Move better and sidestep injury with the side lunge

Editor’s note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”

When it comes to cardiovascular fitness, you may tend to focus on activities that move you forward, such as walking, running and cycling.

Likewise, in weight training, most traditional exercises center on forward and backward motion, occurring in what’s known as the sagittal plane.

But there is another plane of movement that deserves your attention: the frontal plane, where movements go from side to side.

The importance of stepping to the side

If the majority of your workouts take place in the sagittal plane, you risk creating muscular imbalances and leaving yourself susceptible to injury during lateral movements in everyday life. Incorporating frontal plane exercises, such as the side lunge, into your fitness routine can prepare your body to move better and be more durable in daily-life activities.

The side or lateral lunge is one of the best exercises for building lateral stability and mobility in the often neglected frontal plane. This exercise strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, adductors and core to help protect you against injuries such as groin pulls and hamstring tears. The side lunge also improves the mobility and stability of your hips, knees and ankles to avoid related strains and sprains.

Consider the activities in your lifestyle that require you to move laterally and how side lunging could prove beneficial:

Navigating crowded spaces: In environments such as busy streets, shopping malls or public transportation, you often need to sidestep or maneuver laterally to avoid obstacles, step off curbs and move through tight spaces. Training with side lunges can improve your ability to navigate these environments.

Household chores: Tasks such as vacuuming, sweeping or mopping often require lateral motion as you move from side to side to clean different areas of your home. By strengthening the muscles involved in lateral movement with side lunges, you can accomplish these chores more efficiently while reducing your risk of muscle strain or injury.

Playing with children or pets: If you have kids or pets, you’re likely familiar with the need to move quickly and react to sudden changes in direction. Side lunges can improve your ability to change direction rapidly and maintain balance, helping to keep playtime pain-free.

Recreational sports: Many recreational sports, including pickleball, tennis and basketball, involve lateral movements such as shuffling, cutting and sidestepping. Incorporating side lunges into your training regimen can enhance your lateral quickness, agility and overall performance in these sports.

Outdoor activities: Whether you’re hiking on uneven terrain, walking in deep sand on the beach or participating in more extreme activities such as skiing or snowboarding, lateral stability and mobility are essential for navigating varied landscapes and maintaining balance. Training with side lunges can increase your lateral movement strength, enhance your mobility and boost your confidence to be more adventurous outdoors.

Editor’s note: Consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. Stop immediately if you experience pain.

How to perform a side lunge

1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointed forward.

2. With your hands on your hips or clasped in front of your chest, take a wide step to the side with your right foot, while your left foot remains firmly grounded.

3. Bend your right knee to 90 degrees, aligned above your ankle, while pushing your hips back.

4. Your left leg remains straight with both feet pointing forward.

5. Although you will naturally hinge at your hips as you sit back, try not to lean forward too much. Keep your chest up as much as possible with your back neutral.

6. You do not need to hold the side-lunge position for more than a second or two. Get into the position and then push through your right heel to return to the starting position.

7. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps total on each side through two to three sets.

Depending on your fitness level, you can lower or increase the suggested repetitions and set totals. I recommend adding side lunges to your workout routine at least twice weekly for best results.

The side or lateral lunge strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, adductors and core to help you ward off injuries. - nortonrsx/iStockphoto/Getty Images
The side or lateral lunge strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, adductors and core to help you ward off injuries. - nortonrsx/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Side-lunge modifications

If you don’t have the strength or mobility to step wide to the side or bend your knee all the way to 90 degrees, shorten your stance and/or how far you sit back and bend your knee. You can slowly increase your stance as you get stronger and more mobile.

If you struggle with strength or balance in this exercise, you can place an armless chair behind you on the side you are lunging, enabling you to sit back on the chair seat during each repetition. Also, if you have access to a suspension trainer, you can hold the straps for stability as you perform the exercise.

Side-lunge progressions

To increase the intensity, you can increase the speed of your repetitions.

You can make the exercise more dynamic with a greater focus on agility by alternating back and forth with a small jump in between as you shift from side to side.

You can also add weight by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest height. Use the appropriate weight for your fitness level.

Remember, moving laterally is a natural part of daily function, so incorporating side lunges into your workouts not only adds variety, it also plays a crucial role in enhancing your ability to move well and prevent injury. Next time you hit the gym or feel the need to move your body, remember your side lunges to unlock the full potential of your frontal plane fitness.

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