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Cossack Squat Mastery: Unlock Lower Body Strength and Mobility

If you’re looking to build a combination of strength, mobility and balance through the lower body, the Cossack squat is definitely worth a look. 

Thought to originate from traditional Cossack dance movements, the Cossack squat is a hugely transferrable skill that can benefit runners, martial artists, and just about anyone looking to lead a varied, active lifestyle. 

With its unique lateral path of motion, you get a nice helping of lower body strength, injury resilience, flexibility, coordination and balance. 

In this guide, we’ll look at the potential benefits of the Cossack squat, how to perform it safely and effectively, and how to scale it for everyone from complete beginners to more advanced trainees. 

We’ll also touch on a few mobility exercises you can use to open things up, optimise your performance and maximise the benefits of the movement.

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What is the Cossack Squat?

The Cossack squat, also known as the side-to-side squat or lateral lunge, is a lower body exercise that originate from traditional Ukrainian, Russian and Slavic Cossack dance movements. 

Historically, it’s thought that various Cossack warrior groups incorporated these deep, wide-legged squats into their training routines to develop strength, flexibility, and mobility for combat readiness and horseback riding proficiency.

How to Perform a Cossack Squat

To perform a Cossack squat, start with you feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. 

From this position, descend your hips towards the ground while shifting you body weight to one side, bending the knee of that leg while keeping the other leg straight.

Throughout the movement, the torso remains upright and the back stays straight(ish) to ensure proper alignment and stability. 

Return to the starting position by pushing through the mid-foot of the bent leg. 

Cossack Squat

Benefits of the Cossack Squat

  1. Improve Flexibility & Mobility. The Cossack builds mobility (a combination of flexibility and strength) through the ankles, hips and groin area. Groin strains and ankle sprains are common injuries amongst athletes and active individuals, and can partly be down to tightness and weakness in the surrounding tissues.

  2. Build Strength & Muscle: This drill primarily targets the adductors, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, promoting balanced muscle development in the lower body for enhanced performance in daily activities and sports. As we’ll see in the progressions, it can be loaded in a variety of ways, including kettlebells, sandbags and even maces.

  3. Improve Imbalances & Stability: The Cossack is a unilateral exercise, meaning we’re biasing one side of the body at a time. This can be a handy way to identify and rectify any imbalances through the hips and ankles. By engaging stabilising muscles, the Cossack squat helps strengthen the joints, reducing the risk of imbalances and supporting overall joint health

  4. Enhance Balance & Coordination: Performing the Cossack squat challenges your balance and proprioception, improving overall stability and coordination which may translate to better athletic performance and injury prevention.

  5. Improve Lateral Movement: The Cossack invites us to work in the frontal plane of motion (side to side), as opposed to many conventional strength training movements that have us only moving in the sagittal plane (front to back or up and down). If we’re after strength that translates over to a range of sports and physical activities, being able to shift our weight from side to side is key. 

Cossack Squat Form & Technique: Step by Step

#1: Setup

Setup with your feet standing wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing slightly outward.

Keep your chest up, shoulders relaxed, take a deep breath and brace your core for stability.

#2: Descend

Shift your body weight back and to one side, bending the knee of that leg while keeping the other leg straight.

Lower your body down as far as comfortable, keeping your torso long, slightly leaning forward.

#3: Depth & ROM

Focus on maintaining control and stability as you descend.

Gradually increase your depth and range of motion (ROM) over time as your flexibility improves (or work on the regressions below).

#4: Ascend

Push through the foot on your bent leg to stand up and return to the starting position.

Alternatively, keep your hips low and shift across to a Cossack squat on the opposite side.

Key Points for Correct Posture & Alignment:

  • Foot Position: The foot of the straight leg side can either remain fully on the floor, or pivot so that only your heel touches the floor. The latter targets more of the adductors than the hamstrings.
  • Knee Alignment: Drive the knees outwards to prevent inward collapsing (valgus collapse).
  • Hip Hinge: Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and down, maintaining a slight forward lean with your torso.
  • Spinal Alignment: Maintain a neutral spine from your head to your tailbone, avoiding excessive rounding or arching of the back.

Cossack Squat Progressions & Regressions

6 Cossack Squat Regressions

#1: Lateral Step-up

The lateral step-up still allows us to practice shifting our weight from one side to the other, and helps to build the hip stabilisers. We can still gain a lot of the benefits of working in the transverse plane without the more extreme mobility requirements of the Cossack squat. 

To perform the lateral step-up, stand next to a bench or sturdy stool and step up onto the surface, leading with the leg closest to the bench. Pause at the top, then step down with control either to the same side or to the alternate side. You can progress by holding weights, and/or using a higher surface.

#2: Lateral Lunge

The lateral lunge is very similar to the Cossack, only we don’t drop the hips down as far to the ground. 

Again, we’re still working on shifting our weight from on side to the other, and building strength and length through the adductors. 

#3: Assisted Cossack Squat

To help out with balance and stability while performing the Cossack squat, you can hold onto a support such as a squat rack, TRX or gymnastic rings. 

You’ll likely find this allows you to more comfortably maintain an upright torso while getting the hips closer to the ground. 

