The Cossack squat is one of the lesser-seen exercises in the gym.
Lacking the visible gains that squats, deadlifts, and lunges provide, many lifters tend to avoid the Cossack squat.
However, with its vast array of benefits, from increased flexibility to quad and glute development, should we all be integrating the Cossack squat into our leg-day routine?
What Is the Cossack Squat?
The Cossack squat can be quite a challenging move, particularly for beginners, which is another reason it is often left out of lifters’ leg routines. Once mastered though, the Cossack squat can prove a valuable addition to a leg day workout.
Essentially a single-leg variation of a goblet squat, the Cossack squat works the right and left leg individually. Unlike most single-leg exercises, your legs will move laterally rather than forwards or backward, placing the load slightly differently.
It is often compared to a side lunge as the movement is similar and it works a lot of the same muscles.
The form of a Cossack does differ slightly though with a wider starting stance and breaking the parallel plane of your thigh with the floor.
Therefore, the range of motion in a Cossack squat is far greater than that found in other single-leg variations. It offers more flexibility and mobility in the joints than a side lunge can. It also requires more balance and stability, particularly once you break that parallel plane.
Planes of Motion
A classic leg day will usually involve just one plane of motion. Think of squats, lunges, deadlifts. However, in day-to-day life and sport our body moves across 3 planes of motion:
Go-to exercises such as squats only work the sagittal plane (front to back) neglecting the other two which can lead to injury and imbalance. Cossack squats offer a new plane of motion – frontal, thus working on side-to-side movements.
Learn more about Pros and Cons of Doing Squats Every Day
Muscles Worked in the Cossack Squat
Much like a standard squat, the Cossack squat works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.
Unlike a squat, it doesn’t build muscle to the same level as the load is often lighter. For this reason, it’s often used as a mobility exercise thanks to the increased activation of certain muscles.
1. Increased Glute Activation
The Cossack squat is fantastic for strengthening the gluteus medius, a muscle that plays an important role in stabilizing the body during single-leg movements.
Developing this can help with balance and stability on other exercises in the gym such as barbell squats and lunges.
2. Increased Oblique Activation
It can be tempting to twist your body as you break the parallel plane of your thigh with the floor, however, for balance and stability you need to avoid this. For this reason, your obliques are engaged as you get closer to the ground to stop you from twisting.
This again can help with balance, posture, and stability across other exercises and day-to-day activities.
3. Increased Quad Activation
As you get closer to the ground, your quads will begin to work harder to help the knees travel forward. This increased activation will help build strength and endurance in your quads, supporting deeper squats and heavier loads on lunges.
How to Do the Cossack Squat
The Cossack squat is a technical exercise, so it’s important to master it without weight first. Once you’re comfortable with the technique, you can start performing the exercise with weights.
Having said this, some people find using a kettlebell or dumbbell as a counterbalance can actually help their stability and balance on the way down. See the coaching tips below for more on this.
Step-by-Step Guide to the Cossack Squat
Step 1: Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart, similar to performing a sumo squat.
Step 2: Slowly begin to shift your weight over your right leg, bend your knee and sit the hips down. Keep your trunk upright and left leg straight.
Step 3: As you drop, lift toes on the left leg and point them upwards. This will leave you resting on the heel of your left foot.
Step 4: Once you have reached the limits of your mobility, pause, and slowly return to the starting position. Drive through the right foot as you do this.
Step 5: Repeat for the recommended number of reps, then repeat with opposite legs.
Coaching Tips to Do the Cossack Squat
1. Turn Toes Outwards
In the starting stance, try to flare your toes outwards. This will support balance and muscle activation.
2. Lock Your Core
Engaging your abs and obliques can prevent both arching and twisting as you lower into the squat position. This can help prevent injury and imbalances.
3. Flat Foot Variation
You may come across variations of the Cossack squat that involve the performer sitting on their toes rather than with a flat foot. This works slightly different muscles, so if your goal is bodybuilding I recommend keeping the squatting foot flat to better replicate a typical squat and the muscles it trains.
4. Weight as a Counterbalance
If you are struggling to maintain balance, consider using a small weight, holding it at chest height. The loading can act as a counterbalance helping you stay upright.
A weight anywhere between 8-15kg is suitable.
