Deficit Reverse Lunge: Try This in Place of Step-Ups

It takes a special kind of person to love leg day, but for mountain athletes how you feel about leg day doesn't matter. It's just what it takes so you can perform in the backcountry. There are a million ways to build your legs, but to build them with purpose - that is, getting your body ready for deadfall and bushwhacking, not any type of leg workout will do the trick. You need functional exercises that simulate the terrain and situation you'll face, not some movement that makes your legs look nice in the mirror.

This is one of the reasons we've incorporated step-ups into so many of MTNTOUGH's programs.

They continue to have a place in our lab and training programs, but we're always experimenting with ways to improve our athletes' readiness for traversing tough terrain.

These conditions require unconventional strength, the type of strength that most exercises at the gym simply can’t provide. Whether that's the limited range of motion of an exercise or just that its simulation is too far removed from practical use, some exercises just don't capture what you'll need in the field. That’s why you need something else in your arsenal that can prepare you to climb over large rocks, trees, and other tricky obstacles.

After experimenting in our lab and testing deficit reverse lunges in the wild, we've become big believers in this exercise. The deficit reverse lunge requires strength through a big range of motion. As soon as you set the exercise up you can feel how it’s going to be different from others. Most machine exercises, and many free weight exercises, don’t challenge you to strengthen your leg muscles while simultaneously stretching them.

We believe unconventional athletes require unconventional movements, and this exercise fits the bill. As we prep our athlete's bodies indoors for the demands they'll face outdoors, we feel more confident that the deficit reverse lunge is a functional exercise that will help them perform at the highest level and reduce their risk for injury.

In this article, we'll walk you through deficit reverse lunges and show you why they're so powerful for mountain conditions. We'll also share the proper form needed to do them correctly and benefit from the movement.

Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with lunges or their many different variations, there are modifications for any fitness level from beginner to elite, with plenty of ways to scale this exercise to your needs. Even though they're challenging, they should be part of your program if you’re serious about hunting or spending any significant time in the backcountry.

What Is Deficit Reverse Lunge?

Deficit reverse lunges are a variation of the traditional reverse lunge, which starts from an elevated surface. They can be performed with or without weight and from different heights, based on ability level. It’s more challenging than the regular reverse lunge due to the increased range of motion.

Lunges come in a variety of forms, all of which involve movement in a specific direction. There’s a fine but important distinction between squats and lunges. To put it simply, a squat is a motion performed with both feet on the ground, whereas lunges are performed to move one foot. Forward, lateral, and reverse lunges are all popular, yet as you might venture a guess, they all move in a different and specific direction,

If you’re new to lunges, adding a deficit usually isn’t the first step. Getting the basics down is key, but eventually, you’ll need more of a challenge. Deficit reverse lunges add that challenge by starting the movement from an elevated surface. 

Lunges of any kind should be included in your program, even though they’re not as commonly used as squats or deadlifts. Don't blame its popularity on personality though - lunges are great. It's just that most people don't perform them correctly, and poor technique can make lunges less effective. Plus, they tend to have a steeper learning curve than other movements. As long as you learn how to do them properly and have patience in the beginning, deficit reverse lunges will quickly become one of your favorite exercises for getting your legs and balance mountain ready.

Benefits of Deficit Reverse Lunges

Taking the extra time to learn how to do deficit reverse lunges is worth it if you’re trying to get functional strength. If your only goal is to lift weights in the gym, without worrying about how it carries over to the real world, then regular lunges are fine. However, you need to take it a step further to prepare your body for the outdoors, and here are just a few of the massive reasons to use deficit reverse lunges to get you there:

Prevent Injuries:

When an injury happens, if you pinpoint it to the moment, you'll find that most occur at the end of your range of motion. Yet, most people only train in the middle of their range. So when you’re stretching your leg to get over a rock, your hip is in a much more vulnerable position.

Reverse deficit lunges train your joints in vulnerable positions, improving their ability to handle the real stress of unpredictable terrain. Plus, a lack of flexibility in the hips is related to groin pain in athletes.

