Lateral Squats: the Perfect Exercise for Killer Thighs!

By Matt Walter
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Learn how to perform lateral squats

Lateral squats are a compound, functional exercise that targets your gluteus medius (the side glutes) and adductor brevis (inner thigh muscles). They are a great addition to your lower body workout routine, especially as a dynamic warm-up to get your legs primed for heavy work.

By the end of this article, you will understand how to perform lateral squats, how lateral squats are similar and different from lateral lunges and Cossack squats, variations and modifications of lateral lunges, and whether or not you should add these to your program.

I will cover:

  • How to Perform Lateral Squats
  • Muscles Worked by Lateral Squats
  • Benefits of Lateral Squats
  • Common Errors With Lateral Squats
  • How to Modify Lateral Squats
  • Lateral Squats Variations
  • Programming Lateral Squats
  • Lateral Squats vs Lateral Lunges vs Cossack Squats

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Video: Lateral Squats Demonstration

How to Perform Lateral Squats

For this exercise, all you need is your own body weight. However, as you get stronger you can make the movement more challenging by adding dumbbells, kettlebells, or even a barbell.

Setup

Step 1: Stand tall and take a wider than shoulder-width stance. Point both of your feet straight ahead, or slightly turned out.

Lateral Squats Setup

Execution

Step 2: Begin to shift your weight to your right leg.

Step 3: Maintaining a neutral spine, brace your core and drive your hips back to hinge forward slightly, bending your right knee and straightening your left.

Movement Tip: Your right foot can turn outward slightly, but your left foot should stay firmly planted and flat with the toe pointed forward.

Lateral Squats Mid Rep

Step 4: Continue to squat down with your right leg, almost as if you’re trying to bring your hips to your right heel. Your left leg stays straight as you squat and you should feel a strong stretch through your left inner thigh. Both feet should remain firmly planted on the ground.

Form Tip: Keep your chest up and your head neutral (in line with your spine) as you squat. Your arms may be held across your shoulders, in front of your chest, or held outstretched in front of you to help you balance.

Step 5: Squat down as low as your leg strength, adductor flexibility, and hip mobility allow without pain. Aim to get your right leg at least parallel with the ground.

Lateral Squats Bottom Position

Movement Tip: Control the eccentric (downward) phase, aiming for at least a 2-3 second squat. It is easy to go too fast with this movement. Not only will a slower eccentric increase mTOR activation (which stimulates protein synthesis and helps with building muscle), but it will prevent you from squatting further than your body can handle.

Step 6: Push through your right foot, driving with your glutes and quads, and return to a fully standing position. Squeeze your glutes and the tip and drive your hips forward.

Step 7: Repeat the movement by squatting to your left side. Alternate back and forth until you reach your desired number of reps.

What Are Lateral Squats?

What Are Lateral Squats

Lateral squats involve a unilateral, side-to-side movement across the frontal plane, with a bend in one knee to drop into a single-leg squat. This is an excellent exercise for developing lateral (side-to-side) hip strength, power, and mobility.

Lateral-based training is neglected in most programs. There’s even a term to describe the way most training paradigms, even those that are designed to be functional, are built: Fitness in a Phone Booth. Walking, running, rowing, biking, and most exercise movements, including the Olympic and power lifts, involve no side-to-side movement. This doesn’t prepare you well for life outside the gym, and the muscles that are most involved with the movement patterns become unbalanced with the rest of your body.

The lateral squat is a great introductory movement to lateral-based strength training. It’s easy to learn, easy to modify, and requires only your own body weight. Over time, your strength, flexibility, mobility, and stability will improve, which will carry over to strength improvements in your other lifts and less chance of injury outside the gym.

As you get stronger with this movement you can add weight to make it more challenging and keep your gains coming. Wearing a weight vest, holding kettlebells or dumbbells, or even a barbell in the front or back rack position will keep you getting stronger for years to come.

Lateral Squats Tips

Lateral Squats Tips

Here are a couple of tips to help you perfect your lateral squats.

Find Your Perfect Stance

If your stance is too wide, your may overextend and place too much pressure on your knee. If your stance is too narrow, you may struggle to hinge at the hips or reach your desired squat depth.

When you drop into your squat your tibia (shin bone) should stack directly beneath your knee and over your ankle. Adjust your stance out or in until you find the stance that allows your lower leg to line up this way.

