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The Importance of Incorporating Side Lunges Into Your Leg-Day Workout

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Along with squats and deadlifts, lunges are a compound, muscle-strengthening maneuver you’ll discover in virtually every well-designed lower-body workout regimen. However, if you only include the standard lunge variation in your program, you may be neglecting smaller muscles in your lower body and potentially escalating your risk of sustaining an injury in the future.

Hence, on your upcoming leg day, prioritize the side lunge (also known as the lateral lunge). Executing a lunge to the side instead of in front of you may appear to be a minor alteration, but it can yield significant advantages for your leg muscles, joints, and everyday activities. Here’s what professionals advise you to be aware of.

How to Perform Side Lunges

To execute a side lunge, begin by stepping one foot out to your side and then shifting your hips backward and bending your knee to lower your buttocks toward the floor. As you descend, keep your opposite leg extended, as demonstrated by Rachel Mariotti, a personal trainer certified by NCSF (National Council on Strength and Fitness) based in New York City. By practicing this movement pattern, you will activate all the muscles in your lower body while enhancing the stability of your ankles, knees, and hips, as stated by Bianca Vesco, an NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor in Nashville.

A. Stand with feet close together and hands clasped in front of your chest.

B. Take a large step out to the left and immediately shift your hips backward while bending your left knee to lower yourself into a lunge. Keep your right leg extended but not fully straightened, with both feet pointing forward.

C. Push through your left foot to straighten your left leg, bring your left foot back in line with your right, and return to the starting position.

The Key Benefits of Side Lunges

By incorporating lateral lunges into your exercise routine, you will challenge your body in a disregarded plane of motion, correct any muscular imbalances, and improve the strength of your lower body and ankle joints. Below, experts elucidate these advantages.

Challenges Your Body In the Frontal Plane of Motion

You may not realize it, but most of the movements you engage in every day, such as running, walking up stairs, or cycling, primarily involve the sagittal plane of motion (which means you are moving your body forwards or backwards).

But it’s equally imperative for your body to shift in other planes of motion, including the lateral plane (which involves side-to-side movements), asserts Mariotti. “Human beings are genuinely adept at moving forward and backward, generally speaking,” adds Vesco. “However, when you traverse sideways, it becomes slightly more challenging — there’s a plethora of stability and mobility that comes into play, particularly in the knees, ankles, and hips.

However, including side lunges into your routine can assist you in practicing that lateral movement pattern. And doing so can have a significant payoff in your everyday life. “Any kind of sideways movement will aid in maintaining your equilibrium, your rotation, and assist you in resisting any external forces,” says Vesco. Consider standing on the subway: If you’re facing the doors while the train is in motion, your body will sway from side to side. If your muscles and joints are not accustomed to working in the front plane, there is a high probability that you will topple over if the train suddenly stops or rapidly moves forward, adds Vesco.

In simpler terms, the lateral lunge teaches you how to remain upright and free from injury when you move from side to side. “It trains the hips to acknowledge different planes of motion,” says Mariotti. “Whenever you move the body in a different direction than what you’re accustomed to, you are making the body more intelligent and awakening other muscle groups.”

Assists in Rectifying Muscle Imbalances

It is completely normal for one side of your body to be more powerful than the other. However, if you regularly neglect unilateral training (performing exercises that target only one side of the body at a time), you may develop significant muscle imbalances, which can result in compensatory movement patterns and, ultimately, an increased risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise. The same risk applies if you solely focus on exercises that target the sagittal plane of motion, which mainly strengthen your quads, calves, and hamstrings while neglecting smaller muscles, as Tara Laferrara, an NASM-certified personal trainer and the founder of the TL Method, previously explained to Shape.

The good news is that side lunges fulfill both of these requirements. The exercise specifically targets one side of your body at a time in the frontal plane, ensuring that smaller muscles, such as those in your inner and outer thighs, are not disregarded and effectively preventing muscle imbalances.

Enhances Ankle Joints

Thanks to the side-to-side movement pattern, the sideways lunge also aids in strengthening the ankles, states Vesco. The majority of ankle sprains occur on the lateral side of the ankle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, so developing this strength can help safeguard your joints during workouts and everyday activities, as stated by Vesco. For instance, “if you kick a ball and your ankle is robust, you won’t experience any injury or discomfort,” she adds. This strength can also assist in preventing discomfort in other joints. “We are all interconnected; your ankle extends to the knee, which in turn extends to the hips,” explains Vesco. “So if you have a sprained ankle, your knees and hips won’t feel pleasant.”

