Lateral squats are a functional exercise that mainly work your gluteus medius (the side glutes), alongside the quads and inner thighs, and are the perfect complement to other lower-body movements such as regular squats and lunge variations.
The beauty of this single leg variation is that is promotes lateral (side) movement in the body for enhanced mobility, better stability—particularly in each leg when performing lateral squats—and also builds on your lower-body strength. As a bonus, lateral squats will put your core to work!
Once you become more confident with the movement, you can add weights or even move between lunge variations for more of a cardio and balance challenge, and to also fire up some muscle groups in the upper body.
Below, our experts provide a step-by-step guide for perfecting your lateral squats.
Meet the Expert
- Laura Flynn Endres is a personal trainer and founder of the online team fitness game Get Fit Done.
- Chad Walding, DPT, is a doctor of physical therapy and a holistic health and fitness coach.
What Are Lateral Squats?
Much like the name suggests, lateral squats involve a side-to-side motion of the body, with a "bend in the knee to sit into a single-leg squat, which is excellent for building (balanced) power in your legs," says personal trainer Laura Flynn Endres.
According to physical therapist and health coach Chad Walding, “the lateral squat is a good entry point into lateral-based strength training,” which is important for bringing harmony to our muscles and for improving our motor skills and individual athleticism. "In our modern society, we tend to walk in very linear and straight directions, but this is not how we’d move in nature, where nothing is linear and rarely flat." By adding variety to how we move, we can radically improve our functional capacity.
Other side squat benefits:
- They explore variation, rather than just working the sagittal plane, improving movement capacity, balance, lateral strength, and mobility.
- They are useful for exposing and fixing unilateral imbalances, where one side may be weaker or tighter than the other.
"Always work the weaker leg first and match the reps, sets, and loads with the stronger leg," suggests Walding.
How to Perform Lateral Squats
Below, our experts explain step-by-step how to perform a lateral squat with proper form.
“Be mindful, they are quite technical and require focus at several points,” cautions Flynn Endres.
- Start with a wide standing position and shift your weight to the right leg.
- Begin to push your hips back and hinge forward slightly, bending your right knee and straightening the left. Your right foot can turn outward slightly, while your left foot stays firmly planted in place.
- As you bend your right knee to sit into that leg, keep the left knee straight and engage your core. Keep your chest up.
- Aim for the right leg to reach a parallel position to the ground. Notice the stretch happening in the inner thigh area.
- Control the downward phase for 3–4 seconds, before pushing through the right heel and engaging the glute to bring you back to the starting position.
How to Modify
If the exercise is too challenging, you can start by adding a support. “One modification is to hold onto a barre, TRX handles, or another firm support that allows assistances from your arms. This is especially critical because pressing back out of a lateral lunge is extremely challenging,” explains Flynn Endres. In general, holding onto a support allows for a greater range of motion than carrying out the exercise unsupported.
If, however, you’ve become well acquainted with the side squat, it may be time to up the intensity. “You can increase the difficulty in this movement by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at the side of the body, in a goblet hold, in a front rack position, or even going deeper into a full pistol squat,” adds Walding, the latter of which requires a degree of flexibility at the hip and a lot of core strength.
Whether you want to lower, raise the intensity, or simply jazz up your exercise routine, here are some variations to throw into your next workout.
- Assisted Lateral Squat
Before progressing into a deep lateral squat, start the movement off small and stick within a comfortable range of motion.
- Modified Lateral Squat with Box
Place a box close to the bending leg and perform a lateral squat while tapping your glute to the box. For example, if you are bending on your right leg, then tap your right glute onto the box before coming back to the starting position.
- Weighted Lateral Squats
Perform the movement with a dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position at your chest to increase the resistance and difficulty. Other weighted variations include holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand, one on either side of the squatting leg, or holding one weight in your left hand, which lowers toward the opposite foot as you squat and hinge simultaneously.
- Moving Lateral Squats
Beginning with your legs hip-width apart, step out with the right leg, keeping the left leg stationary throughout the exercise. Press down through your right heel as you stand to bring your leg back to the starting position. This is an advanced variation.
With any squat variation, there are a number of safety concerns. “Firstly, there’s a risk of getting 'stuck in the hole,' meaning you struggle to press back up out of the position with proper form, or at all,” cautions Flynn Endres. “This is especially true with lateral squats, making it an unlikely exercise choice for beginners, as it’s difficult to control both the descent and the return."
Common errors to look out for include the knee not tracking with the foot, which puts pressure on the knee joint; allowing the foot to roll outward, stressing the ankle; and leaning too far forward without a flat back. Flynn Endres suggests perfecting the squat, hinge, and lunge with excellent form before adding lateral squats to your programming.
It’s also best to avoid this movement if you suffer from knee or lower-back injuries, as this can further aggravate the problem. Be sure to dynamically stretch your lower back and hip flexors to warm up the muscles prior to doing this exercise.
The Final Takeaway
Lateral squats are a superlative exercise for targeting the side muscles of the butt, working on balance and stability, improving strength in the lower body, and enhancing your athletic skills. Form is key in order to avoid injuring the knees and lower back, and it’s best to avoid this movement altogether if you have any aches or pains in these regions. Lateral squats can be modified to make them easier, such as by avoiding too deep a bend at the knee, or made more challenging by adding weights.