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September 30, 2022
When it comes to lower body training, everyone is familiar with the forward and backward lunge, step up, and Bulgarian split squat. These are all fantastic unilateral lower body exercises that work in the sagittal plane of motion, meaning they require you to move forward and backward.
Perfecting forward and backward movements are crucial for everyday function, but if you have ever slipped on the ice before, you know your body moves in more than one way. It also needs to move laterally, and as its name implies, lateral lunges, also referred to as side-stepping lunges, can help with this.
This article will cover:
A lateral or side-stepping lunge is a unilateral exercise that works in the frontal plane. This means you are stepping to the side instead of forward or backward. With so many of our day-to-day movements functioning in a forward and backward fashion, your body needs to train in the other planes to make sure it’s strong, mobile, and healthy enough to move optimally.
Like all lunge exercises, it trains one leg at a time, which helps address imbalances and increase athletic and movement performance. It can be used as a stability exercise before your compound lower body lifts, or it can be trained after movements like squats and deadlifts as an assistance exercise focusing on strength.
It can be done with several different pieces of equipment, including dumbbells, kettlebells, a resistance band, and even a barbell, while concentrating on hip and adductor strength.
The side-stepping and lateral lunge are interchangeable terms that mean the same thing. This is similar to the split squat and the lunge. But despite the two exercises working the same muscles, the same cannot be said about lateral lunges and lateral squats.
A lateral lunge includes the most important aspect of any lunge pertaining to athletic movement: stepping. As you step out to the side, your foot leaves the floor, and the stability factor immediately comes into play. Because of its role in hip stability and ensuring your body can handle any athletic movements in the frontal plane, the lateral lunge is crucial to a well-rounded program.
The lateral squat, on the other hand, may look the same to the untrained eye, but it is not. This movement will not involve a step and is a stationary side lunge. You take one big step out the same way as if you were starting a side lunge, but once you are at your desired distance, you will keep the foot planted the entire time.
The concepts for these two exercises are almost the same, but one has a step, while the other doesn't. Preference and ankle mobility will be factors, as well as your ability to keep your spine upright.
Along with the step, there are two other differences, which include:
The lateral lunge makes this a dynamic movement as one foot is off the ground as you step and drop into the side lunge. It then requires the synchronization of those muscles to stabilize and work together to push the ground away as you return to the starting position again, lifting your foot off the floor.
To return to the slipping-on-ice reference: If you slip, you want that leg to not only be able to absorb the force when it plants itself, but you also want your muscles to be strong enough to prevent you from falling.
The lateral squat still provides excellent benefits and works in the frontal plane, but not as much as the lateral lunge. If you're looking for improved athletic performance for your plyometrics exercises, you're going to want the added instability the side lunge provides.
Although the lateral squat may not have the same benefits for stability as the side lunge, it allows you to lift more weight. That doesn’t mean the side lunge cannot be loaded heavy, but it will be slightly less than what you can use for the lateral squat due to the added instability that occurs when your foot leaves the floor.
The lateral squat will be a better option if you're focusing more on building muscular strength in this plane.
Ready to work your quad, glute, and hamstring muscles? Here's how to do the side lunge correctly. You can use bodyweight, one dumbbell or kettlebell, or even add a resistance band.
How to do Lateral Lunges:
The lateral lunge is great for building muscle as long as you're doing them correctly. Using incorrect form is a recipe for wasting your time and potential injury. Avoid these 7 mistakes.
In the lunge position, keep your toes straight as it is essential for proper alignment throughout the exercise.
Make sure your foot, ankle, knee, and hip are all in the same line on the working leg. Not properly aligning your knees could lead to knee pain down the road.
Keep an upright spine to protect your lower back and hips.
This is a frontal plane movement, so make sure it doesn’t become a rotational core stability training exercise. Think about growing taller to the ceiling instead of rotating.
Step too broad, and you’ll drop into the splits, but if you go too narrow, your knee will go past your ankle. Again, ensure your foot, ankle, knee, and hip are all in one line.