Muscles Worked in the Sideways Lunge

While the sideways lunge engages almost every muscle in your legs, it primarily targets those on the inner and outer sides of the limbs, according to Vesco. “Those muscles are what will propel you to the side and stabilize you as you step into that lunging leg,” she explains.

Specifically, you will activate the hip adductors — inner thigh muscles that offer stability and mobility to the lower body, says Vesco. You will also target the hip abductors, which include the glute medius (the glute muscle that rests near the outside of your pelvis), and research demonstrates that these muscles play a crucial role in hip function and mobility. Additionally, like other lower-body movements, you will also train your quadriceps, hamstrings, and core, as per Vesco.

Variations of the Sideways Lunge

Fortunately, the traditional sideways lunge is not the only way to incorporate lateral movement into your routine. Whether you want to make the exercise easier or take it up a notch, try adding these sideways lunge variations to your workout.

Modification: Chair Sit Sideways Lunge

Concerned about the impact of a conventional sideways lunge? Instead, Vesco suggests trying a cossack squat. Begin with a wide stance, then shift your weight onto one foot and lower yourself into a squat while the other leg remains straight — no sidestep necessary. “The cossack squat is one of my preferred mobility exercises because it opens, strengthens, and stabilizes your entire hip joint, but it has less impact compared to the sideways lunge,” she explains.

If you are not completely comfortable lowering into a squat and rising back up, consider performing the sideways lunge similar to a cossack squat, with a chair positioned behind you.

This instrument will assist you in determining the appropriate moment to cease descending towards the surface, and in case you momentarily perch yourself at the base of the motion, you will encounter less difficulty when exerting force to elevate yourself back to an upright position,” expresses Mariotti.

Progression: Side Lunge with Explosive Push

If you’re prepared to enhance the difficulty of the conventional side lunge, try vigorously pushing upwards out of the lunge to return to a standing position, recommends Mariotti. “You’ll need to actively exert force against the ground to rise back up, which engages more muscles,” she explains. “By recruiting more muscle, the body is forced to work harder, resulting in the heart having to work harder as well.” In other words, this lateral lunge progression will also serve as a rapid burst of cardiovascular exercise.

You can also put your stability to the test by incorporating a single-leg balance at the conclusion of each repetition, as suggested by Vesco. Instead of returning your foot to its original position on the floor, immediately raise your knee up towards your chest after returning to a standing position. This creates a significant challenge to your balance, she explains.

Common Side Lunge Mistakes

One of the biggest errors in proper form during a lateral lunge is allowing your chest to drop as you lower into the lunge. “I’m not sure why, but people always tend to collapse so far forward and bring their chest close to their thigh,” says Vesco. “When, in reality, you should maintain an upright position, good posture, and a neutral, flat back.” Failing to maintain this upright posture will render the side lunge ineffective in building strength in your core, adds Mariotti.

You should also ensure that your knee does not cave in and that the heel of your working leg remains grounded, as these actions can potentially lead to knee pain, according to the experts. If you observe the former occurring, it may indicate weak hip abductors, and incorporating exercises that target these muscles would be beneficial, suggests Vesco.

Most importantly, move purposefully, especially if the side lunge is new to you, advises Vesco. Ensure that you take gentle steps, as performing an unfamiliar lateral movement with excessive impact could potentially result in an ankle injury or discomfort in your knees or hips, she adds.

How to Incorporate Side Lunges into Your Exercise Routine

While the side lunge can be a valuable addition to anyone’s workout regimen, the movement is particularly advantageous for athletes who regularly engage in lateral movements (such as tennis, basketball, and soccer players), explains Vesco. Conversely, if you have a history of ankle or knee injuries, it is generally recommended to consult with your doctor or physical therapist before performing lateral lunges.

ACL or MCL ruptures) to ensure the exercise won’t cause further damage, she adds.

Once you’re prepared to tackle the side lunge, consider incorporating it — along with other sideways movements — into your fitness routine one to three times a week, depending on how frequently you’re exercising, suggests Vesco. For instance, if you currently perform forward lunges twice a week, try doing lateral lunges on one of those days to get your body accustomed to moving in a different direction, adds Mariotti. Rest assured, you’ll notice yourself tripping less on the subway and proudly displaying strong thighs in no time.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart

Model and fitness expert: Rachel Mariotti

Wardrobe: SET Active