In the age of desk jobs and screens everywhere, we don’t exactly spend our days running, jumping, and climbing around outside like our ancestors did. And try as we might to make up for all the time we spend sitting by hitting the gym or attending our favorite workout class, the movement we do squeeze into our day doesn’t always reflect how our ancestors moved, or challenge our bodies to their fullest potential.
Most of the exercise we do these days involves moving forward or backward—think running, lunging, and cycling (even deadlifting involves moving forward and backward through our hips)—and while these movements do benefit our bodies, they’re not the only movements we should be doing! Lateral exercises, which involve moving from side to side—like lateral shuffles and lateral lunges—are often left out of our workout routines. But that ends now.
Why Lateral Movements Matter
Most of us spend about 90 percent of our active time on those forward or backward movements, which leaves some of our muscles under-utilized and under-activated, and can mess with our stability and put our hip, knee, ankle, and shoulder joint health at risk, explains personal trainer Jenny LaBaw, C.P.T., CF-L2.
Lateral movements work many of our smaller stabilizer and forgotten-about muscles—like our hip abductors, hip adductors, gluteus medius, deltoids, and obliques, to name a few—and strengthen our joints, tendons, and ligaments at all angles by requiring our body move through a different range of motion. If you never train your body to move laterally, there’s a greater chance something will go wrong when life forces you to move that way, whether you’re navigating a busy sidewalk, carrying your groceries, or chasing your dog, says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of mobility company Movement Vault.
Incorporating lateral movements can balance out all of our repeated forward-backward movement, and help us build well-rounded strength, improve mobility, and avoid injury.
Moving from side to side more often also helps us get better at the forward-backward moves, like squats, that we all love so much. By working our muscles in a different plane of motion, we teach our body to better activate our supporter muscles, explains Wickham. “Once you learn to activate those supporter muscles, you can strengthen them, and once you strengthen them your lifts go up.”
And, of course, lateral movements also prep your body for any sport that requires you to make quick movements in different directions, like tennis, basketball, and soccer, adds celebrity fitness and nutrition coach Kyle Brown, C.S.C.S., founder of FIT365. But even if the only sport you’re into is weekend Ultimate Frisbee or running around the backyard with your kids, the ability to move laterally will make you better at it.
4 Lateral Moves To Try
Ready to start building some side-to-side strength? Add a couple of these moves to your next workout to develop a more balanced, capable body.
1. Skater Jumps
Start in a slight squat position and push off through your right foot to jump to your left. Land on your left foot and allow your right foot to track behind it so your right toes touch the ground behind your left foot and you’re in a curtsy-like position. Then, push off through your left foot to land in a curtsy position on the opposite side. That’s one rep. You can swing your arms in opposite directions to propel you as you jump from side to side. Imagine you’re jumping side to side over a hurdle!
Do three sets of eight to 10 reps—or try these Tabata-style and alternate between 20 seconds of jumping back and forth 10 seconds of rest for four minutes total.
Why they work: “Skater squats are a great movement because each rep requires you to stop, stabilize, and absorb the load before you rapidly change directions,” says Brown. “Not only does this transfer over into sport performance, but it also helps develop neglected lower-body muscles, like the gluteus medius, hip abductors, and hip adductors.”
2. Lateral Lunges
Start standing with your feet hips-width distance apart. Keep your hands at your side and take a large step to the right with your right foot. As you step, bend your right knee and sit back into your heel as if squatting off to your right side. Keep your left leg straight and your right knee above your right foot. Then, push off through your right foot to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps on each side.
Make these count as cardio by adding a hop in between each lunge, so that you’re immediately exploding up off the ground in a jump shot after returning your lunging foot back to starting position. Or, up their strength-building potential by performing them while holding a kettlebell.
Why they work: Lateral lunges light up your gluteus medius and maximus muscles, quadriceps, and hip abductors and adductors, says Wickham.
3. Lateral Step-Ups
Stand to the side of a bench, box, or step that’s just shorter than knee-height. Step the foot closest to the step up onto the platform, pressing through your heel and squeezing through your glutes to drive upward until your leg is fully extended. Allow your opposite leg to trail your anchor leg, so you finish standing on the platform. Then, step down with your trailing leg, followed by your anchor leg to return to your starting position. That’s one rep.
Perform three sets of eight reps on each side.
Why they work: Lateral step-ups are great for hip, glute, hamstring, and quad strength, as well as overall lower-body stability, explains Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., Pn1, founder of Training2xl. If the boxes or benches at your gym are too high, start off by doing these on stacked weight plates.
4. Lateral Arm Raises
Start standing and hold a pair of light dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing in. Keeping your arms straight and bracing your core, raise the dumbbells up and out to your sides until they’re about shoulder height and you look like a giant ‘T.’ Pause, then slowly lower the weights back down to your sides. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Why they work: Many lateral movements give all of the attention to your abs and lower body, but strong shoulders are important too, whether for carrying kids or just hailing a cab, and moving your arms laterally works your deltoids, says LaBaw.