Why Side Lunges Should Be a Staple In Your Leg-Day Routine

Find out the perks of breaking out of your forward-and-backward box and incorporating lateral lunges into your lower-body workout routine.

A fitness trainer performing side lunges
Photo: Jenna Brillhart

Along with squats and deadlifts, lunges are a compound, strength-building move you'll find in practically every well-crafted lower-body workout routine. But if the traditional lunge is the only variation included in your programming, you could be overlooking smaller muscles in your lower half — and potentially increasing your risk of suffering an injury down the road.

So on your next leg day, put the side lunge (aka the lateral lunge) at the top of your to-do list. Lunging out to the side rather than in front of you may seem like a minor change, but it can have serious benefits for your leg muscles, joints, and everyday life. Here's what experts want you to know.

How to Do Side Lunges

To perform a side lunge, you'll step one foot out at your side, then sink your hips back and bend your knee to lower your butt to the floor. As you lower to the floor, you'll keep your opposite leg straight, as Rachel Mariotti, an NCSF-certified personal trainer in New York City, demonstrates below. By practicing this movement pattern, you'll activate all the muscles in your lower body while improving the stability of your ankles, knees, and hips, says Bianca Vesco, an NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor in Nashville.

A. Stand with feet together, hands clasped in front of chest.

B. Take a large step out to the left and immediately sink hips back and bend left knee to lower into a lunge. Keep right leg straight but not locked, both feet pointing forward.

C. Push through left foot to straighten left leg, step left foot next to right, and return to the starting position.

The Key Side Lunge Benefits

By mixing the lateral lunge into your routine, you'll challenge your body in an overlooked plane of motion, help fix any muscle imbalances, and improve your strength in your lower body and ankle joints. Below, experts break these benefits down.

Challenges Your Body In the Frontal Plane of Motion

You may not realize it, but most of the movements you do on a daily basis — running, walking up the stairs, biking — involve the sagittal plane of motion (meaning you're moving your body forward or backward). But it's just as important for your body to move in other planes of motion, including the frontal plane (which entails side-to-side movements), says Mariotti. "Human beings are really, really good at moving forward and backward, generally speaking," adds Vesco. "But when you move to the side, it gets a little trickier — there's a lot more stability and mobility that comes into play, especially in the knees, ankles, and hips."

However, incorporating side lunges into your routine can help you practice that lateral movement pattern. And doing so can have a big payoff in your everyday life. "Any sort of lateral movement is going to help you to support your balance, your rotation, and help you resist any outside forces," says Vesco. Think about standing on the subway: If you're facing the doors while the train is moving, your body will rock side to side. If your muscles and joints aren't used to working in the frontal plane, there's a good chance you'll topple over if the train comes to a sudden stop or quickly lurches forward, says Vesco.

Simply put, the lateral lunge teaches you how to stay upright and injury-free when you move from side to side. "It gets the hips to recognize different planes of motion," says Mariotti. "Any time you move the body in a different direction than you're used to, you're making the body smarter and waking up other muscle groups."

Helps Correct Muscle Imbalances

It's totally normal for one side of your body to be stronger than the other. But if you regularly skip out on unilateral training (performing exercises that work just one side of the body at a time), you may develop serious muscle imbalances, which can lead to compensated movement patterns and, ultimately, an increased risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise. The same risk applies if you're training only in the sagittal plane of motion, which tends to primarily target and strengthen your quads, calves, and hamstrings while leaving smaller muscles in the dust, Tara Laferrara, an NASM-certified personal trainer and the founder of the TL Method, previously told Shape.

The good news: Side lunges check off both those boxes. The exercise targets just one side of your body at a time in the frontal plane, ensuring smaller muscles — such as those in your inner and outer thighs — aren't overlooked and keeping muscle imbalances at bay.

Strengthens Ankle Joints

Thanks to the side-to-side movement pattern, the lateral lunge also helps strengthen the ankles, says Vesco. The majority of ankle sprains occur on the lateral side of the ankle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, so building up this strength can help keep your joints safe during workouts and everyday activities, says Vesco. For example, "if you kick a ball and your ankle is strong, you're not going to have any injury or any pain," she adds. This strength can help prevent aches in other joints, as well. "We're all connected; your ankle goes up to the knee, which goes up to the hips," says Vesco. "So if you have a sprained ankle, your knees and hips aren't going to feel great."