Progress Slowly

The lateral squat is a complex movement that requires flexibility, mobility, strength, balance, and coordination. Even if you’ve been training for quite some time, start with the bodyweight version. Build up to 10-12 good reps on each side to full depth. Then start adding small amounts of weight at a time. And, as always, pick weights that you can handle properly to ensure good form while performing the exercise.

Muscles Worked by Lateral Squats

Lateral squats target your quadriceps, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, adductor magnus (inner thigh), and vastus medialis oblique (VMO).

Quadriceps and the VMO

Quadriceps Muscles Anatomy Description

The quadriceps is the primary muscle group engaged in lateral squats. The quadriceps are involved in knee extension, so they work hard as you descend and ascend.

The vastus medialis obliquus (VMO), also known as the Tear Drop, is a muscle that attaches to the medial side of your femur (thigh bone). It’s one of the four quadriceps muscles and it’s responsible for knee stabilization. The VMO is engaged in lateral squats to prevent your knees from caving inward.

Adductors

The adductors, or inner thigh muscles, are active in lateral squats as well. The main role of the adductor is to bring your leg toward your body. As you squat, your adductors work to keep your knees from collapsing inward.

Glutes

The glutes are the powerhouse of the posterior chain. They play a major role in lateral squats by helping you maintain balance and stability throughout the movement. The glute medius is located laterally and connects the pelvis to the femur. It is the primary muscle responsible for hip abduction (moving your leg away from your body). The glutes also assist in hip extension, which is required to return to the starting position.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are located on the back of your leg and they work with the glutes to extend the hip. In lateral squats, they work to keep your pelvis level as you descend into the squat.

Benefits of Lateral Squats

Benefits of Lateral Lunges

In my opinion, lateral squats are one of the most underrated lower body exercises. They are fantastic for training the posterior chain, adductors (inner thigh muscles), and quadriceps.

Addressing Imbalances and Weaknesses

Unilateral movements help us find and correct imbalances from side-to-side and comparatively weak muscles. Most people avoid directly training their adductors, either because they don’t know how, don’t know they need to, or think the only way exercise available is the silly-looking matching that starts with your legs spread wide open.

Building Strong Adductors

Lateral squats will help you bring up the strength of your inner thighs to match that of the surrounding muscles. You get a strong stretch in your straight leg during the eccentric (lowering) phase, which is important for muscle growth through mTOR pathways. You then use those adductors to pull your body back to a fully standing position.

You Don’t Have to be Super Mobile

In order to get the most benefit out of lateral squats, you need to be able to squat down to parallel or beyond. But any depth you can safely reach will hugely benefit you! Working within your current flexibility and mobility limits will help you improve those ranges of motion. And while you’re at it you’ll be working on your balance, coordination, and strength!

Train You in a New Plane of Motion

Most exercises train your body to move front to back or up and down. Side-to-side training in the frontal plane is often lacking. This is incredibly important for athletes, who need to be strong and mobile in all planes of motion. lateral squats will directly improve your lateral strength and power, as well as your hip and knee stability in this plane of motion. This will make you more resilient and less injury-prone.

Build Your Glutes

Lateral squats target your gluteus maximus, the largest glute muscle. The glute Maximus is critical in any squat variation because it’s your biggest, strongest leg muscle.

And because you’re moving from side to side, lateral squat also target the muscles on the outside of your glutes, the glute medius and glute minimus. These muscles are collectively known as hip abductors because their function is to abduct (move away from) your leg away from your body.

Common Errors With Lateral Squats

Watch for and avoid these common errors with lateral squats.

Knee Alignment

Your knee should stay in a perfect line with your toes. You want to avoid letting your knee cave in or press too far out. Caving or forcing out places unnecessary stress on the knee joint, which can lead to injury.

The lateral squat should almost look like a pistol or one-legged squat. Your knee follows your toes and your hips drop straight to your heel.

Try and point your toes straight forward and have your knee track in line with the 2nd and 3rd toes. If your knee starts to cave or slide out, stop and return to standing. You’ve likely found your maximum depth at this point. Continue to work with perfect form and earn your depth slowly.

This may also be an indication that you need to work on your knee stability in general. If your knee wants to slide out to the side, try a banded split squat with an abduction bias. If your knees tend to cave, opt for a warm-up with a banded adduction biased split squat. These movements will help “turn on” the specific muscles that are necessary to avoid your improper knee tracking.