The trailing leg will want to bend to make it easier to absorb the force. Make this a serious adductor exercise by making these muscles work to keep that leg straight during the entire movement.
Keep your weight evenly distributed throughout your foot, or the muscles up the chain may have difficulty controlling the movement.
What’s great about the side lunge is the extra muscles that work to stabilize your body during the movement. Any lunge is going to target the same muscle groups: the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The added instability makes this a great glute medius exercise, which is extremely important for hip stability.
It also will target the inner thigh muscles, specifically the adductors. Your inner thighs help bring your legs back to your body's midline. When you think of side lunges, think of strong hockey player legs.
Some other unsung side lunge heroes include your foot and ankle muscles, which work hard to absorb and redirect the force as you move through the exercise. It also strengthens your calves: the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles.
Moving upward, it’s going to hit your transverse abdominis (abs), multifidus (lower back), obliques (rotational core muscles), and erector spinae (lower back).
Whether you're trying to grow your upper gluteal muscles and lateral quadriceps muscles or fix some lower body muscle imbalances, the lateral lunge provides significant benefits to your leg workout.
These benefits include:
Like any exercise, a side lunge can be challenging to perform depending on your fitness level and training experience. But there are always progressions and modifications you can do, so start with a variation that works best for you.
If you have never done a side lunge and are relatively new to training, the aspect of stepping out to the side and landing on one foot can be challenging at first. If this is the case, you may need more practice, or you can use a lateral squat in a stationary position to build confidence in the movement.
Another option would be holding onto TRX straps to help keep your spine upright until you have built the trust in your body to know you can sit back without falling to the floor.
Ankle mobility can also be a factor in this exercise. If you are having difficulty not letting your knee come forward over your toe or keeping your heel down, you may need to add a higher box that you can sit on. Some simple ankle mobility exercises and stretches, like stretching on the stairs, can help with this.
If your adductors are especially weak, you may need to build some strength in them with Copenhagen side planks or hip thrusts, squeezing a medicine ball between your knees. It won’t take long for them to catch up, and it will allow you to work back into your side lunge progression as needed.
This movement will never be trained in the powerlifter rep range or really anything under 6 reps, and it’s important to remember its purpose. Its status as an athletic mobility style movement will change the way that you train for this exercise.
The most common place for the side lunge in your lower body training will be after your compound strength movements like squats and deadlifts. Anywhere from 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps when focusing on building muscular strength is good.
You can load the exercise as heavy as you can handle for that rep range but remember its primary purpose is for stability, so if you find yourself compromising form with a heavier weight, dial it back a bit.
If you are working in the bodyweight range or looking for more muscle hypertrophy and muscular endurance benefits, stick to 2-4 sets but increase the reps to 10-15. This will require you to use less weight than you would when training for strength.
Everyone will have a different starting place for their lateral lunge progression. Starting with your body weight is a good idea if you are new to any lateral movement.
Remember, you're going to be using your stabilizer muscles differently than you do in other lunge variations, even movement-based ones like the walking lunge. After you gain some starting strength and confidence with the movement, you can add some weight.
Here are several variations of the lunge, starting with the best one for beginners.
Every lifter and athlete should have more lateral movement in their workouts. Yes, we want toned leg muscles that look good in the mirror, but we also want to make sure our body can move the way it needs to prevent injury.
Every sport and movement, minus a few exceptions like powerlifting, is essentially played on one leg at a time, so why wouldn’t you add lateral movement into your training?
Keep an eye on the common mistakes and use progressive overload accordingly. As long as you do, you can build strength and injury-preventing stability with the side lunge, no matter your starting point.
If these are, for some reason, just not doable for you, there are some other options. Curtsy lunges, pistol squats, B-stance squats (like a staggered squat), and lateral sled drags are other terrific options to ensure you aren’t missing out on frontal plane training.
By now, you should see the benefits you are missing out on if you only do exercises and movements that move forward and backward. Step to the side of your comfort zone and start doing these lateral lunges. Your muscles will thank you!
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