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Smith machine reverse lunges: How this unilateral exercise builds your quads and glutes while sparing your knees

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th November 2020

If you have dodgy knees, want to even out your muscle imbalances or simply want to try a different exercise, then you should definitely consider adding reverse lunges to your next Smith machine leg workout.

Many gym-goers, for whatever reason, think that there's some kind of unwritten law that says "you must squat, or else". But this couldn't be further from the truth.

Squats are a great leg exercise, don't get me wrong. But for many people, squats cause more joint pain than muscle growth. And the stronger you become on squats, the more likely you are to worsen any existing muscle imbalances.

Enter Smith machine reverse lunges...

Despite being a single-leg exercise, reverse lunges enable you to lift very heavy, which in turn, stimulates greater muscle growth. But despite allowing you to lift some serious poundages, they're surprisingly knee-friendly. And you'll soon find out why.

"I'm not a big fan of putting lunges early in a workout, done in the typical fashion, I just think it's kinda hard on your knees, it doesn't feel quite right. But I'll make an exception for a reverse lunge."
John Meadows

Smith machine reverse lunge exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Hamstrings, calves, spinal erectors, abs
  • Exercise type: Unilateral
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Bar pad, foam roller, hip circle
  • Exercise purpose: Develop stronger quads and glutes while sparing the knees

How to do Smith machine reverse lunges

  1. Assume a shoulder-width stance under the Smith bar and then place the bar on your upper back, just above your rear delts.
  2. Garb the bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip and then squeeze your traps together. This creates a "shelf" for the bar to rest on.
  3. Step back with your strongest leg and keep your other foot planted firmly on the ground*.
  4. Squat down until the knee of your back leg touches the ground.
  5. Press through the floor with your front leg to push yourself back up. The rep is complete when both feet are fully planted on the ground (note, that you don't have to actually line your feet up after each rep—it's fine to have a slightly staggered stance)
  6. Repeat for 3-5 sets of anywhere between 8-20 reps.

*Training your weak leg first helps to even out your muscle imbalances and also makes your second set seem much easier.

Smith machine reverse lunge tips

Elevate your foot

man doing lunges on a step up box

Elevating your front foot on a step-up platform or on a simple block of wood is a quick and easy way to significantly increase the stretch in your quads and glutes. And, as any exercise scientist will tell you, a deeper muscle stretch almost always leads to faster and more noticeable muscle growth.

This small tweak essentially turns the exercise into a lunge-step up hybrid. However, this hybrid is much more effective than the typical Smith machine step ups because it allows for a considerably deeper range of motion, i.e. your non-working leg doesn't impede the stretch in your working leg.

Lengthen your stride

young man and woman working out in the gym

While doing the reverse lunge on Smith machine apparatus is a great way to target your quads, most people, I believe, perform the exercise to improve their glutes. As such, you want to lengthen your stride and bend at the waist slightly in order to put your hip into a higher degree of flexion, which in turn, increases the stretch in your gluteus maximus [1].

Train your weaker leg first

man instructing a woman while she works out

Most people have a dominant leg and a weaker leg. And, if you played football as a kid like me, or did some other kind of sport, then you probably have muscle imbalances, too.

While you might never be able to sculpt perfectly proportional thighs— at least not without eliminating bilateral exercises—you can definitely improve your lower body symmetry by performing reverse lunges. And, specifically, by training your weak leg first—when you're at your freshest and strongest.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine reverse lunges

1. Protective bar pad

reehut squat pad

I used to be really against bar pads because I thought they were for weaklings. However, I've since become less ignorant and realised that bar pads, squat pads—whatever you want to call them—actually improve your mind-muscle connection quite a lot.

Before, I'd always fight through the pain of the bar digging into my shoulders. But my stubbornness was always at the expense of my mind-muscle connection. In other words, most of my attention was diverted towards the literal pain in my neck.

But since investing in the Iron Bull Squat Pad, my muscle imbalances have come on leaps and bounds.

reehut bar pad

Obviously, my dedication to reverse lunges has a lot to do with the gains. But now I can focus so much more intensely on the working muscle, and, as a keen bodybuilder, I'm over the moon.

I've also tried the more affordable Beast Gear Barbell Pad. It's made from similar high-density foam, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you're looking for bruising protection on a budget.

2. Foam roller

a black fit nation foam roller

Like most things in life, Smith machine reverse lunges have a good side and a bad side. Obviously, they work wonders for your legs (with a good enough diet, of course).

But, thanks to the intense glute stretch, they also cause more DOMS than virtually any other leg exercise.

So I started using the Trigger Point Foam Roller to ease the post-workout discomfort.

I got some instant results in mobility and muscle tightness. But I've since moved on to the more advanced 4 Piece Foam Roller set so that I can work the knots out of my upper body, too.

fit beast foam roller set

This package came with 2 massage balls and 2 foam rollers, which each loosen up your body in different ways. The heavy-duty foam roller is brilliant for doing deep tissue work that improves your mobility. But the other foam roller is great for keeping day-to-day inflammation to a minimum.

Definitely more effective for reducing DOMS than any specific recovery supplement (and much cheaper too).

