7 Lateral — Yes, Lateral — Exercises Powerlifters Should Be Doing

There's more to strength than squatting heavy. Here are lateral exercises to improve stability and help prevent injury.

If your feet have ever shifted during a squat or you can’t find a solid foot position to drive your legs during the bench press, you already know how important lateral stability is to the sport of powerlifting. The bread and butter lifts in powerlifting — the bench press, squat, and deadlift — occur in the sagittal plane. There shouldn’t be any side-to-side movement during the big three. Straight up and down. Unrack it and stand or press it back up; pick it up and put it back down.

But your body needs lateral (side-to-side) strength and stability to make these big sagittal lifts possible. Training in the frontal plane will make you less injury-prone and help you get stronger in the big three (and, really, any lift). Whether you’re aiming to boost your total or become a better athlete, lateral exercises are for you.

The Best Lateral Movements For Powerlifters

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Lateral Lunge

This move is exactly what it sounds like — a lunge that you do laterally. Unloaded, the lateral lunge serves as an excellent warmup or workout on its own. With weights, you’re able to dial in on any imbalances or weak points you might have in your lower body. Keep in mind that your lateral lunges might look very different than the person’s next to you: limb length is a huge factor here. Make sure to find a stance where you can sit back on your lunging leg near parallel with both feet on the floor and your knee over your foot.

Benefits of the Lateral Lunge

How to Do the Lateral Lunge

Your knee should always track over your foot, so you’ll need to experiment with how far you plant your lunging leg out to the side (just like you do with regular lunges). Plant your feet in a wide stance about where you think your lateral lunge stance might be. Then — just like you would with a static regular lunge — try the movement out to see what it feels like in that stance. Your lunging knee should neither collapse toward or away from you. Track it over your foot. Use your hips to really press backward through the movement.

Once you’ve found the right stance for you, perform your lateral lunges evenly on both sides. When you’re ready to load the movement, front rack some kettlebells or dumbbells and have at it. Start with four sets of 10 reps per side, then reduce to three sets of eight reps when you’re using weights.

Lateral Step-Up

You’ve heard of step-ups, but are you ready for lateral step-ups? Start with a low plyometric box, or even just a single-step aerobic stepper if your gym has one. Your ego might not like starting so low, but your body will definitely want to adjust to the movement first. 

Benefits of the Lateral Step-Up

How to Do the Lateral Step-Up

Stand on the right side of the box or stepper. Brace your core and keep your hands however you like to use them for optimizing balance. Place your right foot on the stepper, find a solid position, and drive your right foot into the ground/stepper to elevate your body. Descend with control. Switch sides (or turn around) so that your left foot is on the stepper or box, and repeat. Adding weight can mean holding dumbbells at your side or in rack position — whatever suits your balance needs best. You can progress the movement by adding weight or getting a higher box or stepper, but only change one factor at a time. Unloaded, start with four sets of 10 per side. Loaded or with a higher stepper, try three sets of six to eight reps per side.

Lateral Shuffle

A football classic, there are a lot of ways to shuffle laterally. To keep it basic, brace your core, balance on the balls of your feet, keep your knees soft, and… well, shuffle to one side. You can count your steps, your time, or your distance — whatever your gym setup is conducive to. Some athletes snap their feet together with each fresh step to make sure they’re going through a full range of motion. These are a great way to build more practical lateral mechanics. Move swiftly and maintain a tight athletic stance. You should feel your hips, glutes, and the outside of your legs light up. 

Benefits of the Lateral Shuffle

  • Improve your coordination and footwork, which can help with your clean & jerk.
  • Increase your ability to change directions quickly, which can help prevent injuries in and out of the gym.
  • Practice being light on the balls of your feet.

How to Do the Lateral Shuffle

Depending on your sense of balance, you might choose to cross your feet over each other or consistently keep one foot trailing the other. Either way, stay on the balls of your feet. Keep your chest up and your knees and elbows soft. Maintain a slight forward bend at the hips and breathe as evenly as you can during your movements. Try to make sure that your feet are moving very similarly when you’re shuffling right and when you’re shuffling left. Start with three rounds of 15-second shuffles, increasing the time and complexity of the move one factor at a time.

