The standard lunge is great, but the reverse lunge can do even more. It's a "complete" exercise that'll hit the quads, hams, and glutes, all while sparing your knees.
Here are five ways to make your reverse lunges work better for you.
1. Keep The Back Leg From Helping Too Much
Reverse lunges are a single-leg exercise. That means they should allow you to focus on developing one leg at a time, with very little input from the other side. But that's hard to do with reverse lunges. You need to pay extra attention to what that back leg is doing.
Two-thirds or more of the weight should be traveling through your front leg. And that really is the absolute minimum. The back foot is there to allow just a little stability as you lunge back. Your front leg should be getting hit the hardest.
Depending too much on that back leg cheats you out of progress and doesn't do your knees or hips any good either.
2. Make Your Deficit Make Sense (Or Don't Use It)
A deficit is for a deficit! If you're elevating your front foot in order to lunge lower, then your knee should drop below the point where it would be hitting the floor (without the deficit). If it doesn't, then there's no reason for it.
A deficit isn't for everyone. If you can't do a pristine reverse lunge without your back leg cheating the lift, or without your back knee almost kissing the floor, then you have no business doing it off a step.
Adding a deficit works to take you into a deeper range of hip flexion. This loads your glutes in more of a stretched position and arguably activates more of the "lower" glute fibers (gluteus maximus).
Choose the range of motion that helps you avoid pain and allows you to feel your muscles doing the work.
3. Choose Wisely: Alternating Legs vs. Same Side Lunges
Google "reverse lunges" and you'll see a mix of reverse lunges done with alternating legs (left, right, left, right) and others lunging back with the same leg for the whole set.
Those people are just doing what they prefer, but there's actually a reason why you might alternate or choose to go with one leg at a time, and it's pretty obvious if you think about it.
Alternating legs is more unstable. It requires a mini-reset at the start of each rep which requires extra balance and coordination. But it also causes a loss in tension. So while alternating legs is great for stabilization, athleticism, and offsetting some fatigue on each leg between reps, it might not be as good from a physique development standpoint.
Reverse lunges performed one leg at a time are more stable. There's less chance of lining your limbs up in goofy positions, and more of a chance to feel that tension through those targeted muscles.
Neither option is better, but you should be picking the variation that's more closely aligned with your goals.
4. Choose Wisely: Weight & Placement
Pick the right tools to do the right job. Randomness in your selection of exercises, whether it's lunges or any other lift, is not an option if you want to achieve a specific goal quickly.
Doing reverse lunges while holding a plate over your head has its place. It can develop some core strength and shoulder stability. But as an exercise to build strength and size it's pretty horrendous.
Using a kettlebell front rack position (shown above) places a lot of emphasis on holding that racked position. It requires a hard brace of your core and a strong and stable spine. But the weight is limited by that position, and not by how much weight your legs can handle.
If you want to grow your legs then pick variations of reverse lunges that allow you to load your legs the most, without being held back by some other factor. Typically, holding dumbbells or kettlebells by your sides or a barbell on your back are better choices for that goal.
5. Adjust Your Form to Target Specific Muscles
Notice how I've got a forward shin angle and upright torso here. Reverse lunges are extremely versatile. You can easily make minor alterations in body position to shift emphasis. By focusing on pushing your front knee more forward and keeping your torso more upright, you can place more load through your quads.
For more of a glutes and hams emphasis, focus on keeping the shin of your front leg more vertical, and your torso leaning at more of a forward tilting angle (or hips back). This shifts the load away from your quads and makes it more hip-dominant. These work best with kettlebells or dumbbells hanging by your sides.
You also need to consider that a change in muscle emphasis is a result of manipulating torque at your hips, knees, and spine. If you de-emphasize loading on one joint then you place more stress onto another.
Use a more hip-dominant reverse lunge if you want stronger glutes and hamstrings, or if you're trying to take some stress off your knees. And if you want better quads and less load through your low back, then use a knee-dominant lunge. You can also just stick with something in between the two.
When To Do Them
Reverse lunges are typically seen as an assistance or secondary exercise to your key indicator lifts. This is largely because the load you're able to lift is less than what you'd use for squats and leg presses.
That said, single-leg exercises have similar metabolic demands to these "big" lifts, and in some cases can create higher levels of muscle activation with less joint loading. That's worth considering.
There are also no rules with reverse lunges as far as reps and intensity goes. Use the set and rep ranges that are best aligned with your goals. If that requires you do some heavy, high-quality reps, go for it.