One of my primary goals as a strength and conditioning coach is seeking efficiency. That is to say, use as little energy as possible for maximum results and transfer so that my athletes can benefit from as much energy and time as possible to practice their sport. In this search for efficiency, I consider the risk-reward ratio and the time-reward ratio.
This search for efficiency pushes me constantly to ask myself questions about what I could improve. Due to this reflection, I have used the reverse lunge as the main lift for several seasons for a specific category of my athletes.
I train rugby players. Rugby is a collective combat sport where the volume of running is quite high (5 to 8km per match on average). In team sports, performance in acceleration, speed, and changes of direction are paramount, as well as the prevention of injuries related to these qualities.
Several studies and field experiments have amply demonstrated that increasing the strength of the lower limbs can improve speed (Laurent B Seitz 1, 2014), changes of direction but also reduce the risk of injury (Suchomel, Nimphius, & Stone, 2016). The question is, what is the most efficient way to do it?
Running, especially at high speeds, is a very important factor in performance and injuries. The fact that running is unilateral was the beginning of my reflection on using reverse lunges. After mainly using "the king of exercise," aka the back squat, I experimented with a different, perhaps more efficient approach to strengthening the lower limbs in some of my athletes.
The Reverse Lunge
Strength and conditioning coaches and trainers love to debate the names of exercises—exactly why a demonstration (video) is worth, in this case, much more than words to understand what movement we are talking about.
The reverse lunge, unlike the lunge, has its eccentric phase towards the rear and its concentric phase in the push forward. I use it with a bar on the back and put the knee on the ground.
I force athletes to alternate working legs to allow recovery between repetitions, like a cluster set. This mini recovery between repetitions allows for clusters to maintain more speed in the movement and therefore generate more power. The back leg is used to push at the beginning of the movement (range where we are the weakest) but bringing it back to the end of the movement creates a unilateral phase from the middle of the movement (range where we are the strongest) and until the end of the movement. We, therefore, have a bilateral phase in the weak part and a unilateral phase in the strong part, which allows us to use heavy weight.
Like the squat, it is possible to bring multitudes of variations. You can modify the types of bars, use dumbbells, sandbags, and other implements. The grip can also be modified to a high bar, low, front rack, or Zercher. You can also change the range by reducing them with foam or increasing them by raising the front foot. The exercise is also suitable for VRT (variable resistance training) using chains or bands.
Personally, my athletes use reverse lunges with a resistance composed of discs and bands. It is, therefore, like the back squat—a movement that can be adapted as desired. The reverse lunge represents the perfect compromise between a purely unilateral exercise requiring a lot of stability and therefore allowing only low loads (example: one leg squat; lunge with rear foot elevated) and a bilateral exercise where you can use heavy loads like the back squat. Indeed, it is not uncommon to have professional athletes with a 1RM of around 150kg.
Why Use the Reverse Lunge?
One of the principles I like to keep in mind is "you have the defects of your qualities." That's why I believe that everything is a question of context and experience in training. I will detail the benefits of the reverse lunge and the defects (in italics) compared to a bilateral exercise such as the back squat.
Better Transfer for Running (Principle of Dynamic Correspondence)
To increase the transferability of your strength training to your sport, it must respect the concept of dynamic correspondence according to your activity—dynamic of effort, range of motion, direction of movement, and regime of muscular work (NSCA, Thomas, & R. Baechle, 2008).
The goal is not to mimic but to create an exercise that can create a stimulation with respect to previous criteria. The reverse lunge validates several criteria of the dynamic correspondence. It involves a unilateral phase, as in running, from the middle of the movement.
Unilateral work could lead to better gains than bilateral exercises on changes of direction (Francisco Javier Nuñez, 2018). This unilateral phase also corresponds to the range of motion of running (like the quarter squat). This more specific range work could produce better gains on vertical jumps and sprints (Rhea, 2016). There is also a more horizontal movement than the back squat (purely vertical) and a forward movement of the hips. This more horizontal work vector (such as hip thrusts) could allow more gains on short distance sprints and changes of direction (González-García, Morencos, Balsalobre-Fernández, Cuéllar-Rayo, & Romero-Moraleda, 2019).
Finally, some work has shown that split squats with the rear foot surelevated make it possible to recruit the hamstrings and gluteal maximus more than the squat, even with a lower angulation of the trunk. (Kevin Mccurdy, 2010).
I think that the similarity of movement and given my own experience (DOMS area), everything suggests that the reverse lunge can share similar characteristics with the split squat variant. The glutes and hamstrings are among the most important muscles for speed (Delecluse, 1997). In addition, if an athlete has a very strong gluteus maximus, it would be possible for him to decrease the load on the hamstrings during high-speed running efforts and, therefore, reduce the risk of injury to the latter, which are among the most recurrent injuries in running sports. (Search glute amnesia). These different examples demonstrate how the reverse lunge respects the principle of dynamic correspondence. It could improve the transfer on running performance especially compared to a bilateral movement such as the squat.