Bending Your Trail Leg

Your non-working, or trail leg, should remain straight throughout the entire movement. This allows for a stretch in that leg’s adductors and allows your hips to stay back both when you squat and return to standing.

Only squat down as far as your straight leg will allow. The flexibility of your straight leg’s adductors is often the limiting factor for most people. Continue to work on your flexibility and increase your depth slowly over time.

Up On Your Toes

Your feet should remain completely flat on the floor as you squat. Rising up onto the toes of your squat leg is usually caused by a lack of mobility in your ankle or an excessive forward lean.

Rising up onto your toes can place unnecessary pressure on your knee. It also shifts the focus away from your glutes, which is one of the muscles we’re trying to specifically target with this exercise.

focus on driving your hips back as you squat. If it helps, act as if you are sitting in a chair behind you. Or you can actually set up a bench behind you and touch it with your butt! This is one of the best strategies I’ve found for working with new trainees. A few sessions of sitting onto a bench and you’ll have the movement pattern down.

Rounding Your Back

Rounding your back is a common mistake with any squat variation. This is often caused by a lack of flexibility in your hips, causing your torso to fall forward and your lower back to round.

Rounding can put unnecessary strain on your spine and decrease your ability to engage your glutes.

To correct this, start by engaging your core. Take a deep breath before you squat and imagine pushing out on all sides against a weightlifting belt. Then focus on driving your hips back and shifting the weight toward your heels.

One final cue is to look slightly up. This can help you keep your chest up instead of bending forward.

How to Modify Lateral Squats

How to Modify Lateral Lunges

You can modify lateral squats to make them less challenging or more challenging, depending on your current level of fitness.

If Lateral Squats Are Too Challenging

Start by adding support. You can hold onto a TRX handle, resistance band, or power rack support. This will allow your arms to take some of the pressure off your legs. This is especially useful for returning to a standing position from the bottom of your squat.

You can also limit your depth. Get into position and squat down several inches to one foot. Whatever your strength, balance, and flexibility can handle. Pause in your lowest possible position, and then return to standing.

Make Lateral Squats More Challenging

Ready for a new challenge? Add weight! Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet or front rack position. This not only increases the stretch and strength required from your legs, this will light your core up as well! A barbell held in the front or back rack, or a weighted vest, are other great ways to add weight and make this movement challenging for years to come.

Programming Lateral Squats

Programming Lateral Lunges

Here are several ways to add lateral squats to your leg routine.

As a warm-up. This is my favorite way to add lateral squats to any program and is how I personally use them. They will help warm up your knees, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and inner thighs, and get them ready for the heavy work to come.

As active recovery. You can do a few reps of lateral squats between sets of a leg or upper body movement to keep your heart rate elevated and actively stretch the muscles of your legs. Or, do these as part of a mobility flow on your off days to help speed up recovery.

As the 2nd or 3rd exercise of your leg workout. If you want to add these to your routine as a muscle builder, place them after a heavy compound exercise. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side, with 60 seconds of rest between sets.

Or perform 10-12 reps on your right leg, rest 30 seconds, then 10-12 on your left side, rest 30 seconds, and repeat.

Lateral Squats Variations

Lateral Squats Variations

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.

Modified Lateral Squats with Box

Place a low box or bench near your squatting leg and perform a lateral squat, tapping your glute to the box. The lower the box, the more challenging this movement will be.

Lateral Lunges

I mentioned this one above. Begin and end each rep with your feet gathered together. As you get stronger, try and drive hard enough with your squatting leg that you move back to your feet gathered position in one smooth motion.

Single-Leg Lateral Squats

Stand with a wider than shoulder-width stance. Shift your weight to your right, hinge forward slightly, and bend your right knee.

Once you reach the bottom of your lateral squat, lift your left leg off the ground and swing it out in front of you, into a pistol squat position. Drive off your right leg and return to a standing position.

Dumbbell Lateral Squats

You have three grip options for dumbbells:

  • Dumbbell Suitcase Lateral Squat: Hold the dumbbells at your sides with the handles parallel to each other.
  • Dumbbell Front Rack Lateral Squat: Hold the dumbbells on your shoulders, with the handles parallel.
  • Dumbbell Goblet Lateral Squat: Hold a single dumbbell in a vertical position, with your palms under the top head of the dumbbell.

Perform a lateral squat as described above, holding one or two dumbbells with any of the listed grips.