Common Mistakes of the Cossack Squat
Too often you will see lifters move too quickly on the way down. This can reduce the amount of control you have in the squat. By keeping a slow and controlled pace, you can maintain constant tension on the muscles as you go through the full range of motion.
2. Arched Back
It’s tempting to lean forwards and arch the back as you lower to the squat position. Engaging the core and maintaining an upright position ensures the load is distributed correctly and can prevent injury.
3. Going to Low
Only go as far as your mobility will allow. The eventual aim is to achieve that “ass to grass” position but it’s important not to force it. Squat depth and improved mobility will come as you perform the exercise more often.
Read more about Wearing a Belt for Squats and Deadlifts
8 Benefits of the Cossack Squat
1. Improved Mobility and Flexibility
I am an advocate for encouraging people to do more flexibility and mobility work. As we touched on earlier, lifters often find themselves moving in only one plane of motion, reducing their range of motion and flexibility.
The Cossack squat introduces a new range of motion which can in turn support hip, knee, and ankle flexibility.
By holding at the bottom of the squat, you can turn the exercise into a stretch, rather than a set of reps. Holding the stretch loosens your ankles, calves, and hips even more. I find this a great way of using the Cossack squat at the end of the workout.
2. Improved Muscle Strength
A Cossack squat can stretch and stress several muscle groups at once, overloading weak muscle fibers. This can cause them to tear up and subsequently rebuild to gain more power thus withstanding future stress.
The tear up and rebuild of these fibers plays a huge role in increased mobility of the muscles, but also improving explosivity in squats and lunges. Powerlifting exercises such as barbell squats and deadlifts will feel more comfortable because of the strength development in the Cossack squat.
3. Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation
One of lifters’ biggest fears is getting injured, meaning you have to time off the gym or stop doing favorite exercises. Squatting and pulling large loads can put a lot of pressure on the knees and other joints, thus if we slip or misplace our feet then this can result in serious injury.
The Cossack squat presents our body and joints with new degrees and planes, improving control and awareness of our movement. This means that when presented with an unexpected situation such as a slip, our body is more able to deal with it, reducing the risk of injury.
4. Resolve Muscle Imbalances
A lot of lifters may find that one leg is stronger or more balanced than the other. Cossack squats concentrate on one leg at a time making them ideal for evening out imbalances.
They can strengthen both legs, improving balance on every rep. Resolving muscle imbalances improves endurance, injury resistance, and can increase the benefits to be gained from your typical routines such as squats and deadlifts.
5. Movement Control and Efficiency
The technical proficiency required to pull off a Cossack squat far outweighs that found in a barbell squat or forward lunge. In these standard exercises, you can get away with poor technique and still reap benefits.
As your legs are on uneven planes there is less room for technical error on the Cossack squat. It’s therefore important to be precise with the movement as any departure from the correct pattern can make the exercise difficult.
This improves your ability to control and direct your body purposefully, increasing movement control.
6. Variation in Workout Program
At some point in your lifting journey, you will likely experience a stall on your gains and progressions. One of the most prominent causes of this is a lack of variation in your workout. Doing the same exercises can become monotonous, affecting lifters mentally and physically.
By adding the Cossack squat, you add a variety of motion as we talked about. You also bring a new set of progressions and movements that you can work through. This can benefit you mentally improving motivation with the addition of new challenges.
7. Versatility and Progressions
The Cossack squat has a variety of progressions to make it easier or harder. This makes it a suitable exercise for all levels of lifters.
You can keep motivated with it as well, challenging yourself to reach the next progression, using a higher weight, or trying to increase your range of motion on the squat.
Some great variations to try include:
- Seated Cossack Squat
- Weighted Cossack Squat
- Side Lunge
- Overhead Cossack Squat
- Front-loaded Cossack Squat
8. Build Strength in the Lower Body
The increased activation in the glute medius makes the Cossack squat perfect for building strength and mass in the glutes.
It’s particularly effective if you suffer from a glute deficiency or are looking to increase muscle mass around the top of your glutes.
Drawbacks to the Cossack Squat
You’ve probably realized by now that I’m a fan of the Cossack squat. For me, just that one exercise can add so much variety and extra motion to your workout.
It does have limitations though and there are situations where you may not be able to use it.