Side Lunge Muscles Worked

While the side lunge uses practically every muscle within your legs, it primarily targets those on the inner and outer sides of the limbs, says Vesco. "Those muscles are what's going to propel you to the side and stabilize you as you step into that lunging leg," she explains.

Specifically, you'll activate the hip adductors — inner thigh muscles that provide lower-body stability and mobility, says Vesco. You'll also target the hip abductors, which include the glute medius (the glute muscle that sits near the outside of your pelvis), and these muscles play an important role in hip function and mobility, research shows. And just like other lower-body moves, you'll also train your quads, hamstrings, and core, says Vesco.

Side Lunge Variations

Thankfully, the classic side lunge isn't the only way you can get your fix of lateral movement. Whether you're looking to scale down the exercise or take it to the next level, add these lateral lunge variations to your rotation.

Modification: Chair Sit Side Lunge

Worried about the impact of a traditional lateral lunge? Try a cossack squat instead, suggests Vesco. You'll start with your feet in a wide stance, then shift your weight into one foot and sink your butt down to the floor into a lunge while the other leg remains straight — no side step required. "The cossack squat is one of my favorite mobility exercises because it opens, strengthens, and stabilizes your entire hip joint, but it's a lot safer than the lateral lunge as far as impact goes," she explains.

If you're not fully comfortable sinking down into a lunge and rising back out of it, consider performing the side lunge like a cossack squat and with a chair behind you. This tool will help you know when to stop lowering to the floor, and if you briefly sit down at the bottom of the movement, you'll have an easier time pressing back up to return to standing, says Mariotti.

Progression: Side Lunge with Explosive Push

If you're ready to amp up the difficulty of the traditional side lunge, try explosively pressing up out of the lunge to return to standing, suggests Mariotti. "You'll have to actively push into the ground to come back up, which recruits more muscles," she explains. "If you are recruiting more muscle, the body has to work harder, so the heart has to work harder too." Translation: This lateral lunge progression will also act as a quick burst of cardio.

You can also put your stability to the test by adding a single-leg balance at the end of each rep, recommends Vesco. Instead of returning your foot back to the starting position on the floor, you'll lift your knee up to your chest immediately after returning to standing, making for a serious balance challenge, she says.

Common Side Lunge Mistakes

One of the biggest lateral lunge form mistakes you can make: Dropping your chest as you lower into the lunge. "I don't know why, but people always want to collapse so far forward and bring their chest so close to their thigh," says Vesco. "When in reality, you want to have a proud chest, good posture, and a neutral, flat back." Without maintaining that upright posture, the side lunge won't have any strength-building effect on your core, adds Mariotti.

You also want to ensure your knee isn't caving in and your heel on the working leg doesn't lift up off the ground, which can ultimately cause knee pain, according to the experts. If you notice the former occurring, your hip abductors may be weak, and you could benefit from prioritizing exercises that strengthen those muscles, says Vesco.

Most importantly, move with intention, particularly if the side lunge is brand new to you, says Vesco. Make sure you're stepping gently, as performing an unfamiliar lateral movement with aggressive impact could potentially lead to an ankle injury or pain in your knees or hips, she adds.

How to Add Side Lunges to Your Routine

Although the side lunge can be a valuable addition to anyone's workout routine, the movement is particularly beneficial for athletes who constantly move laterally (think: tennis, basketball, and soccer players), says Vesco. On the flip side, you'll generally want to chat with your doctor or physical therapist before performing lateral lunges if you have a history of ankle or knee injuries (e.g. ACL or MCL tears) to ensure the exercise won't cause more harm, she adds.

Once you're ready to tackle the side lunge, consider mixing it — along with other lateral movements — into your fitness routine one to three times a week, depending on how often you're working out, suggests Vesco. For example, if you're currently performing forward lunges twice a week, try doing lateral lunges on one of those days to get your body used to moving in a different plane of motion, adds Mariotti. Trust, you'll notice yourself taking fewer stumbles on the subway and boasting powerful thighs in no time.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Rachel Mariotti
Wardrobe: SET Active

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