Improve Balance:

Most lunges improve your balance, but standing on an elevated surface when doing a deficit reverse lunge takes it to the next level. You might be surprised that raising yourself off the ground only a few inches can throw off your sense of balance. Over time you’ll get better at stabilizing on one leg and feel more steady on your feet while hiking through tough terrain.

Boost Cardiovascular Endurance:

Weight training is typically thought of as beneficial for muscles, not improving endurance. However, lifting weights can increase your VO2 max, which is a measure of your cardiovascular endurance. While the focus of this exercise is on strengthening the leg muscles, it also improves your cardiovascular fitness.

If you do 8 or 10 reps on each leg, that’s 16-20 reps in total for one set. To keep up with the demands of the exercise, your heart will work overtime to pump blood to your muscles.

Reduce Fall Risk and Symptoms of Hip and Knee Arthritis:

The deficit reverse lunge isn’t reserved for younger fitness enthusiasts. In fact, if you’re older, it can be an excellent tool to prevent falls and other balance-related injuries. Plus, it’s been recommended as a way to overcome knee and hip pain which is often attributed to “arthritis.” So regardless of your age, if you're coming back from an injury from the trail, this is a solid exercise to aid in your recovery.

Train Each Leg Independently:

In an exercise like the barbell back squat, your feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. But when you're struggling up a hill with your pack on, do you think your feet are shoulder-width apart? Not at all. You step one foot in front of the other. Back squats are useful, don't get us wrong, but they don’t increase single-leg strength as much as a lunge of any stripe.

Lunges individually strengthen the leg under duress in a similar fashion to walking or climbing. Doing so can reduce the asymmetries in strength that your legs may have, making them more balanced and capable. And that's a recipe for functional strength.

Feel Your Glutes:

It sounds strange, but most people don't know how to use certain muscles, and the poster child of this concept is easily the glutes. But single-leg movements, such as the deficit reverse lunge, force you to use your glutes to stabilize the hip and knee.

If you want to check whether you're one of those people who knows how to tap into the strength of your glutes, have a look at your knees while doing the deficit reverse lunge. If you see your front knee caving inwards during the movement, it’s a sign that your glutes are weak. Make sure the front knee stays strong and stable by using your powerful glute muscles.

Alright, you have to be fully convinced to try the deficit reverse lunges by this point. So let's jump into it and walk through the movement.

How to Do the Deficit Reverse Lunge

You'll need to sort out your elevated surface first. There are a few objects you can use to create a deficit to step down from, including small boxes, benches, and weight plates.

If it's your first go, keep the gap low. As you get started, your priorities are learning the form and doing so without creating harmful strain on your hip. So try to find a deficit about ankle height, then build it up over time.

If you want to increase the weight, hold a dumbbell in each hand, either by your sides or front-racked on your shoulders. If you want to increase the resistance, hold kettlebells or wear a weighted pack. Now then, here's the play-by-play:

  • Step 1: Start standing with both feet on an elevated surface, either holding a weight or without weight.
  • Step 2: Leaning forward very slightly over your front leg, step one foot back toward the ground behind you.
  • Step 3: When your back foot lands, drop your back knee towards the ground, bending the front knee as well.
  • Step 4: Once you’ve gone as low as you comfortably can, lean forward gently with your upper body.
  • Step 5: Push off your back foot slightly and, at the same time, press through your front leg to step up.
  • Step 6: If you want to add a knee drive at the top, extend your standing leg and lift the other knee in the air, standing tall with a straight torso.
  • Step 7: Repeat by stepping back into the lunge. You can switch feet or stay with the same one.

