OUCH! That hurts! How to pick the best lunge variation to build your legs and keep you pain free.

by | Jun 19, 2019 | Lifestyle, Mindset, Nutrition, Training

Standing up off the floor, strengthening your squat, and toning your legs and butt – these are just a few of the reasons some credit lunges as one of the six most important exercises to know and include in your workouts.

They are a great exercise, but in my time as a coach, they’re also one of the six most likely exercises, clients tell me gives them pain.

Sure, some of that pain is from the beautiful burn lunge variations bring about.

Too often, clients talk of the pain in the front or inside of the knee. Other times, there is ankle or knee pain.

The pain is undeniable because you are actually feeling it, but doesn’t mean it has to be an absolute.

Pain-free lunges are possible, and should be regularly included in your workouts.

Lunges are a great exercise for balance and proprioception. The split stance position requires the hips, core, and shoulders to coordinate and work together through the movement pattern and keep the body upright.

Unfortunately, most assume the only option for a lunge is a forward lunge.


There are other options that may prove more beneficial for muscle building, single-leg stability, and most importantly, injury prevention.

Here are the 4 BEST lunge variations to sub out for those forward lunges and keep you pain-free!

Reverse Lunge


  • Start with your feet together, and take a big step back with one foot.
  • Lower the hips to the floor by bending at the knees.
  • Press down through the center of the front foot to return to a standing position.


Contrary to the forward lunge, the reverse lunge requires a large step in the reverse (DUH?). The reverse step initiates a forward lean of the torso, thus activating the posterior chain through the hamstring and glutes. The activation of the posterior chain decreases the stress over the front knee. In addition, the forward lean of the torso reinforces the weight through the middle of the front foot allowing the glutes and hamstrings to assist when returning to a standing position.


  • Too small of a reverse step causing the front knee to drift over the toe.
  • Dramatic forward lean – the body has a tendency to follow the head positioning, which can lead to neck, shoulder, and low back pain.
  • Rushing through reps – slow, controlled movements allow you to stabilize the joints, which is very important during a single-leg exercise.

Forward-Reverse Lunge


  • Start with the feet together, and take a big step forward with one foot.
  • Keeping the knee over the middle of the front foot, stand up, and immediately step backward into a reverse lunge position.
  • Continue to alternate between forward and reverse lunges on the same leg until the set is complete.


The forward-reverse lunge brings in all the benefits of both the forward and reverse lunges individually, while strengthening and stabilizing your movement pattern in a walking or running movement pattern. The combination adds to the hip and core stability to improve coordination and proprioception. Forward and reverse lunges challenge and strengthen the lower body muscles in different ways; therefore, altering between the two, varies the stress and workload on your muscles. Last, but not least, the forward-reverse lunge challenges the cardiovascular system as you move directly into the each lunge without resting.


  • Speed – there is a tendency to rush from rep to rep causing one to sacrifice technique.
  • Small Steps – altering between the forward and reverse lunges can vary the step with each rep leading to a drift of the knee in the front leg over the foot.
  • Rhythm and tempo – these are way harder than they look influencing your ability to move from rep to rep.

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat


  • Place a small (4-6 inch) box on the floor
  • Place one foot on the box, and take a large step back with the other leg.
  • Lower the hips toward the floor by bending at the knee.
  • Perform all reps on one leg before switching to the opposite side.


The manipulation of the front foot in the lunge position creates tension in the hamstrings and glutes before initiating the movement. Most often when one leg is elevated, we lose stability and motor control, and struggle to maintain tension in the hamstrings and glutes while in a single-leg position. The goal of a front-foot elevated lunge is to pre-activate the glutes and hamstrings and maintain it through the entirety of the set.


  • Box height – too high of a step can create too great of a hip flexion and dramatically cut down on the range of motion.
  • Drive – the elevation of the front foot can cause one to press back versus back up and over the front foot and reducing the quad activation.

Rear Foot Elevated Squats


  • Place a box or bench on the floor
  • Lift the leg and place the backside of the foot on the box/bench
  • Lower the hips toward the floor by bending at the knee
  • Perform all reps on one leg before switching to the opposite side.


Unlike the front-foot elevated lunge, the rear-foot elevated is designed to pre-activate and create tension in the quads and glutes prior to the movement. Similar to the front-foot elevated, the goal of this exercise is to maintain tension within the quads and glutes throughout the duration of the set. The movement pattern is very comparable to the squat, so it is great for strength and hypertrophy; however, it adds a cardiovascular component to leave you gasping for air!


  • Instability – the rear foot elevation challenges ones balance and can increase risk for injury or take away from the benefit of the exercise.
  • Height of the box/bench – limiting the range of motion and by default the activation of the appropriate muscle groups
  • Distance from the box/bench – too close causes the knee to drift over the mid-foot and weight to shift into the toes.

Lunges are a great exercise to help you achieve your goals, but they should not be painful! These variations offer variation in technique and form to provide you a pain-free option that strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Honestly, no exercise should give you pain, and if it does, there’s an alternative that can strengthen, stabilize, and help you achieve your goals. If you’re feeling pain during lunges or another exercise and you’re not sure where to start with alternatives, you can find out more about my coaching program by clicking HERE.

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