The Cossack squat demands high levels of flexibility and mobility, so when first trying this exercise some people may feel discomfort or strain in their muscles. This can be quite disconcerting for some leading them to give up or use the exercise less.
To avoid this drawback, only squat as far as your mobility will allow. Your range of motion will improve over time.
2. Lack of Visible Results
It’s difficult to motivate yourself to do the Cossack squat as it doesn’t build leg muscle in the same way a squat or deadlift can. Therefore lifters tend to select other, less complex exercises that can build muscle quicker and with more obvious results.
It’s important to keep in mind you can integrate the Cossack squat alongside other exercises that facilitate quick muscle growth. It can also help you make quicker gains by improving performance on squats, lunges, and deadlifts.
3. Not Beginner-Friendly
The combination of balance, coordination, and strength makes this exercise extremely difficult for beginner lifters to master. The time it takes to master can be frustrating as you repeatedly struggle to achieve the right technique.
Patience is the best way to get through this. By persevering at this exercise you will eventually master the technique and begin to feel the range of benefits.
4. Lack of Popularity
As I mentioned, Cossack squats lack the visible results that can be gained from other powerlifting exercises. This means you’ll rarely see it being performed by other lifters in the gym, something which can put people off performing it.
Alternatives to the Cossack Squat
If you struggle with the Cossack squat, or just enjoy working on stability, mobility, and alternative planes of motion then there are several alternative exercises and stretches that target similar muscle groups or provide the same benefits.
1. Side Lunge
The side lunge is an almost identical movement to the Cossack squats, just with a different starting position. You also don’t go as low when you lower yourself to the ground.
Challenge your muscles by adding a dumbbell weight, improving endurance and muscle build-up.
2. Bulgarian Split Squat
A few lifters swear by the Bulgarian split squat. It’s a single-leg exercise that targets the hip flexors primarily, with a secondary focus on quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Unlike the Cossack squat, it doesn’t work the frontal plane of motion as you are moving up and down rather than laterally.
With your back staying straight and hips being in sync, this exercise targets similar muscles to the Cossack squat. A good, and painful, alternative.
3. 90-90 Hip Movements
These exercises target an increase in mobility and range of motion, much like Cossack squats. They offer similar benefits too, improving explosivity and hip, ankle, and knee support.
4. Leg Pulse
A perfect alternative for beginners looking to perfect the Cossack squat position. It activates the glutes so that when you come to performing the Cossack squat you should have an increased range of motion making it slightly more comfortable.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you should. Lifters rarely do exercises that increase their range of motion because they lack the visible gains that other exercises can provide. By adding this exercise not only can you prevent injury but you can also increase your ability and comfort on the mainstream exercises, maximizing the gains you can make from these.
Cossack squats are particularly good for increasing mobility and stability. It does offer strengthening benefits in the glutes and quads but the largest benefit comes from the improved range of motion in the hips, knees, and ankles.
The most common mistakes people make include arching their back, or allowing their torso to twist as they lower into the squat position. You can avoid this by locking your core and engaging your obliques on the way down.
Also, consider your foot position. Keeping your squatting foot flat means you replicate the motion of a standard squat, thus working the same muscle groups and improving your ability on the squat.
The movement and muscles worked are very similar in these two exercises, however, in a side lunge, the starting position involves your feet being close together.
You also will go a lot lower on a Cossack squat, breaking the parallel plane so your hips drop below your knees. This makes it a more technical and difficult exercise than a side lunge, working more on your balance and stability.
Overall, the Cossack squat brings with it plenty of benefits, most notably the increase in flexibility and mobility. It’s a highly technical exercise, requiring strength, stability, and balance, but once you integrate it into your workouts, either as a stretch or as an exercise, you won’t regret it.
Batista, L., Vilar, A., de Almeida Ferreira, J., Rebelatto, J., & Salvini, T. (2009). Active stretching improves flexibility, joint torque, and functional mobility. American Journal Of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 88(10), 815-822. doi: 10.1097/phm.0b013e3181b72149
Osnato, J. (2021). The 5 Hardest Glute Exercises You Can Do at Home With a Single Dumbbell | Livestrong.com. Retrieved 20 March 2021, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/13731296-hardest-single-dumbbell-glute-exercises-at-home/
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