Muscles Targeted:

  • Quads and Hamstrings: Your leg muscles will feel the brunt of this exercise. The quadriceps play a big role in controlling your descent and helping you stand back up at the top of the movement. Your hamstrings and adductor muscles also help, but to a lesser extent. Although, at the beginning and end of the lunge, your quadriceps and hamstrings will work in tandem.
  • Glutes: The gluteus maximus helps you get up from the bottom of the movement. We've already made a case for people not knowing how to use their glutes, so we'll share another interesting fact about lunges and glutes. Typically, back squats are thought of as one of the best movements to strengthen the butt muscles, but lunges might be even better.
  • Calves: Your rear calf also plays a role in the exercise by controlling your landing and pushing you back up.
  • Effect of Weight Placement: Depending on how you hold the weights, other upper body and core muscles are involved. If you hold the weights by your sides, your forearm, shoulder, and trapezius muscles will all work to hold the weight steady. If the weights are front-racked, your biceps and shoulders will help keep them in place.
  • Core: You’ll also use the core muscles, including the lower back, regardless of how you hold the weight. Those muscles help you maintain a relatively upright posture - sounds useful as you hike up a slope, right? Some would argue that a similar exercise, the forward lunge, is an ab exercise because of the amount of core muscle involvement. The same can also be said of the deficit reverse lunge since it forces the abdominal muscles to contract to keep your trunk stable. Holding the weights in a front-racked position can increase the amount that your abs work.


Like every workout in every program at MTNTOUGH, we're laser-focused on taking athletes from whatever level they begin at and propelling them to the best fitness in their life. So whether someone hasn't seen a gym in 3 decades or 3 minutes, we've created a personalized approach to meeting them with the appropriate challenge. One way we do this is through a three-tiered approach to our workouts: beginner, intermediate, and elite.

Deficit reverse lunges are no exception to this approach. They're highly modifiable, which means they can scale to almost any level of fitness. So wherever you're at on your fitness journey; be it looking for a challenge, trying to find a way in, or bored out of your mind and needing some variety for leg day, try some of the following modifications to quench your workout thirst.

Beginner Modifications

If you’re not fully comfortable with the deficit to reverse lunge but want to experience the stretch that comes along with the movement, you can try doing an assisted version. Set up a cable machine with the pulleys set to a high height, or use a TRX attached to something tall, like a pull-up bar.

Then, set up an elevated surface to stand on that’s roughly ankle height, hold onto your assistance, and go through the lunge motion. At the bottom, use your arms to pull yourself back up. Gradually, use less assistance until the movement is natural.

Intermediate Modifications

If you’ve got the basics down and want more of a challenge, there are a couple of ways to go about this. The most obvious is raising the elevated surface to mid-shin height. But if you're keen to work on your balance, here's a great way to go about it.

When you step up, drive your knee high into the air. Then, instead of resetting your foot at the top of the movement, go right back into the lunge by stepping back with the foot that’s in the air. This variation forces you to maintain balance and stability at the top of the movement.

Elite Modifications

At a certain point, increasing the height of the deficit isn't feasible. And there's also a threshold for how much weight you can hold. When you've reached either performance plateau and still want to turn your amp to 11, then this one's for you.

It’s time to combine a high deficit with a weighted vest or pack and dumbbells. By holding some weight on your body and more in your hands, you can load up hundreds of pounds. With a 50lb vest or pack and a 60lb dumbbell in each hand, you’ll be hoisting a herculean 170 lbs on each rep. That’s elite.

A word of caution - If you feel pinching or pain in the hip, it could be a sign of hip impingement. While you don’t necessarily need to stop doing this exercise, you shouldn’t go too low. Go as low as you can without feeling pain, then come back up. Typically the discomfort is felt in the front knee, so you might want to lower the deficit you’re using to compensate.

5 Reasons to Add Reverse Deficit Lunges to Your Workout

If you're backcountry hunting or making your way up the mountains, few exercises are more appropriate than the deficit reverse lunge. If your schedule gets crazy or time gets tight, skip bench press, but this exercise needs to stay in your program. Sound hyperbolic? Maybe, but here are 5 reasons why you should include it in at least one workout per week:

1. Carry More Gear

Traveling light can be a wise strategic choice, but it shouldn’t be something you do out of necessity. If you feel like your body can’t hold up to the rigor of your next adventure, this is your wake-up call to add deficit reverse lunges to your workout.

