Is building stronger, toned legs with nothing but your bodyweight one of your goals?
You may have run into the two horsemen of lower body workout: the Cossack squat and the lateral lunge.
But if the difference between the two is still unclear, or you are wondering whether one is better than the other, this guide is for you. Both the squat and the lunge are working wonders for the lower body, but you need to know a few things about them to get optimal results.
Even though the exercises are similar unilateral movements, they have different requirements regarding strength and mobility. Consequently, doing more of one or the other leads to different results.
So, in this guide, I will go over these differences, the muscles worked by each exercise, how to do them, along common mistakes that may hinder your progress. In the end, you will have all the information you need to decide which will help you the most.
Let’s get to it!
There are 5 key differences between the Cossack squat vs lateral lunge to explore here.
1. Leg position
In both exercises, the legs should take a wider-than-shoulders stance to target the upper glute. However, during the Cossack squat, they remain in a wide position entirely, while the torso moves along this side, from one foot to the other.
During the lateral lunge, your legs return to a shoulder-width position after each rep, lunging back on the next leg for the next rep. From this difference, we notice that the Cossack squat works more on the lower body mobility, keeping the tension constant in the hips throughout the movement and requiring an extended range of motion.
During the lateral lunge, the focus is on hypertrophy and building strength in the leg through limited, but more concentrated time under pressure.
2. Foot position
The position of the foot during the movement will determine how demanding it is in terms of mobility. During the lateral lunge, your foot retains a normal position, with the toes pointing forwards. It is important to note that the sole never leaves the ground, not even slightly.
On the other hand, the Cossack squat implies that your foot is positioned with the toes pointing sideways. As you move deeper into the squat, the front side of your foot (the toes) will lift off the ground, allowing for a larger range of motion. This is a challenging stance for balance, posing problems for the lifter, aside from the strength demands.
3. Torso position
Both exercises require you to keep your back and spine as straight as possible during the movement. This is a similar requirement to most squats out there, putting more pressure on the leg muscles.
However, there are differences in terms of angle and positioning that enhance the effect of each exercise. During the Cossack squat, your torso should be kept straight, allowing for vertical movements. In the lateral lunge, a little forward lean is required to slightly hinge at the hips.
This difference is not massive, but it is significant nevertheless, especially if you are aiming to get the most out of the exercises.
4. The Range of Motion
As detailed above, the Cossack squat is more demanding in terms of the range of motion. You want to be squatting as close to the ground as possible, aiming for the maximum range of motion.
On the other hand, the lateral lunge has a more restricted range, as it requires you to keep the non-working foot planted on the ground at all times. The lean into the lunge ends when your thighs form a 90-degree angle, or as close to it as you can get, without moving the non-working foot.
5. The Results
Ultimately, there is a notable difference in terms of the results of each exercise. The Cossack squat is more multifunctional, as it can be used as a warm-up exercise, as a way to improve flexibility and mobility (through doing static variations), and as a hypertrophy exercise (especially with dumbbell or barbell progressions). Practicing the Cossack squat consistently will yield some benefits in each of these categories, but variations are likely to be more specialized.
The lateral lunge has the purpose of building strength and hypertrophy, being inefficient as a warm-up and a flexibility training exercise.
Now that we went through the main differences, we will go through the technique, tips, and tricks for performing both optimally. We will also explore some of the common mistakes that people make when attempting these exercises, ensuring that you don’t end up following their path.
How to Do Cossack Squats
To do a Cossack squat, you will begin by taking a wider-than-shoulders stance. Determine which leg you want to start with, as the squats will alternate between the legs. Then, rotate the foot of the opposing leg sideways and start to lower your weight on the chosen leg.
You want to be going as deep as possible, so keep the non-working leg straight and lift your toes off the ground, pointing them up towards the ceiling. After going down as much as your flexibility allows, push yourself back to the initial stance, then move on to the next leg without bringing your legs back together. Alternatively, for a more challenging variation, try to slide sideways to the next foot without going back to the initial position, only halfway so.
During the squat, keep your back as straight as possible and focus on the glutes and hamstrings, to get the most out of the workout.
The Cossack squat is generally quite a difficult exercise, so 10 reps should be enough to give a good shaking to your lower body. If you want to progress further with this exercise, you can add dumbbells or a barbell to the equation.
Note that the Cossack squat is a difficult move to pull off in terms of balance, coordination, and effort. Be patient with it and try to go as slowly as possible for the most time under tension.
Muscles trained: quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Pros and Cons
On the Pros side, the Cossack squat is a great advanced unilateral lower body exercise. This means that you will give your legs a lot of effort to deal with, as an effective way to train strength and increase hypertrophy.
