If your feet have ever shifted during a squat or you can’t find a solid position for your bench press leg drive, you already know how important lateral stability is to the sport of powerlifting. Sure, our bread and butter lifts take place in the sagittal plane — our bodies aren’t moving side-to-side at all. Straight up and down. Unrack it and stand or press it back up; pick it up and put it back down.
But even if you’ve never thought of it this way, your body has probably told you, on more than one occasion, that you need to develop a lot of lateral (side-to-side) strength and stability to support your big three and your overhead press.
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Why You Need To Move Laterally
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 side lunges and lateral squat walks) as your huge lifts. You don’t have to worry about going heavy — in fact, your CNS and therefore overall recovery 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.
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 massive imbalances. Think about it: if all your movements bring your body in one direction (in the frontal plane, like the squat and dead), how will it know how to respond and compensate strongly and without injury to movements in other (lateral) directions?
Answer: just like any other unaddressed muscular imbalance, it’s 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). Shuffling from side-to-side is part of coffee shop and restaurant life (that awkward I’m trying really hard not to knock your drink over when you’re getting up between tables), and doing some weighted lateral movements are only going to make those IRL moves that much cleaner.
More Stability = More Efficient Lifts = Adding Weight To The Bar
I hear you skeptical powerlifters — yeah, yeah, functional fitness, har har har. But if preventing injuries and having more well-rounded athletic and life-living abilities isn’t enough to grab your attention, hear this: 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 super stable on your feet.
The more firmly grounded your lateral stabilizers can keep you, the less energy you’ll leak from each lift. 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
You can love lifting more than almost anything — I feel you — but sometimes, routines just get… static. Making sure there’s a variety in your training (especially offseason) can help keep your mind as fresh as your body. And since lifting is such a heavily mental sport, you really do need that boost of newness to promote a sense of fun and full-body gains.
There is so much variety in the world of side-based movements, but if you’re new to the lateral game, these seven lifts are sure to get you going in the right direction.
1. Lateral Lunges
These puppies are exactly what they sound like — lunges, lateral-style.
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). For a lot of my clients, it’s helped to eliminate the dynamic movement of the feet while getting comfortable with this movement: in other words, plant your feet in a wide stance, at 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. Send your butt back so there’s a bit of a hinge at your hips and squat into your lunging leg. Make sure to keep a tall chest throughout the movement. Your foot should be in a position where your knee isn’t collapsing in towards your body, but it also shouldn’t be folding over outside of your foot (away from your body). Experiment gently until you find a position that works for you (it’s going to be different for everyone because of limb length).
Once you’ve found the right stance for you, practice the movement by lunging side to side without moving your feet. When you’re ready and confident that you can find the position again after you’ve brought your feet back under your hips, lunge out to the side (butt back! chest tall!), bring your foot back, center yourself, and lunge to the side with the other foot. Rinse and repeat.
When you’re ready to load the movement, front rack some kettlebells or dumbbells and have at it.
Unloaded, 4 sets of 10 per side, 30-second rest. Loaded, 3 sets of 8 per side, 60-second rest.
2. Lateral Step-Ups
You’ve heard of step-ups, but are you ready for lateral step-ups? Start with a low 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. Stand on the right side of the box or stepper (make sure the darn thing is secure!). 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. You can polish the move off with a fancy flourish by elevating your left leg in a forward march movement, but you don’t have to.
Whichever you choose, make sure your descent is slow and controlled — you don’t want to slam down on your left foot, and you don’t want the muscles in your right leg to lose their tension inappropriately. 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, 4 sets of 10 per side, 30-second rest. Loaded or with higher stepper, 3 sets of 6-8 per side, 60-second rest.
3. 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.
You don’t have to do this (it can unbalance some athletes), but do try to make sure that your feet are moving very similarly when you’re shuffling right and when you’re shuffling left. If you can, use grooves in the floor or the straight edge of a functional fitness turf area to make sure you aren’t slanting one way or another while moving laterally. (Think the way your handwriting tends to start sloping up the page when you don’t have lines on it — use whatever markers you can to keep your shuffles in line.)
3 rounds of a 15-second shuffle, per side, 30-second rest. (lower rest time, increase shuffle time/distance, or increase speed to progress the movement — remember to only change one factor at a time.)
4. Rotational Medicine Ball Throws
No, medicine balls aren’t just for CrossFitters, and they’re not just for wall balls. Hold a medicine ball (start light: I see your ego, and it wants to make you look cool and also injure you) in both hands at chest-level, with your left side facing a wall. Your feet should be about hip-width apart, a little wider if balance isn’t a friend of yours.
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 (your left foot if the wall is on your right side) to open up your hips with the movement. Otherwise, you’ll just strain your lower back, and no one wants that. Exhale on each release, and keep your core braced throughout.
4 sets of 8-12 reps per side, 45-second rest.
5. Banded Lateral Squat Walk
These are great staples for warmups, but you can also integrate them as specific exercises, just to make sure you’re remembering to include them in your program. With a band around your thighs (make sure it’s strong enough to not snap — ouch), 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.
Once your position is established, your core is braced, and your spine is neutral with your chest tall, you’re going to shuffle slowly and deliberately to one side, maintaining 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.
4 sets of 12 per side, 30-second rest.
Especially if it’s your offseason, you definitely need to be moving laterally as a powerlifter. It’ll make you a better overall athlete and it’ll help you move better in your everyday life. But even if you’re not concerned with such pedestrian matters, know this: lateral lifting will help boost the bottom line of your lifts. And you can definitely get behind (or… on the side?) of that.
Featured image via @OPOLJA/Shutterstock