They can give you the confidence to carry the gear you need, regardless of how much it weighs, because you’ll be able to rely on your leg strength and newfound balance, reducing wasted energy to keep you on your feet.

2. Improve Flexibility Without Stretching

You know that stretching is good for you, most people do, yet knowledge isn't the same as action, and knowing stretching is good for you without actually stretching isn't all that valuable. Whether it’s a lack of time or effort, chances are you’re not doing enough to improve your flexibility. Adding deficit reverse lunges to your workout improves flexibility while strengthening your muscles. It's a win-win.

3. Overcome Aches and Pains

Missing a hunting trip because of a knee or hip injury is just as bad as having to leave the backcountry early because of an injury. While doing deficit reverse lunges can’t fix underlying medical problems, they can strengthen the muscles around your knee and hip, giving you more confidence in your joints. That can be the difference-maker to get you off the couch and back into the bush. And now for a quick aside:

Is the Deficit Reverse Lunge Safe for People with Knee Problems?

You can do a deficit reverse lunge with most knee issues, but you might need to modify it. If you have a problem that limits your range of motion, put a pad under your rear knee to prevent your front knee from bending too far. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for clearance if you have issues.

Generally speaking, avoid doing movements that exacerbate pain in the knee. Overall, strengthening the knee with this exercise should help, but there are cases in which it won’t. The knee joint isn’t very complex, but some issues can be concerning, for example:

4. Navigate Tough Obstacles

Whether you’re in deep snow or thick cover, you’re going to hit some uncomfortable roadblocks. It could be deadfall in your path, following an uneven game trail that no human has ever set foot on, or taking big steps to get through the snow. Deficit reverse lunges will help you develop the ability to take a big step up and forward with a lot of weight on your back, which can help you conquer terrain you previously couldn’t.

5. Rewarding in the Gym

Some movements in the gym seemingly have no carryover to what you’re doing in the wilderness. Foam rolling, core workouts, and even some funky kettlebell exercises can seem foreign to a mountain athlete.

But not the deficit reverse lunge. It's rewarding when you recognize the muscles getting worked in the gym are the same that get fatigued during a hike. You know that your time is being invested wisely.

Can Beginners Do the Deficit Reverse Lunge?

Beginners should do the deficit reverse lunge, as long as they take proper precautions to scale the movement to their ability level. That means the deficit used should be no higher than ankle height at first, and you should start with some form of assistance from a cable machine or TRX.

Of course, if you’re uncomfortable with adding a deficit, you can start by mastering the traditional reverse lunge. Once you feel confident, you can add the deficit back in. As long as you don’t feel pain or a severe lack of balance, you should start with an assisted deficit reverse lunge.

Using assistance is key, even if you think your strength is sufficient to try the movement. You may find you only need it for the first set, but the assistance you'll receive from a cable or TRX will help you learn the movement. Your form is more important than elevation or bravado. While it’s similar to a regular reverse lunge, adding a deficit moves feel completely new and foreign. 

If you're concerned about losing balance with the deficit reverse lunge, you could try a different exercise that uses similar muscles, like the split squat, which is similar to a lunge but you don’t move your feet. Instead, you step one foot back and drop down and up until you’ve completed your target number of reps. You can even perform these with a deficit.

Small Change, Big Results

Making small changes to an exercise, or even your entire workout plan can lead to big results. Take the deficit reverse lunge for example. By simply adding an elevated surface to the regular lunge, you change the dynamic of the exercise. This small adjustment helps you use more range of motion and better prepares you for the environmental challenges that lie ahead. You’ll immediately notice the change in difficulty when you try this exercise.

Changing your workout plan might feel like a small change, but it can make all the difference. If you feel like what you’ve been doing in the gym isn’t translating to what you want to do outside the gym, check out our programs with a free 14-day trial. It could be the change that takes your physical abilities to the next level.