Several points to take into account: the study itself, some test populations are not very representative of elite athletes. And there are dozens of studies that also demonstrate that the squat allows gains on all explosive efforts such as sprints. The principle of overload must, I think, most often prevail over specificity. But the reverse lunge allows overload and more specificity.
Requires Less Loads
It is difficult to find a scientific consensus on a subject such as unilateral training. The training protocols are always different. However, other works have demonstrated only similar gains between unilateral and bilateral training for the strength development and transfer of speed (Derrick E Speirs, 2016) (Jason Moran, 2021). However, for equal gain, unilateral work requires less load (1RM reverse lunge is normally lower than the 1RM back squat). Using lower loads for identical results can be an advantage for me in the total daily stress of my athletes. Indeed, the volume of running they practice per day already imposes significant stress on the spine (impact on the ground with each stride). Reducing the stress imposed on the spine in the gym via lower load could be an advantage for longevity. Using lower loads at the same intensity compared to the back squat could also have a psychological role: "Sometimes, after two hours of training on the field, I don't want to put 200kg on my back."
But beware, not everything is so simple. Because the reverse lunge is a unilateral exercise, the stabilization component is more important, and therefore, there is a risk of possible imbalance during movement. This imbalance could cause rotational forces on the spine and create new stress on the spine. Reducing the stress imposed on the spine is not necessarily a good thing because the fact of imposing stress on the spine allows it to strengthen. For example, my players who play scrums, a phase of games when the compression on the spine is enormous, need to strengthen themselves to fight against the constraints. So I make them practice the back squat (bilateral) as a main exercise to train their spine to undergo its constraints.
Recruits More Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers
Studies have shown that unilateral work could recruit more fast-twitch fibers than bilateral work (T. J. Koh, 1993)—a very interesting argument for power sports such as team sports. Recruiting more fast-twitch fibers could make it possible to accentuate their development (hypertrophy and recruitment). These fibers are the ones that intervene during the forces and speed task.
By their unilateral nature, the reverse lunges could make it possible to train the specific muscle fibers responsible for speed and strength rather than bilateral exercises!
The negative point is that type 2 fibers are less enduring than mixed and type 1 fibers. The possible workload compared to a bilateral exercise is lower. Therefore, it is necessary to plan fewer repetitions than a bilateral cycle because it causes more fatigue.
The interest in the reverse lunge compared to the back squat is based on the greater recruitment of muscles specific to running: the hamstrings, adductors, the gluteus medius, the psoas, and the calves. We can identify two main benefits, 1) an eccentric contraction of the muscles related to the shape of the movement that will play a role in preventing injuries, and 2) increased recruitment of hip stabilizers related to the balance required by the movement.
Eccentric-concentric contractions, with more range than a back squat, on muscles such as the psoas, adductors, and calves can strengthen these muscles often little solicited by bilateral exercises and yet often a source of injuries because of sprints and changes of direction. The recruitment of hip stabilizers such as gluteal medius is more important in unilateral exercises such as the reverse lunge than in exercises such as the back squat (Kevin Mccurdy, 2010).
Indirectly, this greater work of hip stabilizers may reduce the risk of running injuries (Michael Fredericson, 2000) (Matthew D Mucha, 2016). Therefore, the reverse lunge seems to be a fascinating tool for strengthening muscles specific to running and changes of direction—a tool to actively participate in the prevention of injuries in team sports.
This more important work of the stabilizers and muscles specific to running can be double-edged. It can happen that some athletes do not tolerate this load on the stabilizers and muscles specific to running due to a lack of regular work. For example, if an athlete joins the team during the season without being able to perform a significant work base in pre-season. In this case, I maintain a bilateral version like the back squat and add a progressive strengthening of the hip fixators and other muscles specific to running as an accessory.
Note: Unilateral work causes more muscle damage (ISIKİ & Doğan, 2018) which gives an additional reason to incorporate it very gradually.
As a reminder, the back squat also allows much greater recruitment of the quadriceps than the reverse lunge.
Several paths lead to Rome. This article is just the result of my reflections and a few years of experience to try to make the training of the lower limbs a little more efficient in my sport.
The two main advantages of the reverse lunge are a better transfer to running and the possible reduction in the risk of injury associated with running, which deserve attention.
However, we must always remain cautious and curious. There is no king exercise; everything depends on the context, the background of the athlete, the sport practiced, etc.
I like the idea that our job as a coach forces us to question ourselves constantly. I recommend that you experiment in small doses before making radical changes in your athletes' programs.
After all, if generations of athletes have performed back squats, it must be for a good reason.
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Header image credit: ammentorp © 123rf.com
Romain Guerin is a French strength and conditioning coach for professional rugby. He worked with the under 16 France team rugby league, rugby league academy, and police special forces. Romain earned his master's degree in sport science and other certifications like Westside Barbell® Special Strength Certificate and EXOS® certification. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @romainguerin_pro.