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The Complete Guide to the Cossack Squat

 Written by 

Damect Dominguez

 Last updated on 

A vast amount of exercises in weightlifting, CrossFit, and fitness in general, are performed in the sagittal plane. Although you can make massive amounts of progress with such exercises, neglecting other cardinal planes can cause your body to be more prone to injury and not reach its full athletic potential.

In this article, we will talk about the Cossack Squat, a squat variation that should be included in all complete exercise routines.

Cossack Squat
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What is a Cossack squat?

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The Cossack Squat is a squat variation where you squat on one leg keeping the other leg straight to the side. This makes it a harder variation than the typical squat, as the squatting leg’s mobility and strength are highly challenged, while the straight leg’s adductors and hamstrings are stretched significantly.

It can be used both as a strengthening exercise or a warm-up movement, depending on the difficulty and variation.

Benefits of the Cossack squat

The Cossack Squat offers tremendous benefits that are not found in other lower body exercises. This is primarily due to the wider foot stance and the fact that the two legs are moving in different ways. Below I’ve listed the most important benefits of the Cossack Squat.

It gets you out of the Sagittal Plane

The Cossack Squat forces your body to move in the frontal plane, which is a completely different movement pattern than other squat variations and exercises such as deadlifts and lunges. When the Cossack Squat is performed to its full range of motion it fires up the same muscles as a traditional squat, as well as a different set of lower body muscles that are often neglected by regular exercise regimes. This makes it a great warm up exercise as well.

I am not saying that the Cossack Squat is a better exercise than the above, but it should be included if you want to improve your lower body strength, flexibility, and athleticism.

Improves Range of Motion

The Cossack Squat, when performed correctly, improves the straight leg’s hamstring and adductors’ flexibility as it reaches a significant stretch at the bottom of the squat. In addition, the bent leg reaches full hip, knee, and ankle flexion, allowing you to squat deeper if you use the Cossack Squat as a warm-up exercise.

Mobility and flexibility are key components of a healthy body, reducing injury risk, muscle function, and joint health.

Improves Performance

This squat variations increases positional strength in positions that are usually underdeveloped, such as end range hip abduction. This, not only bulletproofs your body against injuries but can also increase your performance in more traditional movements such as squatting and sprinting.

Corrects imbalances

Although the traditional squat and deadlift are considered more basic movements than the Cossack Squat, training those movements for years may develop imbalances between the two sides of your body. This is very common as one side will eventually get stronger than the other one, which is something you’ll want to avoid as it can lead to musculoskeletal issues and injuries.

Muscles Worked by the Cossack squat

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The Cossack Squat works a broad spectrum of muscles of the lower body. These include:

  • The glutes and abductors (hip extension and stability)
  • The quadriceps (knee extension)
  • Hamstrings (hip extension)
  • Adductors (Hip adduction)
  • Calves (ankle and knee stability

Due to the fact that the two legs are working in different positions (one straight leg and one squatting leg), the Cossack Squat fires up even more muscles than the traditional squat and most leg exercises, while improving coordination and body balance.

How to Perform the Cossack squat with Perfect Form

Step 1: Find a wide stance as a starting position

Set your feet wide apart. From what I’ve seen from my clients, the minimum distance between your feet should be double your shoulder width. Depending on your leg length and height this starting position could be even wider. You will adjust this when you get yourself to the bottom position to optimize it as much as possible.

Step 2: Hold a light weight in your hands

You will find out that performing the Cossack Squat only with your body weight is slightly harder than if you hold a light kettlebell or plate in your hands about 20-30cm in front of you (Goblet position). It doesn’t need to be heavy, 5-10 kg is more than enough. This will act as a counterbalance and will help you get more range of motion while also maintaining your torso upright.

Step 3: The Descent

Start by shifting your hips back and your weight towards one leg, while keeping the other leg straight. Both heels should stay on the ground while your knees and toes are pointing slightly outwards but not excessively. Make sure your bending knee is aligned with your toes.

In a slow and controlled fashion, squat as deep as possible while maintaining your torso upright. If you feel that the adductors of your straight leg are stretched more than they can withstand, externally rotate that leg so that the heel is on the ground and the foot points slightly upwards. This will help you avoid groin pulls and tweaks in the inner thigh.

Another common mistake is that your knee (in the squatting leg) starts shifting excessively forward and your heel comes off the ground. The reason for this may be that your stance is narrow and you need to set your feet wider for a more proper form.

Step 4: The Ascent

While maintaining your chest upright in the deep squat, push with your bending leg through the ground to stand. Stay upright and maintain your heel on the ground until standing tall with both legs straight.

Step 5: Repeat with the other leg

Repeat steps 3 and 4 alternating legs in a side to side movement.

Cossack squat Progressions

You may find yourself struggling to perform the Cossack Squat with proper form. This is common as not everyone has the strength and flexibility/mobility to do so. For this reason, I will provide you with some progressions to reach a bodyweight or a weighted Cossack Squat.

The Rolling Cossack Squat: This will help you prime your body in order to achieve a better range of motion. With your hands and knees on the ground, kick one leg to the side and rotate your hip internally (toe down) and externally (toe up) until you are able to get your heel on the ground. If this is still hard to perform, have your knee elevated on a platform to reduce the inner thigh stretch. 