3. Hip circle

After being disappointed by a knock-off hip circle that I ordered off a certain second-hand website, my wife got me into the Sling Shot Hip Circle By Mark Bell.

woman doing hip thrusts while weaing a band around her knees

And, I have to say, what seems like just a simple piece of fabric, is unrivalled when it comes to building and warming up the glutes. I kid you not: this little hip circle works my glutes just as well as those hip abduction machines (which probably cost 100x the price).

I suppose that's what happens when you let a world-record-holding powerlifter design a glute training band...

I definitely recommend investing in the Mark Bell Hip Circle is you want to improve your mobility and build your glutes as fast as possible.

Smith machine reverse lunge muscles worked


woman performing glute exercises with a hip circle by the pool

Besides taking a longer stride backwards, you can lean forwards slightly at the hips to increase glute activation during reverse lunges. Of course, don't bend at the waist too much; otherwise, you'll activate your spinal erectors at the expense of your quads [2].


close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

If longer strides emphasise glutes, then it follows that shorter strides emphasise the quads. And that's not just my opinion—anatomy agrees. When you shorten your stride, you naturally increase the range of motion at the knee joint, which in turn, creates a deeper, more growth-provoking stretch in your quads.


Shirtless athletic man turned back on white background.

Despite the Smith machine reverse lunge offering a comparable leg stimulus to back squats, it creates far less tension within your spinal erectors than its bilateral counterpart. This is for 2 reasons:

First, your lower back is simply subjected to less strain because you're naturally using less weight by training one leg at a time.

And second, the Smith machine takes care of most of the stabilisation for you, which not only gives your spinal erectors a break—it also allows you to focus purely on working your legs.


very muscular man with his hands on his hips

When you do the reverse lunge Smith machine style, your abs are much less active than in the free weight version because they aren't really needed for stabilisation. However, since this is a single-leg exercise, your abs will be recruited to a higher degree than in, say...back squats, for example, because unilateral exercises inherently require more balance [3].

"The stability of the front leg and the stability of the knee is enhanced [compared to forward lunges]."
Jeff Cavaliere

Smith machine reverse lunge benefits

Reduced muscle imbalances

a close up of a female bodybuilder's quadriceps

The simple fact that you're training each leg independently goes a long way to making reverse lunges (and all other unilateral exercises, for that matter) an effective muscle imbalance solution [4].

But it's the improved mind-muscle connection, in particular, that makes the difference. By focusing hard on the working muscle (and making a few postural tweaks along the way), you can ensure—with nothing but the power of your mind— that the tension goes where you want it to.

It sounds a bit woo-woo, but the mind-muscle connection is ironclad legit. In fact, it's the main reason why bodybuilders are much bigger than powerlifters—they're not merely lifting weights, they're working muscles.

Healthier knees

a sporty woman warming up before a run

Now, I don't recommend looking down while at the bottom of a reverse lunge—that's bad for your back—but if you do, you'll notice that your shin is pretty much vertical (that is to say that your knee isn't painfully protruding over your toes).

This joint health-first positioning is almost impossible to achieve with the likes of front squats or back squats because your knees have to travel forwards if you want to hip depth.

Of course, you could just stick your hips out, but then your "squat" essentially becomes a good morning, which puts dangerous amounts of pressure on your spinal erectors.

But with reverse lunges, you don't have to choose between healthy knees and a healthy back—you can have both. I know it sounds radical, but if you're not a powerlifter (and thus don't have to do back squats), then it might do you good to think about making reverse lunges your primary leg exercise—if you care about your long term-knee health.

Bigger, stronger glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

Who doesn't want bigger, stronger glutes?

Heck, celebrities are paying millions to get a more sculpted backside. So whether we're willing to admit it publicly or not, we all want developed glutes muscles (and the respect that comes with such development).

Conveniently, reverse lunges are one of the best glute exercises that you can do for mass because they provide an extreme muscle stretch, which is one of the most vital components of muscle growth itself. If it wasn't, we'd just be stood around squeezing our cheeks all day, waiting for our glutes to grow.

Smith machine reverse lunge alternatives

Smith machine lunge

The Smith machine lunge is the more popular, quad-focused version of the reverse lunge. And yes, while it might provide a more intense pump in your quads, it's a fair bit harsher on your knees. Plus, you're also significantly weaker during traditional lunges because you aren't utilising your glutes as much due to the upright nature of the movement.

Smith machine split squat

Smith machine Bulgarian squats are essentially the opposite of the Smith machine reverse lunge to box step up that I spoke about earlier. Rather than elevating your front foot (as in the reverse lunge variation) you're raising your back leg (usually on a bench). However, in my experience, elevating your back foot on a bench quickly causes your feet to cramp up, while also placing additional stress on your lower back.

Split squats are a fine exercise, but I just think that reverse lunges are a safer long-term bet.

Smith machine step up

The Smith machine step up is a great exercise, in theory. I mean, it works your quads, glutes and improves your muscle imbalances—what's not to like?

However, if you're even remotely tall, most Smith machines make it impossible to get a full range of motion, which means that you're leaving a lot of muscle growth on the table.

Also, your non-working leg tends to impede your movement on the way down, which is really quite annoying. For that reason, I much prefer Smith machine reverse lunges.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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