunges!
I love lunges and the split stance position as a whole. Double leg support positions like the squat and deadlift are great for developing strength and power; however, they can hide asymmetries from side to side and don’t truly test the body’s ability to coordinate complex movement patterns. This is why single leg exercises are a staple in many rehabilitation programs. However, many people struggle with single leg exercises like single leg Romanian deadlifts, step downs, and single leg hopping due to a lack of coordination, balance, strength, or all of the above. This is where the LUNGE in a split stance position can be utilized to “bridge the gap” to single leg exercises!
Rotational Lunge Directions
Transverse and curtsey lunges are great for introducing transverse plane loads to the knee and controlling tri-planar motion. Rotational lunges are considered for most to be a progression or more advanced option than your traditional forward or backward lunges. Adding arm drivers or medballs is a great way to increase demand at the hip/core as well. If rotation at your knee makes you feel nervous, don’t worry that’s okay! You’ve probably heard or been instructed before never to let the knee collapse or rotate, but in all reality that happens all the time in life. You don’t pick up objects directly in front of you nor do you go upstairs exactly up and down in a straight line. Sometimes you move sideways or turn while reaching. These are all-natural motions that your knee can in fact handle, it just may take some time getting used to. The transverse lunge and curtsey lunge are prime examples of rotational lunges that you can incorporate into a holistic rehab program!
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- HOW: Take a step 130 deg back and out to the side. Bend at your hip and knee and descend into a lunge. You will need to turn and pivot your back leg to spin. Push yourself back up to starting position. The goal is to learn to control the rotational forces are your knee.
- FEEL: You should feel your glutes work to stabilize the rotational movement
- COMPENSATION: Don’t let either your front or back knee dive inward.
Curtsey Lunge – Push Off
In this variation of the traditional curtsey lunge, we are working on developing the rate of force development in a movement pattern that is similar to a crossover cut. This would be a mid stage drill I would incorporate into a training program while beginning to work on movement skills, the crossover step in particular!
LISTEN: LUNGE VARIATIONS WITH [P]REHAB
Backward Lunge Directions
Reverse or backward lunges are great for targeting the posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings) and naturally allows a more forward trunk lean. The biggest fault I see when people do reverse lunges is they shift their weight back into their rear leg and don’t keep their weight on their front leg.
The working leg with the in-place backwards lunge should always be the front leg.
Yes, in a lunge you will use both of your legs to push, but you should be pushing much more with your front leg than your back leg in a backward lunge. A really cool added benefit of a backward lunge direction is that you can get a really nice stretch of one of your hip flexors (the rectus femoris) in the rear leg during the step back. To do so, make sure to hold your belly button in and keep your back from arching while trying to posteriorly tilt your pelvis as much as possible
Deficit Posterior Lunge
Simply starting on an elevated surface like a box allows us to turn our traditional posterior lunge into a deficit posterior lunge. This deficit allows us to go into greater hip and knee ROM (and likely time under tension), which will allow for a greater hypertrophic stimulus to the knee and hip extensors. Something to watch out for when doing this yourself is to make sure you keep your weight forward! Remember, our intent with these in-place reverse lunges is to work the front leg and keep the majority of the weight there through the exercise!
Walking Backward Lunge
Earlier, I mentioned that in a backward lunge direction, we are typically always focusing on the front leg. This applies to any in-place reverse lunge. The moment we add a continual walking movement to any lunge, the focus switches from the front leg to the rear leg! Now, in this example, the goal should be to push your body backward through your back leg! This reverse walking lunge is one of my favorites in knee rehab, as we can really target the knee extensors (quadriceps) in the rear leg. Furthermore, our vasti muscles and rectus femoris get an intense stretch with load through the elongated position of hip extension and knee flexion!
Don’t Make The One Mistake With Your Lunges!
Forward Lunge Directions
The forward lunge is great for targeting the knee and naturally allows a more forward tibia translation over the foot. Remember, knees past toes isn’t inherently a bad thing! The forward lunge is unique in that you actually use a lot of your rear leg to return to the starting position when doing forward lunges in place, using the rectus femoris in a lengthened position.
Anterior Lunge to Single Leg Balance
This anterior lunge to single leg balance variation can be used to target both the front and rear leg – for different purposes. You can cue to “push yourself up through the rear leg”, much like in the walking reverse lunge example we discussed earlier. This will really challenge the knee extensors due to how forward the knee is over the toes, which again is not inherently bad! You can also use this exercise to work on developing eccentric rate of force development in the front leg. In this example, the goal is to decelerate your momentum as fast as possible with your front leg. This goal can be further challenged through the use of external weights, like in the example below!