Rotational Medicine Ball Throw

No, medicine balls aren’t just for CrossFitters, and they’re not just for wall balls. Throwing medicine balls at a wall out of a rotation isn’t really a throw. It’s more of a slinging motion, with your core generating the force you need to get the ball to that wall. You’ll strengthen and tone your obliques with this movement and teach yourself how to produce power while rotating, which is really important for rotational sports like golf, tennis, baseball, and combat sports. 

Benefits of the Rotational Medicine Ball Throw

  • Increase the ability of your core to generate and transmit power.
  • Teach your body to actively engage the connections between your feet, hips, and shoulders.
  • Improve coordination and cardiovascular conditioning.

How to Do the Rotational Medicine Ball Throw

Hold a medicine a light medicine ball at chest level with your feet set hip-width apart. You should be perpendicular to a sturdy wall. If you don’t have access to a wall, then throw it toward a partner and have them toss it back to you. Just like you were boxing, open up your right foot and ankle, pivoting it toward the wall as you use a powerful hip drive to slam the ball — sideways — into the wall. Catch, repeat, then switch sides.  Always make sure to pivot the foot farthest from the wall to open up your hips with the movement. Otherwise, you risk low back strain. Exhale on each release, and keep your core braced throughout. Perform four sets of eight to 12 reps per side.

Banded Lateral Squat Walk

These are great staples for warmups, but you can also integrate them as specific exercises. However, you plug them in, make sure you remember to include them in your program. Why? These walks are going to do wonders for activating your hip abductors.

Benefits of the Banded Lateral Squat Walk

  • Activate your hip abductors, which are often neglected.
  • Increase your hip stability.
  • Boost the stability of the knee joint.

How to Do the Banded Lateral Squat Walk

With a mini band around your thighs, lower yourself into a squat position. A high-ish squat is okay here because you’re not necessarily looking for depth — you’re looking for lateral movement. Brace your core and keep your spine neutral with a tall chest. Shuffle slowly to one side. Maintain your squat position as you take controlled side steps. You can keep your arms out in front of you if that will help, but make sure it doesn’t cause you to collapse your chest forward. The lower your squat position, the more challenging the move will be. Start relatively high, and over time, see how low you can safely go. Try for four sets of 12 steps per side.

Lateral Ape Leap

Yes, animal flow can help you become a better lifter. Especially when you’re getting ready to squat or deadlift heavy, lateral apes will be useful. They’ll open up your hips and get your heart rate pumping all at the same time. Like most animal flow movements, the lateral ape leap may feel a little clunky to learn, but be patient with yourself. Low bar back squats likely felt weird to figure out at first, too. Stick with it and you’ll be reaping the benefits of animal flow in no time.

Benefits of the Lateral Ape Leap

How to Do the Lateral Ape Leap

Start by sinking into as deep a squat as you feel comfortable with. Keep your elbows inside your knees and your chest as tall as you can. Try to point your toes relatively straight and keep your heels on the ground. Maintaining a tall chest, place your right palm just outside the left of your left foot. Keep your hips low and shift your weight toward the left. Explosively take a lateral leap left, with your right foot landing just inside your right hand. Recenter yourself with your hands up near your chest. Leap five reps to the left, then reverse the movements and leap five reps to the right.

Lateral Sled Drag

You may have pushed a sled forward and pulled it backward. But have you ever dragged it sideways? The lateral sled drag has the same conditioning and recovery benefits as traditional prowler pushes and pulls. But moving the weight laterally has a few bonuses that will translate nicely into stronger lifts. Pro tip: don’t dive right into these, and certainly don’t start heavy. Build a solid base in lateral movement first, or you’re setting yourself up for a groin injury. You’ll be stepping one foot over another and resisting some pretty gnarly rotational forces while dragging a load. So make sure you’re very comfortable with your footwork and lateral shuffles first. Get good at weighted lateral lunges, too, so your muscles aren’t shocked by what you’re doing. This move will benefit you most when your body is ready for it.

Benefits of the Lateral Sled Drag

  • Improve your cardiovascular conditioning in the frontal plane — a rare opportunity and directly applicable to sports and functional fitness.
  • Seriously strengthen your adductors and anti-rotation and anti-flexion core strength.
  • Improve full-body coordination under load, translating into greater confidence and efficiency in traditional lifts.