The Assisted Cossack Squat (or TRX Cossack Squat): This progression will help you mimic the bodyweight Cossack Squat while reducing the load by holding the TRX handles. Try not to fall backwards excessively and pull the handles as little as possible as you progress.

4-point Cossack Squat: This progression is performed with your hands on the ground and your back bent forward. It will help you achieve end range mobility safely until your legs can support themselves on their own.

Foot-Elevated Cossack Squat: This progression reduces the flexibility demand and is easier on the hamstrings and adductors. Work your way to the ground by reducing the height of the elevated foot when you feel comfortable.

Heel-Elevated Cossack Squat: A great choice for people who suffer from ankle stiffness. This progression will help you get through the movement with your heel planted on the platform.

Common Cossack Squat Mistakes and Tips

Below I’ve listed some of the most common mistakes people make in the Cossack Squat, either due to mobility restrictions or poor technique.

Mistake #1: Leaning forward

This might happen to people who either have tight hamstrings and adductors, or lack leg strength in that movement. To fix this, perform the Assisted Cossack Squat or hold a lightweight plate or kettlebell as a counterbalance in front of you. This will teach you to move with proper form.

Mistake #2: Heel of the bent leg comes off the ground 

This typically happens due to two reasons. Your stance is either too narrow or your ankle mobility is lacking. Try widening your stance and if the problem persists, try some ankle mobility exercises.

Mistake #3: Moving too quickly

The Cossack Squat is one of those lower body exercises that should be used to improve your end range and positional strength, as well as increase flexibility and joint mobility. To get the most out of this exercise, it is best to move with proper form in a controlled fashion and achieve the most range of motion possible.

Cossack squat Variations

When you have worked your way through the progressions and are finally able to perform the Cossack Squat correctly with no assistance, you can try out one of those Cossack Squats variations which will slightly alter the stimulus and feel.

Goblet Cossack Squat: One of my favourite Cossack Squat variations. Holding a weight in front of you acts as a counterbalance which will help you achieve more range of motion and maintain an upright torso.

Back Rack Cossack Squat: One of the most popular types of a Cossack Squat. Put the barbell on your back the same way you would do as if you were doing Back Squats. Squeeze your shoulder blades and maintain an upright torso throughout the whole movement.

Front Rack Barbell Cossack Squat: This position is similar to the Front Squat. Lift your shoulders to create a nice front rack position and put the barbell on your shoulders with your hands underneath and your elbows pointing forward. This variation demands more core, upper back and leg strength as you cannot lean forward to use your posterior chain (glutes, lower back) as much.

Low Switch Cossack Squat: This variation will have you stay low with no need to stand tall with each rep. By doing so, your legs remain at constant tension which makes it even more diffucult.

Low Hold KB Cossack Squat: This variation is friendlier to people with balance and flexibility issues as the kettlebell will help you stay tight and maintain your center of gravity.

Barbell Overhead Cossack Squat: This is a variation that works the core and upper body as well. By holding a barbell overhead with your elbows locked and the barbell just above your head you’ll work the arms, upper back and core as well, making this a full-body movement and one of the most complete Cossack Squat variations.

Seated Cossack Squat: Probably one of the toughest variations of the Cossack Squat, this exercise will have you sit completely on the ground and use just your legs to get into position again.

Cossack squat Alternatives

Besides the Cossack Squat, here are my favourite single-leg exercises that will improve your leg strength side by side and provide similar benefits as the Cossack Squat.

Lunges: Lunges are probably the most basic unilateral leg exercise and should be incorporated in every lower body exercise regime.

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: A Lunge progression that has your rear leg elevated.

Lateral Side Lunge: This Cossack Squat alternative will have you bring your legs back together with each rep. It can be used by people who have restricted adductor and hamstring mobility and want to improve it.

Lateral Box Step-up: This exercise is great to start building unilateral leg strength.

Skater Jumps: This exercise will develop single leg strength, balance, coordination and can be used as an alternative or a supplementary exercise to the Cossack Squat.

Equipment needed (if any)

The Cossack Squat can be performed with just your bodyweight, but there is some equipment that can alter the exercise and provide additional benefits.

  • Weight

This can be either a plate, a barbell, a kettlebell, or a pair of dumbbells.

  • Elevating platform

An elevating platform can be helpful for beginners to reduce the stretch on the adductors.

  • TRX or Rings

These can assist you at the beginning of your journey towards mastering the Cossack Squat by holding on to them to maintain proper form.

Cossack squat FAQs

What are the Cossack Squat benefits?

The Cossack Squat improves flexibility, hip mobility, positional strength, athletic performance and corrects side-to-side muscle imbalances.

Can I do Cossack Squat if I have mobility/flexibility issues?

The Cossack Squat can be a challenging exercise if you suffer from muscle stiffness. Although it will definitely help you alleviate it, I suggest you to start with the progressions mentioned earlier in the article.

Is the Cossack Squat a stretch?

The Cossack Squat can be used as a strengthening/muscle-building exercise, a warm-up/primer, and a stretch.

Are Cossack Squats dangerous?

Cossack Squats can lead to hamstring and adductors strains if you don’t possess the necessary positional strength and flexibility. To prevent this begin with easier progressions and advance when you feel comfortable. Warming up your legs with easier exercises can help as well.

What is the difference between a Cossack Squat and a Lateral Lunge?

Lateral Lunges include stepping out and bringing your legs back together, in contrast with the Cossack Squat which has your feet stay planted on the ground through the whole movement.

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