Additionally, it is an exercise which trains mobility and flexibility, being one of the go-to solutions for athletes that need these traits. Lastly, the Cossack squat can make up different parts of your workout, from warm-up and stretching to strength building.
On the Cons side, it is quite a difficult exercise, with a steep learning curve, due to the necessities in balance and movement coordination. If you don’t have some mobility built, it may feel uncomfortable to handle the entire range of motion. Ultimately, if your goal is to build strength and increase muscle mass, other exercises are more accessible and more rewarding.
The first mistake that people make while attempting this exercise is to twist their torso during the movement. Your obliques should stay as straight as possible to engage the core and hit all the crucial mobility points. If you shift your torso, your results may come short of expectations.
The second mistake is moving the torso away from a strict upright and straight position. This mistake includes leaning too much forward and rounding the back, which will decrease the amount of pressure put on the legs. If you feel that you need to move the torso to do the exercise, you may want to shorten the range of motion and progress your way to the full squat.
Lastly, you don’t want to rush the exercise. The whole idea of the Cossack squat is hitting time under tension from a demanding position. If you drop down too fast, your muscles will not be controlling the free-fall. Thus, this will not be accounted for as time under tension, chipping away at your workouts potential. You can, however, rush the upward movement, as it will add more explosiveness to the exercise.
How to Do Lateral Lunges
For the lateral lunge, you want to start from a shoulder-width position of your legs. Pick which leg you want to begin with, then lunge it sideways, so the distance between your feet is closer to twice the shoulder width now. Make sure that both feet are still pointing forward. After this, shift your body weight on the lunged leg while keeping the sole of the non-working leg flat on the floor.
Continue to lean on the lunged foot until the angle between the legs is close to 90 degrees. Keep in mind that your foot is not allowed to flair off the ground at this time. After you reached the maximum of your range of motion, lift yourself back to the lunged leg position. Then, you want to bring your legs back to the shoulder-width stance, lunging the other leg sideways for the next rep.
As the lateral lunge is for strength building and hypertrophy, 10-12 reps should give your lower body a thorough workout.
Note that your torso should lean forward a little during the lateral lunge, to increase the pressure put on the leg, especially on the quads.
Muscles trained: quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Pros and Cons
Under the Pros label, the lateral lunge is a fantastic exercise for building strength. It works wonders for your adductors, which are the muscles coordinating the sideways movement. It also has a mild learning curve of the technique and a significantly reduced range of motion. This allows the people focused on building muscle mass in the legs to start right away, without the hustle and bustle of the Cossack squat.
On the Cons side, the lateral lunge is very unfriendly to knee injuries, increasing the chances of having one if not executed properly. Additionally, if you already have a knee injury, the lateral lunge is probably not a good idea for you. Lastly, progression is difficult for lateral lunges. As you move on to more added weights, it is rather easy to sacrifice technique and to move away from the optimal position.
The first big mistake that people do is pointing the bent knee outward. You want to keep your knee pointing in front of you, not sideways, as you lean your body weight into it. If you do point the knee outward, you are turning this into a front lunge. Very different exercises with very different outcomes.
The second mistake that we will address here is not sitting back enough. There is a simple way to determine whether you are doing this. If you feel more weight focused on the balls of your feet than on the heels, you overreach your position. Keep the weight on the heels to engage and hinge your hips correctly.
Lastly, the mistake that single-handedly tires people out of this exercise is stepping too wide during the lunge. If your leg stretches more than two shoulder widths, the effort of bringing your feet back together before the next rep will compound. Before you know it, you will be at 5 reps and already gasping for air and feeling your legs going blank. Remember, pain does mean gain, but we are not only training the adductors here. Keep the effort among the muscle groups balanced.
Which Is Better For You?
As I have mentioned in previous articles, there is no objectively better exercise than another. Everything depends on what your goals are. If your goals are to build stronger, toned legs from bodyweight exercises, the lateral lunge is the better choice. It requires less time to learn, focuses more on hypertrophy and strength, and you don’t need athlete-level mobility to complete it.
If, however, you are an athlete who needs mobility, flexibility, and strength for multiple leg movements (eg: football or basketball players), the Cossack squat will yield better results. The learning curve of balance, coordination, and strength will be a neat little package that will most probably suit your needs perfectly.
Giving your lower body a thorough workout at home is absolutely on the table. Instead of resorting to the classic squat and lunges, both the Cossack squat and the lateral lunge are unilateral, focusing more tension in a leg at a single time.
After completing a full set on each leg, you will likely have done more work than other lower body exercises. The only choice that still stands now is whether you want more mobility and flexibility or you want to focus on building strength.
Make your choice and get working.