Most of us typically lunge either forward or backward.
However, lateral movement is essential for your overall strength and mobility.
Side lunges definitely provide this lateral stimulus, but where exactly should your toes be pointed?
The vast majority of trainers state that you should do side lunges with your toes pointed straight ahead. That being said, there are those who perform the movement with toes turned out to a 45-degree angle. Both are correct, you just need to ensure that your knee bends directly over the line of your toes. When your toes are pointed straight ahead you’ll place more lateral stress on the knee, which makes side lunges more difficult, but is still perfectly safe.
Side Lunges – Toes Straight Ahead or at 45 Degrees?
You’ve no doubt seen people perform side lunges both ways, either toes pointed straight ahead or out to a 45 degree angle.
In truth, neither way is incorrect, although “toes straight ahead” is the most popular way to both coach and perform the exercise.
Admittedly, by having both feet (and your toes) pointed straight ahead you will place more lateral stress on the knee.
This actually makes this variation slightly harder.
However, whereas “lateral stress of the knee” doesn’t sound great it’s perfectly safe.
To be honest, I feel that many people will side lunge with their toes pointed out at 45 degrees because it feels more natural and makes the movement slightly easier.
I see no issue with this, but as with exercises your aim is to progress by making side lunges more difficult.
So, before even adding weight you should get used to the “toes straight ahead” variation.
Furthermore, side lunges are fantastic for strength, flexibility and balance and they’re a great way to prepare yourself for a more advanced exercise such as pistol squats.
How to Perform Side Lunges
You have 3 basic ways to perform side lunges, although there are many variations you can try too.
However, for now, you can either do stationary side lunges, one side at a time, alternating each side.
For stationary lunges, which will be the easiest version, you should take a step to either side, typically your feet should be double shoulder-width.
That being said, the longer your legs are the wider you’ll want this step to be.
As the stationary side lunge is the easiest variation it’s quite common to have the toes point out to 45 degrees.
You can then perform a side lunge and complete all your reps on one leg or alternate either side.
Here’s Krysta Stryker with a quick tutorial on stationary side lunges.
You can of course perform side lunges in a more traditional manner.
This involves stepping out the side, performing the lunge, and then returning to the starting position.
This is my preferred way to perform the movement and mimics how I perform all other lunge variations.
Once more you can perform all reps on one side first and then repeat on the other side, or alternate between both sides.
For me, I would generally perform all reps on one side if I’m using slightly heavier weights and performing the movement for strength or hypertrophy.
Essentially, the working leg isn’t allowed to “rest”, as the stress is maintained on one side until your set is complete.
Obviously then repeat the process on the other side.
When it comes to alternating side lunges on both sides I view this more as muscular endurance or conditioning.
Therefore, this is best performed with lighter weights or even just with your bodyweight.
The aim here is to still work the target muscles, but also to get your heart rate up much higher.
Personally, I feel that if you’re introducing side lunges into your workouts then you should practise all 3 variations at different times.
This will provide a far greater idea of your strengths and weaknesses, and therefore what areas you need to work on.
Side Lunges vs. Cossack Squat
I’ve spoken above of the side lunge variations, and one happened to be the stationary variety.
This typically involves spreading your legs into “lunge-width position”, and then performing the movement from there.
However, in truth, this is actually a split-squat variety.
Essentially, lunges should always start with your feet together and the “stepping into” the lunge.
This is actually why there are exercises such as split squats, Bulgarian split squats, etc.
When it comes to the cossack squat the exact same principle applies.
You are basically getting yourself into the stationary side lunge position, although you are spreading your legs and feet much wider.
And you maintain this wide stance throughout your set.
Next, is the foot position of the non-lunging leg.
For traditional side lunges both feet remain firmly planted to the floor.
However, for cossack squats the foot of the non-lunging leg sees the toes lift up from the floor and point upwards.
This places greater stress on the lunging leg and increases the overall range of motion.
That being said, for both movements there is no requirement for dorsiflexion of the foot or ankle.
This can cause the extremely common issue of your toes hurting when you perform regular lunges, but as I say, this isn’t the case for side lunges or cossack squats.
Now, we move onto your torso position.
For the side lunge you should be hinging at the hips and leaning forward ever so slightly.
But, don’t overdo it.
For the cossack squat you’ll need to maintain a far more upright torso position.
However, for both movements it’s important to maintain a neutral spine.
So, definitely no rounding of the back or flexing your lower spine.
Finally, there is the range of motion required with both movements.
The side lunge finishes when the quad of your lunging leg is parallel to the floor, and then you return to the starting position.
That being said, for the cossack squat your aim is to squat as deep as possible with the working leg.
In fact, if you’re extremely flexible you should feel the back of your thigh touch your calf.
So, cossack squats definitely require more flexibility than lateral lunges.
This is also why cossack squats are often used as a warm up for a barbell squat workout.
But, you can definitely use both exercise to gain strength, build muscle, or as a conditioning movement.
Although, if you’re having issues with balance with forward, reverse, or side lunges, then you’re going to find cossack squats extremely difficult.
Side Lunges – Most Common Mistakes
Side lunges are a great exercise to perform regardless of your training ability.
So, it’s perfectly acceptable to be doing side lunges as a beginner or advanced athlete.
That being said, much like any other exercises there are form cues you need to hit and mistakes that should be avoided.
Lunge Depth & Distance
As I’ve mentioned, the side lunge is complete when your working quad is parallel to the floor.
However, it’s important to also get the distance of your lunge correct.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to distance, so this is something you will need to calculate for yourself.
That being said, if you lunge too short a distance you won’t be stimulating the muscles effectively.
Then again, if you lunge too far you’ll be putting increased stress on your adductors and your groin.
Now, depending on your flexibility this may be absolutely fine, although a lack of flexibility could see you get injured.
I’ve also spoken of side lunges requiring a slight hip-hinge and forward lean of the torso.
However, I often see people lean excessively forward, in fact, almost to the point where the torso is parallel to the floor.
This immediately places far more stress on the lower back, plus it shows a lack of strength and flexibility.
So, always ensure that you maintain a neutral spine and remember that the hinge and forward lean is ever so slight.
Feet at 90 Degrees
You’re now aware that side lunges should be performed with your toes pointed straight ahead or with your feet turned out to 45 degrees on the working leg.
Nevertheless, I quite often see trainees have the foot of the working leg turned completely out to the side.
Essentially, the feet are at a ninety degree angle to each other.
To be honest, this isn’t likely to cause many issues, but the movement is effectively no longer a side lunge.
I guess you could describe this as more of a twisting forward lunge.
Basically, you start pout side-on, but finish in the front lunge position.
The fact that your “back foot” is at 90 degrees to the working leg means that you’ll be placing more stress onto the adductor of the non-working leg.
Admittedly, this is something that you expect from side lunges, but you’ll also be taking much of the stress off the working leg.
Key Learning Points
- Most people will side lunge with the toes of both feet pointed straight ahead.
- Some trainees will turn the foot of the working leg out to a 45 degree angle.
- Both versions are acceptable, although keeping your toes pointed ahead places more lateral stress on the working knee, thus making the exercise more difficult.
- You can side lunge from a stationary position, one leg at a time, or side-to-side alternately.
- Cossack squats differ from side lunges in that they are always performed from the stationary starting position, the non-working foot facing upwards, a more upright torso, and increased range of motion.
- Avoid common mistakes with side lunges such as sinking too deep or not enough, having your feet too close together or too far apart, excessive hip-hinge and forward lean, and turning the working foot completely out to the side.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.