Forward Lunge Deceleration – Medball
Looking for some more awesome, medicine ball exercises? Check out this article!
Half Inch Lift Offs
Here is another drill I really like to use to work the rectus femoris in a lengthened position. I particularly like this drill for patients with compressive anterior knee pain once they are able to get into this position. It’s a great way to build up the tolerance and capacity of the anterior knee structures (knee cap, tendons, muscles, etc) under both stretch and load simultaneously, which is usually the things that piss off people’s knee in the first place! Remember to build tolerance to a position, you must expose yourself to said position in a gradual manner. Don’t fear the exposure!
- HOW: Start in a half kneeling position. The goal of this exercise is to work the kneeling leg. Keep your toes pointing into the ground. Keeping as much weight as you can on your back leg, drive your toes into the ground and try and lift your back knee about a ½ inch off the ground. Hold for the prescribed amount of time.
- FEEL: You should feel the quadriceps muscle of your down knee holding your body up.
- COMPENSATION: Do not lean forward and shift the weight to your front leg. Try to use your back leg as much as possible to achieve the lift-off.
Sideways Lunge Directions
The lateral lunge is great for targeting the frontal plane hip muscles like the adductors and hip abductors. The fault I most commonly see with this is people like to pull themselves back up to the starting position with their post leg (the leg that is straight). The working leg is the leg that you shift your weight to with the bent knee, so use that leg to PUSH yourself back to the starting position towards your other leg.
However, if the goal is to target the groin and adductors, you can PULL yourself up and bring your extended leg towards you. This can be easily accomplished with the walking lateral lunge variation shown below. Now you have two different variations of the same sideways lunge direction that can be equally as effective! When it comes to stretching, you can also get a really nice adductor stretch through the post leg.
Lateral Lunge – Walking
Once Mastered, Sequence Your Lunges Together With Lunge Matrixes
Once the basic lunges have been mastered, you can continue to work on your desired goals with each lunge direction, but sequence them together to keep it more fun! Remember, the best exercises are the ones that accomplish your goal and the ones that you will actually do. If the intent of sequencing the lunges together is not just to mix it up and keep it fun, but also to continue to develop new motor patterns! It’s important to expose yourself to as many new training stimuli as possible while continuing to hit your training goal while staying in your desired movement pattern (a lunge for example). Check out some of our favorite lunge matrixes below!
Lunge Matrix – Frontal Plane
Sagittal Plane Lunge Matrix
Transverse Plane Lunge Matrix
Once Mastered, Progress To Sliders
Sliders are some of my favorite pieces of equipment as it serves as a good transitionary exercise variation to progress to single leg exercises. The progression from something like a double leg squat to a single leg squat is hard for many, but having a slider allows for not only a more stable position due to having another point of contact on the ground, but also a little less load through the lead leg.
The same rules in regards to muscle activation or stretching with lunge directions that we discussed early all apply to slider directions. It’s the exact same movement pattern (a lunge) with just more weight through the lead, working leg. With all slider exercises, the goal is to have >90% of the weight on the stable leg. The slider should have very little weight (if any) through it and should more or less serve just to help your balance.
Think of an eggshell under the slider. Don’t break the egg!
Also, no need to buy fancy sliders from a sports/fitness shop. You can just simply get furniture mover sliders (they are literally the same thing). Or at home, if you have hardwood/linoleum, just use a sock/pillowcase on the ground. If you have carpet, throw a magazine page on the ground! BOOM!
Slider Lunge Exercises
Hopefully, through this bible on different lunge directions, you are able to grasp the biomechanical concepts and apply them to any lower body exercise. As we demonstrated with progressions onto sliders, the biomechanics all stay the same – the only thing we changed was the load and intensity of the exercise on that lead leg!
Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below!
About The Author
Michael was born and raised in Northern California but now currently resides in Sunny SoCal ever since attending the University of California, Los Angeles as an undergraduate majoring in physiology. After his undergraduate studies, he received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from cross-town rival the University of Southern California.
As a licensed physical therapist with a strong background in strength and conditioning, Michael likes to blend the realms of strength training and rehabilitation to provide prehab, or preventative rehabilitation, to his patients.
A common human behavior is to address problems after they become an issue and far often too late, which is a reactionary approach. He believes the key to improved health care is education and awareness. This proactive approach-prehab-can reduce the risk of injuries and pain in the first place.
He is a huge proponent of movement education and pain science. Clinically, he has a special interest in ACLR rehab and return to sport for the lower extremity athlete.