The 5 Best Lunges For Stronger Legs, Healthier Joints, and a Bigger Butt

Once you’ve been on the planet long enough, you’re bound to have some wear and tear.

You might not have had ACL reconstruction or hip replacement surgery, but with a whopping 80% of U.S. adults dealing with lower back pain at some point in their lives, and millions more dealing with knee and/or hip issues, it would behoove most of us to lay off the heavy barbell work and put a premium on single leg training.

Why?

  1. There’s a lower orthopedic cost: you use less total weight because you’re using one leg at a time, so you have less joint compression.
  2. The bilateral deficit: “an inability of the neuromuscular system to generate maximal force when two homonymous limb operate simultaneously (bilateral contraction) with respect to the force developed when both limbs acts separately (unilateral contraction).”*
  3. You can work through any imbalances between sides
  4. Training on 1 leg is multi planar in that you have to resist motion in the transverse and frontal planes much more, leading to a more resilient body.
  5. Unilateral training can be more metabolically demanding because each set takes twice as long

All of this adds up to better feeling joints and less systemic fatigue on your system, which is great if you don’t like to feel like a rusty door hinge every day and have an actual life to live outside of the gym.

Inevitably, whenever the single leg talk comes up, the “shut up and squat” crowd chimes in that it’s impossible to get stronger or build any appreciable muscle without traditional barbell squats and deadlifts.

I love Ronnie Coleman, but having the mobility to wipe your own ass is probably important to most other people

While I’m not of the either/or mentality when it comes to deciding between bilateral l and single leg training, as both have their place, the reality is most everyday people don’t have the necessary prerequisites to squat or deadlift with a straight bar without making some kind of compensation.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve trained people for 20,000 plus hours in my life and see it day in and day out. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just speaks to addressing the needs of most people, which is often less traditional barbell work and more single leg stuff.

The fact is, there are no magic exercises. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a rock, a barbell, or a dumbbell, it just knows that it has to overcome the force you are placing on it. If you train with progressive overload, then you will get stronger, and if you eat accordingly, you’ll build muscle as well. It’s physiology 101.

The problem is most people look at single leg work as an afterthought, or at the very least not through the same lens as they look at other traditional strength builders. This leads to them not challenging these exercises to the degree in which they could, which leads them, well, nowhere. More so, people tend to shortchange the range of motion, or aggressively crank through their lower back and hip flexors rather than bending through their hips.

While forward lunges can tend to piss off your knees if you have some preexisting issues already, reverse lunge variations tend to be better choices, as they’ll be a bit more glute dominant since you have a more vertical lower leg.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and make up some new movements that the world has never seen before, simply adjusting the position of the weight or utilizing a different loading tool can radically change the traditional exercise. Here are, in no particular order, the 5 best:

Goblet Reverse Lunge

  1. Grab a heavy dumbbell and hold it in the goblet position at your chest.
  2. Step back and lower the back knee until it brushes the floor.
  3. Drive through the middle of your front foot to return to the starting position.
  4. You can alternate legs, or do one side at a time. Feel free to take a 30 second rest between legs if you do it like this so your upper body fatigue isn’t the limiting factor.

45 Degree Reverse Lunge

  1. With dumbbells at your sides, step back, down, and out 45 degrees from the midline of your body.
  2. Allow your back knee to graze the floor, then forcefully drive through the middle of your front foot to bring you back to the starting position.

Barbell Front Rack Reverse Lunge

  1. With a bar in the front rack position, unrack the bar from the J hooks and step back. If you struggle with getting a solid front rack position due to limited wrist mobility, try setting up with strap like this.
  2. Step back and lower the back knee until it brushes the floor.
  3. Drive through the middle of your front foot to return to the starting position.
  4. You can alternate legs, or do one side at a time. Feel free to take a 30 second rest between legs if you do it like this so your upper body fatigue isn’t the limiting factor.
  5. Coaching tip: think about driving your elbows up away from your knees throughout the entire movement. You want your upper arms to be parallel to the ground the whole time.

Safety Squat Bar Reverse Lunge

  1. Get the safety squat bar positioned on your upper traps, then unrack the bar.
  2. Step back and down until your back knee brushes the floor.
  3. Drive through the middle of the front foot to return to the starting position.

Sandbag Front Loaded Reverse Lunge

  1. Clean the sandbag into the front rack position.
  2. Squeeze the bag into your chest the whole time, while also pulling apart the handles. This will keep your lats “on” and your upper body stable.
  3. While keeping a vertical torso, step back and down until your back knee brushes the floor.
  4. Drive through the middle of the front foot to return to the starting position.

For all of these, 2-4 sets of 5-8 challenging reps will give you a ton of bang for your buck while remaining joint friendly.

After you use one of these variations for 3-4 weeks, try doing them from a few inch deficit to get a bigger range of motion for the next 3-4. Drop the weight down a touch for the first week, but strive to get back to using the weights from the version you used previously (but now from a deficit.)

That’s how to keep getting stronger for the long haul, without beating yourself into the ground.

*https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02434185

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