Since learning how to stand upright on our own at a tender young age, most of us have been stepping forward without so much of a backwards glance. But stepping forward isn’t necessarily the best way to get us where we want to be… Particularly when it comes to lunges.
The aim of any strength exercise is to maximize the load on the target muscles with minimal joint load. This allows us to get all the wonderful toning benefits from our resistance training while minimizing the chance of injury – which is where the forward stepping lunge falls down because a lot of the load goes directly into the back of the knee cap.
So what’s the problem with forward lunges?
When you step forward and land your foot on the floor, the knee joint has to provide a hand brake to the movement, causing extra pressure. Your quad muscles have to contract strongly to slow you down which also adds to this pressure because they are attached to the knee cap.
And what’s so great about stepping backward?
Just like with a forward lunge, with a backward stepping lunge the target leg is still the front leg. The muscles do the same amount of work but without the joint pressure because the impact, and therefore the hand brake action, is removed. The back foot taps down lightly and returns to the front keeping the load on the target muscles of the front leg.
Professor Jinger Gottschall from Penn State University discovered that without any significant difference in muscle activation, the backward stepping lunge reduces the loads on the front knee by a staggering 50 per cent.
And the benefits just keep going; backward stepping lunges are safer for the lower back than front lunges because you’re able to maintain an upright posture. With the first action of the reverse lunge being a backward step it’s much easier to keep your trunk vertical.
Even if done with only your body weight, backward stepping lunges do wonders for improving muscular strength and therefore toning your butt and thighs. You can increase your strength gains from this smart step by holding a dumbbell in each hand or a dumbbell in only one hand at a time to provide a greater challenge for your core. Use heavier weights for two to three sets of five to 10 reps for optimum strength improvement.
Keeping your muscles well-conditioned with backward stepping lunges can also decrease your risk of injury and enhance overall functioning of your body during running, cycling, walking, hiking or any other activity that relies heavily on your lower body.
Bryce Hastings is a leading New Zealand physiotherapist and fitness expert. As Les Mills Head of Research he leads research into the most effective approaches to exercise and plays a pivotal role in structuring all LES MILLS™ workouts. Bryce’s passion for effective exercise is born from spending 30 years in physiotherapy, where he saw “people getting their lives wrong” every day and felt like he was acting as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. By working in fitness he gets to be the fence at the top.