Kettlebell Lateral Squats

You have three grip options for kettlebells:

  • Goblet Suitcase Lateral Squat: Hold the kettlebells at your sides with the horns parallel to each other.
  • Kettlebell Front Rack Lateral Squat: Hold the kettlebells on your shoulders, with the bells on your shoulders and the horns toward the center of your chest.
  • Kettlebell Goblet Lateral Squat: Hold a single kettlebell by the outside of the horns, with the bottom of your palms resting on the bell. Lift the kettlebell so that the bottom of the bell is above your chest.

Perform a lateral squat as described above, holding one or two kettlebells with any of the listed grips.

Kettlebells are incredibly versatile, which makes them a great piece of home gym equipment!

I own kettlebells from both Rogue Fitness and Titan Fitness.

Lateral Box Step-Up

Stepping up onto a box will increase the range of motion and allow for a stretch on your hamstrings and glutes. Place your right leg up on a low plyo box and perform a lateral squat as normal.

You can also place your straight leg up on a box or stair

Lateral Squats vs Lateral Lunges vs Cossack Squats

Now that we’ve covered lateral squats in detail, let’s compare and contrast lateral squats with lateral lunges and Cossack squats.

All three of these movements target the adductors, glutes, and quadriceps to some degree. However, they are all slightly different exercises that each have their own unique benefits.

Lateral Squats vs Lateral Lunges

Lateral lunges are almost identical to lateral squats. But unlike lateral squats, each lateral lunge rep begins and ends with your feet together. This adds a dynamic element to the movement, increasing balance and coordination demands. And when you’re really good at these, they become an incredibly explosive exercise.

  • Start with feet together, toes pointing straight ahead.
  • Raise your right leg and take a giant step to your side, landing wider than your shoulder. Your left leg remains straight during this movement.
  • Land with your right knee slightly bend and drop immediately into a lateral squat.
  • Squat as low as possible and then drive back up to a standing position.

If this is a new movement, start by driving up to a standing position with your legs wide, just like a lateral squat. Then gather your feet together and repeat on the other side.

As you get more comfortable with this movement, drive explosively off the ground and bring your feet together in one smooth movement. This makes the lateral lunge much more explosive.

Lateral Squats vs Cossack Squats

Lateral Squats vs Cossack Squats (1)

Cossack squats are another great exercise for those who want to improve their mobility and flexibility. They require a good deal of hip and ankle mobility in order to perform properly. Unlike lateral squats and lateral lunges, however, Cossack squats shift the focus from your adductors to your hamstrings.

Cossack squats begin exactly like lateral squats, standing with a wider than shoulder-width stance, and the initial movement is similar, but that’s where the similarities end.

  • Start with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead
  • Shift your weight over to your right leg and bend the knee, dropping your hips down into a lateral squat position. Keep your left leg straight.
  • As you squat, externally rotate your left leg so that your toe points toward the ceiling, with your heel firmly planted on the ground. This shifts the stretch from your adductors to your hamstrings.
  • Continue squatting as deep as you can.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side

As you grow more confident with Cossack squats you can increase your flow with the movement. Instead of standing tall between reps, drive off your squat leg and push into a squat on the other side without standing. You will rise a bit from the rock bottom position, but stay as low as possible.

The Major Differences Between Lateral Squats, Lateral Lunges, and Cossack Squats

Foot Position

Cossack squat: the foot on your straight leg will have the toes lift from the floor and point toward the ceiling as you squat.

Lateral lunge and lateral squat: both feet stay firmly planted on the floor.

Torso Position

All three movements: your spine stays neutral with no rounding of your back or flexing of your spine.

Cossack squat: your torso should be as vertical and tall as possible.

Lateral lunge and lateral squat: your torso will lead slightly forward due to a small hip hinge.

Range of Motion

Each movement will have an acceptable range of motion.

Cossack squat: we’re looking for ass-to-grass here. Absolutely as low as your flexibility and mobility will allow, and working at it until you can just about sit on the ground in the bottom position.

Lateral lunge and lateral squat: generally ends when your are past parallel, but you can go as low as possible.

Conclusion: Lateral Squats

Lateral squats are a great exercise for improving balance and coordination, as well as increasing flexibility and mobility. They can be performed with or without additional weight, depending on your experience level and goals. Add these to your warm-up routine and watch your flexibility and mobility explode!

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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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