How to Do the Lateral Sled Drag

Start with an unweighted or a lightly-weighted sled. Securely attach a strap or harness to the bottom side of the sled. Stand next to the sled a few feet away. Hold your end of the strap near your waist and slightly lean away from the sled. Keep your knees soft and aim to keep your torso at a consistent angle. Step one foot over the other slowly as you drag the sled sideways 15-25 meters. Reverse directions and repeat.

Benefits of Lateral Exercises

Of course, you need to be strategic about how you integrate lateral movements into your training, just like you are with any other accessory movement. The point is not to cultivate lateral lifts and movements (think lateral lunges and lateral squat walks) as your huge lifts. You don’t have to worry about going heavy — in fact, your nervous system won’t thank you for that.

You can load a bit more lateral work into your off-season training and lay off it during competition prep. But if you completely neglect lateral movement all year, including your offseason, you’re opening yourself up to a whole host of problems.

Prevent Injuries

First and foremost, integrating lateral movements into your offseason programming can greatly reduce your chance of injuring yourself during training. As comprehensive as our big three lifts are, they’re certainly not going to target every single muscle in our bodies (hence the need for accessories).

Just like you use dumbbell presses to make sure your pecs are developing evenly (rather than hosting most of the strength in your dominant arm), you need to move laterally to make sure that you’re not developing significant imbalances. Think about it: if all your movements bring your body in one direction (in the frontal plane, like the squat and deadlift), how will it know how to respond and compensate strongly and without injury to movements in other (lateral) directions?

Answer: Like any other unaddressed muscular imbalance, it’s most likely to cause an injury sooner or later. Making sure you’re giving your body at least a little bit of lateral work can help reduce your chance of injury while making you an overall stronger lifter.

Improve Functional Fitness

The things you do every day are, more often than not, relatively off-balance. You rarely stop, rotate your body fully 90 degrees, and then continue walking when you’re avoiding walking into your coffee table (especially if that coffee table is in a matchbox NYC apartment). Not to mention, being able to move cleanly from side to side is only going to increase your stability moving forward and backward.

More Stability = More Efficient Lifts = More Weight on the Bar

Increasing your lateral strength and stability can help you add some serious poundage to your big lifts. You already know that your body needs to stay stiff throughout heavy compound lifts, but you might not spend too much time thinking about how much energy gets leaked out of the lift if you’re not stable on your feet.

lateral lunge exercise
DmitryStock/Shutterstock

The more firmly grounded your lateral stabilizers can keep you, the less energy you’ll leak from each lift. Do you know how you have to push the ground away when you’re deadlifting to break the bar off the floor? The more lateral strength and stability you have, the more efficiently you’ll be able to do just that. And the more efficient your lift, the sooner you can move more weight. And that’s what you’re after, isn’t it?

Add Variety to Your Lifting Routine

Yes, you want consistency in your strength programming and routines. But making sure there’s scheduled variety in your training (especiåally in the off-season) can help keep your mind as fresh as your body. And since lifting is such a heavily mental sport, you really need that boost of newness to promote a sense of fun and full-body gains.

How to Integrate Lateral Movement Into Your Program

Because most people usually train in the sagittal plane, frontal plane exercises might be unfamiliar for you. But if you want to move more efficiently and reduce your risk of injury, try ramping up your lateral movements little by little. You’ll probably want to start by integrating banded lateral squat walks into your warmup. Once you’re feeling more confident in the frontal plane, sprinkle lateral shuffles and lateral lunges into your warmup, too. Lateral ape leaps are going to be extra helpful on lower body-focused days.

When you’re a bit more acclimated to lateral motions, add lateral step-ups by super setting them in with dumbbell RDLs. Start adding weights to your lateral lunges. Then — when you’re much more coordinated and stronger in the frontal plane — add lateral sled drags to your conditioning days.

More On Lateral Training

You’re ready to move laterally but want to know more about what the different planes of motion have to offer. These articles about training in multiple planes of movement have got you covered.

Featured image: DmitryStock/Shutterstock