#4: Box Cossack Squat

The Cossack squat to a box can be a great way to bridge the gap between the lateral lunge and the deeper Cossack. 

Simply squat back to a box or elevated surface to reduce the range of motion. move with control and pause on the box. 

Yuo can gradually work towards a lower surface over time as you become more comfortable. 

#5: Elevated Cossack Squat:

Another variation is to elevate the heel of the leg that you are bending toward by placing it on a step, bench, or sturdy platform. 

This reduces the depth of the squat and while still allowing you to practise fully closing down the knee and ankle on the working side. 

#6: Stability Ball Cossack Squat

A variation I’ve used in the past when looking to regain lost mobility after injuries or illness is to place a stability ball behind me for support. 

This allows for a smoother path of motion compared to the box squat, supporting you as you glide through the entire movement as opposed to just at the bottom position. You can deflate the ball slightly to lower the base of support, increasing your range of motion over time. 

4 Cossack Squat Progressions

#1: Deep Cossack Squat:

Rather than rising up to stand in between reps, this variation has you staying low to the ground as you shift your hips across. 

You don’t get as much stimulus through the glutes which would occur as you extend your hips near the top of the traditional squat, but it does allow you to accumulate more time under tension through the adductors and hamstrings in that low position.

2: Weighted Cossack Squat:

Add resistance by holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, sandbag or weight plate in front of your chest or at your sides while performing the Cossack squat. 

This additional load increases the challenge on the lower body, but may actually allow you to more easily adopt a more upright torso position as it acts as a counterweight. 

#3: Mace 360 Cossack

A fun variation I’ve played around with is to hold a mace or double clubs out in front while performing the Cossack.
This in itself can be challenging as it tests your ability to stabilise through the midsection as you aim to keep the mace or clubs upright. You can take this further by performing a mace 360 movement as you come to the top of the Cossack squat.

#4: Deep Cossack With Internal Rotation

Another interesting variation that may be worth working towards. As you get down into the bottom position, sit back onto your bum and allow the hip of the working side to come into internal rotation (knee falls forwards to the floor).
 
From here, externally rotate back to the bottom of the Cossack squat position and with the foot planted once more, and rise up. Start by using your hands on the ground for assistance, but working towards hands free over time is a great test of your mobility and balance. 

3 Cossack Squat Stretches & Mobility Exercises

The Cossack squat itself is a great way to improve mobility and flexibility, but there are a few assistance stretches that may make it easier.

#1: Frog stretch / wide legged child’s pose

The frog stretch or wide-legged child’s pose can be a nice way to passively start to open up the adductors prior to Cossack squatting, or during downtime. 

From all fours, place your knees wider than hips width apart and send your weight backwards. You can also perform one leg at a time, straightening out the opposite leg and aiming to contract the glutes for a deeper stretch and more control.   

2#: Half-kneeling squat

The half-kneeling squat is a handy way to replicate the bottom part of the Cossack and open up through ankle dorsiflexion and hip flexion one side at a time. 

You can place a light weight on your knee for a deeper stretch, oscillating in and out of your end range.

#3: Pancake fold

My old nemesis, the pancake can be a great way to open the hamstrings and adductors.

Sat on the floor or a block with your legs out in a V shape, play with leaning the torso to the side or folding forward, aiming to keep the spine long and using the hip flexors and abs to pull you forward and down.

Cossack Squat FAQs

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to using the Cossack squat – it all depends on your goals and current level of strength and mobility. It can be incorporated into your regular mobility work or warmup routine, or programmed like other strength based movements. A good place to start is 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per side, 1-2 times per week. Like with many strength exercise, there can be value in going heavier and reducing the rep range to 3-5, or working towards a higher rep range of 20+ reps. My preference is to err towards the latter.

Yes, the Cossack can be scaled using the regressions listed above. With regular practice, you will find you’re able to get deeper into the position. even if that’ not the case, there’s still great value in working on the lateral step-up or a supported cossack squat, regardless of whether you’re a high-level athlete or someone looking to remain active and strong in older age. 

Always aim to move slowly and with control. And take your time to ease into the Cossack squat. I have relatively open hips and perform cossack squats regularly, but I still work my way down from the lateral lunge and supported Cossacks before trying to go through the full range of motion. 

The Cossack is a great way to strengthen the adductors, glutes, hamstrings and quads, while providing some work for the muscles in the feet, hip stabalisers, and deep core musculature. 

Practicing the Cossack squat variations will help your hips and ankles open up over time, but there are also specific stretches listed above that can help you along your way.

Over to You

The Cossack squat has great value in all of its incarnations – from the simple lateral step-up, all the way down to a deep weighted Cossack.

I hope this guide has been helpful and allows you to incorporate the movement into your training in some shape or form. Whether that’s in the gym or as a part of your home mobility routine. 

Any questions or comments, let me know down below!

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Luke Jones

Luke Jones

Luke Jones is a Movement Coach, Wellness Enthusiast, Online Content Creator, and Founder of HERO Movement. Through articles, videos, courses, and online coaching, his big goal is to help people discover freedom of movement and create lives filled with well-being & adventure.

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